5 ways to rig a debate

Which card will you play?

(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

Human begins make decisions in ways that remain opaque to economists and psychologists. As a sometime participant in public arguments about important issues, I know how easy it is to rig the debate by employing particularly effective tactics that don't often correspond to the facts at hand. To debate is to interpret, of course, but good arguments often stand by themselves without the need to use maneuvers that are designed to elicit strong emotional responses. Here are five cards I find to be particularly interesting. A few of them, I think, can be destructive.

1. The race card. The most American of cards, and often played with panache. It does one of two things. It either makes people, especially white people, really angry, either because it is applied unfairly and there is no terribly effective response, or because it IS apt to the situation, and it makes white people really uncomfortable; or it shuts people up, triggering that "I'm white and I should NOT be in this conversation because I don't know what to say without sounding stupid" mode. This card is used so often that it comes pre-packaged in tricked decks, but it works.

2. The sensitive white dude card. This card doesn't often work, but sometimes, when you play it BEFORE someone lays down the race card, it can mitigate the latter's effects. You'll recognize this form of argument when a member of a majority group uses a random life experience to try and prove that they understand what living as a member of a minority group means. Here's an example: So I went to South Korea recently. And when I was walking around Itaewan, I noticed people were staring at me. I noticed that the waiters in cafes looked at me with extra scrutiny. I noticed that when I went into stores that were not specifically marked for foreigners, I was followed by the staff. I actually felt...white. I felt different than everyone else. And it was disconcerting. If I were arguing with someone and I wanted to sympathize with an experience I could not, by rights, sympathize with, I'd then say something like, "And while my experience is by NO means like that experienced by African-Americans, I can begin to understand what it is like to exist in a place where you aren't the default option and people treat you differently simply because of who you are."

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3. The victim card. By this I don't mean the experiences of actual (hypothetical) victims, which of course are very powerful drivers of any argument. I mean the CITATION of the victim's experiences by those arguing on their behalf. Usually, you are called upon to discount the words, experiences, and suffering of those who were associated with the subject you're debating. The validity of your argument should not depend upon subjective accounts of suffering, but it does, and that's why this card is so effective. The person arguing on behalf of some practice must find an explanation for the injuries, insults, and slights that aggrieve those who have classed themselves as a group, say, those who think that power lines create cancer. When someone says, "How dare you ignore the suffering of.." or "What do you have to say to the people who were..," then you know that someone is pulling this card from the pile, quite deliberately.

4. The double standard card. If any one single factor drove me clear across the country, it was the perpetual, uncompromising, unthinking, and slap-down of this argument as the end-all of every debate. The problem is that I don't buy the premise that double standards are bad. I support double standards. I think it's right to treat people who do the same things differently, because, quite often, the circumstances surrounding the event or action are quite different, and because the persons themselves often differ in meaningful way. Y'all know this: "How come you didn't say a peep when Republicans did this?" or "You never wrote anything when Obama murdered diplomats in Benghazi. #Benghazi. #Never forget." Justice in judging involves applying standards fairly, and not applying them equally. Indeed, the capacity to judge anything requires you to make fine distinctions. Hopefully, you've got evidence to back up those distinctions. But far too often, your interlocutor can appeal to your fear of being accused of bias and shut you down by using the double standard card.

If you say that Republicans are more responsible for legislative gridlock than Democrats, it's not because (or simply because) you don't like Republicans, it is because Republicans ARE more responsible. And debates about the way forward must acknowledge that, or else they're bound to be circular and unproductive. Which often, they are. Which is maddening.

5. The association card. This is one of the meanest sons-of-bitches out there. It's often accompanied by adjectives designed to enhance the ad hominem effect of someone's past, present, or current association. Because we live in an age of political transparency, where everyone is supposed to state their ideology and interests first, and then begin to argue from them, your associations are significant. Indeed, they should be. But people often try to define their opponents solely on the basis of past or current affiliations, and then attempt to claim that because they are NOT associated with something, their arguments are somehow more pure, and therefore, less tainted by interest, and therefore, should be more persuasive.

Last year, I worked as a consultant to Palantir, the data analytics company that does a lot of national security work, for three months. I signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't say what I did, but I can say that it did not relate to or involve any of their national security clients. For my work I received a small sum of money. From time to time, I have disclosed this fact when discussing the National Security Agency surveillance programs and government contractors. I did so largely prophylactically. I don't get money from the company now, and the only profit I receive from writing about the NSA comes from the fine folks who publish my work. Working for Palantir should not disqualify me from participating in arguments about the NSA, but often, because debates tend to be so tribal, people will discredit what I have to say on the basis of work I voluntarily chose to engage in last year. I can't complain about that. It isn't logical, but people's minds work that way. By the way: I learned absolutely nothing about NSA while working at Palantir.

Where the association card gets really aggressive is when people who KNOW how powerful it can be use it in conjunction with the suggestion that you are deliberately hiding your associations to mask your vested interests in a particular outcome. If you are actually hiding something, then you're foolish. If you're getting paid to shill something and don't disclose that, then your motives are fair game.

But if you're not hiding anything, there is simply no way to respond to this form of direct attack on your motives. Your accuser will always claim that you deliberately erred on the side of less transparency. It can be as simple as tweeting something, and then having to respond solely to tweets about why, despite having disclosed your past affiliation with something in many different contexts, you did not do so in a 140-character tweet.

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter if you disclosed your interests in the past, when they were directly your interests. It doesn't matter that your other interests might be vastly more important than the interests you allegedly failed to disclose. It is so easy to use an association to question motive, and once your motive is subject, your argument is somehow marked, and everything you say is therefore marked, and you become one of them. It is so easy to accuse someone of hiding something when in fact they do not disclose it because they don't find it relevant, or because they know it isn't relevant. If you're an honest debater, you use this card sparingly because it trumps everything else. It is the most powerful emotional scare appeal of our age.

You may wonder why this particular form of argument is one I find destructive. Fortunately, this card hasn't been played on me. But I've seen how easily it can be used to bamboozle.

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