Rhetorical Hostage Taking

Something I’ve encountered recently in discussions pointless arguments with people is what I like to call rhetorical hostage taking. Or, better aptly put, rhetorical human shields.

This is when you make an argument and instead of responding to the argument you made they make it personal. Even worse, they make it personal about someone else. Most likely it’s either someone you both know or someone they are willing to white knight for.

The idea behind this is that by making it about a person rather than a truth or fact it puts you in an impossible position.

Here’s a theoretical example of rhetorical hostage taking.

Me: We should have never gone into Iraq. It was an unconstitutional, undeclared war of aggression.

Them: Are you saying (so-and-so we both know) is a murderer?

Notice how they’re holding someone else up in front of them to protect them from your argument? They’re not responding. They’re essentially saying, “You can’t win this argument without saying besmirching the character of about someone we both know.”

You can, of course, say “no.” But then they’ll insist that this is the logical conclusion; if A is true, then B is true as well. And B is not always a pleasant truth.

If you confirm it, then the entire frame of the argument has shifted over to someone who isn’t even involved in the discussion. Then it’s about how you’ve made judgmental comments about someone without all the facts.

Even then, B may be true. But how dare you say it is!

Other examples:

Me: Taxation is theft.

Them: My dad works for the city. Are you calling him a thief?

Me: I don’t think the state should manage education. They do a terrible job of educating kids.

Them: My friend’s a middle school teacher. Are you saying she’s a bad teacher?

Frankly, it makes me want to slap someone when they do this. NAP violation to be sure, which is why it’s a want, not an act.

It’s a tacit concession of the point but with spite. “Yes, you’re right, but I won’t let you win unless you say something horrible I can use against you.”

If they’re a real gossip queen, you know they’ll tell everyone they can, “Did you know what he said about so-and-so?”

And this is why as a society we get nowhere.

It’s also why you shouldn’t debate on Facebook.

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6 Responses to Rhetorical Hostage Taking

  1. Tab Spangler says:

    It’s annoying for sure. When you have logic on your side, you don’t necessarily see the need to resort to rhetoric, however I’ve been trying to work on my own rhetoric skills to counter these pitfalls.

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    • The Question says:

      I’m still working on a retort because it’s a very effective tactic. They’re reframing the argument by making it personal yet retaining the logic.

      The best response I have right now is to just bring it back to the original frame: Why do you think I’m wrong in what I said?

      The most important thing is to never accept the reframe or else they’ll keep doing it.

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  2. I think you can always dissect these types of drive-by-rhetoric by asking them questions in return or stipulating the exact conditions necessary to qualify for the smear. But sometimes confirming the smear is unavoidable in order to stay logically consistent.

    In the soldier example I would have asked whether or not our soldier friend had actually killed anybody or authorized someone else to do the same. If so, then yes; if not, then no. Although I would add that they are working for a criminal entity, one that obtains its revenue from coercion and confiscation. Of course this would also go for the public teacher as well.

    I have an aunt who worked as a professor and a teacher all her life in the public school system. Of course she is a raging statist and anti-capitalist liberal, but otherwise a very sweet person. I think I may have been the first to tell her that taxation is theft; she just uneasily smiled and didn’t say anything in return as if I’d temporarily interrupted the delusional mindset she’s carried her whole life about the government as a vanguard of all that is noble and civilized, yet she wasn’t going to engage me in debate because that might mean confronting the truth. Better to politely smile and go on about her life, never owning up to her complicity in a vast unnecessary system of organized violence.

    It’s funny and sad how insidious the democratic system is. It can take someone who would never hurt a fly even if they were physically attacked, and get them to condone violence on a scale never before seen in history as long as it was carried out in service to some liberal’s idea of a noble objective.

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    • The Question says:

      In the soldier example I would have asked whether or not our soldier friend had actually killed anybody or authorized someone else to do the same. If so, then yes; if not, then no. Although I would add that they are working for a criminal entity, one that obtains its revenue from coercion and confiscation. Of course this would also go for the public teacher as well.

      What’s ironic is that I’m probably more knowledgeable about the plight of veterans than these pro-war hawks I sometimes encounter. I know men who fought along the Syrian border during the Iraq War and saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict. I am well aware what PSTD looks like and why so many of them end up on the street or turn to alcohol when they come back. Frankly I’m surprised we haven’t seen more Rambo-style incidents with cops a la First Blood.

      The war hawks who spout that kind of rhetorical hostage taking love to tout the successful veteran who came back and appears well adjusted but they remain incredibly ignorant about the soldier who finds his wife at home cheating on him, gets divorce raped, has his military record used against in court when deciding child custody, and ends up sleeping on his friend’s couch or in his car. Then he finds out the VA can’t do much to help him deal with all the physical problems he has when he’s not yet 30 but has the joints of a 40 year old. That’s not even mentioning the psychological trauma. Going from a war zone with a possible threat in all directions to back home where the most important decision you make is to decide what to put in your coffee is enough to send some over.

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  3. “Are you calling him a thief?”
    I said what i said and nothing else.
    If the shoe fits…

    Just some possible answers. But really, libertarians shouldn’t be afraid (certainly not on the internet) to accept the actual conclusions to their arguments. If the conclusion of your argument is that, YES, someone who works for the city is a thief, then he is thief, plain and simple.
    In the end, you cannot avoid logical conclusions of your own arguments anyway without offending people. So don’t be afraid to offend them.

    As a matter of fact, these people are obviously using this tactic to try to shame you into silence or backtracking. This is one of the most succesful tactics of the left. Non-leftists should harden their shields, and create an antidote to any artificial feelings of shame or guilt. If you don’t FEEL guilty, they cannot exploit it and their tactic will fail. The only thing left for them will be to whine to their own in-group of masochists. This is an ideological war where the left’s only rhetorical weapon is shaming and exploiting feelings of guilt. Without that all they have is the state.

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    • The Question says:

      It sometimes works on politics when somebody needs to get told off, but man oh man it gets tough when discussing other issues like dating or state-run marriage with people in your social circle.

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