Black Tools

The Art of Misinterpretation

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 9--10, March/April 1999.)

«In my opinion, family is very important.»

«So what do you think about a man who leaves his wife and newborn for another woman?»

«This is of course completely unacceptable.»

«Surprising to hear that from you! Just ten minutes ago you told us that you greatly admire Hemingway, but he did precisely what I just described.»

«I admire Hemingway for his writing, not for the life he led.»

Do I have your attention now? Not only did I show you an example of Trick 3, I also used Trick 30 to convince you that I'm an educated man. However, that's not where the story should begin. It's not where the story ends, either.

The story begins with Cheryl Reimold's column about handling tough situations, in which she is teaching us tools to find solutions when a discussion gets difficult. I find her tips very useful but they do not prepare me for some of the toughest situations---disputes where the only aim is to win, to wipe the opponent off the court.

Unfortunately, it is sufficient if only one person wants to play the game like this. Most public political discussions are fought to win, and a considerable number of disputes in front of colleagues or bosses are led along the same lines. Since there are no disputes where one person is completely right and the other completely wrong, dirty tricks often decide who wins in the end.

Using such tricks is not only unethical, it may also backfire if the opponent sees the trick and uses appropriate countermeasures. For this reason you should know the dirty tricks and how to avert them---but avoid using them yourself. Trick 3, which I demonstrated, is one of the 38 tricks that the German philosopher Schopenhauer collected in unpublished work around 1830. I think his list is fairly complete and still valid, and I will show you all his tricks and countermeasures in this column. You may think that it is very easy to see if any of these tricks is applied, but this is true only for the examples. In real discussions the tricks are not so obvious, and all you can do is listen and learn.

The first three tricks are about changing the meaning of what your opponent actually said. I call Trick 3 «Generalization»: I had said earlier that I admire Hemingway and although my opponent knew that I meant Hemingway's writing only, he generalized my admiration to everything Hemingway ever did. Saying specifically what I meant in the first place would normally have been sufficient to avoid this kind of attack.

Related to this is Trick 1, the «Extension-Contraction Game»:

«The first computer was built in Germany by Zuse.»

«Babbage built his computer several decades earlier!»

«True, but it was not an electronic computer.»

«A computer is defined by what it does, not by how it does it.»

One person tries to extend the term «computer» such that Babbage's machine ends up as the first computer, whereas the other person contracts the term such that the winner is Zuse. This trick is often used unwittingly, and the second-best thing you can do is to admit that who actually built the first computer depends on one's definition of computer, which may not settle the conflict and can lead to a discussion about definitions.

The best countermeasure, however, is to not use absolute principles and values at all in your arguments; although they would indeed make your argument impeccable, they unfortunately do not exist.

Trick 2, «Homonymy,» is seldom applied, for lack of opportunity. It involves transferring properties from one thing to another, where the two things have not much more in common than their name. The history of philosophy is full of examples but there are also modern ones. For example, your boss might say «I will not allow you to use cellular neural networks in our equipment. Our customers expect well determined behavior, not randomness!» You should answer: «CNNs are not well named. They do share a few properties with ordinary neural networks, but they are fully deterministic. Let's use them, call them analog cellular automatons, and our customers will be happy.»

Well, that is enough for the first installment. Next time you will hear about the «Stealth Salami» and other ways of hiding one's intentions. I will cover Tricks 4 to 37 in five more articles, and since you had to listen to how the story began, you also have a right to know how it ends.

It ends with the Last Trick, which should perhaps be listed as the first one because anyone can apply it: If you realize that you will lose or that you are not right, then get personal and insulting. Attack the opponent, make cynical remarks, and laugh at him. If someone does that to you, you cannot reply in kind or the dispute becomes a verbal brawl. If you can, stay cool, tell him to not get personal, and try to return the dispute to its objective.

Unfortunately, few people can meet personal attacks with real coolness, and even if you do stay cool, it may make your opponent even more angry. As Hobbes once said, all joy and merriness comes from having someone in relation to whom you can think highly of yourself.

The only really effective countermeasure to dirty communication tricks can unfortunately not be applied in every case, although it is rather simple: Do not have discussions with just anybody, but only with people who you know will not say things so absurd that they embarrass themselves, people who like to discuss for the sake of learning or solving problems and not for obtaining power, who like to hear good arguments even from someone else, and who generally can bear not to be right.


Next Article (Part II)   Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and Ph.D.-degree student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zürich) who has an untamable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. His need to know and avert dirty communication tricks follows naturally from his belief that a philosopher who never disputes with people is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.