Black Tools

To Mock a Mockingbird

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 15--16, July/August 1999.)

I have a good friend who is horizontally challenged and has somewhat obsolete intellectual equipment. He calls himself «fat and daft» («Dick und Doof» in Swiss German) because this is both the truth and the German title of «Laurel and Hardy.» He would probably hit you with something blunt if you called him «horizontally challenged» because that means the same as «fat» and implies that being fat is unacceptable and talking about it is taboo. I believe that political correctness is an elaborate technique that enables people to speak their mind when they should actually shut up.

While the sense or nonsense of politically correct language is open to debate, one thing is clear: It does matter how you name things because well chosen names have a great impact on an audience. Many speakers actively use terminology to get their view across in a subliminal way. This is why a speaker's intentions often become apparent from the terms he uses. Note, for example, the big difference between saying «There was collateral damage» and «We hit apartment blocks and killed innocent people.»

The most effective countermeasure against Trick 12, which I call «Good Labels,» is the trick itself: Just call things by their proper name, where «proper name» means, of course, the name you think fit. Sir Humphrey demonstrates the countermeasure in «Yes, Prime Minister!»:

Sir Humphrey: Bribery?

Sir Desmond: Well, undisclosed advance commissions to foreign government officials.

Sir Humphrey: Bribery.

Sir Desmond: Yes.

Also important is the context in which something is presented. A gray spot looks white on a black surface but black on a white one.

Trick 13, «The Extreme Contrary,» is to present your idea together with an exaggerated, opposing statement. This is often done when a person having an idea talks to the person or committee who has to approve or reject it. You can avert Trick 13 if you manage to see or even expose the fact that the opposing statement is exaggerated, but that may not be easy because it is not in the proposer's interest that you see it. Again, I let Sir Humphrey clarify that for me:

Sir Humphrey: Well, if they had all the facts, they'd see all sorts of other possibilities; they might even formulate their own plans instead of choosing among the two or three that we put up.

There is another kind of discussion trick that has less to do with the discussion topic and more with the people discussing it. Trick 14 is «The Hollywood Proof»: Out of the blue your opponent jumps up and shouts that you just supported or even proved his view. If you waver at that point, you have lost.

It is like playing volleyball: When the ball falls on the line, the team who has actually lost it will cheer and shout «out,» hoping that the referee finds their act more convincing than what he thinks he has seen. That team will, of course, behave in exactly the same manner when the ball is really out. This trick is most dangerous when you are under time pressure, so when your opponent starts a song and dance, take your time to think.

There are also people who have the utter impudence to combine this trick with number 15, «Proof of a Paradox.» If they can't prove their statement from premises both disputants accept, they make another almost correct statement seemingly in support of the first one.

If you reject that statement, they immediately show that rejecting it has absurd consequences. If, however, you take the bait and accept it, they have said something reasonable for the present and can either carry on with the next almost correct statement or fall back on the Hollywood Proof, if they have the nerve.

We are already knee-deep in tricks that are mainly based on using the opponent's opinions for one's own purposes. In its most advanced form, I call this «To Mock a Mockingbird,» or Trick 16. This is to use your opponent's views and acts against him, or the views and acts of a society or sect he belongs to, or even the views of the most stupid supporters of his society.

The latter gives you endless possibilities because any halfway intelligent theory has lots of idiots among its defenders. If you are the mocked bird, just clarify what you mean and show your opponent that he is not actually attacking your view, but someone else's.

Doing this can be a trick in its own right, number 17, called «Fine Distinctions.» If you are driven into a corner, you can sidle away by pointing out the difference between your position and the one he attacks. It is always possible to find such a fine but seemingly relevant distinction and the only effective countermeasure is to show that the difference is actually irrelevant or simply not real.

A much easier way to get out of that corner is to «Change the Topic,» Trick 18. Both trick and countermeasure are obvious here, but note that there is an important difference between an evasive topic shift and an aggressive one, which is Trick 25, coming in the fifth instalment of this column.

The last trick for now, number 19, is to raise the level of abstraction until «Life, the Universe, and Everything» is in the scope of discussion. For example, if your opponent points out the reliability of a medical study, you start to talk about the deceptiveness of human knowledge in general.

Trick 19 can be averted only if you discuss in a context that enables you to force your opponent to stick to the point, for example, in front of a boss or committee. You cannot do it when you discuss with a member of a sect in the street. Then you can only choose between talking about something else and fighting it out on a meta-philosophical level: «You're right that all human knowledge is deceptive, but it still makes sense to accept that study as reliable, for the time being, because ... .»

In my next column (the fourth), I will tell you about «The Art of Making Conclusions» and the difference between making them and drawing them.


Next Article (Part IV)

  Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and Ph.D.-degree student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich) who has an untamable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. He believes that one of the best ways to get philosophical concepts across is irony and humor, which is why he loves the British TV series «Yes, Prime Minister!» so dearly.