The Motte and the Bailey
The discourse on Ukraine is as cynical as the discourse on the vaccines.
Until last year, I wasn’t familiar with the argumentative sleight-of-hand called the “motte-and-bailey.” You might be familiar with it already (it’s well-known), but if you’re not, it’s a metaphor based on a type of medieval castle composed of a flat, walled-in area (the bailey), and an elevated area with a tower on top (the motte).
The idea of the layout was that when the castle was attacked, soldiers would defend, at first, the wall around the bailey. But if their defenses were breached, they could then retreat up the hill and into the tower. With the tower’s fortification and the uphill advantage, the motte was easier to defend than the bailey, so that was their fallback position.
In debate, the motte-and-bailey goes like this: someone initially takes a position that’s very hard to defend (the bailey), and then once they start losing that argument, they fall back on a different argument that’s far easier to defend (the motte).
Once you understand the rhetorical application of this concept, you see it all the time. Where I see it most often is in my many, many arguments with people around vaccine mandates. I’ve had this exchange a hundred times:
Someone: “I’m sick and tired of all these selfish, reckless people who refuse to get vaccinated. Why are we still allowing this? We just need to make it illegal to not get vaccinated.”
Me: “But the vaccines don’t reduce spread. They only help prevent your infection from becoming serious. If they reduced spread, then mandates could be justified, because in that case someone’s refusal to get vaccinated wouldn’t be just their personal business; it would be everyone’s business, since they’re putting the public at risk. But all the vaccines do is protect you, not other people. So it should be your choice whether to get vaccinated or not. It’s your right to risk your own health, just not that of others.”
Someone: “You do understand that cases are surging and people are dying, don’t you? Should we just stand around and do nothing? Are you fine just letting people die?”
The bailey position is the first position: we need vaccine mandates. That’s a tough position to defend. The motte position is the second: We need to do something. That’s exceedingly easy.
When the person I’m arguing with retreats to the motte, I’m left to defend an indefensible position: that we should do nothing and just let people die. That’s the point of the maneuver. But it’s obviously a fraud, because that’s not the position I ever claimed. The position I claimed was that vaccine mandates are unjustified. A good faith argument against that position would require showing that the benefit that the public would get from your getting vaccinated is large enough to outweigh your private interest in not being forced to do something you don’t want to do. You’d have to show that the vaccines protect society, not just you personally. But that’s a hard case to make. It’s much easier to just say that if you’re against vaccine mandates then you’re a heartless person who’s content to just let people die.1
Now that the pandemic is winding down, we’re all looking for new things to squabble with each other about. And just in time, Putin has delivered it to us.
Over the last few days, the cynicism, superficiality and reductionism of social media “debate” has merged with the hysteria, emotional manipulation and jingoism of wartime public opinion mobilization. The outcome is mottes everywhere you look.
I’m averse to doing the obligatory throat-clearing about Putin being a monster for the same reason I’m averse to saying, “I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life” before making a mildly conservative point: because it’s a transparently craven defense posture against the most bad faith interpretation of your argument, a way of saying even if you disagree with me, I’m still one of the good guys.
But in this case, I think it’s substantively important to put that fact on the table, because Putin’s monstrousness is, objectively, a meaningful factor in any explanation of what’s happening in Ukraine. The more single-handedly a dictator controls the state, the more the vagaries of his personality and psychology matter —undiluted as they are by the interests and perspectives of other political actors — and the less determinative are the baked-in institutional interests of the state bureaucracy. And Putin’s control over the Russian state apparatus is total.
But from that it does not follow that Russia’s every action is rooted in the demonic ambitions of a single sociopath. Obviously, Russia has geopolitical interests, as does the United States. Foremost among them is preventing Ukraine from becoming a client state of the West. That is a rational self-interest. (I highly, highly recommend Niccolo Soldo’s analysis of Russia’s and the US’ respective geopolitical interests in Ukraine.)
“Rational” does not make it moral, nor does it justify using any and all means to pursue it. The United States had a rational self-interest in preventing the Soviet Union from creating a sphere of influence in Central America in the 1980s. That didn’t make the dirty wars there any less dirty, or the atrocities carried out to pursue America’s national interests any less immoral or horrific. Rational interests can and do lead to unconscionable actions. That’s basically the essence of statecraft.
But in the frenzy of this moment, these distinctions are being obliterated. Instead, any contemplation of Putin’s actions as anything other than naked imperialist bloodlust is judged summarily as sympathy for the devil, as morally excusing Russia for its invasion. There is only one acceptable diagnosis of the circumstances, and that is that Putin is Hitler, period. This is the motte.
Just as it’s easier to accuse critics of vaccine mandates of being indifferent to mass death than it is to defend mandates on the merits, it’s a lot simpler to say, “So what you’re saying is, we should be on Putin’s side?” or, “So you think America forced Russia to invade Ukraine?” than to defend the position that this was an entirely spontaneous invasion attributable to Putin’s personal will alone, and nothing else. That is to say, it’s easier to distill everything into a simple moral fable than to discuss the long history of tactical maneuvers and counter maneuvers that shaped the disparate geopolitical world views of each side, leading to a moment at which armed conflict became a tangible possibility — a point we (in the broadest sense of “we”) should never have come even close to reaching.
In typical motte-and-bailey form, I suspect I’ll be accused of being a heartless pedant by analyzing when I should be raging. But this isn’t merely an academic point. There’s something more nefarious than intellectual laziness in this rhetorical sleight of hand. By reducing the entire geopolitical crisis to the story of a Hitler-like dictator conquering a hapless innocent nation out of sheer opportunism, you can mobilize public opinion behind intervention in a way that an honest accounting of the situation could not. Because an honest accounting, such as the one Soldo offers, is a story of oil barons and geo-strategic Masters of the Universe anteing up the populations of entire nations in a global high stakes Poker game. This is obviously a nightmare and a tragedy for everyday Ukrainians, and beyond the region, the world is a much, much more dangerous place today than it was last week. Ultimately, the consequences of Putin’s invasion will impact all of us, just as the consequences of all the reckless things that powerful people do, from bankers to generals, end up costing the rest of us.
But that isn’t the same as pretending we all have the same interests to defend — that there is an “America” with a “vital stake” in this conflict. Like most wars, this is a contest between elites that is being suffered by ordinary people, in this case, in Ukraine. Let’s not pretend that regular people in this hemisphere, too, are obligated to sacrifice for it.
I’m well aware there’s a whole other fallback argument about how if you don’t get vaccinated then you’re contributing to hospitals being overwhelmed. I reject that argument, too, for other reasons, but it’s not germane here so I won’t get into it.