Dirty Tactics In Argument

Here I'm going to talk about some dirty tactics that bad and dishonest people use to win arguments despite being wrong. I'm not saying these are always done intentionally, nor am I saying some of them can't be justified, but it'd definitely be better if everyone was more resistant to them, so I'm going to cast light on and offer advice against some of them. I'll go ahead and not talk about interrupting, since that one's pretty universally looked down on to the point that it's often self-sabotage (like flaming).

The invincible lie

This one doesn't tend to work that well on the internet, but in person, especially with people you know, *damn* can it be effective.

The situation: you're in a position to know what the facts are, and your opponent isn't. Problem is, the facts aren't in your favor.

The solution: lie! When your opponent says they don't believe you, say "Are you accusing me of lying?" and shame your opponent for this 'ad hominem' attack. Preach that a good faith arguer would never resort to questioning his opponent's integrity as a person.

Things that aren't ad hominem

This is nasty if there are third-party listeners, because if accusing you of lying damages their reputation, they have no way out at this point. No matter how reasonable their suspicion and how right their position, they risk a loss of reputation regardless of what they do.

What I do against this is point out two things: first, a culture where you can't accuse people of lying is a culture that rewards lying, and second, lying to win an argument is not nearly as deplorable as most people think it is. After all, if you're having an argument about something like politics or religion, you can even argue it's morally right to lie if it convinces someone to believe something less harmful.

Obviously the ends justifies the means

One pitfall to avoid is to say something like, "People lie all the time to win arguments". I've responded this way before; unfortunately, it invites the response, "Oh, well naturally a habitual liar would think most people are habitual liars. People expect to find in others what they see in themselves." This risk may also apply to my second point, but it hasn't happened to me with that one.


I detail this one in its own article, as it has enough sub-forms to warrant its own page.


As for how to beat this, pointing out what your opponent is doing probably won't end well in a verbal argument. They'll just take the opportunity to sidetrack you into a sub-argument about whether they're trying to inflame you, which isn't what you want - you want to focus on the actual debate. My only real recommendation against this is honestly inflaming back. Even if it doesn't succeed in provoking them, it'll likely help you keep your own cool, as it's a way of taking out your anger. Especially the technique of laughing at your opponent - if you're enjoying the argument you're going to be a lot more resistant to any attempts to inflame you. Whatever you do, don't give into the temptation to flame them; it's what they want, because it turns the audience against you.

Ideograph abuse

An ideograph is a word with a strong positive or negative connotation attached, especially one with no clear meaning. Examples in American politics include "freedom", "justice", "equality", "terrorism", "feminism", etc. Almost everyone has some words that trigger them like this. A smart adversary can use your ideographs to manipulate your emotions and make you more sympathetic to their position. If someone were trying to convince me to support something, they'd have much better odds of succeeding if they could frame the disagreement as their side wanting "freedom" and mine wanting "control".

In the case that the danger is more other listeners being swayed by the emotional manipulation than you, this is a lot more worrisome. In those cases it might be worth making a short detour to point out how meaningless and manipulative these words are.

The olive branch gambit

One-sided hostility is very powerful; when we speak or act hostilely and don't get a response in kind, it goes a long way toward making us feel bad. The olive branch gambit is to exploit this.

The situation: Your opponent thinks that what you support is really, *really* evil. They may or may not be right.

The solution: Start by telling them how much you agree with them. Point out as much common ground between your philosophies as possible and make it seem like the disagreement is smaller than it is.

By showing your willingness to discuss amicably with someone who thinks your position is pure evil, you score a huge point in terms of apparent moral high ground. The opponent must either de-escalate their rhetoric, which makes it seem like they're starting to come around, or continue the terrible optics of rejecting an olive branch.

One way to preemptively defend against this is to avoid going too far with your rhetoric in an opening statement. (There are other good reasons to avoid that, such as the risk of finding out your opponent's position isn't exactly what you understood it to be.) Err on the side of downplaying any moralizing you do. If you have to moralize really far ("what you advocate is literal slavery"), it may be a good idea to repeat those statements after the opponent responds. For example, say you're arguing for anarchism and you point out all the reasons government is unjust. The opponent reveals they're a minarchist and agree with most of what you said but want a "minimal government" that only protects people from crime. They like your arguments, they just think you're taking it a little bit too far. You should say something like, "That's an improvement, but it doesn't change that your ideal government is funded by extortion and powered by moral nihilism".


This technique can be made even nastier. I know someone who routinely employs this and every time he agrees with something you said, he ends it with, "you know?" prompting you to agree with him in return before he goes on to disagree with you. This extension strengthens makes the manipulation by pressuring you to return the gesture. Worse, the language of "you know?", at least if you give the expected "Yes" or "Yeah" response, makes it sound like they're the one explaining something to you, which gives them an air of intellectual high ground.

When people go there, I think there's no way it can be a good strategy to let it stand. I think you have to call them out for it to get a decent result. A good repsonse could be something like, "and your response is...?" You want to give a less nondescript response; appear "one step ahead of them", show how they're at best wasting time repeating what you said, and you're still waiting to hear their actual argument.

The gift ploy

A form of the olive branch gambit. The gift ploy can be absurdly potent, but it's a lot more limited in its use case. It mostly applies to non-intellectual arguments, where the objective is to get them to apologize or agree to do something rather than to change their beliefs.

The trick: after a heated argument, you bring someone a gift, often food (although you can do this to a small extent with just a compliment) and once they take a bite you make another foray into the argument. It's bullshit because it uses what's ostensibly a gift to put the opponent in a low-status position where they feel like they owe you a favor, and leverage that to win the dispute. And because it's ostensibly a gift, it makes them feel guilty if they call you on it, since you just deny that you meant it as a trick and there's no way for them to prove it. I really haven't found any decent way to counter this technique ☹️. The psychological power is so strong that even I've had trouble resisting it.

The nastiest extension to this I've ever seen was when someone asked me if I was "feeling better now" after an argument. The disagreement was expected to last a few days and I needed to eventually win this person's cooperation. A brilliant, vile use of language. I didn't know how to respond to it, so I just said yes. I still don't know what a better way to handle it would've been.


When someone speaks for so long that by the time they're done, you've forgotten what their original point was, so you can't refute it. This leaves you no in-the-box option except to ask them to remind you. And that just makes it look like you're not really paying attention to your opponent's arguments, which of course casts a terrible light on you. I'm probably more vulnerable to this than most people, since I find it so easy to lose my train of thought in general. Regardless, it shouldn't usually be hard to beat this by calling it out plain and simple with something like "Why don't you go through your arguments one at a time so I have a chance to respond?"

The defense can be made stronger with a technique I call *submissive interrupting*. Start to speak between their sentences (if you don't have any words prepared you can try something like "Wait a minute" or "Can I speak?" to show you have a rebuttal to make if given a second), but *don't force the interruption*. Stop and let them continue if they try. Two scenarios can play out from here:

Observations on linguistic connotations

Linguistic obfuscation

Using words with no clearly defined meaning to prevent the opponent from answering your argument, because they can't figure out exactly what it is.

The differene between this and ideograph abuse is that the point of ideograph abuse is to manipulate your emotions while the point of this is to make it hard for them to answer your argument. The words used in linguistic obfuscation often don't have a polarized connotation. For example, someone criticizing a work of fiction might say, "the ending is inconsistent with the tone of the story." But for that criticism to be anything other than an arbitrary, ad-hoc criterion, you need to have a clear idea of what a "tone" even is in this context (which I'm sure most people don't - I don't). If your opponent finds themselves unable to pin down what your argument is, they won't be able to respond effectively.

You'd think it would be easy to just ask for a definition and instantly counter this technique. I've had great success countering it that way. But I see this get played on other people all the time on the internet and in real life and they seem to almost never challenge it. I think it's because most people don't have an ontology. Not having one makes it hard to even know when this is being done to you, because you can't pinpoint what the concepts you believe in are either.

I guess there's also the case where someone keeps using unclear words in a definition train and you keep pressing them for a real answer and they finally accuse you of only pretending to not know what they mean. (This has been played on me several times.) It's pretty dirty. I've always countered that by asking them to confirm that they're accusing me of lying (important to use that exact word), since the people who employ this rotten technique are normally the same ones who wouldn't dare say yes to that.

Virtue signal with something uncontroversial

Very popular in politics. Debaters often open with a statement like, "I believe violence is wrong" or "America has had a past of racism and slavery, and it's important that we demolish the last remains of that". A remark like this, since everyone can get behind it, charms the audience into being more receptive to your actual claim, which is yet to come. It also implies that the opponent *does* support violence or racism, by contrasting them with someone who doesn't. There's a lot of overlap with ideograph abuse, but virtue signaling doesn't have to involve any vagueness; it just uses uncontroversial statements to score free image points.

As for countering this, there's not much you can do since they haven't committed a fallacy or done anything necessarily dishonest, but you can emphasize when it's your turn to speak that you also don't like racism/etc, and only disagree on the best way to fight it.

Ridiculing hypotheticals

Trying to stop your opponent from using a hypothetical example to show how your principle doesn't hold. It takes the form of something like "that's ridiculous, such a situation would never happen" or "but that isn't the case" (read: I prefer to limit my thinking to a narrow range of scenarios so I don't have to deal with the numerous possibilities showing that my principle doesn't hold water). Since philosophy is universal, it doesn't matter how obscure something is; if it *could* happen in any world that *could* exist then philosophy has to cover it.

I don't have any concrete advice on countering this. The culture has a "realist" mindset that makes its subscribers averse to considering situations very different from what they believe is "real". And it's really dangerous, because thought experiments are one of the main ways of getting through to someone through reason. There's just no way to get through to someone who rejects them.

Thought experiments how do they work

Independence shaming

This mostly shows up in arguments about morality, where a bad person says something like "It's insane to think that *you* are the one who gets to decide what is right". Of course, nothing is less insane. Everyone has conscience and telling someone else that they don't have the right to make judgements based on theirs and must listen to your appeals to popularity or authority instead is what's really insane. There are a lot of possible approaches to countering this. What I just said is one, but it's by no means the only one.

One possible counterplay is the immediate response, "But *you* are?" This is quick, simple, and powerful. It's not as in-depth as the explanation I gave, and doesn't always apply depending on how the independence shaming is phrased, but when applicable, I think it's usually the best.

Important to note is that this statement actually also has a strawman built into it. It's phrased so that it implies the good person is saying they're the *only* one who "gets" to decide what is right, when of course no one thinks that. Another angle (assuming you won't be interrupted) is, "That's not what I think. *No one* can 'decide' what is right. Hence why everyone has to go by their own conscience."

Another possible angle is, "of course I get to decide that. So do you". This can have the benefit of catching your opponent off-guard by elevating them to your level when they're bullshitting you. Of course, the natural question after this is, "but what if we disagree? Who gets to decide?" In some cases the shamer automatically defeats themselves if they ask that, because then it's clear the arbiter can't be them. But more often this is about statism (they're trying to shame you for holding your own beliefs above democratic or due process), and so the right answer is probably moral conflict.

moral conflict

Definition hijacking

When a good person explicitly defines a word and then makes an argument using that definition, bad people will often have trouble countering it, so one thing they might resort to is to plug their own definition of the word into the good person's argument, show that the result is absurd, and then call the good person's argument invalid. (This has even been played on me by some good people.)

I've never seen anyone actually lose an argument to this cheat. That might be because I can't remember seeing it played on anyone but me. Regardless, it can be an effective way to stall or frustrate the good person, especially if the bad person makes the resolution take a long time by at first just stating that the argument leads to the bogus conclusion without explaining what they did and leave the good person to figure it out through a chain of questions (which will likely be given dodgy answers laced with linguistic obfuscation).

Relativist rhetoric

Pandering to the popular attitude that no one is wrong because telling someone they're wrong is mean. "That's just your opinion" is the cliched phrase. A lot of people claim to know that this is bullshit, but I still see it thrown around absolutely everywhere.

If someone plays this on you in an argument about something like morality or politics, it should be pretty easy to respond by making them agree that there *is* an objective truth that is right for everyone (again, American slavery is my go-to example). After that this usually moves into independence shaming and can be dealt with the same way. When the argument is about something like game design or storytelling philosophy, the person will often claim that there genuinely *isn't* an objective truth.

In that case you can point to an example of a game/story that is obviously objectively bad. They'll usually respond that *some* things about those fields are objective but others are subjective, to which you should respond by asking them what the pattern is ("Huh, it seems like whatever you dislike is objectively bad but whatever I dislike is a matter of opinion"). If they stick to their guns and say it's all subjective, then you can't force your way through that, but you can point out that it means they can never call a work bad again or say that it "should" have gone a certain way, only that they "personally didn't like it". Without a doubt, they will be a hypocrite.

How to be an objectivist about art

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