Here I'm going to talk about some dirty tactics that bad and dishonest people often use to try to win arguments despite being wrong. I'm not saying these are always done intentionally, but what they all have in common is that they take advantage of psychology or culture to bias people against rationality. I'll go ahead and not talk about interrupting, since that one is pretty universally looked down on to the point that it's often suicidal (kind of 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, or is less so. 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.
This one 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.
The best way I've found to counter this is to point out two things: firstly, a culture that is averse to accusing people of lying is a culture that rewards lying, and secondly, 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.
One pitfall you really need to avoid when dealing with this 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."
I detail this one in the linked article, as it contains 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 or not, which isn't what you want - you want to focus on the actual debate. What I'd recommend doing 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 symbolically 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.
An ideograph is a word with a strong (usually positive) connotation attached, especially one with no clearly defined meaning. Examples of these in modern 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 against you to manipulate your emotions and make you more receptive to their position. For example, if someone were trying to convince me to support something, they would have much better odds of succeeding if they could paint the disagreement as if their side wants "freedom" and mine wants "control". It's important to watch out for your opponent doing this to you in an argument, and try to remind yourself that they're using a very different definition of the ideograph than you are.
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 utterly meaningless these words are until explicitly defined.
Agree to disarm¶
One-sided hostility is a very powerful psychological effect; when we see one person being hostile and the other not, most of us feel a strong gut reaction to side with the "victim". When we speak or act hostilely to another and don't get a response in kind, it goes a long way toward making us feel bad.
The situation: Your opponent strongly condemns your position at the start of an argument. They think your position is the worst thing ever and you have to be a bad person to believe it. 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 difference is smaller than it is.
After you've done this and showed your willingness to discuss amicably with someone who thinks your position is pure evil, you've scored a huge point for yourself in terms of apparent moral high ground. The opponent is forced to either continue the appearance of one-sided hostility or de-escalate their rhetoric, which makes it seem as if they're starting to come around or taking back something they said.
For dealing with this, one thing I'd recommend is just to be careful in an opening statement to not go too far with your rhetoric. (There are other good reasons to avoid this, 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"), make a point to attach the summaries . and perhaps repeat these after the opponent responds. For example, say you're arguing for Anarchism and you point out all the reasons government is inherently unjust, and then the opponent reveals that they're a minarchist and agrees with most of what you said but wants 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 you're funding your activities through coercive theft backed by the threat of violence". (Note the dense use of ideographs in that rebuttal. Yes, it's ideograph abuse, but honestly I completely recommend that one against statists unless you know the individual. They need it.)
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 makes the psychological manipulation significantly stronger by pressuring you to return the gesture, making it much harder not to internalize it. 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. Depending on the specifics, a good repsonse could be something like, "and your response is...?" You want to give a less nondescript response, show how they're at best waiting time repeating what you said.
The gift ploy¶
This is based on the same psychological trick as agreeing to disarm. 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, ie. 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 half-decent way to counter this technique ☹️. The psychological power is so strong that even I'm usually averse to resisting it.
Another thing people do in in-person arguments to mess with your mind is to simply speak 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 with 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 horrible 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. 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:
They let me interrupt, I counter their argument, and then they try to use the fact that I interrupted them as an excuse to not deal with my rebuttal. This works for me because I can say, "Okay, your turn. Explain why my objection is invalid". And then I've accomplished what I wanted. I showed how the first complete thing they said is bogus and now they can't build on it.
- They don't let me interrupt after multiple tries, and speak for way longer than it should take to make a valid and complete point. This amplifies the power of the complaint when I call them out for filibustering, because I can say something like "How am I supposed to answer you if you won't let me speak?" which better exposes how dishonorable they're being. If they go for "I'm letting you speak now", be ready with "I tried to speak earlier but you kept cutting me off.", and then the above rebuttal.
This is the practice of 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. This is separate from ideograph abuse, since these often aren't words with a polarized moral connotation. For example, someone criticizing a work of fiction might say, "the ending is inconsistent with the tone of the story." But to make a criticism like that and expect it to sound like 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).
You'd think it should 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 identify this trick in time to stop its argumentative power, 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. But even that's usually not hard to counter by asking them to confirm that they're accusing you of lying (important to use that exact word), as 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. Obviously, there's a lot of overlap with ideograph abuse, but I don't think the two are the same.
As for how to counter this, there's not much you can do since they haven't really committed a fallacy or done anything necessarily dishonest, but you can at least emphasize when it's your turn to speak that you also don't support racism, and only disagree on the best way to fight it.
This is the act of trying to make people feel that certain positions are "out of bounds" and aren't allowed to even be proposed. (The Overton Window is basically this in politics.) This tactic is often whipped out whenever someone questions what are seen as the foundational principles of the society they live in, such as the legitimacy of government, the non-aggression principle applied only outside of government, that democracy is the best form of government, the acceptability of eating animals, or similar. The manipulator expresses shock and horror at your opinion and often calls it "anti-American" or some other completely BS negative ideograph.
To counter the effect this has on you, all you need is sufficient confidence to not be intimidated out of your position by some asshole's scare tactics. Preventing its effects on whatever audience might be present is quite a bit harder. My usual recommendation would be to point to examples of opinions that were considered unthinkable in the past or in other circles, but are now widely accepted. For example, America's laws used to uphold slavery, and even many of the people fighting for "liberty" in the American Revolution owned slaves. Clearly slavery was evil despite how widely accepted it was, so just because an idea is considered radical does not make it false. This rebuttal usually goes well because the principle is impossible to disagree with.
In the case of contingent facts with consequences for philosophy or politics, this often takes a form like "It's been scientifically proven ..." or "You can claim X if you like, but there's no disputing that ...". Of course, there is never "no disputing" a contingent fact known only through other people. Common fallacies relating to citations and statistics apply.
This is the practice of 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). The truth of the matter is that philosophy is universal. It doesn't matter how obscure it 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 an intense "realist" mindset that makes its subscribers averse to considering situations very different from 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. But I don't know what to do about someone who rejects them.
This mostly shows up in debates 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 is 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, but might be a better version, perhaps depending on how the independence shaming was phrased.
Important to note is that this statement actually also has a strawman built into it. It's cleverly 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. Perhaps the best angle (assuming you won't be interrupted) is, "That's not what I think. No one 'decides' what is right. That's precisely why everyone has to go by their own conscience."
Another possible angle is, "of course I get to decide that. So do you". This has the benefit of likely 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 the democratic process), and so depending on the specifics the right answer is either "the property owner" (an obviously correct answer that clearly shows the evil of taxation), or it's moral conflict. In that case you might be in a bit of a pinch, because that's a hard idea to stomach for a lot of people (the thought of violence being the right thing even outside of anyone being evil), and somewhat understandably so.
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 because it leads to this conclusion. (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 waste time (and thus avoid losing) 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 cloaking).
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.
The worst part of this is when it gets asymmetric (which it usually does when you advocate ideas farther from the Overton window, such as Anarchism). When someone accuses you of bigotry or intolerance for not "respecting their opinion", but at the same time they refuse to respect yours. Whatever "respect" even means at that point...
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. 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. Most often they'll respond that some things about those fields are objective but others are subjective, to which you should respond by pressuring them to explain 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 still win in some sense because you can point out that this means your opponent 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".