Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Purpose of the Putdown: They Can't Realistically Fight Back.

I wrote a long essay because I didn't have time to write a short one.  True.  Here is the takeaway:  In most of the politics your read and hear -FB, cartooning, talk radio, posters - and even the speeches by well-coached or teleprompted national figures, it pays to remember that the persons attacked cannot fight back, or not comfortably, because they would only look worse.  They often have to fight against an unsympathetic media or audience to begin with, and being backed into a rhetorical corner is doubly unfair.

And the second takeaway is stop doing this yourself.

"All right," said Sam, laughing with the rest. "But how about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them? They do say that one bigger than a tree was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back."
"Who's they?"
"My cousin Hal for one. He works for Mr. Boffin at Overhill and goes up to the Northfarthing for the hunting. He saw one."
"Says he did, perhaps. Your Hal's always saying he's seen things; and maybe he sees things that ain't there."
"But this one was as big as an elm tree, and walking - seven yards to a stride, if it was an inch."
"Then I bet it wasn't an inch. What he saw was an elm tree, as like as not."
"But this one was
walking, I tell you; and there ain't no elm tree on the North Moors."
"Then Hal can't have seen one," said Ted. T
here was some laughing and clapping: the audience seemed to think that Ted had scored a point

I think of this exchange often in political disputes.  Ted has not answered Sam logically, nor even come close.  Yet he, and most of those present seems to think he has won the argument.  Sam was polite and good-natured (“laughing with the rest”) at the outset.  Ted has been rude and insulting throughout. 

I am not well-placed to be critical of others on this.  The putdown was my stock-in-trade when I was younger; my brother was much better at it than I, and I admired him for it.  I liked quoting them, liked reading about them, liked especially imagining ones I should have said had I only been quick enough.  We use it fairly gently to rib each other in my family. 

Once one has been on the receiving end of unfair putdowns it all starts to look different.  In the scene above, if Sam were to try to press the point, he would look humorless, sound defensive.  He has the better argument, but he can’t win.  That is usually the point of a putdown.  It cuts off discussion.  We all appreciate it when some jerk is being put in his place, some bore is being prevented from going on endlessly, or some absolutely unacceptable idea is kept off the floor entirely.  Yet most putdowns only pretend to be accomplishing one of these worthy goals.  A witty remark, well-delivered, makes it look as if you are jerk or a bore, or your idea look as if it should be laughed off the stage without consideration. You may actually be a person of character and decency;  the topic you raise may actually deserve serious consideration.  No matter.  You have been put in a position where it seems otherwise. If you persist, you will only look worse.

They become increasingly popular when the victim cannot fight back.  Political cartoons, or the political posters people put up on facebook notoriously accuse people or groups of saying something they have not.  I am not referring to misquotes, but to “as ifs,” to false summaries of your opponents’ position.  How does one argue back against a bumpersticker, or a comedian? Cliches are often in the same category: so you think that calling yourself the reality-based community is something…original…and definitive…and somehow settles the whole matter.  Gollee…I can’t even imagine a response to that…complete loss for words here. The worst of these begin with “they probably think…” or something similar.*

Well, one way of fighting back is a return putdown.  That gets ugly as well, but at least can be regarded as defensive instead of aggressive.  Touch not the cat and all that.  I hope that’s the worst I do is repaying in kind rather than going looking for someone to kick.  My thinking is usually “Well if that’s the only language they understand, then…” but frankly, that’s insufficient moral excuse on my part. People using an unfair putdown are not usually the ones who perceive that they have been insulting anyway. If they were able to hear their own tone, they wouldn’t have written that crap in the first place. They think they are just announcing what all smart people know, in a particularly witty way.

That’s why I bring it up here, because it is a sin of smart people.  It’s how the clever ones fight dirty.  It takes a fair bit of mental agility to do it live – I did learn by college that I wasn’t really all that good at it – but even given time, against defenseless opponents who you can pretend really did accuse you of not being moral, it takes some wit to create a good putdown.  Also, you can store up lots of them for ready use, and bring them out whenever the topic comes anywhere near your favorite insult. There are lots of folks who think they are kindly because they would never say such things.  Yet if you provide the approving audience, encouraging the mean girls, then it’s you as well.

Perhaps that is much of how it happens at all.  In many discussions, one can hear a less-intelligent person trying to get their one or two bromides inserted at every turn: “You can’t legislate morality.” “The Red Sox management doesn’t really want to win.” “Obama was a communist in college and he hasn’t changed since.”  How much more fun if you’ve got hundreds of these on disk, well-phrased, ready to launch. Sure, those are mostly just cliches that are one level higher, but the urge for product delivery might be reflexive at that point.  Someone mentions gambling, or voter fraud, or gun control and you’ve got your two facts and pocket sneer about the type of people who believe X.

By the way, both of those facts are wrong and your belief about those people is mostly projection.  Just sayin”

*I had one I thought so ridiculous as to be humorous over at 538, in which a person actually wrote “yeah, you probably think Babe Ruth still plays for the Red Sox too.”  Except that the comment had received 27 “likes” which I found disturbing.  


Texan99 said...

Yet sometimes a zinger is a pithy way of pointing out why one's opponent is self-evidently on the wrong track. Remember last Sunday's lesson, Matthew 11:18-19: "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon!' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

Anonymous said...

One time I was riding a train, and two blacks next to and in front of me seated were talking about racist unfairness or gun control not stopping shootings. I made some minor facial gestures in the negative, and because they thought I was "outside" the hood experience, they began downplaying my view, either saying or showing that they believed I was clueless or ignorant of what the "people" know.

I cut this off at the head by modulating my voice tone and staring straight ahead (otherwise I would be staring people down, in the Mode that Does Not Blink or look away kind of stare down). I began speaking of White Kennedy drowning a girl and getting away with it, while a black boy would get himself executed. I just plowed through them using my tone of voice that was infused with a strong emotion they could understand and feel.

They listened. They quieted down as I talked. And they started nodding their head, then the train stopped and everyone got off.

On the internet, such subtleties are useless and thus I've found I am forced to use other tools in the box to fix people.

Merely the tone of my voice made them shut up. The eyes were focused laser sight on a spot on the door, burning it through. The things I can use physically to stop the stupidity is manifold. Most of it works not on the net.

Emotional manipulation is easy to use, when the audience thinks you're a dupe but in reality the audience is the dupe and the speaker has true Will Power.

Alternatively, I've also bumped into wannabe ghetto teenagers by mistake, getting through a shortcut, and by hand signal alone, I defused a situation where their tiny little gangs might start something. Walking backwards while in a hurry, cause they're not going to stop me from getting to where I am heading.

Whether people think they are masters of war and hate, or whether they think they are the masters of wit, they are easy to burn through when I reach into my toolbox for my tools.

Most people are merely tools. They regurgitate the propaganda of their Authorities. Standing, toe to toe, face to face, with someone that isn't a tool, is quite a different matter entirely.

Anonymous said...

What most people think of as "arguments" are merely the pack trying to determine who is above and below them. Until that happens, friction cannot be balanced.

So in a political conflict, when the dogs are told to fight using propaganda, they will fight. It's more like a war for strategic results.

On an individual level, the fight is about whose authority is better or whose God is stronger. A form of social hierarchy.

Cousin Hal's authority is on line, and when that is damaged, so is Sam's automatically. Thus when Sarah Palin's authority is damaged, so is everyone of her supporters in the eyes of the Leftists. That's the strategic goal and benefit of victory in psychological warfare. One can target a leader or a single person on the enemy's side, but have a dramatic over effect on the rest of the enemy army.

Heretics like Kendall or Palin, who show women what it really means to choose strength and family, are dangerous. Far more dangerous than Hobby Lobby to the Left.

james said...

I'm really slow on the draw recently. The "putdown" is unanswerable, but there used to be a definitive reply: a challenge.

I can't say if the existence of dueling improved the level of discourse much, though one of Mark Twain's stories about filling in at a newspaper suggests it didn't.