Other Attacks, Part 3

Before we continue with “word-borne attacks,” I should add that I include deceptions as attacks. They differ from direct attacks, of course, but their goal is still to abuse us, even if it’s indirectly, and even (or maybe especially) if we don’t think we’re being misused.

And so today I’ll focus on a couple of tricks that are used in public speaking: everything from political speeches to sermons to any other type of lecture.

The Fog of complexity

A common trick of public speakers, especially if they can claim any sort of authority – or can make a passable claim that authority stands behind them – is to surround their objectionable or questionable statements with so much complexity (scientific terms, strings of complex numbers, large and impressive words, foreign language quotes, and so on) that following them precisely is all but impossible.

Dissecting the arguments of such a presentation is simply impractical. Almost no one is mentally quick enough to follow the complex material it as it passes, and even those few who might be able probably won’t want to expend the necessary effort.

And so, the argument can’t really be critiqued. But if the speaker can put his or her points together in a sequence that is understandable, and if that sequence seems to arrive at a reasonable conclusion, most people will accept it as true, or at least accept the verdict of the speaker as a preliminary conclusion.

The essential solution to this problem is to accept that you didn’t understand it. And that’s hard because most people are deeply afraid of appearing stupid. If there are fifty people in the audience, and if no one else is saying, “I didn’t follow the argument,” the first person to say so risks being branded as stupid by the others. And most humans are very sensitive to such things.

And so, one of the more important intellectual lessons of life is to learn how to say things like, “I don’t understand,” and “I’m ignorant on that subject.” Once you can learn to say things like these – openly, eagerly, and before anyone else – you’ve made a major step forward. And the price of saying such things is to accept that a few people may ridicule you.

And so we see, once again, that the ability to think clearly involves emotional strength far more than it does intellectual strength. And in particular, it involves the ability to accept pain. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the current state of this world, and we can either pay that price or be subject to manipulation at all times. (Sorry.)

Once you have realized that you couldn’t or didn’t really follow the argument (which you don’t necessarily have to tell others), you’re in a fairly safe position. From there you have three basic choices:

  1. Decide that the whole thing really doesn’t matter that much to you, and that you don’t want to spend a great deal of effort analyzing a poorly-made argument. You’ll have to say, “I didn’t really follow it and don’t care that much” to others if they ask, but aside from that, you can simply leave it behind.
  2. You can get some time alone, or perhaps with a like-minded friend, and slowly dissect the argument. That should lead you to the embedded errors and to enable you to make some guesses on the speaker’s hidden motives.
  3. Get a transcript of the argument and go through it slowly. This is the best method, and you’ll be shocked how easily lies, omissions and bad arguments show up while going carefully through a transcript. And you’ll probably be surprised to see how weak… even how childish… the arguments of the high-and-mighty really are.


Operating almost the same way as complexity is the trick of velocity. If a speaker goes too quickly, people simply can’t keep up. They can consider the surface arguments well enough, but not the implications of them, and not the assumptions they stand upon.

If such a fast speaker can keep his or her surface arguments simple enough, people will tend to follow along; they won’t dig any deeper, because they have no time to dig any deeper. (Certain evangelists have majored in this.) And if, at the same time, others are nodding their heads or otherwise agreeing, it’s all too easy for people to follow along. The surface argument is reasonable, after all.

Again, the first step in dealing with this is to recognize and accept that you didn’t really follow, and to risk being seen (by others or even yourself) as stupid. After that, the three choices above work very well.

It’s interesting to see in both of these cases that accepting our limitations is crucial for dealing with them and transcending them. It is by denying them that we become vulnerable.

Also in both of these case, the fundamental cure for the problem is simply time. We don’t have to be natural-born geniuses to cut through deceptions; we simply need to spend some time on them.

In my youth, tough old men used to talk about giving someone “the bum’s rush.” That was a reference to throwing a drunk (the bum) out of a bar by getting him moving (usually by yanking the back of his pants and shirt), and keeping his inertia forward, all the way out the door. What they implied by the phrase, however, was to get someone moving and hurry them to the end of an exercise, whatever it might be: Get ‘em moving, get ‘em out.

And so, when you encounter the velocity trick or the complexity trick, you’re being given the bum’s rush. The speaker wants to get you moving and get you to his or her conclusion, without giving you an opportunity to dig down into the falsehoods underlying it.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg