A week or so ago, I made a post about how words can mean different things to different people, and the importance of learning what definition the user intended. While it’s on my mind, I want to make a quick followup illustrating how this can be used offensively.
Imagine you have six shapes. The Yellow Star is objectively good. Everyshape loves the Yellow Star. Meanwhile, the Red Square is pretty much the worst shape ever. Everyshape hates the Red Square.
Here’s the interesting part: depending how you categorize things, you can justify any of the shapes in the center as being good or bad.
Like, let’s say you hate Blue Square. She skipped out on your birthday party or something. Rather than saying Red Square is bad (something everyone would agree with), you can make the generalization that squares are bad, using Red Square as proof. Now, Blue Square looks bad too.
Or, let’s say Yellow Triangle is in a bind. He killed his roommate, and the police are getting nosier than he’d like. He can make himself look good, though, with a generalized statement: yellow shapes are good, and Yellow Star is proof of this. This is actually the tactic I wrote about in an essay called Defensive Generalization.
You can even make more complicated generalizations based on the exact people you are trying to discredit. Let’s say you have a problem with both Blue Star and Blue Square. You simply say that shapes with symmetry based off an even number are bad, and point to Red Square as evidence of this. You can even do a two-step: let’s say Red Pentagon and Blue Square get along great and call themselves the “Top-Row-Of-Shapes Club”. If you want to break that club up, you can warn Red Pentagon that even-number-symmetry-shapes are bad (see: Red Square) and that her association with Blue Square could be harmful. And just like that, their relationships are yours to control.
Despite the prevalence of this tactic, seeing through it as a listener is relatively easy: you just need to pay attention to who is categorizing things for you. Blue Square is going to deny having any association with Red Square. People who want to attack Blue Square, though, will take every angle possible to associate them. They’re both squares, they both have even symmetry, they both have one facial feature, they’re both on the right side of the image, whatever. If you question who is grouping things together for you, ulterior motives can become more obvious.
Countering it from the target’s perspective, however, is more difficult. As easy as it is, most people won’t question who is categorizing things for them. Blue Square either has to deny her associations with Red Square, or come up with a whole bunch of groupings that associate her with Yellow Star, who we all know is good. It’s a stressful position and, ultimately, favors whoever has the most people listening. If someone gets shot, it’s the loudest voices that will decide whether he was a student or a thug.
As listeners, though, we have the most power to counter this. We can be aware that harmful manipulators will use this tactic, and by extension skeptical of people who try to sort things into categories for us. Ultimately, your goal is to look past manipulative categorization and judge parties by their actions, not their grouping. Anyone who tries to keep you from doing this is usually an enemy.
As usual, though, the best thing you can do is simply be skeptical. Recognize that everyone has an agenda. Even I have an agenda - if you look at the sort of things I write, it’s obvious that I’m trying to reduce the value of deception so that I can outcompete people who rely on it. It’s important to note these things and factor it into the credibility of information. Nothing is more dangerous than taking things at face value.