Catch-up with Coddling

Hold my Drink Podcast Blog, Episode 36

If we try to legitimately ban anything that can hurt someone’s feelings, everyone is reduced to silence. -Greg Lukianoff

As I continue my journey to research our divisions, I have stumbled upon a new term and idea that I’ve been trying to work out: Motte & Bailey. Some of my more erudite friends may snark at my naïveté, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who is unfamiliar with this incredibly important and well-worn rhetorical device. It is a critical piece of our conversation with Greg in this week’s podcast and we talk about it both directly and indirectly. Whether we know it or not, it is something that we likely engage in daily, and as I am learning, something we need to understand if we are ever to work through our increasingly embittered conversations, entangled in evolving jargon adrift in a sea of misunderstanding.

In a world of abbreviated texts and thoughts digested to 280 or so characters, it has become ever more entrenched into our modes of communication. The digitization of communication and the polarization of thought has us perpetually lost in translation. So, let’s dig in a bit. The term derives from a typical castle fortification. The Motte or castle stands on a defensible hill, whereas the Bailey is a more vulnerable courtyard surrounding the castle.

The Bailey is a less defensible position, which as a rhetorical device is usually an extreme claim, one that is often weaponized as a slogan. In our conversation, Greg uses Defund the Police as a “Bailey” rhetorical example. When people pushed back against this idea, many people who originally supported the slogan retreated to the Motte, or the more defensible position. That is to say, many people claimed that they didn’t really mean “defund” but rather “rethink”.

It’s hard to argue against rethinking anything. It is always wise to rethink how we operate in our constant search for social improvement. Our new obsession with rhetoric and the manipulation of language is what Greg calls the “perfect rhetorical fortress”. As part of this fortress and one of the things he claims as a blind spot in his best-selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind, was the extent to which social justice ideas would be used for rhetorical advantage.

This is where the battle is being waged – in a war of words and partisan machinations of rhetoric. Freedom of speech allows us to stage the battle. If we better understand the battleground, perhaps we come closer to laying the framework for a peaceful reconciliation, without resorting to the nuclear option of censorship.

Sigmund Freud is attributed to saying, “the first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” We have been stockpiling rhetorical ammunition for a while. The fear is that it bleeds into the physical realm in the search to destroy the tenuous ties of our humanity.

In the Hold my Drink — navigating the news and politics with a chaser of civility and Counterweight podcast, Episode 36, we speak with the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and best-selling author, Greg Lukianoff. As things evolve since the publishing of the book, The Coddling of the American Mind in 2018, Greg has been “catching up with coddling” in a series of blog posts, and we catch-up with him here. He tells us that 2020 was the worst year he’s seen in terms of ideological censorship, and one of the busiest years for FIRE. This freedom of speech warrior shares with us his concerns, but also his hopes and aspirations for navigating us through the rhetorical battleground. It took us a long time to get here and it is going to take time to get out, but with FIRE at the helm, there is a light ahead. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, and a pink lemonade Spendrift, a Diet Coke and a coffee.

Hold My Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we discuss what it takes to imagine a new American identity, together.

Find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or watch the conversation unfold on YouTube, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

What Greg is Reading

The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Lenny Bruce

The Scout Mindset, Julia Galef

Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids And Ruin Our Schools – And What We Can Do About It, Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder

What Jen is Reading

Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch

The ‘Motte & Bailey’ meme reveals what’s wrong with political arguments in 2020, Big Think, Stephen Johnson

Answers to 12 Bad Anti-Free Speech Arguments, Areo Magazine, Greg Lukianoff

Motte-and-Bailey: The Academic Threat from ‘Lived Experience’, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, W. Alexander Bell

More Resources:

Cancelled to Death: The Mike Adams I Knew, The American Conservative, Esther O’Reilly

Catching Up with Coddling, The Eternally Radical Idea, Greg Lukianoff

Mighty Ira,  Documentary

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff

Halloween Costume Controversy, FIRE

Motte and Bailey Memes, Facebook Page

Greg Lukianoff is an attorney, New York Times best-selling author, and the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American DebateFreedom From Speech, and FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. Most recently, he co-authored The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure with Jonathan Haidt. This New York Times best-seller expands  on their September 2015 Atlantic cover story of the same name. Greg is also an Executive Producer of Can We Take a Joke? (2015), a feature-length documentary that explores the collision between comedy, censorship, and outrage culture, both on and off campus, and of Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story (2020), a feature-length film about the life and career of former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser.

Greg has been published in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington PostLos Angeles TimesThe Boston Globe, and numerous other publications. He frequently appears on TV shows and radio programs, including the CBS Evening NewsThe Today Show, and NPR’s Morning Edition. In 2008, he became the first-ever recipient of the Playboy Foundation’s Freedom of Expression Award, and he has testified before both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives about free speech issues on America’s college campuses.