Shifting Ground

This is the attrition tactic: as each of your opponent’s arguments is defeated, he tries another one, looking for weak points or simply reducing you to exhaustion:

We were disagreeing about Muck, but to back up my case, I will have a go at you, in turn, about Staffa, Shuna, Eigg, Arran, Mousa, Canna, Lewis and Coll . . . and Yell . . .

At the level of the quarrel, this may be quite healthy, a release of accumulated resentments. Or, it may be more serious because—if what you have to argue against is not one point but a dozen—it can be hard to keep any one point in the frame for long enough to discuss it: my nuanced observations about Eynhallow merely prompt a rant about Sgeotasaigh.

And if you do start getting somewhere with it, the opposition is likely to shift the ground again—and pretend he hasn’t. People don’t really think like that, they just argue like it, calling in at any proposition that catches their eye, like moths fluttering opportunistically around sources of light. There may be no end to this, short of a breakdown in all possibility of a conversation, or—perhaps with help—some insight about what the conversation is really about, which may be nothing to do with islands at all, but an expression of deep resentments.

There are alternatives. One (recommended) is to stick to one subject at a time.

But another is to stop taking it so seriously. The idea that the outcome of an argument actually matters is a relatively new one, and in the history of traditional societies, we find arguments being fired-off in sequence, not to change anyone’s mind, but to keep the peace. An illustration of this from Old Germanic history describes what we may now think of as an extended dinner party of the time, held by Turisind, King of the Gepidae. His son has recently been slain in battle by the Langobards. So he invites the Langobards’ chieftains round to dinner, where another of his sons addresses them. History conveniently summarises an extended argument:

Son: You are white-footed mares. You stink.

Langobards: Go to the field of Asfeld, there you will surely learn how valiantly those “mares” of yours can put about them, where your brother’s bones lie scattered like an old nag’s in the meadow.

After a lot of this, we are told, “they bring the banquet to a merry end”. Altogether, a great evening. And, in the Old Norse and Old Germanic tradition, the hall in which such slanging matches were held was called “the great place of peace”.S23


Related entries:

Distraction, Fallacies, Dialogue, Politeness.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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