Net Games: Fallacies, Gambits, and Maneuvers in Baha'i Cyberspace

Having participated in countless Internet debates, I’ve found that I seem to run into the same kinds of arguments over and over. I’ve never had any formal training in logic, not even a basic class, although, of course, I was aware of several of the kinds of logical fallacies that exist in formal debate. As a bit of fun, I decided to look up these fallacies and classify some of the common ones I’ve run into. However, as I began reflecting on my experience in Baha’i cyberspace, thought of some that didn’t fit into classic “fallacy” categories, and included them here as well.

Basically, these Net Games have three underlying motives: 1) to shut people up or to drive them out of the forum 2) to warn others that one is bad news 3) to keep the victim talking and involved in the game, either because it is thought to be entertaining or discrediting.

Most of the debates I’ve been involved in center around whether or not punitive actions taken against Baha’i liberals by the administration were justified or, to a lesser extent, concerning liberal vs. conservative interpretations of Baha’i scripture.(A more serious look at the issues involved can be found on many other pages in this site. I have included examples of things that have really been said to me, and responses. For most of these Net Games, the best thing to do is simply not respond.

Appeal to force/bad consequences: The reader is persuaded to agree by force or threat of bad consequences if he doesn’t.

Example: If you do not accept the House’s decision, you will be a violator of the Covenant, and spiritually condemned.

Response: The classic way of refuting this fallacy is to demonstrate that the bad consequences do not necessarily follow, a rather difficult thing to do in this case, which is what makes this kind of maneuver so nasty. You are up against the Baha’i equivalent of the fundamentalist Christian warnings that if you do not believe as they do, you are doomed to hell. Basically it comes down to a difference in belief. Quite obviously, if you thought you would go to hell for what you’re doing, you wouldn’t be doing it. Odds are you aren’t just going to suddenly change your opinion because someone threatens you with this. The argument here is that fidelity to the Covenant does not require you to silently accept every decision by the House, especially in interpretive matters beyond its purview, or when natural justice is being violated.

Appeal to pity: The reader is persuaded to agree by sympathy.

Example: How can you criticize our Institutions when it causes us such pain?

Response: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Cyberspace can be a rough place. One hears things that are distressing or infuriating; that’s just the way it is. You can’t expect someone else to stop expressing their opinion just because it is upsetting. The classic refutation is that the emotional effect of one’s statement has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the proposition.

Arguing from authority: Of course, an argument from authority is legitimate within the context of a discussion of a religion in which the debaters both believe, and in that sense, this is not exactly a fallacy. (Using that authority in a debate with someone outside the religion *is* a fallacy, except as a demonstration of what is believed, not as an argument for what should be accepted.) However, what I’ve found is that fundamentalists tend to “throw quotes” in a manner that is intended to either end the discussion, or to prove that one isn’t really a believer in the scripture. Very often fundamentalists read scripture in a very simplistic and absolutist way, while liberals will take into account textual analysis and historical context, and have a broader view. Since this often requires a great deal of explanation, it comes down to whether one wants to spend time to do this, or pass on the argument.

Example: How can you say you’re a Baha’i when ‘Abdu’l-Baha clearly condemned anyone who opposes the UHJ as a violator?

Response: Besides being an argument from authority, this is also a Red Herring/Bait. I was hounded on this question by two people on Beliefnet Learn About Baha‘i board, and refused to answer since it was completely off the topic and inappropriate for that board, where the policy is that it is not a debating area. As I refused to answer, one of these people ventured the opinion that the only position I could possibly take was that I rejected ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s authority, which is a False Dilemma. I later, on another board, gave a detailed account of my position. Of course, another response to quote throwing is to counter with quotes from scripture that prove your case, but in my experience it usually doesn’t make too much of an impression.

Attacking the Person: This is the classic “ad hominem” fallacy.

Example: You are attempting to undermine the Institutions and create disunity.

Response: The intent here is both to silence the poster, and to warn others about their perfidious nature. If the unity of the Baha’i Faith is so fragile that the simple expression of opinions on email forums is enough to shatter it, it really isn’t worth much. It is extremely unfair to make assumptions about another person’s motivations anyway. Ad hominem attacks are illegitimate by their very nature; who the poster is has nothing to do with the validity of his argument.

Baiting: A personal accusation made that’s completely off the point of the main argument, but that forces a person on the defensive. I must confess that I’ve had some hard lessons on this one, since it is extremely common, maybe more common than any other kind of Net Game. Sometimes this is a form of Red Herring, diverting attention from the main point of the debate. However, many times “baiting” is sometimes not a part of any debate at all, but simply a means of trying to hook someone into an argument, where they will be defensive, angry, and quite entertaining to the “baiter” -- who either wants to discredit the person by eliciting incautious or angry reactions, or who just enjoys this kind of sadistic game.

Response: Don’t take the bait. This, of course, will lead to charges that you haven’t or can’t answer the question/accusation, which itself is simply another bait. Even if you do answer the question, they will insist that you have not, or will follow-up with another red herring/bait, which can keep the game going on indefinitely, consuming a great deal of Internet time and emotional energy.

The Bonehead Maneuver: No matter how long and carefully you explain your position, it bounces right off, and the conversation returns to square one . Other names for this are “slothful induction” and “determined ignorance.” The only classic response to Slothful Induction is to again point to the strength of the argument. You can try it, but it probably won’t work.

The Boxer Announcement: A Baha’i repeatedly announces that he is so upset by the contention and/or “misrepresentation of the Faith” (i.e. liberal opinions) that he is leaving the forum, but he takes a ridiculously long time to do so. (I am leaving/I am leaving/ But the fighter still remains -- Simon & Garfunkel) This is not so much a gambit, but the person’s inability to decide whether he wants to defend his perspective or get out of an upsetting situation.

The Childish Charge: This is a gentler, albeit more patronizing, version of the Egotism Charge. It basically amounts to a version of “You just want things all your own way like a spoiled child.” It sidesteps and belittles the complaint, and the complainer. In any case, both of these charges are simply ad hom attacks, designed to silence the poster.

The Egotism Charge: This accusation proceeds from the assumption that anyone who criticizes the Baha’i administration is doing so because of egotism and pride, with the strong implication that such a person is either a covenant-breaker or very close to being one. Of course, the only way to prove one is not “egotistic” is to simply stop one’s critique and go along with the status quo.

Response: Nearly all human motivations are, to a degree, egotistic. This includes the emotional need to defend one’s religious belief, since criticisms are taken as virtually a personal attack. To say that a person is acting from ego is basically the same as calling them human.

False Analogy: The two events or objects being compared are dissimilar.

Example: You believe that it is appropriate to impose controls on email forums, therefore your support of freedom of expression in the Baha’i community is hypocritical.

Response: This is one of the few fallacies that I ran into among non-Baha’is as a result of controversies involved in the Religious Debate forum. I complained to the listowner about a flame directed towards me, which she removed, and this action has been considered proof that I am actually supportive of censorship and opposed to free speech, at least when it suits me or my supposed agenda.

Participation on an email forum is certainly not comparable to membership in one’s religion. Moderating decisions are not censorship, since one can always find a great many forums that will allow you to say anything you like. Certainly, I have not been prevented by any moderating decision or policy from freely speaking my mind, although I adjust tone and content according to the forum in which I find myself. Religion is central to a person’s life and identity in a way that participation on the Internet, and especially in one particular forum, is not. Email forums are interchangeable in a way that religions are not.

Moderating decisions are a form of quality control -- repeated flaming and off-topic posting ruin the forum for more serious posters. Indeed, the sort of bullying I outline in many of these Net Games can, itself, be a form of censorship, where a person must endure continual personal attack or fall silent. (Ironically, the last place I’d venture an opinion about anything is the forum where this accusation was made, precisely because I could not open my mouth without being baited -- a much more effective censoring technique than the deletion of flames.) This is not at all comparable to a policy in a religion that requires that all writing be vetted, and if it doesn’t pass muster, a Baha’i cannot publish his ideas anywhere, on pain of sanction.

This is also a sort of false dilemma i.e. one must support absolute freedom of expression in all places and circumstances or one does not support it at all. It is also a “bait” designed to get me to defend myself from the accusation of hypocrisy.

False Dilemma: Two choices are given when in fact there are three or more options This is by far the most common “classical” fallacy I run into. One can hardly be a fundamentalist, of any religion, without resorting to it. The odd thing is that people who do this insist that *they* are being flawlessly logical, and *I* am the one being perversely illogical. Always beware if someone says “It *must* be this, or it’s that.” Very few things in life are limited to two choices, most especially in the realm of ideas and beliefs.

Example: You are not a believer in Baha’u’llah because you don’t accept the decision of the House of Justice.

Response: This sets up a dichotomy where belief in Baha’u’llah is held to be equivalent to agreeing with every single policy set by the current UHJ. It is complete nonsense.

Example: Because you speak of problems with the Baha’i electoral system, you must want to turn our administration into a replica of secular democracy with all its corrupt practices.

Response: Quite obviously, there are other choices. One can support reforms of the Baha’i system without necessarily adopting secular political practices wholesale.

From Ignorance: Because something is not known to be true, it is assumed to be false.

Example: You do not know all the reasons the Baha’i institutions have made their decision, and are therefore unable to prove that those affected are innocent, therefore they must be guilty.

Response: This is also a sort of false dilemma, where the person I’m debating essentially is saying that because I can’t know everything, I really know nothing, or at least too little to make a judgment. This is, of course, ridiculous. It is very rare that one knows every last detail of any issue or case in non-Baha‘i matters, even when they become public, yet we vote and express opinions on those things. It’s part of living in a free society. This sort of argument simply sets up a situation where one must accept the status quo if an impossible condition is not met.

The Gangbang: This is where a lone liberal ventures to voice an opinion and several fundamentalists gang up on them with accusations and insults, in an effort to silence him/her. It’s pretty effective, too, since few people want to stand up under that kind of pressure. The only solutions are to be extremely stubborn, continuing to post opinions without engaging these people in argument or to have like-minded friends join the discussion and make it a fair fight. I did both on Beliefnet in Spring 2001, which resulted in that forum being opened to a variety of Baha’i opinions. However, I’ve discovered that I was not the first person gangbanged there, and that this particularly nasty game is not unique to that forum. The key element here is that the liberal be isolated. Gangbangs don’t happen when there are several posters on both sides of the divide.

The “Hey, look, I’m shunning you” Game: In this scenario, Baha’i fundamentalist targets Remeyites and liberals, announcing to all “loyal” Baha’is that these people are supposed to be shunned. However, they themselves keep following hanging out in the same forums, unable to tear themselves away.

Example: “Karen, I don’t need any lessons from you on shunning. I know very well how to shun you people.”

Response: Obviously, if he is addressing me, he is not shunning me.

The “I Can’t Believe You’re So Dense” response: Here the person is basically calling you an idiot, by claiming that they have irrefutably proven their case and they are shaking their head over how you just don’t “get it”. Most of the time, the "proof" is actually pretty weak. Even if it weren't, it’s nasty to call a person an idiot, even if they actually are one.

I Spy: This is a game that you don’t know is being played on you, until you discover from your local community, or a Baha’i official, that your emails are being monitored and being used as the basis of an accusation. However, the presence of unknown spies on the Internet sometimes creates a paranoid atmosphere on Baha’i newsgroups.

Response: One can take such precautions as getting email accounts which keep your identity secret, and posting under a pseudonym. Or, one has the option of simply taking the possible consequences of posting openly.

The LOL Technique: This is the rude and obnoxious response of laughing in a person’s cyberface. Instead of addressing the point, they engage in mockery or use the acronym LOL, or one of its variants. Basically, it’s a way of calling you a liar.

Name Calling: Most of the time, a person who resorts to name-calling has simply lost his temper, and it‘s not part of any kind of “technique“. However, repeated name-calling and insults is a form of bullying, an attempt to get the person to shut up and/or leave the forum.

The No-Names Pretense: This is where a Baha’i participant, or participants, are insulted indirectly by vague references to “violators” and the like. If pressed, they refuse to say exactly who it is they are talking about. A variation of this is found sometimes where someone not present on the forum is discussed in a negative way, but his name is never mentioned in order to avoid “backbiting”. Not actually mentioning a person’s name, however, allows them to backbite with a clear conscience.

The Pick-and-Choose Charge: Fundamentalists, of any religion, accuse their more liberal co-religionists of “picking and choosing” among scripture, while they themselves are quite selective about the portions of scripture they emphasize. It is especially common for a single literally-interpreted verse to trump general principles upheld in a multitude of verses.

Example: Repeated emphasizing the paragraph in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament that equate opposing the Guardian and the UHJ with “opposing God”, while ignoring or minimizing his numerous statements supporting liberty and freedom of expression.

Popularity: A proposition is argued to be true because it is widely held to be true

Example: The vast majority of Baha’is believe accept and/or believe this, why are you arguing against it?

Response: The argument that “everybody does it” is a weak one in any situation. However, it is especially so in a religion where individuals are repeatedly enjoined to “see with their own eyes.”

Prejudicial Language: Value or moral goodness is attached to believing the author.

Example: A good Baha’i would accept the decision of the House of Justice.

Response: This is more commonly found as the converse i.e. a person’s criticisms of UHJ policy is taken as an indication that a person is attempting to undermine the Baha’i system, and is either spiritually immature, ignorant, or even downright evil. However, what is more evil is that one is expected to ignore one’s individual conscience in favor of the dictates of religious authority. Demonstrate that there is more to being a good Baha’i than submission to authority.

The “Prove it” Gambit: It is not, of course, out of line to ask for evidence of one’s assertions. However, in this scenario, it doesn’t matter how much evidence one uses, the assertion is still rejected and it is claimed that it was not proven sufficiently. (Very few things can be proven absolutely. Even if one produces a quote, it will be claimed that it did not say what you are claiming.) Only once or twice have I ever had anyone concede a point to me after bringing in hard evidence to back me up. However, bringing in evidence can be effective for the sake of the audience, even if the person you are debating refuses to be persuaded. Whether you want to take the time depends on the importance of the issue at hand.

Quote-Throwing: Here, a Baha’i will simply post lengthy scriptural quotes as a response to views he disagrees with, making little or no argument otherwise. This is something you find in any scriptural religion.

Red Herring: Diversionary tactic where a provocative comment is thrown in that is completely off the point. This one is also extremely common, especially in the form of a “bait”. Another version of this is where one’s own comment is seized upon, even though it is off the main point, and used as a bait.

The “So Shut Up” Technique: In this case, a scriptural quote is thrown in such a way that it is supposed to end the discussion.

Straw Man: The author attacks an argument different from (and weaker than) the opposition's best argument.

Example: Because you speak of problems within the Baha’i community, you must expect everything to be perfect. The Baha’i community is in its infancy and cannot be expected to achieve Utopia.

Response: This is a false dilemma with a straw man attached, since of course perfection is unattainable in the community and never claimed I expected it. There are other options between perfection and the mess we have now.

The Tar Baby: This is a prolonged argument using a variety of techniques -- baits, red herrings, demands for proof, the “No you didn’t” gambit etc. -- are used to keep the victim hooked.

The Twisted Word: This is where a statement one has made is twisted, and essentially restated to mean something other than it was intended. (A quote out of context also has this same effect.) It has some similarities to the Straw Man, although rather than a weaker argument, the Twisted Word represents something that is supposed to be damaging or discrediting to the speaker. (This is also used to discredit well-known liberals who are not present in the discussion.) It is an extremely effective Red Herring, since then the debate shifts to whether or not the statement was actually made, and what was originally meant.

The “We’ll pretend you’re not here” Gambit: In this scenario, two or more people talk about the victim in insulting ways, usually discussing one’s motives, posts, and/or mental and spiritual health. This creates a hostile atmosphere, and is intended to make the victim leave.

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A lighthearted look at Flame Warriors.