Motte Buster

The skillful traveller leaves no traces of his wheels or footsteps; the skillful speaker says nothing that can be found fault with or blamed; the skilful reckoner uses no tallies; the skillful closer needs no bolts or bars, while to open what he has shut will be impossible; the skillful binder uses no strings or knots, while to unloose what he has bound will be impossible. In the same way the sage is always skillful at saving men, and so he does not cast away any man; he is always skillful at saving things, and so he does not cast away anything. This is called ‘Hiding the light of his procedure.

-Tao teh Ching, 27

In a very interesting and thoroughly harmless essay, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex introduces what is to us, a very important concept. That is, the Motte-and-Bailey doctrine. Rhetoric has many tactics, some deceptive, some forthright, some effective, and some foolhardy. Properly speaking, Motte-and-Bailey is itself based on a rhetorical technique, like ‘shoot the moon’ (where you ask for something you know you won’t get in order to retreat to a position more favorable than you could ask for outright) or most forms of strategic retreat. Motte-and-Bailey however takes this idea to another level by repeatedly strategically advancing whenever it can.

To imagine this in other terms, imagine the MPAA really did want to be able to charge whenever a song anywhere was played, no matter how long, no matter the medium.

Read Too : Families And Time Preferences Should A Libertarian Society Be Childfree And Polyamorous

In rhetoric however, the orator would introduce this proposition if 1. he felt there was no chance of being thrown out of negotiations for an absurd offer and 2. he felt like what he could ask for straightforwardly would not be good enough – say a law that allowed them to charge bootleggers a fine based on the amount of bootleg copies of physical discs they sold, to compensate for the sales the bootleggers ‘stole’ from them.

So he would propose the first (which in this case, I’m assuming he knows he cannot get and doesn’t really want) with the intention of forcing a compromise somewhere in between: say, that if they catch someone copying and not merely bootlegging, they can fine that person in accordance to some factor of the number and value of the copies in sales. The potential ‘bailey’ is only taken temporarily to lure the enemy into a better position for them to do battle and establish in the end, a better position than they had before.

Motte-and-Bailey differs from this essential rhetorical technique in that it intends to use that indefensible position – in this case, charging for any playing of a song – for its own profit. (It has no intention of withdrawing from it at all.) In this case, the Bailey position is continually re-established somehow whenever pressure to stop it ceases. Like that groundhog that runs back to his hole whenever you step into your garden, but returns the next day to eat more, the group practicing this technique, unlike the cogent orator, really wants to take advantage of that indefensible position! To do this, they need to establish a Motte.

In the case of the negotiator, he has no specific Motte – he is engaged in a dynamic battle with varied terrain and is merely looking for a favorable foothold. This foothold need not be impregnable, but merely able to be held for the time of the negotiations, and be better than what he could declare unobjectionably. The Motte however, is – essentially – such an unobjectionable position.


In the linked document, the author asserts that Post-Moderns use a variety of methods to achieve this, but the one he examines first is the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ or lexical swap. If you can make a word mean what you want it to mean when you want it to mean that – you can define it two ways: one that helps you (but is indefensible) and one that doesn’t help you, but is unobjectionable. The uses of the word ‘racism’ tend to have this character as well.

In Focault’s case, he wants to undermine belief in the truth, so he speaks against the truth in what seem like very objectionable and brash statements. Then, he has ready a definition of ‘truth’ –:

““Truth” is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. “

which renders his original statements unobjectionable, mundane and overall hardly worth consideration of. But like the poet, the user of this doctrine understands that style and form are a part of substance and affect it, and by making statements like Focaults:

“It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. “

— affects the way people think, even if when logically reduced out they are rather mundane and perhaps laudable. This style of philosophy is designed to defeat conservatives, which is to say, people who merely respond to change or badness as it comes up, by diffusing their reactions. They react against the plain statement, but when it is explained what it ‘really means’, they come to accept it as probably being true, and in Focault’s case accepting a slightly altered version of the word ‘truth’ along the way. Liberals also never had a chance – they already accepted his original statement for the sake of pluralism.


The general conservative approach to Post-modernism, and to Social Justice Warriors in general, is to react against their absurd statements (the Bailey) which drives retreat into the Motte. Once the absurd statements are abandoned, the conservative senses victory and releases their hold on the Bailey. As soon as this happens, the progressive re-occupies it. Eventually, if words get redefined well enough, old Baileys become Mottes.

An example of this is ‘marriage’ and ‘love’ – having conservatives find same sex marriages unobjectionable is the hard-earned fruit of lexical manipulation using the Motte-and-Bailey doctrine. This is because they find it unobjectionable that marriage is about love, instead of about children (the old Western position.) Even though with older definitions this position would be indefensible, by accepting the new redefinition of marriage to be about love instead of procreation, Western conservatives opened the door for this position to be a new Motte, and thus allow the taking of a new Bailey – marriage as other couplings.

Even if the Motte-and-Bailey doctrine is never successful at establishing a new Motte from an old Bailey, the practitioner usually gains something from being able to exploit the Bailey, and this is what conservatives respond to.


In this regard, it is obvious to the strategist that the Bailey is a distraction. Because the Bailey is relatively easier to take (“no, “Marriage” is between a man and a woman!”) people will muster their forces quickly to retake it once they recognize it is being exploited again. Prior to the widespread use of this doctrine, progress leftward was widely unconscious – that is, just the product of shared assumptions (like universal humanity and brotherhood for instance) gradually being worked out to their actually leftward conclusions. For some, the final leftward position of these ideas was either too far right, or not moving fast enough.

(Let us not bother putting names on anything here, since we are not concerned with Thede or School, but rather, with raw strategy. The game of Go has no forms other than grid and contrast – and so we will reduce ours to the most elemental form possible.)

The proper strategy with which to counter Motte-and-Bailey doctrine is the Motte-Buster. In this strategy, you ignore the activity in the Bailey entirely; your intent is not to keep the balance of power in your favor (as would hindering the enemy’s use of the bailey) but in uprooting and eliminating your enemy permanently.

As soon as you recognize the pattern of Motte-and-Bailey, you create the illusion of peace – permission to use the Bailey without reaction. You then determine the nature of the Motte, and instead of assailing the Bailey, you focus on ruining the defensibility of the Motte. In the case of our image, it is of a large cannon or explosive blowing a hole in the side of the Motte’s walls, making the Motte no longer a proper defensive position at all. Then and only then do you attack lightly, and when the enemy retreats into the Motte they find it wide open, and must flee or be eliminated. (For the best engineers know how to turn a keep into a deathtrap.)


That is to say, Motte-Busting is a strategy of sabotage. There are other parts to this strategy which permit one to ignore the Bailey, but the core of it is sabotaging Mottes.

That is to say, we look at the unobjectionable premises and in some way, render them objectionable, even if expressed in their supposedly unobjectionable form (as in the example of the Lexical Swap.) For example:

“It’s not a matter of emancipating [the system for the production of statements] from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for [the system itself] is already power) but of detaching the power of [the system] from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. “

The response is not:

1. “Systems of power have nothing to do with truth, anyway, you turd.”
2. “You’re being dishonest and swapping definitions of truth!”

No, the response is (something like):

“No – you are wrong. The system for the production of statements remains rightly in the hands of the powerful, for culture is made by them, they are responsible for interpreting, for guiding, for managing, for producing, and for determining the values of statements. The system for the production of statements is hegemony, it is society, it is economy, it is culture. They should not be separated nor can they be; for might and right are entwined in the upright man.”

Obviously someone better at philosophy or rhetoric than myself would be better suited for constructing the real Motte-Busters, and of course, some already exist. (Evola’s “Men Among The Ruins” has a lot of this in it.) What I have constructed is a brute refutation, lacking the necessary subtlety to properly disable the Motte (i.e. basically reconstructing Italian Fascism, for instance, will not do.)

Unlike assailing the Bailey, even striking the Motte alone takes a good deal of effort and analysis. Also, this strategy can be very destructive and needs to be done with care. When disabling the Motte, ensure you do not clear ground for the establishment of a better Motte.

Happy sieging!

Updated: October 9, 2020 — 6:40 am
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