The Inadequate Advocate
The straw men are coming from inside the house // learn about government to avoid becoming an inadequate advocate // internal failure vs external defeat
Have you ever been a bystander, online or in person, while someone else makes a terrible case for something you believe is good?
A common, general form of this phenomenon1 goes like this:
Person A: [my thing] is the best thing.
Person B: I have some critiques about it, like [these ones]
You (bystander, offstage): Alright, Person A, go tell them the great things about [our thing!] There are so many reasons to like it, and Person B might just be missing something.
Person A: Person B, you are a $#@King moron. [my thing] is obviously the best for [incorrect reason], and you're clearly a desperately stupid individual for thinking otherwise. Go walk into a fire.
It’s possible that Person B could have been brought around to your, and Person A’s, desired conclusion. But Person A ensured that will never happen, at least in that moment.
Person A is an inadequate advocate (IA): a proponent for a cause or idea who does more harm to it than good, by their manner or poor reasoning.
The example above is the “bad fighter” IA. But there’s also the “no fighter” IA, who readily cedes ground out of cowardice or conflict aversion:
Person B: Your thing is very stupid, Person A, and you are very bad.
Person A (mumbling, flustered) I guess, well, I'll do better.
You do not want inadequate advocates on your team, because the only thing worse for a cause than a powerful enemy is an inadequate advocate. You don’t need to knock a building down if it collapses of its own free will.
However, it’s not always obvious who is an inadequate advocate. For example: one person’s IA is another person’s fierce rhetorical attack dog who wins at all costs. “Doing more harm than good” to a cause is also sometimes a subjective call—which audiences did you alienate with your behavior, and which did you win? What is the balance of effects between these shifting crowds? It all depends on what your cause is, what it values, and who it values.
Three common attributes of an inadequate advocate
They negatively polarize their own issue. “Whereas traditional partisanship involves supporting the policy positions of one's own party, its negative counterpart in turn means opposing those positions of a disliked party.”2 Because of their own terrible behavior, lack of charity, general negative valence, public weakness, or political miscalculation, they make it almost impossible for others to agree with their position. This is sometimes called “politicizing an issue.” I don’t like this term, because it’s an example of the anti-politics meme, but it is in common usage nonetheless.
The straw men come from inside the house
IAs make terrible, poorly reasoned cases for their own positions, making it very easy for opponents and those on the fence to dismiss them.
Or, if they have great arguments for their case, they do not voice them.
They are self-strawmanning.
They are loud, public, and draw attention
Regarding the “bad fighter” IAs:
An IA does not subscribe to the idea that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
And they especially revile “It's better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”3
They will suck all of the oxygen out of the room that could have been used by good advocates.
Regarding the cowardly, conflict averse IAs:
As the public face of their cause, they suck oxygen out of the room in the same way as the IAs above. They conspicuously offer silence, avoidance, and retreat in lieu of a good defense. Or, they might articulate a good defense—but lack so much passion or conviction that they come across as unbelievable or off-puttingly wooden.
Learn about government to avoid becoming an IA
One of the reasons I teach is to help people become good advocates.
If you understand the government in a basic, but robust way, you’re already ahead of most people. Not only can you spot bullshit more easily, you lessen your chances of becoming either kind of IA:
Since you understand the realities of government, you’re more likely to say correct things about it. You can be concrete. You will also understand the shape of what you do not know, which helps you avoid getting out over your skis
Knowledge can give you the confidence to courageously defend truth. It’s harder to cede ground to someone who is wrong, when you know why and that you are right.
If you don’t learn about government well, your chances of becoming an IA rise.
The general phenomenon of “it’s your game to lose”
Many causes and ideas are strong enough to repel outside threats. The only thing that can endanger them are internal dissent and strife.
Said President Lincoln of the United States (emphasis added):
At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?—Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!—All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.4
Said Mayor Abram Hewitt of New York City (emphasis added):
With its noble harbor protected from injury, and the channels of approach straightened and deepened; with its wharves and docks made adequate for the easy transfer of the vast commerce of the country; with its streets properly paved and cleaned, and protected from destructive upheavals; with cheap, easy and rapid transit throughout its length and breadth; with salubrious and attractive parks in the centres of dense population; with an ample supply of pure water, now nearly provided; with a system of taxation so modified that the capital of the world may be as free to come and go as the air of heaven, the imagination can place no bonds to the future growth of this city in business, wealth and the blessings of civilization. Its imperial destiny as the greatest city in the world is assured by natural causes, which cannot be thwarted except by the folly and neglect of its inhabitants.5
The thumbnail image for this post is the failed door that recently detached from a Boeing 737-MAX 9. No need to worry about Airbus’s external market competition when your company has such internal issues!
Definition from Wikipedia. That page uses the term “negative partisanship,” but “negative polarization” amounts to the same thing.
The internet widely attributes this quote to Mark Twain, but that provenance seems faulty. I often go down rabbit holes to verify the source of common quotes, and very often there is no source! That almost happened with Gell-Mann Amnesia.