How to Play Games with Words Part 1: The tactics of the “woke” Critical Social Justice activist

by Mike Young

Essay originally from Counterweight.

I hope for this to be the first in a series of essays outlining a number of tactics used by the Critical Social Justice (CSJ) movement. This essay contains the first two. But first, a word about how Critical social Justice operates.

    1. The Punch

You cannot argue with a punch in the face. If you are intent on having a reasonable discussion with someone, and the other person is intent on punching you in the face, no matter how much energy and effort you put into building your arguments and gathering your evidence, it will not matter. You still need to deal with the punch to the face. Once the punch is being thrown, you can’t debate the punch, or invalidate the punch with logic, or provide evidence that the punch is unwarranted; you need to dodge, block or punch back.

There are situations where reasonable arguments and truth-seeking work, and situations where they do not. Obviously, we should be trying to create situations where truth-seeking matters. However, when someone has rejected truth-seeking efforts and is trying to punch you in the face, getting away from them, knowing how to punch back, or having a very large friend come to your aid are tactics which will be far more effective for dealing with that situation than attempting to discuss the science of punching or the logic of an uppercut to the jaw.

The principles at play in a street fight are a world away from the principles at play when trying to discover truth. If the goal is to discover truth then the person you are engaging with has to be willing to engage with you on truth-seeking terms and accept the outcome. If you are playing the truth game while someone else is playing the punch-you-in-the-face game, well, you’re going to get punched in the face.

You need to know which game is being played and set your tactics accordingly, even if that means walking away and refusing to play.

2. Social Moves

CSJ is a worldview: an entire system for how to look at and understand the world. That means CSJ has a way of understanding people, the universe, society, truth, ideas, beliefs, politics, religion, and anything else you can think of, built right into it. This means the CSJ worldview will have its own internally consistent methods for spreading its ideas. The tactics used by the advocates of CSJ are a product of the CSJ worldview and operate on the assumptions of CSJ. In other words, the worldview of CSJ comes complete with a set of instructions for how to spread CSJ and how a CSJ advocate ought to engage with anyone who pushes back: CSJ has its own social rules of engagement.

One of the more frustrating aspects of trying to push back against CSJ for me has been to watch people attempt to engage in a dialogue with a CSJ advocate, only to walk away frustrated and humiliated, sometimes with their reputation in tatters after a public thrashing. This happens for a very simple reason: the advocates of CSJ are not playing the same game the rest of us are and do not follow the same rules or employ the same tactics.

You see, CSJ advocates think we are all hopelessly biased, and that we hold our views for social reasons: we want to fit in, or we want to have the beliefs that make us popular, or we’ve been socialized by society to believe them. Consequently the way that they argue for their view is going to operate on a social level, not an intellectual level.

To put the strategy into simple terms: CSJ advocates are not trying to defeat you intellectually with evidence and arguments, they are trying to defeat you socially using power moves and social maneuvering. That sentence is worth reading again.

There is an old idea that says you can win a debate but lose the crowd, that even though people are capable of rationality, they are not purely rational creatures and are easily led astray by emotions, interests, group think, social pressure, confusions, logical fallacies, and other such things. We must be aware that if the truth is packaged poorly, and a lie is presented beautifully, people can be led astray by the appearances and side with the lie over the truth.

This is an unfortunate fact about our psychology: we are not perfect.

Where Enlightenment liberals believe this unfortunate fact can be mitigated by a commitment to truth and by putting checks and balances in place, CSJ advocates see this as an inescapable fact about the world. For the CSJ advocate, the way to spread their worldview is to use whatever methods work, and since the social method of argumentation works, social methods are what CSJ advocates use.

Again, to put it bluntly: the CSJ advocates are not going to try to win an intellectual battle with you by presenting the best evidence, reasons, and arguments; the CSJ advocate is going to try to defeat you socially by winning the crowd, getting you removed from a position of authority, destroying your reputation, attacking your motives, creating tremendous social pressure, and generally using whatever tactics they think will be effective at getting people to join their side. This means that any tactic that advances the goals of CSJ is the tactic they will use. Truth, fairness, and objectivity are not the point.

I’m not saying that the CSJ advocates are always lying. I’m saying the tactics they use game the natural social and psychological proclivities of human beings in order to get people to join their side, and that they think this is not only acceptable, but the correct way, indeed the only way, to operate.

3. Woke Tactics

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the tactics CSJ advocates use when trying to spread their worldview. For this essay I’ll be sticking to the first two of their argumentative tactics and strategies. Let’s begin.

A. The motte and bailey

This is a tactic where the CSJ advocate will make some very bold, controversial claim and when they are challenged on it, they will claim they were actually arguing for some simple, obvious, uncontroversial claim.

The tactic is so named after a medieval defense system composed of a motte and a bailey. The motte is an impregnable fortress which is almost impossible for the enemy to take. The motte is a small, cramped, ugly area that you really don’t want to have to be stuck in. It only exists so that you have a place to retreat to if you are attacked. The motte sits in the middle of the bailey. The bailey is a large area of rich farmland where all the food is grown, livestock are raised, and fruit is picked. The bailey is the area where all the productive economic activity occurs. It’s where you do all the things you really want to do: grow crops, pick fruits, and raise animals. The idea of a motte and bailey system is that all the things you want to accomplish occur in the bailey, and you only retreat to the motte when you are under attack.

So, when a CSJ advocate states some controversial opinion loudly, boldly, and publicly, that is the bailey. When they are challenged on it and retreat to some other position that is not controversial, the position they retreat to is the motte.

For example, a CSJ advocate might argue that gender and sex are both socially constructed and all the differences we see are the product of social conditions, social biases, and systemic sexism. However, when someone challenges this idea using facts about human biology (for instance pointing out that men are on average bigger and stronger than women), the CSJ advocate will retreat from that position and claim that they only meant the uncontroversial position that society constructs ideas about men and women and sometimes this can lead to stereotyping.

Again, the goal is to proclaim the arguments in the bailey, and then retreat to the motte when challenged. Once the challenge has passed, or the facts used to challenge you are no longer immediately evident, you emerge from the motte and go directly back to arguing for the positions that are to be found in the bailey.

In practice this means that CSJ advocates make the radical claims they really believe (the bailey) until they get challenged on it, at which point they claim that they really mean some far less radical position (the motte). They will claim that the motte is their position only until the challenge passes, then it’s straight back to the bailey to argue for the radical positions they really believe.

B. Attacking motives

A common tactic used by CSJ advocates is to cast doubt on the motivations and good faith of the person who is arguing against CSJ. As I am sure you all know, attacking the character of a person making an argument does not make their argument wrong. If I argue 2 + 2 = 4 you cannot say that I am wrong based on the fact that I robbed a bank. 2 + 2 = 4 regardless of whether or not I am a scoundrel. I think this is obvious to everyone.

The CSJ version of a character attack has a particular shape and feel to it as they do not go after the character of the person the way most other people do. They will not accuse you of being a drunk, or a drug addict, or a womanizer. They will attack your motives by claiming that your arguments against CSJ are not genuine, but rather a smokescreen for the fact that you benefit from the status quo and so you argue for the status quo because you benefit from it. In other words, you oppose justice because you benefit from injustice, and all the intellectual reasons you give are just a cover for your selfish motives.

Most of the time CSJ advocates won’t straightforwardly say your motive makes you wrong. What they will do is launch the attack so as to suggest that your motives for arguing against CSJ advocate are bad, and for that reason you are not to be trusted. What the CSJ advocates want is for people to look at the thing you say with hostility and suspicion, and to create the impression that you are bamboozling other people, or otherwise hoodwinking them in some way. The effect they are trying to create is to cover you with a cloud of suspicion and distrust so that people won’t believe you or take you seriously.

These attacks can happen in number of ways:

    1. They just assert it: “You are only saying that because you benefit from a racist system and you refuse to give up your benefit.”
    2. They insinuate it with a certain amount of plausible deniability: “I have heard a lot of white people say that before, but I’m not sure you would be saying that if you were a person of colour.”
    3. They can ask a question that implies you have bad motives: “Well, you oppose our CSJ policies, but don’t you benefit a lot from the way things are now?”
    4. They can assert that all people in your positions think the same way and are trying to preserve their privilege: “You know what they say: to a person who is used to having privilege, equality can feel like oppression, and that is why you are against CSJ.”

Again, the goal is to create a cloud of suspicion around what you say in order to get people to turn their skeptical dials up when you speak. They want to remove from you the ability to have what you are saying taken at face value and instead get people to see what you are saying as merely you attempting to get what you want. Needless to say, people rarely take advice from those they are suspicious of.

4. Understanding: The First Step

The theme that runs through these tactics is that the CSJ worldview progresses not through clarity and truth, but by muddying the intellectual waters and making power moves. I won’t lay out an exhaustive program for fighting back here as that is beyond the scope of this essay. I am, however, hoping that becoming aware of these tactics will allow you to see them coming and understand the way in which CSJ advocates are engaging with you.

In my next essay I’ll bring to light three more tactics which CSJ activists use as they work to make their worldview dominant in society.

Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at

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