Conflict is like a high-strung game of hot potato in which what you’re shoving back and forth at each other is self-doubt.

In conflict, we don’t agree about something and, whether by necessity or sheer doggedness, we can’t simply agree to disagree. Something has got to give, preferably our opponent’s insistence, and so we go at each other trying to erode each other’s confidence, questioning each other’s plans, interpretations, motives, character, and intelligence-anything to get that stinging doubt out of our hands and into our opponent’s. It’s a vicious cycle, a doubting-match, as we and our opponents pass the doubt potato ever more aggressively.

Naturally there are some standard doubt-deflecting rhetorical moves we can make. I’ve started to catalog them and list eighteen of them below. By rhetorical I mean they’re generic, or content-independent. One can apply them to deflect self-doubt no matter what topic is on the table or what position you take on that topic.

Many are meta-moves, ways to act as though you’re above the fight, even while continuing to fight. They’re the equivalent of saying “I’m done playing,” just as you shove the potato into your opponent’s hand. They tend have a moral tone, like saying “One shouldn’t try to win at hot potato,” just as you pass the self-doubt to your opponent, the double-down, doubt-inflicting equivalent of “only losers like you care about winning and losing and, oh, by the way, haha, you lose.”

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Though you might think I don’t have a lot of respect for these techniques, in two ways I actually do. First, they are quite formidable. I respect them in that if I were to name the one aspect of human nature most likely to cause our failure as a species (taking down a great many other species with us) it would be our alacrity and fluency at employing these and other techniques for deflecting self-doubt, setting off self-certainty wars. And the second way I respect them I’ll save for after the list. Here it is with links to related articles:

  1. “But My Intentions Are Good. Don’t They Count For Everything?” When criticized for our actions we can change the subject to our intentions, which are un-measurable, and unassailable, and, if not connected to our actions, irrelevant.
  2. Nicessism: Imply a moral imperative that one should never say anything disappointing and thereby treat all criticism, constructive or otherwise as a moral violation.
  3. “Your Challenge Hurt, Therefore You Must Have Delivered It Wrong.” Claim receptivity, but only to those challenges well delivered by one’s unattainably high standards.
  4. Smugging: Calmly refuse to budge and then when one’s challenger gets frustrated change the subject to his hotheaded reaction. This will make him more hotheaded making it easy to call even more attention to his reaction.
  5. Youjustifications and Onetruesations: Deny all but one ignominious motive behind a challenger’s criticism. For example “You’re just trying to put me down.” Reciprocally, explain your own behavior as being singly and virtuously motivated. For example, “Look, I was only trying to help.”
  6. Exempt By Contempt: Claim that since you find a trait disgusting, you must not have that trait. For example: “Me selfish?! Impossible! I hate selfish people!”
  7. “How Dare You Compare Me To…” If challenged for behaving as badly as some known manipulators, rather than considering the comparison on its merits, act as though there could be no parallel because there’s some assumed world of difference between the behaviors of good people like you, and bad people like them.
  8. Litmus Paper Tiger: Profess loudly and actively to holding an absolute moral standard, then ignore it and do anything you like.
  9. Selective Literalism: Attack others for their tone, but when you talk, deny tone has anything to do with it. For example, saying, “Look, I merely said…”
  10. Freedom of Speech As Subterfuge: Accuse a challenger of denying freedoms: “Jeez, I’m sorry I spoke my mind. Next time I’m with you I’ll know better and silence myself.”
  11. Equality as subterfuge: Appeal to a pretend law that everyone shares equal blame for all problems. When accused of a problem that is largely your fault, say, “It’s 50/50, so what about you? You’re not perfect! We both contributed equally to the problem.”
  12. “That’s Totally Different!” Equivocations: For example, “I’m not being stubborn. I’m sticking to my principles.”
  13. Misread the Criticism: Distort the case against you so it sounds totally cruel and unreasonable. For example, when challenged for dominating a conversation, say, “Right so I’m like the next Hitler.”
  14. Minutia And Highfalutia: To evade a challenge, focus on minute details or high-concept generalities on either side of a challenge. If called to task for doing a bad job at work, zoom in to talk about the tiny problems that got in the way (“but the paperclips didn’t arrive on time!”), or zoom way out to talk about how it’s hard in this world to know anything for certain. Concentrate on any scale of analysis other than the one on which the challenge itself is being leveled.
  15. Mind-Reading Rights: Cite a pretend rule that everyone always knows their own feelings and thoughts better than anyone else does. Accuse the challenger of trespassing: “Don’t tell me what I feel!”
  16. Projected Ambivalence: Treat one’s own inconsistencies as evidence of other people’s failure to be consistent.
  17. First-strike Advantage: Be the first to challenge. That way when they challenge back, you can dismiss it as retaliation.
  18. The Butterfly Punch: In a win/lose competition, accuse the competitor of being selfish. “Why can’t we get along?” meaning actually, “do it my way.”

I said I respect these doubt-deflection techniques in two ways and here’s the second. They’re effective because they look just like authentic and honorable moves. That’s the problem with decoys and cons of all sorts. For them to be effective, they have to be indistinguishable or at least easily confused with the genuine article. Lies sidle right up to truths so they won’t be noticed. Moral subterfuge hides right next to true morality.

For every move I described I can think of instances when deploying it wouldn’t be a cheap doubt-deflection trick, but would a heartfelt and honorable expression of something worth heeding in the name of true morality.

And besides, even as doubt-deflection tricks, I can imagine situations in which using them is justified, even though they’re tricks. Imagine that your community was being taken over by a drug-lord–someone intent on wringing out its vitality for private benefit. Imagine that you had a chance to debate this drug lord in front of the community. Imagine that he shoved the doubt-potato at you, challenging your motives, interpretations and intelligence. Would you want your hands tied by a rule preventing you from using these doubt-deflection techniques?

I wouldn’t, so, much as I’d like a world in which everyone felt a sharp pain of conscience, or better yet something akin to appendicitis when they used these cheap challenge-shunning tricks to impose self-doubt on the undeserving rather than experience it, I don’t think such world would be possible or safe.

I once knew a couple. The wife was quite intense and restless. The husband was devoted and patient. They had a one year old. She went off and had an affair and when she was found out, she turned it into a referendum on her husband and the ways in which he wasn’t exciting enough for her. Now of course, I can’t claim to know all the details and factors that would go into such an interpretation. But knowing them as I did, I can imagine that imposing insult to injury on her husband–doubt on top of infidelity–was irresistibly preferable to taking the heat for the mess she made. My sense is that she all-too-readily pulled out the heavy artillery to defend herself.

If shuns are outlawed only outlaws will have shuns. I’d want her husband to have techniques for fighting back, just as I’m glad that in the US where guns are plentiful, our police are well armed. Still, since I think that the shuns we have are as bad, if not worse than the guns (guns don’t kill people, self-certain people do), I wish we could devise better shun control laws.