The Captain’s Maneuver

We’ve all seen or heard about Meryl Streep’s speech at the golden globes:

In it, she criticizes Trump for mocking a disabled reporter in late 2015.  Afterward, we got the usual accusations of Streep being an ‘out of touch hollywood liberal’ along with responses that Trump never actually mocked anyone.  More interesting is the response from PJ Media (and who knows how many other conservative outlets).  They chose to bring up President Obama’s comments comparing his own inadequate bowling skills to that of special olympians during a late night talk show in 2009.  This was to expose “liberals” as “having an immense double standard.”  Why is this important?  It isn’t, other than to demonstrate a common pattern.

Here’s what it looks like:  You, proper bleeding-heart liberal that you are, talk about Streep’s comments and support them.  Next, your conversation partner smugly reminds you of Obama’s remarks all those years ago.  Maybe you point out that Obama immediately apologized for the remark.  Maybe you try to argue that Trump’s transgression took place within a larger pattern of attacking disadvantaged groups while Obama’s comments were fairly isolated.  But no matter what you say, it feels like you’ve failed to make your point.  If you discuss politics at all, this has probably happened to you more than once.  Why does this exchange feel so lopsided, and why does it feel like there’s no way to effectively respond?

Before we get too far, let’s give this phenomenon a catchy name.  I’m going to call it The Captain’s Maneuver and yes, that name comes from a collectible card game.  Ask a Magic the Gathering player why it’s perfect, if you must.*  But, for now, just enjoy how much fun it is to say “Captain’s Maneuver”. #CaptainsManeuver, anyone?  If, unlike me, you are a responsible grown-up, you can call it something boring like ‘The Both Sides Shutdown’.  To demonstrate its structure, I present Carl, a Purple party enthusiast; and Sue, a member of the Orange party.

Carl: Why support Orange Politician?  He’s doing X, and X is bad.

Sue: But Purple Politician was doing X and you supported them. X is bad, so they are both bad.

Carl, not wanting to be a hypocrite, sensibly agrees:

Carl: You’re right, both Orange and Purple are bad.

Or, maybe, Carl doesn’t think Purple Politician was guilty of X at all, and responds in kind:

Carl: Purple Politician never did X; what they did was different.

Sue’s accusation might seem like a valid response.  Certainly, we’re used to hearing it.  At this point, assigning blame to ‘both sides’ is conventional wisdom.  It feels fair.  After all, she’s only trying to strike a balance, to make sure the guilt of all parties is considered.  Isn’t that what all good citizens should do?  We don’t want to be partisan, do we?  But, counter-intuitively, the most likely responses Carl might give actually silence him while Sue will probably evade criticism.  Whatever productive discussion that may have taken place has, intentionally or unintentionally, been prevented.  The Captain’s Maneuver is a sword that cuts both ways . . . that only cuts one way.  Here’s how it works:

Carl makes his criticism.  Sue, in response, shifts the focus of the conversation.  Rather than defending her ‘team’ from the accusation, Sue accuses Carl’s ‘team’with the same crime.  If Carl admits guilt, or insists on innocence, he accepts this shift in focus.  The original accusation is lost, or, at least, diluted.  The language of the maneuver hides this deflection in what feels like reciprocity.  The conversation seems fair, but Carl ends up getting shut down.  The conversation becomes something else, or ends altogether.  Accusation -> Deflection -> Acceptance -> Silence.

The mocking incident we started with fits this format.  Let’s break down a hypothetical exchange:  Carl supports Streep’s criticism of Trump mocking a disabled reporter (Accusation).  Sue responds with Obama’s ‘special olympics’ comments from 2009 (Deflection). Carl admits that, ‘gosh, both sides are bad’ or attempts to defend Obama (Acceptance).  Carl’s criticism of Trump’s behavior stops (Silence) because the conversation is over if he agrees that ‘both sides are bad’, or he’s now arguing about something that happened years ago if he tries to defend Obama.

The key to understanding the Captain’s Maneuver as a one-sided weapon is the deflection.  Even though it runs in the other direction, the deflection is just like the accusation.  It uses the exact same standard of guilt, meaning the deflector (Sue) is, tacitly, admitting that the accuser (Carl) is right about the ethics of issue.  If a person is saying that ‘both sides are bad if they do X,’ they are admitting that X is, in fact, wrong AND that that ‘their side’ is guilty of it.  In order for the Maneuver to work, the deflector has to agree with the accuser.  But, if the deflector is in agreement with the accuser, why not just agree?  Why deflect at all?

Primarily, the deflection is a way for the deflector to hide the fact, either from others or from themselves, that they can’t claim wrongdoing didn’t happen.  By insisting that all parties are ‘to blame’ they keep the score even.  Secondly, politics is not everyone’s favorite topic.  What better way to change the subject than to get everyone to agree that they are all equally wrong? Finally, and insidiously, the deflection is just a habit.  We all abhor hypocrisy, and the deflection may be an attempt on the part of the deflector to show that they are fair and critical thinkers.  Culturally, we’ve come to accept assigning blame to all politicians and political movements as wisdom.   The habitual deflector demonstrates this wisdom by redirecting observations of political wrongdoing.  And, in so doing, dampens discussion on subjects in which they truly have no investment.

We have probably been guilty of using the Captain’s Maneuver, ourselves.  When we did, surely, we did not feel as though we were obstructing anything.  We felt we were making an honest observation that we felt added, rather than detracted, from the conversation.  We would never try to hide from accurate criticism, we would never cover our true thoughts out of nervousness, we would never insist on equivalence where there was none out of habit, right?  Maybe.  The question to ask is, again, if we are in agreement with the accuser, what is the deflection for?

Am I saying that it’s never a good idea to observe hypocrisy or equivalence, or that it’s always malicious to do so?  No.  It’s certainly possible in the context of a genuine exchange of ideas.  The absence of a Maneuver will be evident in what happens next.  Did the subject change?  Did the conversation stop?  If not, keep talking!  If so, don’t give up and admit equivalence, but, also take care not to fall into defending the target your accusation was deflected to.  The key aspect to focus on is that the deflection is also an admission to your accusation.  They’re not denying anything.  They’re admitting that this or that person or thing is, indeed, guilty.  That’s where to direct the conversation.

Agree, somehow (grit your teeth), to table the truth or flasehood of the deflection.  Instead, point out that you both agree on the accusation.  Ideally, you’ll gain an ally, maybe a reluctant ally, but an ally nonetheless.  But just as likely, you may find that the deflection wasn’t the whole story.  You may find that your partner did not really think that their preferred candidate or party as guilty of anything at all.  You may find that your partner thinks that the behavior their preferred candidate has been accused of is actually permissible.  You may find that you’ve confronted your partner with beliefs they did not really know they held (careful).  Don’t be surprised if their answer changes.  Life is messy; sorting out exactly what you think about every little thing that happens can be difficult and it’s just as difficult for whoever you’re speaking with.

Carl and Sue again:

Carl: Why support Orange Politician?  He’s doing X and X is bad.

Sue: But Purple Politician was doing X and you supported them. X is bad, so they are both bad.

Carl:  I hear what you’re saying about the Purple team, but it sounds like you agree that X is bad and that Orange Politician shouldn’t be doing it.

Sue: Yes.

Carl: Ok, I’m glad we agree.  As for Purple team I think blah blah blah . . .

The conversation you end up having is guaranteed to be more complicated than that.  But that’s the shape to aim for.  What if it’s not so easy and the conversation goes another way?

Carl(cont’d):  I hear what you’re saying about the Purple team, but it sounds like you agree that X is bad and that Orange Politician shouldn’t be doing it.

Sue: No. I don’t think Orange did anything.

Carl:  Well, I think they did and here is why . . .

And now you’re having the discussion you should really be having; affirming or failing to affirm the wrongdoing of our elected representatives.  Alternately:

Carl(cont’d):  I hear what you’re saying about the Purple team, but it sounds like you agree that X is bad and that Orange Politician shouldn’t be doing it.

Sue: Actually I don’t think it matters that Orange did X because I don’t really think X is wrong.

Carl:  Well, here’s why I think it’s important . . . .

Again, you’re having the conversation you should really be having.  No matter what happens, uncovering the details of how someone thinks differently is progress.  Now you have the opportunity to have a conversation that engages with the other person’s politics as they really are.  With the Captain’s Maneuver disengaged, we have the opportunity to inform, be informed and, just maybe, change one another’s mind.




*It feels like a control card, but is really just a brute force redirection of damage.  We’d all understand politics better if we played more board games.




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