Roderic Day


There’s a very common cliche in rhetorical political argumentation that goes something like this: “I am concerned about the quality (or style, or approach) of your argument. Not for my own personal sake — no, I’m actually very ambivalent (on your side, even!). I’m raising my voice to speak on behalf of others.”

The core of this rhetorical procedure is that the speaker doesn’t identify with the argument they are advancing. They present themselves as a neutral observer.

Here is one clear example of this technique at work. A Twitter user publicly recommended Kohei Saito’s Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (2022), to which another replied:

Is there any concern that by including the words Marx and communism in the title [and] book cover, this author will alienate a lot of potential readers? Not me, I’m alluding to the common man (so to speak). [1]

Far from a rare sighting, this technique is endemic to liberalism. For example, during the Trump presidency the New York Times would put out an article of this sort basically every single day:

[Moderate Democrats] fear that advocating a government-run health care system could alienate suburban and upper-income voters who are otherwise eager to eject Mr. Trump from office, while the most progressive immigration policies might turn off the working-class white voters who backed Mr. Trump after twice supporting former President Barack Obama. [2]

This particular last instance is often described as “concern trolling.” [3] I tend to avoid this term because the word “trolling,” in implying deliberate malice, obscures the more general dimension of the problem. It’s always useful to point out if a contributor has specious motives, but so long as our objection to an argument hinges on attacking the motives of the messenger it isn’t really refuted.

After all, many commentators who instinctively reach for this technique are provably well-meaning. This is certainly the case for the many anti-capitalists who depart from materialism to insist that propaganda rules our society:

When the manipulated believe things are the way they are naturally and inevitably, manipulation is successful. [4]

This kind of social critic rarely cedes to the absent “They” any good logical reasons for their obedience — say, risk calculation in a regime of white terror, or willing complicity. They are intellectually weak, and fell prey to pop music, sweet drinks, and bright lights.

It might seem that critics overcome this issue when they soften their assault by including themselves among the victims: “We are brainwashed.” This is unconvincing, however, because though they humbly admit a condition, in the process of observing it, they imply that they have overcome it. The force of their argument continues to rely on the existence of another.

In the end the concern voiced for the victim of propaganda expresses more conceit than solidarity, and obscures the material basis of liberalism. The way the New York Times propagandist invokes a hopeless Trump voter isn’t so different from the way the media-focused leftist invokes a hopeless consumer-subject.

What’s interesting is that this technique happens to have an incredibly interesting near-perfect analogue in electrical circuits: the diode. You might recognize both the real object and the associated electronic diagram symbol.

The symbol is very evocative of the device’s function:

A diode is an electronic device through which electrons can flow in only one direction. Because of its ability to control current flow, a diode is commonly used as a rectifier, a device that transforms alternating current into direct current. [5]

The rhetorical technique outlined above works in exactly the same way. Consider an individual who brings up and asserts a certain political opinion. Normally, were this opinion disagreeable, this would mark the kick-off point for a discussion. This discussion would carry on and on until the introduced position either prevailed in some way (either fully or partially, by way of an amendment), or was essentially rejected. However, what happens instead is that the purveyor of the opinion, having established that they are themselves not a partisan of said opinion, reserve the right to raise their hands and exclaim something that redounds to:

I don’t hold this opinion! I cannot be held liable for it! I was speaking on behalf of them — those who hold it. Since they aren’t here to be addressed, you simply have to accept their argument as I stated it. As you can see, it’s useless to inveigh against it, or against me.

The technique in short demands that we shape our discussion around an absent Other. Whether the Other is introduced in a flattering way or a disparaging way, the more important aspect is that we have no communion with them, that they present in the discussion as metaphysical and atomic and unchangeable. This happens because the individual bringing them up isn’t introducing a challenge to be overcome, isn’t ready to take ownership of their position, and therefore is neither willing nor able to take their qualms back.

This technique can have its uses. For example, a union leader sitting at a bargaining table with a boss could explain, in the key of sympathy, that the union’s demands are somewhat unreasonable, but that the reality is that they will be heeded one way or another. Of course, such a union leader would merely be engaging in diplomacy: their partisanship in reality would be fully on the side of the workers they represent. However, putting on appearances can help arrive at agreements where everyone saves face.

Whatever its utility, this technique should be employed consciously and deliberately — not accidentally, not reflexively, and certainly not as a matter of habit. A “Helpful Harry” who insists that contrarian perspectives be accounted for in discussions which don’t need them at best acts as a damper, and at worst as a saboteur. This has a real-world analogue: introducing a diode into a circuit that doesn’t need one can disable it and, in the worst scenarios, break it. If you want to defend a position somewhat deceptively, use this technique. If not, don’t.

So, if you understand and are ready to represent a disagreeable position, then go ahead and bring it up. In all likelihood this will lead to interesting places. If you’re not, however, then don’t act like a diode. And, if you’re ever forced to face one, insist that they speak for themselves.

  1. Joshua Decter on Twitter (2023-02-13). [web] 

  2. “Liberal Democrats Ruled the Debates. Will Moderates Regain Their Voices?” (2019-06-29), NYT. [web] 

  3. Adam Johnson, 2022-10-07. “When Media Speculate About ‘Potential GOP Attacks’, They’re Just Doing GOP Attacks.” The Column. [web] 

  4. Herbert I. Schiller, 1974. The Mind Managers. [web] 

  5. “Diode” on [web]