5 Tactics Used By Passive-Aggressive Arguers (And The Best Forms of Defense)
We often find ourselves in the following situation, when it comes to a discussion or argument: we confront people with different ideas or perspectives to our own. We are arguing in good faith: we sincerely believe in our ideas and want to convey them to the other side, perhaps convincing them to change or alter their opinion. We lay out facts and evidence to bolster our opinion but slowly and subtly we find the discussion/argument veering in unexpected directions, becoming increasingly heated. Our ideas are challenged in a way that makes us emotional. We return their fire. It starts to get a bit personal. We begin to lose track of the original idea, weakening our own position as we get lost in tangents. In the end, we feel frustrated, angry, and sometimes even guilty for saying things we later regret.
What has happened in this situation? Most often, we have locked horns with a type we shall call the passive-aggressive arguer. This type does not argue in good faith. They generally have fragile, prickly egos. The passive aggressive arguer comes armed with tricky tactics. They cannot take the risk that they might be wrong: their self-esteem is too intertwined with their opinions. It is more important to affirm their rightness, and sense of superiority, than to arrive at the truth. And so they become masters at a deflecting attention away from their weak ideas, and at creating the kind of confusion in which they can control the dynamic. They do this by working on people’s emotions. They seek to rankle and push buttons.
Often, in such discussions, there is an audience of sorts–family members at a Thanksgiving dinner, fellow attendees at a conference or in the classroom, or a vast media public watching the debate. They know it is better to play to the audience than to try to convince their opponents who are not likely to change their opinions as the discussion grows heated. And they know that audiences are generally more interested in entertainment than in the grey dull truth. And so, passive aggressive arguers are great at playing to this audience, using mockery to elicit laughter, and make themselves the center of attention. (You can often observe masters at this game by watching certain hosts of television shows or guests on the shows, who infuriate with their ability to cloud the issue, and come out on top through sheer manipulation.)
To defend against these slippery operators, it is best to be aware of the tactics they inevitably employ. In my study of human nature, power, and seduction, over the last 20 years, and in my frequent encounters with these types, I have been able to uncover and catalog their most common and egregious methods. (You will also notice more and more such passive-aggressive arguers in these heated tribal times we live in. They happen to thrive on social media.) Your goal is to be aware in the moment of what they are up to, turning the tables on them, while advancing your original ideas. Here are the strategies and the best forms of defense against these bullies.
1) Begging The Question
This involves subtly weighing the argument in the passive-aggressors’ favor by using loaded words that already hint at their conclusion, or assume what they are trying to prove. They beg the question before it is answered. In their argument, they will slip in adjectives — vicious, reactionary, privileged, power-hungry, Machiavellian, immoral — that subtly or not so subtly play to people’s prejudices and elicit an automatic emotional response, usually negative. They will describe a book or its writer as “cynical” and not delve into how they are using the word. Cynical implies knowledge of an author’s intentions, and although it is difficult to ever really know this, through examples and some investigation an argument for cynicism could be made. But the passive aggressor knows the word is loaded and will make the audience already prejudge the material or the opponent in the discussion, without the need for any examples.
When facing this strategy, you must call your opponent on their use of such loaded words and get them to explain in some detail what they mean by them. What exactly do they mean by “cynical”? If they respond with more loaded words or by evading your questions, keep at it, until it seems clear to all that they are simply appealing to cheap emotions. In no case should you let them get away with this, no matter how quickly they insert these words or statements, and try to move on.
2) Extending To Extremes
When people use the word “all” or make rather extreme statements, their arguments almost immediately appear weak, as many exceptions and problems come to mind. Clever passive-aggressors play on this by artificially extending the opponent’s argument to such an extreme that it appears ridiculous. This might begin with, “If you are saying X, you also must believe Y,” or some variation on this. They are the ones who get to game out the worst possible negative consequences of your position and they present this dubious chain of events, or slippery slope as inevitable. “If we allow gay marriage, then why not marriage between a man and an animal? Who’s to say?” As a variation on this, if you cite someone to support your position, they will reference the worst possible group or ideas associated with that person, as if that is somehow part of your argument. If you cite Nietzsche, for instance, they might pose the question, “Didn’t the Nazis love Nietzsche?”
This strategy is an obvious play to the audience, which finds this associating game somewhat logical and worth a good laugh at the absurd extremes the passive-aggressor introduces. Any argument you make is open to this extension, and the passive-aggressor will slip this in quickly, so that no one examines the ploy too closely. Once again, you must not let this pass, no matter how swiftly they try to move on. Reveal the irrational leaps they have taken. Explain that Nietzsche ranted against modern dictators and anti-Semites, more than thirty years before the birth of the Nazis, so what is the point here? You can always extend their argument to the extreme, then point out the absurdity of your own extension to reveal the manipulation they just played on you and the audience. If you make it absurd enough you will get the last laugh from the audience and one-up your opponent.
3) Diverting The Subject
If passive-aggressive arguers feel you might be getting the better of them, they will often subtly, or not so subtly divert the subject at hand to another one, which will allow them to make a seemingly strong but irrelevant point. In a discussion on immigration, for instance, if you argue that America is a country of immigrants, and cite statistics that show how much wealth such immigrants actually contribute to the economy, your opponent might divert the discussion to the high rate of unemployment of Americans born in this country in certain regions, and imply that you don’t care about their fate. Now, the course of the argument shifts in a better direction for them. If you make some offhand comment, slightly tangential to the subject at hand and not thoroughly thought out, they will single this out and attack your comment, as if its weakness implied the weakness of your entire argument. If you’re discussing sexual assault on women, they’ll ask, “What about assault against men?”
If you argue for the need to raise taxes, they will ask if you have personally volunteered to pay more. If you are railing against one particular evil in the world, they will point to another that is worse and wonder why you are not addressing that one instead. To divert you from your strong argument, they may pose a question that is so abstract and nebulous, that you will lose yourself in trying to answer it. If you are arguing about the dire nature of global warming, they will ask, “Since you are so certain about this, what percentage of climate change would you say is caused by human activity?” As this cannot be reasonably answered, you are trapped between evading the question or saying something you cannot back up.
As in the other strategies, you must keep your cool and carefully walk the discussion back to where it was, no matter how difficult. Don’t let them slip away. Reveal to the audience the very nature of their diversion, undercutting the use of this strategy.
4) Pushing Buttons
The goal of this strategy is to make opponents angry and prone to say something irrational and extreme. Passive aggressors who are adept at this will have trained themselves to remain calm, while you get irritated and emotional. At something reasonable you have said, they will look at you and the audience with a doubting or sarcastic expression, which is designed to get under your skin. They will contradict you with strong words that don’t prove their point but rile you up. If you are hard to goad in this way, they might have to say something rude and insulting, or insinuating something ugly on your part. If you lower yourself to their level you are at a grave disadvantage — they are much better at slinging mud. They talk really fast and with loaded words, making it impossible for you to keep up with them and defend yourself, and the moment you get angry, you look bad.
Always remember that your calmness under fire is your best defense in any argument or discussion. Only in this way can you think rationally and determine the proper response. If you remain unruffled and show that you cannot be goaded, they will stop with this infuriating strategy. If not, they will start to look ridiculous.
5) Invoking Authority
Passive aggressors often rely on citing some form of authority to bolster their weak arguments. In the heat of a discussion, they will refer to statistics and studies that you cannot possibly verify but that give their argument an authoritative edge. If you quote statistics and studies back at them, you are both on the same plane, even though yours are more legitimate. They will often use as a form of authority what is known as conventional wisdom, the belief of the average man on the streets. The implication is that you on the other hand are elitist for going against conventional wisdom, even though such wisdom is often quite wrong. They will use predigested slogans that imply they are on the side of truth and other good causes. For instance, they are speaking “truth to power,” whatever that means. They will invoke some person who has a respected and saintly veneer, particularly for their side — Gandhi, Ronald Reagan — as if the association were enough to prove they are right and good.
With as light a touch as possible, ask them to actually reveal the source of the statistics or studies; ask for more detail, which they probably cannot provide. You, on the other hand, are more than prepared to supply such things about the statistics you cite. Get them to tell you what their slogans mean, as concretely as possible. Don’t let the reference to the saintly figure simply pass by. Examine the relevance and get them to explain more of what they meant. They will generally look like a fool in having to back up what is not really thought out.
With all of these tactics, your goal in general is to always return to discussion to the original point, revealing in the process how the opponent is continually trying to distract and divert.
This piece was adapted from my newest book The Laws of Human Nature, now available everywhere books are sold. The Laws of Human Nature was six years in the making and is the culmination of my life’s study of power, psychology, and history. Click here to learn more.