motte and bailey and coronavirus

Nicholas Shackel

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed.

Scott Alexander has done a great job of explaining the widespread relevance of the motte-and-bailey tactic. And it is a tactic that is getting a heavy workout these days, especially from certain parts of the Christian Right (especially its Catholic-integralist, nationalist-fundamentalist, and snake-handling Baptist wings.) Here’s how the conversations go: 

A. We’re not going to practice any sissified “social distancing” — we’re followers of Jesus, and ours is not a spirit of fear. We’re not afraid to die! We know we’ll go to be with the Lord! 

B. Okay, that’s fine for you, but what about all the people you might infect? What if they aren’t ready to die? What if they’re not even Christians? And anyway, should you be making that decision for them? 

A. Ah, those people aren’t going to die. This thing is basically just the flu, and the whole panic has been whipped up by the media to discredit the President. 

A’s first statement is the bailey, his second the motte. First he makes a bold show of defying death, and then, when his position is challenged, he avers that death isn’t at all likely. But that’s a completely different position. “People of faith should not fear” bears little resemblance, as a moral claim, to “People who are in no real danger should not fear.” The second position acknowledges what the first denies: that wisdom requires discerning the dangers of different situations and adjusting your behavior accordingly. (I cross my driveway without looking but I wouldn’t cross a highway during rush hour without looking.) Not adjusting your behavior according to risk is the first principle of True Faith in A’s initial statement; but, sensing that that stance won’t hold up to even the most cursory scrutiny, he beats a quick retreat to the motte of “No real danger here,” which is at least more defensible than the absolutism of the first claim.  

Alexander writes, “So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement” — or perhaps a statement that’s widely accepted in your social circle — “so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.” And that’s how it goes with the Ours-is-not-a-spirit-of-fear crowd too. 

There’s a lot to be thought and debated about how to reach the right balance of policies in a time like this, to minimize both loss of life and economic devastation. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Here I’m reflecting on how Christians should understand these matters, and maybe one way to start is give up the motte-and-bailey dance and decide what your actual position is. If what you really think is that Christians should never be afraid of death, then grasp that nettle. That restaurant server who attends your church, who desperately needs the money but is afraid of getting seriously ill because she has pre-existing health issues and there’s no one but her to take care of her children? Person of weak faith. Failure as a Christian. “Get out there and bring me my quesadillas.”