ONE OF THE MOST common ways to be intellectually dishonest in a debate is to dodge questions while pretending you’re answering them. You’re not telling a lie, but you’re being dishonest when you manipulate the discussion this way.
Like Street Fighter II characters, politicians and TV pundits have several methods for avoiding questions they don’t want to answer.
I took some liberties in naming these methods after famous political debaters who’ve used them a lot on camera.
(Note that this is not an Ad Hominem fallacy, which we’ll go over in the next section. I’m not trying to discredit an argument, only to illustrate the types of dodges—which each of these people famously employ.)
The first type of dodge is when you quickly say whatever you need to in order to reach a talking point of your own. This is the classic politician’s move. It’s literally what I was taught in the first five minutes of PR training when I first started getting asked to go on cable TV news shows.
In the following clip during the 2016 Presidential debates, Hillary Clinton is asked if she’d broken a previous promise about the Clinton Foundation not doing “pay to play,” and instead of directly answering that question, she talks about the work she did as Secretary of State and the work the Clinton Foundation does:
She’s not lying per se. But she completely avoids answering the question, while making herself look pretty good in the process.
Next we come to The Hannittack (not to be confused with, but certain to give you the risk of, a heart attack):
A very common dodge is to take the question and turn it around on your opponent or their allies instead of answering it.
This can be accomplished by bringing up an apparent hypocrisy related to the topic, pointing out that an ally of whoever you’re debating did something bad one time, asking your debate opponent an aggressive question, or pointing out an alleged error (real or perceived, big or tiny) in something they said. The point is, you’re doing this instead of answering the question.
This puts the other person on the defensive, and gets you off the hook. Even better: don’t let them finish asking the question before you jump in with your attack. Repeat the same attack again and again if necessary.
One of the most painful examples of this in recent memory is the below exchange between FOX News’s Tucker Carlson and Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald. As we’ll discuss later in this post, Carlson is a ninja master of dirty debate tactics, but if there’s one thing I respect him for, it’s his tenacity when it comes to question dodgers. In this clip I actually start to feel bad for Carlson as over and over again his guest (Eichenwald) insists that he wants to answer Carlson’s question and then proceeds to dodge it by attacking Carlson.
Jump to around 4:45 in the following clip for one of the more frustrating parts of the exchange:
It’s particularly bewildering, because Eichenwald is arguing that Carlson won’t let him answer… while not ever answering.
Next we have The Conword:
One of the most clever ways to dodge is to zero in on a keyword in the question you’re posed, then go into a talking point of your own that incorporates that keyword.
This makes it appear that you’re answering the question, but you’re getting away with not answering it at all.
Even better: use your talking point to put the other person on defense.
This excellent explainer video by Carlos Maza breaks down publicity whiz Kellyanne Conway’s signature usage of this dodge tactic:
Next we have The Colbert Retort:
Stephen Colbert’s fake persona in his long-running satirical news show The Colbert Report was a purposely infuriating debater. His signature move was cracking a joke instead of answering his “opponent’s” question.
This, which I call “The Colbert Retort,” can be an incredible crowd-pleaser. And it’s fine if you are running a comedy show and not an actual, real-world-consequences debate.
But if your goal is intellectual honesty, you shouldn’t do this unless you plan on also answering the question.
Donald Trump gets two dodges named after him, since he’s one of the most prolific dodgers on TV today. (He’s also shown on TV more than anyone, so he gets the chance to do it a lot more than other people who might be inclined to dodge the shit out of questions, too.)
The first is “The Trump-nesiac.” This is where you just insist that you don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not dishonest if you actually don’t know about the thing you’ve just been asked. But it’s a dodge—and an outright lie—when you claim amnesia after you’ve already talked or tweeted about the very thing you just said you never heard of.
Trump Dodge #2 is “The Trumpstorm.” This is where you overwhelm the audience or your opponent by talking about a dozen things at once. It’s like a DDOS attack on the information processing center of your brain.
Hopefully by the end of the storm the audience forgot what you were supposed to answer—or got distracted by all the shit you just said.
Funny side note: someone on LinkedIn already misconstrued this as an ad hominem fallacy. It’s only an ad hominem fallacy if it’s used to attack an unrelated argument. In this case, we’re talking about something someone irrefutably does, on camera, all the time. It’s like saying calling fried chicken “greasy” is an ad hominem.
Also, as we’ll discuss in the next section, using the fact that someone used a fallacy to discredit their position or argument is itself a fallacy (called The Fallacy Fallacy), so even if this guy insists that the name Trumpstorm is an ad hominem fallacy, that itself doesn’t invalidate the point—which is that overwhelming people with information without answering the question is a dodge.
There is only one intellectually honest way to dodge a question. And that’s to actually say that you don’t want to answer the question, or you don’t think the question is worth answering.
In this clip where he’s asked about alien life, candidate Obama addresses a question he doesn’t care about in an intellectually honest way by admitting he doesn’t know the answer:
(As an aside, a reader brought this up: In his September 2018 Senate testimony, Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh dodged a whole bunch of questions. Here’s an infographic of every time he did. Many of the dodges were not dishonest; he simply said he doesn’t want to answer. But people gave him grief for this, because a Supreme Court Justice should have had an answer to many of these. He did, however, also employ some intellectually dishonest dodges, primarily when ducking questions about whether he was in favor of FBI investigations of assault allegations against him.)
To give Mr. Trump a bit of credit as well, in this interview with Stephen Colbert (the not-in-character Colbert), the then-presidential candidate dodged a question the honest way by just saying he didn’t want to answer it:
Satisfying? No. But it’s not dishonest to say you don’t want to answer.
It’s important to distinguish this sort of thing if we’re trying to be intellectually honest. Just because you don’t like someone or their point of view doesn’t mean that it’s okay to not distinguish when they’re being straightforward or honest—and when they’re not.
Political discourse often devolves into accusations that everything someone says is wrong or bad, and that doesn’t get us closer to progress either.
Speaking of things that don’t get us closer to progress, the next type of intellectual dishonesty we’ll discuss is especially troublesome…