If-By-Whiskey is a beloved rhetorical device dating from the decline of the prohibition era in 1950s Mississippi. It was a strange, transitional time when whiskey was still officially banned, and yet widely consumed, sold and even taxed. As the saying went at the time, people staggered to the polls to vote dry.
Thus when Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. delivered his famous speech in the state legislature he could not simply come out and call for an end to prohibition. That would have been political suicide. Instead, he recited what has come to represents a quintessential example of the double doctrine; of saying two seemingly contradictory things at once to appease multiple audiences.
“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty …” he began, pausing for applause from the temperate in the audience, “then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes … then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”
As a blog in large part about persuasion and rhetoric, Sweet Talk has published versions of If-By-Whiskey on contemporary subjects of controversy, including If-By-Feminism, If-By-Child-Labor, and If-By-Open-Borders.
Overtime, I have come to think of it less as an act of deception, and, on the contrary, more of an exercise in good faith discourse. A well constructed If-By-Whiskey ought to pass the Ideological Turing Test by demonstrating that one can articulate his or her opponent’s view as forcefully and convincingly as they could. That encapsulates the persuasive method, and reveals persuasion’s direct connection to empathy, sympathy, and perspective taking.
If-By-Whiskey is therefore in a sense an anti-troll. Trolls are good at perspective taking, too, but use it to know the precise things to say that make partisans the most angry. Why? Because vitriol in the face of someone who doesn’t give a damn can be quite amusing. Whereas irony is a bridge between absurdism and righteousness, trolling is purely nihilistic, the act of bashing the absurd over the righteous’s head and laughing all the way.
Enter Scott Adams. He is the man best known for the absurdist office cartoon Dilbert, but has made a new name for himself through his blog as an internet troll extraordinaire. Behind the guise of quixotic psychoanalysis, Adams has essentially perfected the Anti-If-By-Whiskey: esoteric posts which somehow manage to piss off everyone who reads them.
Take his recent post, “Why Gun Control Can’t Be Solved in the USA.” At its heart is a fairly valid and almost banal point: The groups that either support or oppose gun control generally belong to different demographics with different relationships to the risk of being shot. As he puts it, “Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it.”
But that’s not how he begins his piece. No, he begins it in the most hilariously incendiary way possible:
On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.
On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.
If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist.
Democrats use guns to shoot the innocent? Wow.
Of course, he’s referring to the fact that, comparatively speaking, inner city gun violence is committed by a demo who tend to vote for Democrats, while the archetypical Republican gun owner sits peacefully in his castle, gun loaded. There’s just a lot nicer ways to say that. Ways that don’t end up pissing off Republicans and Democrats alike.
And whereas the classic If-By-Whiskey is conciliation bookended by proclamations of embracing controversy (“I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be”), a typical Scott Adams post is outrageous bridge burning bookended by claims to being totally noncommittal and disinterested in anything but the science of persuasion.
As a self-described persuasion expert himself, Adams surely knows the story behind If-By-Whiskey. So what then is the goal behind his trololololing?
The lulz, for one: Adams clearly has fun at the expense of the righteous.
Selling books, for another: Not a post goes by that doesn’t include a link to his Amazon page. Stoking controversy with a veneer of plausible deniability is just expert #content marketing.
Third, and more speculatively, I also think Adams wants to impart real opinions to a knowing audience by using a trick pioneered by Nigerian email scammers.
Ever wonder why that email from the Nigerian Prince is so full of basic spelling errors, and so obviously suspicious on its face? Far from a sign of incompetence, it’s in effect a gullibility sorting mechanism. If you make a scam obvious the only people dumb enough to respond are also likely the same cohort who will be wiling to hit send on a money transfer down the line.
Who remains on the other side of Adams’ troll-sensitivity filter? Sociopaths, rationalists, nihilists, comedians, individualists, neuro-atypicals, and fellow trolls. All of which overlap to a degree. And each of which is an important and underrated audience, insofar as the least partisan and most discerning thinkers represent a swing vote, both literally and in the larger battle of ideas.