I’m not a huge expert on psychology but I know what manipulation is. You too can easily understand what manipulation is. Two of its tactics, diversion and evasion, are really annoying and an effective tool for escaping a question. Propagandists also use this tactic.
Diversion is the behaviour that aims at shifting the central topic of the argument to something else, and evasion is similar to diversion but giving irrelevant, rambling, vague responses, weasel words. These two are very closely related. These manipulative techniques are identified by a leading expert on manipulators, Dr. George K. Simon.
Although we know what they are, one might have a hard time identifying diversions in an argument. After an argument with these kind of manipulators, we may find it hard to find the fault in our argument, well, when in fact, the argument may not be faulty at all! The manipulator merely changed the attention of the topic, and finally gave a rhetoric but not substantial answer to the argument or question. The answer given by the manipulator does not have a clear connection to the argument.
Michael : Birds are beautiful. Why don’t you like them?
Julius : Because I like cats.
Julius’s respond to Michael is by changing the attention from ‘what are the negative aspects of birds’ to ‘what is better than birds’. These are two distinctly different questions. A cat may be better than a bird, but the question why are birds disliked is not answered.
To put it in a more simple and scripted way, diverters are actually telling you what to ask instead of answering your question.
Like this case:
Nicolas : What kind of job do you want?
Matt : You should ask what job is right for me instead of what job I want.
In this case, it is very obvious that Matt is changing the question, although what he said looks very wise. Telling someone what to ask is not very easy to spot in some occasions.
Father : I love you, more than anything.
Son : How can you say you love me? You are rarely home, you never gave me any presents, and we are living in this rotten house!
Father : Love isn’t just about being together, or giving what others want, son.
Son : I know that, pa. But it’s because of you our happiness eradicated! You don’t love us. You’re a happiness destroyer!
How does a happiness destroyer relate with not loving someone? ”It’s because of you our happiness eradicated!” does not equate to no love. It’s not the father who took away the happiness after all, but the old man’s financial problems. The father could be someone who works long and hard for his family, but still failed. He failed to spend some time, but he did not failed to love, for love is a feeling that can only be known of its presence by the beholder.
Although no happiness = sad, and no love = sad,
happiness ≠ love
no happiness ≠ no love
The son is faking a connection, by saying that if no happiness and no love creates sadness, therefore no happiness equates to no love. The son is actually told his father to ask him ‘What have I done?!’ instead of ‘Why do you say I don’t love you?’ which is the original question in the argument.
Effects of Diversions and Evasions
We should realise that this manipulation trick is happening in our everyday lives especially in debates and education, and we must be prepared to face it. If humans keep on to be deceived by themselves and others by manipulation, human wisdom will never be able to advance and problems always have a hard time to solve.
Here are some examples:
Some atheists argue that if God exist, then they must be able to see God. They are actually telling us that if anything exists, then you must be able to see it, when actually, that’s not the meaning of existence.
Mom: Why did you lend him some money?
Timmy: Because I agreed with his statement that money are meant to be shared.
Mom: If he told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?
In this case, Mom is diverting Timmy’s attention. Timmy lent some money was based on his own interest to help his friend. Unlike jumping off a cliff, no one would jump off a cliff as an act of interest. Of course, Mom is right about what she is saying, but the reasoning is wrong. Mom should have explained why Timmy shouldn’t believe what his friend said, instead of changing the question to what Timmy’s friend could possibly ask him to do. This makes the child’s thinking to be assumptive.
Perhaps this is also the reason that some debates and arguments are hard to meet a consensus, because of the fact that the topic keeps changing. And when the topic keeps changing, the end is hard to be found/unclear.
How do we counter these manipulators?
When arguing, always know what you’re talking about, that means having clear connections between your thoughts and in your arguments. In other words, having exhaustive thoughts about your argument. When they’re trying to derail you, you will notice how their train of thought doesn’t come up as yours. Figure out what causes this and then try to figure out whether the cause is rational or just assumptive/bonkers/concluded with wrong facts. If the cause is assumptive/bonkers/concluded with wrong facts, then it is possible that they are trying to divert you, whether they realise it or not.
You: Fast food is not healthy for the human body.
Opponent: Fast food is good for us, it’s convenient.
You: You cheeky little boy! I’m talking about its effects on health, not its effect in time management.
Another way is to try to answer the question yourself after the opponent has responded to your argument or question. This is useful when the opponent is long and rhetoric words.
You: Why is the grass green?
Opponent: Grass is so beautiful. The colour God gave to grass is just perfect to blend in with nature.
Now, try to re-answer the question based on the conversation above. If you’re not able to answer why grass is green, the opponent is trying to divert you.
Make sure you are able to provide/find a connection between thoughts and not just thinking something is true just because you think it is. Think exhaustively by providing evidences and examples about your argument before you argue.
Lastly, remember to be kind. Yes, kind. A problem with these side-steppers is that they are often not opened/refuse to listen to your argument, therefore they can’t justify their argument over yours and they’ll keep repeating their argument. Dialogues like “I know it’s hard for you to accept” and “open your heart just for once” can help them to accept what you’re saying.
Also keep in mind that you yourself could be a diverter, so make sure that you’re not one of them or you’ll be lying to yourself. Open up to arguments, and always ask your opponent what they mean by a particular word, like ‘good’ (to what standard(s)?) and ‘better’ (than what?).
Remember to think healthily, and thank you for reading.