Francis Gardom plucks a leaf from Clausewitz

The military historian Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) is famous for being the author of the most important single work ever written on the theory of warfare and of strategy. On War was published in 1832 and, apart from Thucidides The Peloponnesian War (c400BC) is the only great book in the Western canon which addresses the fundamental problems of war and strategy.

Clausewitz was no war-monger or even a particularly bellicose character. His writing is descriptive rather than prescriptive, so its usefulness extends far beyond the battlefield: historians, political scientists, and business thinkers who find themselves embroiled in controversy can profitably study the bare bones of his theories, since any boardroom, college, hospital ward, synod, courtroom, close or cloister may, and sometimes does, come to resemble in form – though we hope not in actuality – a battlefield.

Whenever this happens, the participants need quickly to recognize the tactics and strategies both of opponents, and allies. In what follows I shall take examples of these strategies which have been employed in disagreements between (for want of better terms) Traditionalists and Innovators.

A word of warning. It’s mistaken to assume that these tactics are always employed consciously and deliberately. Those who hold passionately to their beliefs may resort to intuition rather than reason with those who disagree with them. It’s best for each party to a debate to assume initially that the other is acting in good faith. Should this not be the case, any insincerity will eventually become manifest and a change of approach adopted.

Here, then are some of the strategies which are in common use:

• Salami and Boiled Frog

• Begging the Question

• Moving Landmarks

• Appeal to the Majority

• Divide and Rule

• Charm Offensive

• Offence Offensive

Salami and Boiled Frog

These two strategies complement one another and rely on ‘Gradualism’ or the Fabian Principle (after the tactics of the successful Roman general, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who died in 203 BC).

It is a fact of Nature that slow changes will often not be noticed by those whom they most affect until it is too late for them to do anything about it. Drop a frog into boiling water and it will immediately jump out. Heat the water up gradually from cold and the frog will take no action – with fatal consequences. Cut one thin slice of salami at spacious intervals and few will notice its disappearance.

It’s the same with the truth. Introduce new beliefs, or modify old ones too suddenly and people will immediately notice; change things little by little over a period of time and they will have forgotten what a complete salami or cold water was like.

Begging the Question

When people start a sentence with ‘It’s obvious that…’ they usually mean ‘I feel strongly that…’ – and they can see no good reason why it should not be the case and every reasonable person agree with them. ‘It must be, therefore it is’ is a variant. In both cases, reasons are subsequently gathered to justify it. Close inspection often reveals that what is assumed is either not true at all, or only true in a particular sense or under certain circumstances. However, because that belief was only a feeling, albeit a powerful one, it must not be contradicted. The only contradiction to ‘I feel…’ is either ‘Oh no you don’t!’ or ‘but I feel quite differently…’. When searching for the truth, Begging the Question (or petitio principii) is a dead loss.

Moving Landmarks

‘Good fences make good neighbours’, says the proverb; ‘Cursed is he who removes his neighbour’s landmark’ says Deuteronomy. Civilised discourse requires mutual respect between the parties involved. Weasel-words and expressions like ‘old-fashioned’, ‘barking-mad’, ‘new-fangled’ and ‘irrelevant’ are used much too often nowadays in the course of discussions, and applied indiscriminately to opinions with which their user disagrees, sweeping away at one blow the boundary within which the other party is working. When bishop Jack Spong said that so far as he was concerned ‘every [belief] is up for grabs’ he was effectively pulling up all his neighbours’ landmarks, thus putting paid to any rational discussion. Once the fences between truth and falsehood are removed nothing can take their place.

Appealing to the Majority

So used have we become to Majority Rule applying in our lives that it is difficult to believe that it’s not the only way of discerning the truth. But even a slight acquaintance with the history of human thought will demonstrate that on many matters, and over long periods of time, ‘what the majority believes’ turned out to be wrong. This is no less true today than it was a hundred or a thousand years ago. Mistaken beliefs never die; they revive, to return over and over again.

Divide and Rule

The Book of Common Prayer (Accession Service) talks about the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. That doesn’t only apply to those on the opposite side, but equally to those with whom we are making common cause. There is nothing easier to exploit than the divisions which exist between allies!

The Charm Offensive

Americans sometimes accuse the English of terminal politeness. What they mean is that our wish to avoid unpleasantness is often seen by us as something which must be gratified at all costs – even the truth itself. It’s what Hamlet described as

[By] the oe’rgrowth of some complexion

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason;

Or [by] some habit that too much o’erleavens

The form of plausive manners…’

(notice ‘pales and forts’ – a reference to fences and landmarks!)

This Passion for Politeness fatally infects important debates at General Synod. These become set-pieces whose sole objective is not to discover at the Mind of God, but to devise a formula for agreement, often totally superficial, which will make everyone feel happy. That, it need hardly be said, is not the way to arrive at the truth!

The Offence Offensive

This may seem a relative newcomer on the scene. In fact it has been practised in legal and academic circles from the year dot.

The technique is to make your opponents become so inflamed that they either give up in despair, or (better still!) lose their head and start to behave irrationally. It’s achieved either by doing or saying something so outrageous that everyone’s attention is, for the moment, distracted away from the merits of the matter under discussion and towards the behaviour of the offending party.

It is a skill which has to be acquired: if the outrage generated is too general it will alienate erstwhile allies; too little and its practitioner will acquire a reputation for boorishness. But a beau injustice as the French call it, can result in the upsetting of an entire debate.

Just remember what happened at the Boston Tea Party!

Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience