One of the rhetorical tactics that annoys me most is moving the goalposts. I’m not sure if people include it as a logical fallacy or not, but I’ll add it to my list of “rhetorical fallacies.” It’s a bullshit move, and intellectually honest people avoid it. I was on the receiving end of it recently, on that pretty hate machine, Twitter. I made a post about gun violence, in the wake of the hate crime in Buffalo, New York, where a white, racist coward named Payton Gendron gunned down then people of color at a local Tops grocery store. My post was in support of President Biden, for calling this action by its true names: domestic terrorism and white supremacy. And I contrasted Biden’s behavior with Trump’s infamous comments about the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally, when he said, on August 15, 2017, that there were “very fine people on both sides” in the wake of another racist coward named James Alex Fields, Jr. deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one, Heather Heyer, and injuring 35 others.
Some account I’ve never heard of, with ten followers, no bio, and a misleading username, decided I’d benefit from his commentary and jumped into the comments:
His reference is to a domestic terrorist event on November 21, 2021, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, known as the Waukesha Christmas parade attack, in which a black, racist coward named Darrell Edward Brooks, Jr. intentionally drove his SUV into a crowd, killing six people and injuring 62 others. My Twitter interlocutor’s false claim is that Biden–due to his (also false) deep-seated racism–failed to visit Waukesha in the wake of the violence there. This claim, it turns out, is currently a right-wing talking point, being carried by tabloids including The Daily Mail, The New York Post, and Newsweek. Google “waukesha biden” if you’d like a taste; I’ll not link them here.
It’s a lie, of course. Biden did denounced the violence in Waukesha in no uncertain terms the day after it happened. First-lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Waukesha, where she denounced it as well. It’s true that President Biden didn’t visit Waukesha. But the reason he didn’t visit gets left out of the conversation: he was in Kentucky surveying tornado damage following a recent round of devastating storms. The truth is, a lot of bad stuff happens in America every day. The president can hardly be faulted for not being in two places at once.
I informed my interlocutor of these facts, while taking another dig at the former guy:
Incredulous, my interlocutor wanted dates:
I provided them, along with a Reuters fact check:
And I followed up with the information about Dr. Jill Biden visiting the city and denouncing the violence in person, on behalf of the administration:
Here’s The Shift
Are you ready? Because here’s where the goalpost shifting happens. Since I’d already addressed the issue at hand, my interlocutor allows to pass without comment the clear evidence that he was wrong when he claimed that Biden failed to address the violence in Waukesha (and the bullshit insinuation that this failure was a sign of Biden’s black supremacist feelings). Instead, he disingenuously pretends his calling for evidence of Biden’s denunciation was actually him calling into question my claim that Trump had ever advocated violence:
The only value age and experience offers is that you can see things coming from a long way off. This reply is the set up to a predictable series of rhetorical dodges. There is no amount of evidence of Trump inciting violence which will convince a died-in-the-wood Trumper will ever acknowledge as sufficient. People like Numberoneliberal find shades of meaning in every movement–or lack of it–made by people on the left. But, when their own leaders attempt a violent coup to overthrow a democratically elected president, everything becomes inscrutable. How can we know? What happened before the video started rolling? Shouldn’t we wait until all the facts are in before we rush to judgement? We might call this one the I’ve-been-living-under-a-rock fallacy.
Faced with the setup to this particular chain of obfuscation, I played a rhetorical gambit of my own. But this one, I think, is not a fallacy and is in no way unfair. On the contrary, I consider it a necessary survival tool: the right to end the discussion:
Of course, my friend couldn’t let well enough alone. Having instigated the entire exchange, he decided I needed a good castigating for refusing to continue to waste my time:
My last bit–the conversation continued for a few more exchanges, but they’re not pertinent to the discussion of rhetoric I’m having here–illustrates what I’ve found to be a useful technique. Many right-wingers enjoy trolling. They get a perverse joy in seeing reasonably people waste their time trotting out arguments that they will then ignore, shifting the goalposts to some other minutia. It is a sort of simulacra of reasonable debate. And there’s absolutely no point in being pulled into it. Anyone who doesn’t freely acknowledge that the former guy is a lying, racist grifter and an enemy of democracy is not going to be persuaded by arguments. They are true believers in the MAGA cult. Once you discover this, you’ll only add to your own frustration if you proceed even on step further into their house of mirrors.