I like a good debate, even if I come to realize I’m wrong. How else do we learn anything? But the quickest way to turn a healthy debate into an unhealthy debacle is to have it with someone who turns your words around until they mean something else. Then he argues that point, completely ignoring what you really said.
What is word twisting?
I’ve added this section because I had a comment once (which I didn’t approve) that “liberals” are all the time twisting people’s words, like when you front a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…” and they tell you that yes, you did just make a racist statement with the rest of the sentence. So, here you go:
Here’s an example of word twisting:
You: I like your paper on the Civil War, but I think you might want to add a little more to the part about Lincoln.
Him: Oh, so you’re saying Lincoln was the only important element of the whole Civil War.
Huh? No, you’re not. You weren’t even thinking that.
But here’s an example that might seem like word twisting, but it’s actually not:
You: I’m not a sexist, but women are much more emotional than men.
Him: But that’s a very sexist thing you just said!
He’s not twisting your words: he’s just not allowing you to get by with putting “I’m not a sexist” in front of a sexist statement, like some conversational “get out of jail free” card. In this case, you should challenge him to disprove your comment about women.
Him: Men are all the time getting into ego-measuring matches, and trying to prove who’s the boss, and getting into fights, but we don’t label that as emotional behavior. But it is. And we also frequently call women “emotional” just because we don’t like what they’re saying, even if it’s completely logical.
He’s not twisting your words. He’s challenging you to rethink your observations and realize you’ve fallen for a stereotype instead of doing your own thinking. (It’s true – most humans of any gender are very emotional and illogical. Source: Spock.)
Why do people twist words?
Sometimes it’s that you’re absolutely right but it’s a truth they’re not ready to acknowledge. Sometimes they just like a fight. And sometimes they want to let you know how little your thoughts or feelings matter to them.
How can I stop them?
If you find yourself dealing with that third type, avoid them if at all possible. That’s a form of abuse, and letting them get by with it is not going to reward you or them, and it may even encourage them to do it more.
If they’re just argumentative, you may be able to enlighten them about more rewarding argument strategies. Most people learn argument from their parents, and if the divorce rate’s anything to go by, I’d say most parents don’t know how to communicate, let alone have healthy arguments. Some people are willing to learn, if only you explain to them why their tendency to look for a fight is really obnoxious, and what you wish they’d do instead.
If you’re delivering a truth they just can’t handle, stick to your guns mercilessly. Tell them they’re deflecting the point; tell them that’s not what you said; tell them everything they’re saying is irrelevant and they can either deal with what you really said or go away. It may sound mean, but reasonable doesn’t work on people who are unreasonable.
It’s my boss / parent / authority figure who’s in a position to punish me even if all I do is stand up for myself
One obvious solution is to avoid arguing with this person. Just nod politely and bow out of any arguments they start as quickly as possible. If they won’t let you do that:
- Enlist allies. Rarely do these people only annoy or harass just one person. Check with co-workers, your other parent, etc., to see if they feel it’s hard to communicate with the person. Remember your words might get back to the person, so choose them with care in case you’re forced to explain them later.
- Twist their words first. You’d be surprised how many of these people are powerless to escape from their own trap when it’s turned on them. Pay attention to how they do it and learn those techniques.
- Look for people who are able to dominate the person for reasons other than having authority over them. If the person doesn’t pull this stuff on some of his friends, observe how they keep him leashed and see what you can learn.
- If you find this person doesn’t pull this on everyone, but just on people “like you” (i.e., his opposite political party or just people in one department of your workplace or, unfortunately, people of certain races, religions, etc.), then you’re dealing with a bigot. There’s not much one can do with bigots, especially if they’re in authority. It’s time to go to someone who has authority over them, if possible – especially if you’re reasonably sure the people above them don’t share their bigotry.