Tom Gilson

Just Say No to Fragenblitzen

It’s totally predictable, whenever I blog on certain topics: the argumentum ad Fragenblitzen. The term comes from the German Fragen, for “questions,” and Blitzen, for “lightning,” with an intentional allusion to Blitzkrieg. It’s a Blitzkrieg of questions, with the implication that if I don’t answer them all, the questioner wins.

It happens whenever I write about homosexual activism, gay marriage, and Intelligent Design, and frequently when I write on other topics as well.

Fragenblitzen takes advantage of two facts that apply to almost any debate:
(1) It takes a lot longer to answer a question than to ask it, and
(2) If someone doesn’t answer a question, it’s easy to think they’re running from it.

When it works it’s really slick. It can tie a debate opponent up in knots.

 Fragenblitzen in general terms

Here’s how Fragenblitzen usually happens, and why it’s an illegitimate debating technique.

The blogger makes point A about topic x.
The commenter in response bring up points B, C, D, E, F, and G about x.

The blogger here is me. I say A about x. No one has any obligation to respond. You might be on an airplane. You might be reading something else, cooking dinner, playing with your kids. So you don’t have to say a word when I say A about x.

If you as the commenter speak here, however, bringing up B, C, D, E, etc., it’s almost as if you’re creating an obligation for me to respond. You’ve brought me a personal challenge, right here on my own personally run blog. How could I possibly not respond? you ask, at least by implication.

So by bringing up one topic I open the door for you to make me responsible to answer and explain a half-dozen others, whether they’re related to my topic or not. Meanwhile you can go on cleaning your garage or boating or reading or whatever you want to do.

If I go out and clean the garage, though, and leave your half-dozen questions unanswered, you think you can conclude that I don’t have any answer.

An Irrational Tactic, and a Rude One

It’s a great game to play as the blitzer, since it’s so easy. You can ask B, C, D, E, F, and G in usually ten minutes or less. Answering all of them would probably take hours, especially if I have to dive into further research for them.

That makes Fragenblitzen an unbeatable tactic, as long as everyone accepts the blitzer’s implied rule, the one that says, “You didn’t answer me? Then you must be giving up, or you don’t have an answer. I win!” I don’t accept that rule, though, and for good reason. If I don’t answer your questions, it isn’t necessarily because I’m giving up, or I don’t have any possible answer. Conclusions such as these don’t follow. They’re not rationally justified. I might not be answering because I’m out on a date with my wife.

Here it’s also worth mentioning that Fragenblitzen is rude. Real conversations go back and forth, one question or topic at a time. Real people asking real questions allow the other person time to answer. When you ask question A, then B, then C, … however, you’re not even allowing time to think about A. That’s rude.

Fragenblitzen in action

That’s what I see going on right now on the blog post I wrote about Frank Bruni’s NY Times op-ed. I said his article amounted to a call for state-imposed boundaries around what religions may believe. In response I’ve been asked about:

  1. Whether I understand what “require” means.
  2. Whether business owners should be allowed to refuse to serve interracial weddings.
  3. How to weigh harms involved in the exercise of liberty.
  4. Whether religious freedom means a free pass to break the laws of the land.
  5. Religiously-motivated segregation laws, with a whole bunch of subquestions.

Notice how little this has to do with state-imposed boundaries around religious doctrines.

Besides that, I’ve been told that I was saying,

  • I disagree (on this issue at least) that there should be some balance applied to the use of religious freedom.
  • Again, I’m “incredibly confused about what ‘require’ means.”
  • I “seem to point out that government should place no barriers on how people should or should not express their religious convictions even in the public sphere.”

I didn’t say any of those things, nor did I imply them.

So while I brought up one limited point of infringement on religious freedom, I’m being held responsible to explain at least three things I never said, and to answer five rather extensive and involved questions that have limited connection to what I brought up.

That’s the argumentum ad Fragenblitzen in action.

What about the analogy from B to A?

Now, in the current discussion Bill L has explained that he considers a certain point B to be a relevant analogy to A. To bring in a relevantly analogous point B is legitimate, except when it’s used in a Fragenblitzen-like manner, like this:

I bring up point A about topic x.
You mention point B, and express your opinion that it’s relevantly analogous to point A.
I’m expected to do all the work of digging through the analogy, to understand and to show where and how it is or isn’t analogous.

Again, questions are quicker than answers. Doesn’t the person suggesting the analogy bear some responsibility to show that the analogy is real?

It isn’t Fragenblitzen when…

Not every new topic counts as Fragenblitzen. If you branch off into a new topic and I pick up on it, then it’s fair game. If I respond to B, then B becomes part of the discussion, for the time being at least.

If I don’t answer B at all, it would still be unwise and illogical to assume I have no answer to it. If you think I answer B ineffectively, however, then my answer is open for criticism.

Saying no to Fragenblitzen

So if I write about A and you respond by saying B, then you’ve entered into the discussion on A. Not B, but A. We haven’t agreed it’s a conversation about B, not unless you (at least!) show that B is relevant to A. You don’t get there just by saying it’s so; you need to make a plausible case for its relevancy. Otherwise it’s Fragenblitzen.

If we’re discussing A, and you bring in some other topic B without showing its real relation to A, I probably won’t follow you over into B. And if you also bring up C, D, E, … you can be sure I won’t go there. That’s by choice. Very likely, in fact, it’s my way of saying no to Fragenblitzen.

Note on the word “Fragenblitzen:” I don’t know where I first encountered the term. As of January 28, I can’t find it anywhere on the web except here and sites linking to here. I don’t really think I made it up, though. It seems to me I ran into it somewhere that I cannot remember. I’d be glad if someone found an earlier reference for me.

Updated and revised August 21, 2021.

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17 thoughts on “Just Say No to Fragenblitzen

  1. Huh. You linked to one of my comments. I thought I was being correct. Not only did I explicitly address “A”, I responded to several different invitations to post arguments.

    Indeed, Bill L specifically related your argument to the miscegenation arguments, and you asked questions about them (“Do you have any sources showing that this was considered a question of religious liberty?”) and I gave you some answers to those questions.

    I would say that discussion of the Civil Rights Act, and miscegenation law, and so forth is practically inevitable in such conversations, simply because they are the most significant examples in U.S. history of the interaction of law, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom of expression. But answering specific questions about the topic seems entirely in line.

  2. I addressed Bill L’s question about the miscegenation analogy, both here on this page and on the other thread. I’m not ducking it. I’m trying to find out whether he has any good reason to call the two situations relevantly analogous. If he does, I’ll follow the question where it leads. We’re in the middle of that one. What are you complaining about it for?

    You, Ray, offered a point C. You think it’s “entirely in line”–but with what? Sure, it’s in line with the large question of homosexuality and religious freedom, including topics A, B, C, D, E, … N.

    Apparently you think that because I posted on A, then I have to answer C (and for all I know, D, E, … N as well).

    I disagree. I’m too busy to write a book today.

  3. Feel free to try again, then, because now I don’t know which explicit question or quote you’re referring to here. Thanks.

    But note that I didn’t say you were out of line. I said you were in line with a larger question than I’m able or willing to take on today.

  4. Did I say it was Fragenblitzen where you undertook to answer that first question?

    Your assumption (second paragraph in #6) that I was asking for arguments was correct. Your assumption that I was asking for arguments for B, C, D, … N was incorrect.

  5. Funny, it really seemed to me that those ‘invitations to argument’ were about things that other people had brought up. Oh, well, your blog, I guess.

    And my point about that ‘hilarious’ comment was that the essay linked to was… at best, incomplete.

  6. I just feel the need to mention that there is something to keep in mind… the possibility that the reason people ask questions is because they sincerely see that as the best way to understand someone’s position.

  7. Fragenblitzen is a problem when it’s a rhetorical technique: where people draw false conclusions from the other person’s not answering every question, and/or when they do it more or less intentionally to tie the other person up in rhetorical knots.

    If it’s a case of asking questions for understanding, that’s entirely different. Usually it’s not hard to tell the difference.

  8. If it’s a case of asking questions for understanding, that’s entirely different. Usually it’s not hard to tell the difference.

    I felt like you wrote this OP in response to my questions. Which did you feel I was doing?

  9. It was in response to many people’s questions, and it also had to do with my frustration over people, including you, taking my topic as an opportunity to ask a host of tangential questions. See comment 26 on that post.

  10. I have since come to realize there was more of a purpose to your questions than it seemed. Please bear in mind, though, I kept emphasizing beliefs there, over and over and over again, and people kept bringing it back to actions. From here it seemed like no one was ever going to come around to discussing the topic pig the OP. Finally we meet in the middle and got there. I wrote this before that happened.

  11. OK, that’s fair enough. I can see where we weren’t connecting at first.

    Thanks for commenting Tom.

Comments are closed.

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