Tom Gilson

Just Say No to Fragenblitzen

It’s totally predictable, whenever I blog on certain topics: the argumentum ad Frgenblitzen. The term comes from the German Fragen, for “questions,” and Blitzen, for “lightning,” with an intentional allusion to Blitzkrieg. 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, they’re open to the charge that they’re running away from it because they have no answer.

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

I don’t think it’s used intentionally most of the time, though, at least not on this blog. I think it’s usually reflexive and habitual instead. The commenter thinks, “The blog post is about homosexuality and religious freedom, so I’ll put forth all my favorite homosexuality and religious freedom questions”—without noticing that the post isn’t about their favorite questions, it’s about something else.

 Fragenblitzen in general terms

Here’s how Fragenblitzen typically functions on a blog, 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 about x.

Notice how the expectations work when this happens. When I as the blogger bring up A, there is no expectation that you as the potential commenter must take responsibility to respond. You might be on an airplane. You might be reading something else, cooking dinner, playing with your kids.But when you bring up B, C, D, and E you expect that I will take responsibility to respond.

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. But no reader is responsible to answer anything.

If I ignore those half-dozen topics for any reason whatever, you think you can conclude that I have no good response (since supposedly you’ve made me responsible for them); but if you had ignored my blog post about A, no such conclusions would have been drawn about you and your ability to answer.

And then there’s the time factor. You can ask B, C, D, and E in usually ten minutes or less. If I take responsibility for them I could be tied to my computer and research sources for hours on end. That makes Fragenblitzen an unbeatable tactic, as long as the person who applies it is willing to draw conclusions from it that don’t logically follow.

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 is part of the discussion, for the time being at least.

If I don’t answer B, it would 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

In conclusion, if I write about A and you respond by saying B, then you’ve entered into the discussion on A. We’re both, by implied mutual agreement, in the conversation on A.

We are not both, however in the conversation on B by any mutual agreement, unless you show that B is relevant to A. It isn’t enough just to say that it’s relevant; you need to make a plausible case for its relevancy. Otherwise it’s Fragenblitzen.

If we haven’t both entered into the conversation on B, then my silence on B means nothing necessarily except that I’ve chosen not to join someone else’s conversation on B. Very likely, in fact, it’s just 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 didn’t make it up, though, I ran into it somewhere that I cannot remember. I’d be glad if someone found an earlier reference for me.

Commenting Restored

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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.

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