The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.
So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.
The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.
SSC give several more examples, which are very helpful if you’re not quite getting the concept. To me, it refers to a situation where your position is not easily defended, so you retreat to a stronger position when challenged. Then, after the challenge is over, you go back to the weaker position.
We do this all of the time in relationships. The most common area I see this in is STI risk. STI’s are a real danger, and taking precautions against STI’s is an extremely defensible position. “What?! I just want to be safe” is the motte. The bailey ends up being all kinds of emotional needs, accommodating jealousy, or soft veto power. There is almost no restriction that one could put on a partner that could not be somehow justified by pointing at STI risk. Want veto power (bailey)? Just say you don’t trust the other person’s sexual safety (motte). Want to cut your partner’s dating pool significantly (bailey)? Insist that all partners receive extensive STI testing by our sponsors every six months (motte). Want to be the only person who gets to do kink with your partner (bailey)? Point out that it’s riskier from a sexual health perspective, and say you’re not comfortable with that risk level (motte).
It can also be used with other legitimate concerns. Don’t want your partner to stay overnight with other partners (bailey)? Claim that you can’t sleep alone (motte). Want to limit the amount of time your partner can spend away from home (bailey)? Come up with a household duty schedule that conveniently requires your partner to be home most of the time (motte). Want to make sure your partner stays closeted (bailey)? Say that your boss is a total bigot and would fire you if they found out you were poly (motte).
The motte-and-bailey doctrine is so dangerous precisely because the “motte” positions are really good reasons. It’s totally legit to want to minimize your STI risks, and communicating that to a partner is something we should all do! Some people can’t sleep alone! Some people have terrible bosses! There is no way to tell the difference between when someone has an honest issue and when someone is just trying to control their partner.
Worse, we can even fool ourselves with motte-and-bailey thinking. Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others. So it’s possible that we can have legitimate fears about STI’s, but weigh those fears more heavily because we have unaddressed insecurities which motivate us to control our partner(s). Our fears about coming out may be less about getting fired and more about wanting to avoid conflict or awkwardness with our friends.
The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? For example, if there was no risk of STI’s, would you be ok with your partner dating promiscuous people? If your job was safe, would you have any objection to coming out? If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.
Knowing and admitting our motivations is a key step toward personal growth, and the growth of a relationship. We must always be vigilant that our motivations are what we think.