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The Argument From Intimidation

–The following is an article which appeared in The Objectivist Newsletter in 1964

There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure. Since it is particularly prevalent in today’s culture and is going to grow more so in the next few months, one would do well to learn to identify it and be on guard against it.

This method bears a certain resemblance to the fallacy ad hominem, and comes from the same psychological root, but is different in essential meaning. The ad hominem fallacy consists of attempting to refute an argument by impeaching the character of its proponent. Example: “Candidate X is immoral, therefore his argument is false.”

But the psychological pressure method consists of threatening to impeach an opponent’s character by means of his argument, thus impeaching the argument without debate. Example: “Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X’s argument is false.”

In the first case, Candidate X’s immorality (real or invented) is offered as proof of the falsehood of his argument. In the second case, the falsehood of his argument is asserted arbitrarily and offered as proof of his immorality.

In today’s epistemological jungle, that second method is used more frequently than any other type of irrational argument. It should be classified as a logical fallacy and may be designated as “The Argument from Intimidation.”

The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: “Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.”

The classic example of the Argument from Intimidation is the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In that story, some charlatans sell nonexistent garments to the Emperor by asserting that the garments’ unusual beauty makes them invisible to those who are morally depraved at heart. Observe the psychological factors required to make this work: the charlatans rely on the Emperor’s self-doubt; the Emperor does not question their assertion nor their moral authority; he surrenders at once, claiming that he does see the garment – thus denying the evidence of his own eyes and invalidating his own consciousness – rather than face a threat to his precarious self-esteem. His distance from reality may be gauged by the fact that he prefers to walk naked down the street, displaying his nonexistent garments to the people – rather than risk incurring the moral condemnation of two scoundrels. The people, prompted by the same psychological panic, try to surpass one another in loud exclamations on the splendor of his clothes – until a child cries out that the Emperor is naked.

This is the exact pattern of the working of the Argument from Intimidation, as it is being worked all around us today.

We have all heard it and are hearing it constantly:

“Only those who lack finer instincts can fail to accept the morality of altruism.” – “Only the ignorant can fail to know that reason has been invalidated.” – “Only black-hearted reactionaries can advocate capitalism.” – “Only war-mongers can oppose the United Nations.” – “Only the lunatic fringe can still believe in freedom.” – “Only cowards can fail to see that life is a sewer.” – “Only the superficial can seek beauty, happiness, achievement, values or heroes.”

As an example of an entire field of activity based on nothing but the Argument from Intimidation, I give you modern art – where, in order to prove that they do possess the special insight possessed only by the mystic “elite,” the populace are trying to surpass one another in loud exclamations on the splendor of some bare (but smudged) piece of canvas.

The Argument from Intimidation dominates today’s discussions in two forms. In public speeches and print, it flourishes in the form of long, involved, elaborate structures of unintelligible verbiage, which convey nothing clearly except a moral threat. (“Only the primitive-minded can fail to realize that clarity is oversimplification.”) But in private, day-to-day experience, it comes up wordlessly, between the lines, in the form of inarticulate sounds conveying unstated implications. It relies, not on what is said, but on how it is said – not on content, but on tone of voice.

The tone is usually one of scornful or belligerent incredulity. “Surely you are not an advocate of capitalism, are you?” And if this does not intimidate the prospective victim – who answers, properly: “I am,” – the ensuing dialogue goes something like this: “Oh, you couldn’t be! Not really!” “Really.” “But everybody knows that capitalism is outdated!” “I don’t.” “Oh, come now!” “Since I don’t know it, will you please tell me the reasons for thinking that capitalism is outdated?” “Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” “Will you tell me the reasons?” “Well, really, if you don’t know, I couldn’t possibly tell you!”

All this is accompanied by raised eyebrows, wide-eyed stares, shrugs, grunts, snickers and the entire arsenal of nonverbal signals communicating ominous innuendoes and emotional vibrations of a single kind: disapproval.

If those vibrations fail, if such debaters are challenged, one finds that they have no arguments, no evidence, no proof, no reason, no ground to stand on – that their noisy aggressiveness serves to hide a vacuum – that the Argument from Intimidation is a confession of intellectual impotence.

The primordial archetype of that Argument is obvious (and so are the reasons of its appeal to the neo-mysticism of our age): “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who don’t, none is possible.”

*The psychological source of that Argument is social metaphysics. [See: Nathanial Branden, “Social Metaphysics,” The Objectivist Newsletter, November 1962.]

A social metaphysician is one who regards the consciousness of other men as superior to his own and to the facts of reality. It is to a social metaphysician that the moral appraisal of himself by others is a primary concern which supersedes truth, facts, reason, logic. The disapproval of others is so shatteringly terrifying to him that nothing can withstand its impact within his consciousness; thus he would deny the evidence of his own eyes and invalidate his own consciousness for the sake of any stray charlatan’s moral sanction. It is only a social metaphysician who could conceive of such absurdity as hoping to win an intellectual argument by hinting: “But people won’t like you!”

Strictly speaking, a social metaphysician does not conceive of his Argument in conscious terms: he finds it “instinctively” by introspection–since it represents his psycho-epistemological way of life. We have all met the exasperating type of person who does not listen to what one says, but to the emotional vibrations of one’s voice, anxiously translating them into approval or disapproval, then answering accordingly. This is a kind of self-imposed Argument from Intimidation, to which a social metaphysician surrenders in most of his human encounters. And thus when he meets an adversary, when his premises are challenged, he resorts automatically to the weapon that terrifies him most: the withdrawal of a moral sanction.

Since that kind of terror is unknown to psychologically healthy men, they may be taken in by the Argument from Intimidation, precisely because of their innocence. Unable to understand that Argument’s motive or to believe that it is merely a senseless bluff, they assume that its user has some sort of knowledge or reasons to back up his seemingly self-confident, belligerent assertions; they give him the benefit of the doubt – and are left in helplessly bewildered confusion. It is thus that the social metaphysicians can victimize the young, the innocent, the conscientious.

This is particularly prevalent in college classrooms. Many professors use the Argument from Intimidation to stifle independent thinking among the students, to evade questions they cannot answer, to discourage any critical analysis of their arbitrary assumptions or any departure from the intellectual status quo.

“Aristotle? My dear fellow—” (a weary sigh) “if you had read Professor Spiffkin’s piece in—” (reverently) “the January 1912 issue of Intellect magazine, which—” (contemptuously) “you obviously haven’t, you would know—” (airily) “that Aristotle has been refuted.”

“Professor X?” (X standing for the name of a distinguished theorist of free-enterprise economics.) “Are you quoting Professor X? Oh no, not really!” – followed by a sarcastic chuckle intended to convey that Professor X had been thoroughly discredited. (By whom? Blank out.)

Such teachers are frequently assisted by the “liberal” goon squad of the classroom, who burst into laughter at appropriate moments.

In our political life, the Argument from Intimidation is the almost exclusive method of discussion. Predominantly, today’s political debates consist of smears and apologies, or intimidation and appeasement. The first is usually (though not exclusively) practiced by the “liberals,” the second by the “conservatives.” The champions, in this respect, are the “liberal” Republicans who practice both: the first, toward their “conservative” fellow Republicans – the second, toward the Democrats.

All smears are Arguments from Intimidation: they consist of derogatory assertions without any evidence or proof, offered as a substitute for evidence or proof, aimed at the moral cowardice or unthinking credulity of the hearers.

The Argument from Intimidation is not new; it has been used in all ages and cultures, but seldom on so wide a scale as today. It is used more crudely in politics than in other fields of activity, but it is not confined to politics. It permeates our entire culture. It is a symptom of cultural bankruptcy.

How does one resist that Argument? There is only one weapon against it: moral certainty.

When one enters any intellectual battle, big or small, public or private, one cannot seek, desire or expect the enemy’s sanction. Truth or falsehood must be one’s sole concern and sole criterion of judgment – not anyone’s approval or disapproval; and, above all, not the approval of those whose standards are the opposite of one’s own.

Let me emphasize that the Argument from Intimidation does not consist of introducing moral judgment into intellectual issues, but of substituting moral judgment for intellectual argument. Moral evaluations are implicit in most intellectual issues; it is not merely permissible, but mandatory to pass moral judgment when and where appropriate; to suppress such judgment is an act of moral cowardice. But a moral judgment must always follow, not precede (or supersede), the reasons on which it is based.

When one gives reasons for one’s verdict, one assumes responsibility for it and lays oneself open to objective judgment: if one’s reasons are wrong or false, one suffers the consequences. But to condemn without giving reasons is an act of irresponsibility, a kind of moral “hit-and-run” driving, which is the essence of the Argument from Intimidation.

Observe that the men who use that Argument are the ones who dread a reasoned moral attack more than any other kind of battle – and when they encounter a morally confident adversary, they are loudest in protesting that “morality” should be kept out of intellectual discussions. But to discuss evil in a manner implying neutrality, is to sanction it.

The Argument from Intimidation illustrates why it is important to be certain of one’s premises and of one’s moral ground. It illustrates the kind of intellectual pitfall that awaits those who venture forth without a full, clear, consistent set of convictions, wholly integrated all the way down to fundamentals—those who recklessly leap into battle, armed with nothing but a few random notions floating in a fog of the unknown, the unidentified, the undefined, the unproved, and supported by nothing but their feelings, hopes and fears. The Argument from Intimidation is their Nemesis. In moral and intellectual issues, it is not enough to be right: one has to know that one is right.

The most illustrious example of the proper answer to the Argument from Intimidation was given in American history by the man who, rejecting the enemy’s moral standards and with full certainty of his own rectitude, said:

“If this be treason, make the most of it.”

-Ayn Rand


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