Monday, November 23, 2009

Left, Right, Intimidation and Superiority

Ayn Rand, in one of her more insightful moments, explained an argument that I think is the prime political argument today. She called it the Argument from Intimidation. Here is her definition of the argument. My comments will follow:
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 . . . [It] 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.” . . . 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 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-by-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 “But everybody knows that capitalism is outdated!”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.

I think this is the most common political argument around. Consider when the "Tea Bag" protests went on in Washington. The way the media and Left-wing Talking Heads covered it was almost entirely one long argument from intimidation. It is the condescending "tsk tsk" sound, accompanied with a small grin implying that anyone who disagrees simple "can't be taken seriously." The same argument comes from the Right, especially from the Religious Right. It is the assumption that anyone who disagrees with their theology simply has to be "antifamily," or "antiAmerican," or just plain "sinful."

What concerns me is that the Argument from Intimidation is often accompanied by the most dangerous political view around: that those who are the object of one's ridicule must be either stupid or immoral. This sort of black/white fundamentalism, in any field, is implies that all dissent is fundamentally immoral, of at best, the sign of a inferior mind at work. Consider the ramifications of that perspective for a moment.

If you assume that all who disagree with you are, at best, stupid, then you are the superior man. When people are tempted to place them self into that category, by implication they are placing the dissenters—that is those who dissent from them—into the "inferior" status. I happen to think that dividing humanity into categories of superior and inferior is a highly dangerous one. It is inherently totalitarian. The superior man easily concludes that due to his superiority that it is legitimate to use force against the inferior for their own good. Since the inferior are inferior they are poor judges of what is best. So such decision-making should be left to the superior men of the world.

Of course, since it is difficult to persuade the inferior men to follow the wisdom of these elite sages then it behooves the superior folk to find ways to compel the inferior to obey. None of it is every justified as a power-grab. It is always because the superior men know what is best and "are trying to make the world a better place." In many ways this sort of view is unrelenting, especially when combined with the view that some sort of moral virtue is involved when you "help" people without their consent. C.S. Lewis warned of this attitude:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
Equally as dangerous is the assumption that those who dissent are immoral or evil. The self-proclaimed "superior" man may think that force is necessary to "help" the stupid. But when it comes to the "evil" then force must be used to harm them. Any tactic, provided it harms the perceived enemy, is thus justified.

Both the Left and the Right use both these justifications. But the mix differs between them. The Left-wing superior man tends to mainly assume that people are stupid and thus power and force may be used to "help" them. Of course, the power and force is given to them to wield according to their own innate superior intelligence. Intelligent people tend to be attracted to Left-wing ideologies.

While the intelligence levels on the Right are clearly lower that does not mean that individuals on the Right do not see themselves as "superior" men. Their superiority is not based on intelligence but on what they perceive to be moral character. And typically this "superior moral character" comes in the guise of religion. The Left shuns religion because they don't need it. They can easily concoct intellectual justifications for their superiority. The Right, however, clings to religion because it allows the man of average intelligence to claim superiority through divine revelation. The man who sees himself as morally superior tends to believe that those who sin need punishment or the fear of punishment.

Thus Left-wing ideologies tend toward the welfare state while Right-wing ideologies tend toward a theocratic state. One preaches compassion for the intellectually inferior man, the other preaches law and order to control the morally inferior man. And while these two ideologies are often seen as polar opposites they, in fact, have much in common. Both are movements of individuals who see themselves as superior to the bulk of their fellow citizens. Both feel justified to use coercion. They merely differ as to the justification for their use of force against others: the Left uses force to "help" individuals, whether they wish to be help or not; the Right uses force to punish evil.

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