One aspect of civilized behavior is that we try to settle disputes by rational argument, not by violence and coercion.
Sadly, many people don’t know how to make a rational argument. Their first choice is to use the “argumentum ad baculum.”
That’s a Latin phrase meaning “argument to the club.” It means you support your claims not by giving reasons, but by threatening harm.
If you make threats, it shows only that you have no legitimate reasons for your viewpoint. Many political arguments commit this fallacy:
- Agree, or we’ll get you fired.
- Agree, or we’ll call you a Nazi.
- Agree, or we’ll terrorize your family.
- Agree, or we’ll harass you everywhere you go.
- Agree, or we’ll burn down your house / business / city.
- Agree, or we’ll get you banned from banks, payment processors, and the internet.
Nobel laureate biologist James D. Watson was on the receiving end of that argument, as were Nobel laureate biologist Sir Tim Hunt and other members of the Thoughtcrime Honor Roll, including James Damore, Noah Carl, Charles Murray, and Tucker Carlson. The most recent honoree is Dr. Leslie Neal-Boylan, former Dean of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts. She was fired for writing this email:
“I am writing to express my concern and condemnation of the recent (and past) acts of violence against people of color. Recent events recall a tragic history of racism and bias that continue to thrive in this country. I despair for our future as a nation if we do not stand up against violence against anyone. BLACK LIVES MATTER, but also, EVERYONE’S LIFE MATTERS. No one should have to live in fear that they will be targeted for how they look or what they believe.”
If you’re wondering what’s wrong with the email, she said that “everyone’s life matters.” That’s obviously racist and bigoted. The mob swung its club and hit its target. Fired.
Increasingly often, people make business and policy decisions in fear of the argumentum ad baculum. They censor themselves. They try to scrub their internet history. They pray that there’s no photo of that party from 30 years ago. They pray that nobody finds out they pray. They avoid encounters with potential accusers. Even if they know it’s idiotic, they vote to abolish police departments.
As for the people who wield the club, they like it that way. If they know anything (which they often don’t), they know that they can’t win an argument on the merits. Facts and logic are against them. So they scream, harass, threaten, riot, and destroy. It works because most people just want to live their lives in peace and avoid trouble. The intimidators get their way. They satisfy their animal lust for dominance.
When ad baculum becomes the default mode of argument for a large segment of the population, the only way to answer it is “the Chicago way.” It is not a nice way, and it should be avoided if reasonably possible. But when it cannot be avoided, it must be applied ruthlessly.