Intimidation Is Not Argument

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.

Posted in Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

You Broke It, You Bought It

“You broke it, you bought it.”

It’s called the Pottery Barn Rule.

If you you pick up a piece of store merchandise and you break it, then you have to pay for it. What’s left of it, anyway. It’s not much good to anyone.

The same applies to ideas. For example:

“Trans women are women.”

No one with a sense of self-preservation would dispute the Revealed Truth that “trans women are women.” But it’s hard to know what it means, because it breaks the idea of being a woman.

In order for “trans women are women” to say anything significant, the second occurrence of the word “woman” has to use the word with its original meaning:

“An adult human female” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2004)

And the original meaning of “female:”

“Denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2004)

The whole point of saying “trans women are women” is that women as originally defined have no characteristics that trans women lack. Otherwise, all we’re saying is that “trans women are trans women,” which is uninformative and tautological.

But using the original meaning is no longer allowed. We are now required to think that words like “woman” refer not to sex but to “gender,” a grammatical term that has been re-purposed to confuse people about biological sex.

The word “gender” is used to mean one or more of these things about people:

  • Their biological sex (male or female)
  • Their belief that they are male or female
  • Their subjective feeling of being male or female
  • Their proclamation that they are male or female
  • Their style of dress (traditionally male or traditionally female)
  • Their mannerisms and affectations (traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine)
  • Their sexual orientation (homosexual, heterosexual, or somewhere in between)

Feminist author Hilary Lips writes that “we view gender not as a category that someone simply biologically ‘is’ but as something that individuals do or act out.”

So when we say (as we all should) that “trans women are women,” we mean that trans women satisfy at least one of these criteria:

  • They believe that they are female.
  • They subjectively feel that they are female.
  • They proclaim that they are female.
  • They dress as females in their society have traditionally dressed.
  • They have feminine mannerisms and emotional reactions.
  • They have sexual desires characteristic of biological females.

Of course, what’s not on the list is actually being female. That’s because if a trans woman were female, then she couldn’t be “trans.” But then what’s the point?

When we say that trans women are women, there’s no avoiding the fact that we mean:

Trans women either believe they’re female, feel female, say they’re female, dress as females, have feminine mannerisms, or have feminine sexual desires, but they’re not actually female.

When you think about that statement instead of just intoning it reverently as part of the woke catechism, it sounds a little too much like “they believe that they’re women but they really aren’t.”

And nobody wants to go there, except perhaps for some female women who are tired of losing athletic competitions to men with ponytails.

The bottom line is that:

  • “Trans women are women” doesn’t mean much unless it says that trans women are actual females.
  • But if they’re actual females, then they’re not “trans.” So it specifically does not say they are females.
  • Therefore, if they are “trans,” then they’re not women in the way that the statement tries to imply.
  • So the statement uses two different meanings of “woman” that contradict each other. It cancels itself.

We should not require religious truths to make sense in the same way as ordinary beliefs about the world, such as “the apple is red.” The fact that “trans women are women” makes no logical sense marks it as a religious truth of great importance. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Posted in Psychology, Society | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

In Defense of Misguided People

Misguided people are all around us.

Of course, which people we call misguided depends on how misguided we are, ourselves.

So I want to say a few words in defense of misguided people.

They might not know the facts

I do not bake my own bread. I do not churn my own butter. I do not repair my own car. I depend on other people to do those things for me. If they do a lousy job, then I end up with lousy food and a car that doesn’t work.

Likewise, I do not personally verify every story in the news. I do not personally check the results of every scientific report. I do not inspect the evidence for every event in history. Occasionally, I do those things. I know how. But most of the time, I depend on other people to give me truthful reports. If they give me inaccurate or biased information, then I end up with false beliefs about reality. If I act on those beliefs, then I do the wrong things.

They might not know the motives

I have no direct way of knowing what motivates any other person. I can only deduce their motives by observing what they do. If I don’t know the people first-hand, it’s even worse: Then, I can only deduce their motives by what some other people tell me that they did. It’s doubly unreliable.

And often, we don’t even know what motivates us. Human motivations are complicated. Sometimes, we plainly lie to ourselves. Other times, we just don’t know what feelings and goals are hiding in the back of our minds.

People do things and hold beliefs for all kinds of reasons. Often, they don’t know the reasons or they can’t explain them.

They don’t distinguish between action and character

We can evaluate other people’s actions as good or bad. But it’s tricky to evaluate their intentions. We assume that we have only good intentions, even if our actions cause harm. When possible, we should extend the same benefit of the doubt to others.

The distinction between intentions and actions leads to a final point. If you try to do something good but unintentionally do something bad, then:

  • Did your action produce a bad result? Yes, it did. It was the wrong thing to do.
  • Are you morally to blame for the bad result? No, you’re not, unless you were negligent. Doing the wrong thing does not by itself make you a bad person.

Of course, repeated patterns of behavior make a difference. Good people have developed a habit of doing the right things, so it becomes almost an instinct. For example, if you saw a man drop his wallet, you’d pick it up and give it to him. You wouldn’t need to think about it. Bad people have the opposite habit. Their instinct is to pick up the wallet and steal it.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean being a fool. It just means keeping in mind that we all try to do our best in life, even if we’re misguided.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Human Relations, Life, Philosophy, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Beliefs Divide Us

Why do beliefs divide us?

This will sound like a joke, but it’s the truth:

Beliefs divide us because it’s part of their job.

We usually think of beliefs simply as being about facts:

  • Two plus two equals four.
  • Flowers are plants.
  • The store is on Ditch Road, two miles north of where we are now.

Factual statements are true or false. Their main job is to guide our actions, so that we act successfully.

But beliefs do other things besides just stating facts. For example:

  • “That there is one God, and Muhammad was his messenger.”

If you believe that (and do some other things), it marks you as a Muslim. If you don’t believe that, Muslims will not accept you as a member of their group.

In order to survive, human groups must be able to determine who is a member of the group and who isn’t a member. Beliefs are one way they do it.

It is unfortunate, but human beings are often suspicious and hostile toward members of other groups. That’s true even if the groups are artificial. As Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson observed:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong.

Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves, and even when the interactions prescribed were trivial … the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Worse still, another problem arises when factual beliefs conflict with beliefs that mark our group membership.

A recent example is that of David Shor, a data analyst for Democratic political candidates. He was a loyal Democrat. To support his group, he cited a Princeton University study that showed race riots hurt Democratic candidates but peaceful protest helps them.

You’d expect Democrats to want information like that. But no. Shor had crossed a line: he had denied a belief that marks membership in the group.

The fact that what he said was true didn’t matter. That Democrats would benefit from taking his advice didn’t matter. Shor had denied one of their sacred beliefs. Naturally, he was fired. His heresy marked him as disloyal.

Of course, beliefs aren’t the only way to show group membership.

Kneeling to rioters and criminals seems repulsive and immoral to most people. But to the “woke,” it shows their group membership, their submission to violence, and their remorse for their imagined sins. That’s why they do it. They want to be “saved” from their inborn evil. (Yes, it’s a perverse imitation of Christianity.) Unfortunately, it’s socially destructive and likely to cause more harm in the long run — to true believers and to everyone else.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Christianity, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why People Are Not Things

Is it ever justified to treat people unequally?

Before you try to answer, notice something about the question:

It’s not a factual question. It doesn’t ask what is, but what ought to be.

We might include facts in our answer, but our answer isn’t about the facts. It’s about right and wrong. The facts are only there to support our conclusion.

Our conclusion might be that we should treat all people equally in some basic ways. They all have the same human rights, simply because they are people.

On the other hand, shouldn’t lower animals have rights? They’re also living things, as we are. And what about plants? Do they have rights?

Most of us would say that only humans have rights. We distinguish between people and non-people.

We think that people should be treated carefully to avoid violating their rights.

As for non-people, even if we treat them with kindness, we don’t feel the same moral obligations as we do with people.

But how can we justify that distinction?

The most common way is to argue that people and non-people are different kinds of things. Different kinds of things get treated differently.

Consider the graphic at the top of this blog post:

  • At the left, the two apples are the same kind of thing, but they differ in degree. One is larger and redder than the other. But even if the bottom apple was green, it would still be an apple and it would still have a color.
  • In the middle, the numbers 2 and 3 are the same kind of thing, but they differ in degree. Two is less than three.
  • On the right, the court on top is from Seattle’s CHAZ area (either that, or from the movie “Idiocracy”). The one on the bottom is a normal U.S. court. But they’re both courts, the same kind of thing. They differ in degree: one is stupider than the other.

Notice that apples, numbers, and courts are different kinds of things.

If things are of the same kind but differ only in degree, then you can treat them in the same ways. You can eat apples, you can add numbers, and you can use courts for legal proceedings.

But if two things are of different kinds, then you often can’t treat them in the same ways. You have to treat them differently.

And that brings us back to our distinction between people and non-people. People are all the same kind of thing. No matter how tall, short, young, old, smart, stupid, law-abiding, or criminal they are, they are still people and they still have human rights:

  • If you want a secular explanation, only people have self-awareness and the ability (seldom exercised) for rational thought.
  • If you want a religious explanation, only people have souls and are made in the image of God.

But the bottom line is that since people are all the same kind of thing, they all have the same basic human rights. That’s why it’s unnecessary to worry about average differences between social groups. If a group’s members are “on this side of the line” between people and things, then they differ only in degree from other people and they have the same human rights.

One problem of civilized societies is to control crime without violating the criminals’ human rights. It’s a tough problem that no society ever handles perfectly.

Posted in Human Relations, Life, Philosophy, Political Science, Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Easily We Are Stampeded


Today, we lurch drunkenly from one moral panic to another.

Last month, it was Covid Cooties. This month, it’s Killer Kops. Next month, it might be something else, just as alliterative and just as loosely connected to reality: whatever will distract the proles while their pockets are picked. (In the 1980s, the moral panics were Deadbeat Dads, Drug Dealers, and Drunk Drivers. You have to wonder if there’s an actual marketing department that comes up with these names.)

Each time, we’re told what is absolutely true, earth-shakingly important, and beyond doubt by any person not in thrall to the Devil.

To ask questions is a mark of evil. We must believe, on peril of hellfire, or at least on peril of being fired. Hysteria, not thought, is the standard of moral goodness.

But our predicament is not really new. The Nobel laureate philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote about it in the 1930s:

“I am persuaded that there is absolutely no limit to the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed.

Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State.

Of course, even when these beliefs had been generated, people would not put the kettle in the refrigerator when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted on in daily life.

What would happen would be that any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be ‘frozen’ at the stake. No person who did not enthusiastically accept the official doctrine would be allowed to teach or to have any position of power.

Only the very highest officials, in their cups, would whisper to each other what rubbish it all is; then they would laugh and drink again. This is hardly a caricature of what happens under some modern governments.” (Unpopular Essays)

If it sounds eerily familiar, that’s because we’re living in it.

Posted in Political Science, Psychology, Society | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chumps ’R Us

I did something really stupid on Saturday evening.

Our city government had imposed an 8pm curfew to discourage rioting and looting. But I’d had a busy day and I didn’t start my evening jog until 7:30pm.

So when the appointed time arrived, I ended my jog early, went inside, and — try to stop laughing at me — I obeyed the law.

Nobody had to tell me to do it. I just did it.

Yeah, pretty stupid, right? You’d have to be a major fool to do that kind of thing anymore.

The protesters, meanwhile, just went on protesting right in front of the police until long after curfew. The police did nothing. In their defense, we’ve had far fewer acts of crime, looting, and terrorism than some other cities like Washington and New York. But it was obvious that the law didn’t apply to the protesters, only to people who posed no threat.

We already knew that the laws don’t apply to people with political connections. Rod Rosenstein and Peter Strzok will never do a single day in jail, nor will John Brennan, Loretta Lynch, or James Comey. To the sorrow of many people, Adam Schiff will never be offered a blindfold and a cigarette. And long ago, Senator Ted Kennedy’s protectors kept him from being charged with homicide for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, after which he was lauded for decades as “the lion of the Senate.” That was, ironically, the least of his crimes, the worst being his vocal and mendacious support of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which put us on our current path to national destruction.

The only people to whom the laws still apply seem to be regular Americans. They don’t have a lot of money, nor friends in high places. But without them. the country would simply stop. You can’t sustain an advanced technological society with people you hired for their religion, skin color, or psychological eccentricities instead of for their ability. And the patience of the people who actually make things work is wearing a little thin.


Posted in Political Science, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Peter Strzok on Racial Protest

White House protesters in July 2016, when Barack Obama was president. Photo: The Washington Times.

Disgraced former FBI agent Peter Strzok is despised by most people who live between the gilded coasts, though possibly not as much as he despises them.

However, knowing “who hates whom” tells us little about the merits of almost any dispute. Ordinary Americans are no more “deplorable” than Strzok is a cartoon villain bent solely on their disenfranchisement. He believes he’s one of the good guys.

I’ve been reading the published text messages that Strzok exchanged with his collaborator Lisa Page. They illustrate how, except for the organized riots and Antifa terrorism, racial problems haven’t changed much since 2016 when Barack Obama was president:

July 8, 2016

Strzok – And meanwhile, we have Black Lives Matter protestors, right now, chanting “no justice no peace” around DoJ and the White House…

A few days later, Strzok and Page’s messages discuss Republican plutocrats like Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney:

July 14, 2016

Page – Have you read this? It’s really frightening. For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance

Strzok – I have not. But I think it’s clear he’s capturing all the white, poor voters who the mainstream republicans abandoned in all but name in the quest for the almighty $$$

And in response to Strzok’s last comment, ordinary Americans across the land are nodding their heads in agreement. They are the actual “resistance” to the people in power.

And whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing (make up your own mind), that’s why Donald Trump was elected president.

Posted in Political Science, Society | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

In Bethesda, Maryland, sinners repent of their wickedness, privlege, and evil.

In 1741, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon about the total wickedness of humanity. It was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

It wasn’t about something that his listeners had done wrong, but about the idea that their very existence was evil and an offense to God.

After the sermon, people left the church weeping hysterically, tormented by feelings of guilt that could never be absolved — because it wasn’t based on anything they’d done — and terror of punishment that could not be avoided — because it wasn’t for anything.

Jonathan Edwards wasn’t standing in front of the crowd of penitents in Maryland last week, but he might as well have been. They believe everything he said, except for all the old-timey stuff about God:

“They deserve to be cast into Hell, so that Divine justice never stands in the way … The Sword of Divine Justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and ‘tis nothing but the Hand of arbitrary Mercy that holds it back …

They are already under a sentence of Condemnation to Hell … The wrath of God burns against them, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is held over them, and the Pit hath opened its mouth under them …

The Devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own …”

How little things change. We’ve got more technology now, but the spirit of Jonathan Edwards and his pathologically guilt-obsessed flock are still with us.

Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Costs of Forbidden Thoughts

As regular readers know, I’ve been studying the Chinese language for the last year or so. China is America’s geopolitical adversary, but that’s all the more reason to understand it. I’m getting to the point that I can read and write simple Chinese sentences, and it’s a lot harder than Spanish.

One of the example dialogues in my textbook includes the two sentences shown in the graphic. A wife wonders why she’s so fat. Her husband, rather imprudently, proceeds to tell her. But he’s not wrong in thinking that her diet and exercise might be the issue.

If he wanted to avoid making his wife angry, then he might avoid talking about the real causes of her weight problem. That would put certain ideas “off limits” to discussion. As a result, he and his wife might develop a lot of unhelpful but inoffensive theories about why she’s fat. Maybe the bathroom scale is broken. Maybe her clothes shrank in the washer. Or maybe she has a metabolic condition. Any of those things could be true, but probably not.

Putting some ideas “off limits” means that the two people will talk and talk and talk, but they’ll never have much chance of solving her problem.

Now, if we can be satisfied with just talking about problems instead of actually solving them, then that’s fine. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we’re making any progress.

The same thing applies to social problems. If we decide in advance that some facts must  never be mentioned, then we’ve also decided in advance that it’s more important to talk about the problems than to solve them. Or at least, we want other people to see us talking about them, so everyone knows how much we care and what wonderful people we are.

The cost is that problems never get solved, because they can’t. They are real problems, but we’ve decided that whole areas of reality are off limits. And that’s not the only cost. When people realize we’ve deceived them, they sometimes over-react in the opposite direction. Psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, explained it this way in a December 2017 forum at Harvard:

“When they are exposed the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in The New York Times or in respectable media, that are almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity, and they’re immediately infected with both the feeling of outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defense against taking them to what we might consider to be rather repellent conclusions.

Here is a fact that sounds ragingly controversial but is not, and that is that capitalist societies are better than communist ones. If you doubt it, then just ask yourself the question, would I rather live in South Korea or North Korea. Would I rather live in West Germany in the 1970s or East Germany or in the 1960s? I submit that this is actually not a controversial statement, but in university campuses, it would be considered flamingly radical.”

Truth has nothing to fear from open discussion and debate: in fact, they are its closest allies. They help us correct our mistakes by exposing us to facts and viewpoints that we had not previously considered. Only intentional falsehood is afraid of debate.

Novelist Ayn Rand put it best: “There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think.”

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews said that it’s “not only interesting, but vital to living.”


Posted in Human Relations, Political Science, Psychology, Science, Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment