A favorite resort of cowards and bullies is the argumentum ad baculum, the argument “from the stick.” It is the use of force or violence – whether physical, psychological, sociological, financial (which is really a part of the sociological), or emotional – to silence others who would otherwise disagree with their positions. Such persons, unable to present a genuinely reasoned case, decide that the vacuum due to the lack of cogency in their claims is to be compensated for with the blunt force trauma they are prepared to inflict. Sometimes “blunt force trauma” is not a metaphor. Just a few days ago, some high-minded “Christians” literally beat their own 19-year-old son to death, so as to properly impress upon him the love of the sweet baby Jesus. Such behavior is not normal, of course, even amongst the viciously right-wing authoritarians in American Christianity today who, regardless of their numbers, garner so much press. But it is also worth remembering that the reason these people are not as bad as, say, ISIL, has nothing to do with the “love” in their hearts, and everything to do with the fact that hard-won secular law stands between them and the kinds of atrocities they’ve committed in the past, and would still be committing if they could get away with it. (Recall Nietzsche’s aphorism: “If the Christians still loved us, they’d still burn us.”)
As I noted in a previous post regarding approaches to religion, “In communities that valorize liberal approaches, the experiential element will be directed toward personal growth and spirituality. In conservative communities, experience will be canalized into orthodoxy and conformity.” The latter, canalizing method must – almost, if not simply, by necessity – appeal to other methods than reason in order to establish such conformity. Reason unleashed invariably follows the multitudinous fibers of possibilities not yet described or even imagined, decrying along the way the permissions of others. This might lead to community, but it will not be the foundation of conformity.
Yet having said as much, it is important to also note that “the stick” is not exclusively, or even primarily, a method of religion; nor is it limited to the politically conservative branches of opinion. On the other hand, while members of the political left have been known to shout down speakers whom they believed were promoting unworthy or inadequately developed ideas, it does at least seem that conservatives are more likely to actively beat into silence those who publicly disagree with them.
At this point it is worth observing that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from criticism – quite the opposite, in fact. Moreover, it is not an infringement of your rights if I decide not to provide you with a microphone and a podium from which you can spout your nonsense opinions. These distinctions seem oddly more blurred these days, even as the possibilities for anyone to set up their own soap box and freely express themselves have become more widespread, with previously unparalleled opportunities for engaging an audience than have ever been witnessed in prior human experience. (See HERE for an example.)
These kinds of complaints about supposed speech infringement are often enough themselves examples of the argumentum ad baculum, because they are an attempt to bully into silence those who would criticize the initial speaker. Said initial speaker will seldom enough be saying anything so original that the protestors said speaker might provoke into protesting don’t already know what the speaker is going to be say. Indeed, one might rhetorically (or more or less literally) wonder, “If all you are here to do is collect your speakers’ fee, why should I be patient of paying that fee, especially when the people who made that arrangement made no effort to include me in the decision regarding the monies I am expected to pony up for your fee?” I am thinking here of the often noisy protests that can erupt on college and university campuses in reception to variously unpopular speakers. Are such speakers speech rights being infringed, or merely their podium privileges?
This is the point, I would argue, upon which the ad baculum fallacy hinges. The ad baculum bullying only occurs when rights are trampled. When privileges are revoked – as, say, when some talking head is hounded from the air waves because people no longer wish to finance said individual’s megaphone and podium – this is not bullying, this is simply “the market” in operation. (Fox News has not infringed my rights, despite their dastardly refusal to give me my own talk/opinion show.)
Now, make no mistake, “the market” is galactically stupid. “The market” decided to make DOS and VHS successful, even though CP/M and Betamax were superior products by every objective standard except for “the market.” This is not a surprise, by the bye. Multiple studies have, at this point, made patent the stupidity of the market, beyond even the abstract possibility of reasoned dispute. In any event, it is not an infringement upon your rights, nor is it any manner of ad baculum bullying, if people do not wish to attend to what you are saying, regardless of what a brilliant and sterling person you happen to be, or the quality of insights you wish to share.
Bullying occurs when your private home address &/or phone number is publicly broadcast to encourage other people to, implicitly or explicitly, engage in acts of harassment and intimidation. Notice the difference here: I have provided a variety of venues whereby I might be contacted by anyone from the public; insofar, this is because I consider myself to be a “public person.” But that information does not include my living address or my phone number, my car and license plate, or even a physical description of myself. Much of this latter information would not be hard to find were one determined to dig it up. But no legitimate reason can be offered for such an investigation, much less the publication of the results.
Perhaps the most insidious form of bullying out there is the so-called “SLAPP” suit. SLAPP – which stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – is a lawsuit typically brought by someone, claiming to have been libeled by another, with no real intent or expectation of winning the lawsuit. Rather, the plaintiff, the person claiming to have been libeled, intends to use the legal system to financially ruin, and thus silence, the defendant. (Unable to manage the legal fees, the defendant is forced to settle with the plaintiff – on the plaintiff’s terms! – even though the plaintiff’s case would never stand up if it was ultimately brought to trial.) Clearly this is not as vicious as bombing a clinic, or murdering a physician serving women’s health issues. But such overt acts of violence are easily recognized as such, and readily denounced as savagery even by those who might otherwise share the ideological bent of the perpetrators. What makes the SLAPP suit so insidious is that it carries the patina of civilized legal action. But the fact remains that a SLAPP suit is nothing more than a vicious attempt by a bully to silence someone else for speaking the truth.
Even when the bully loses – perhaps the defendant was not as helpless as had been supposed? – the costs of the “victory” for the defendant will be substantial, and possibly quite damaging over the long term. For example, the independent investigative magazine Mother Jones was recently sued for a story they ran. The magazine successfully defended themselves, but at a cost of millions of dollars. The nature of the suit, its venue, and the judgment in MJ’s favor, did not lead to a recouping of their legal costs. It seems unimaginable that the magazine’s investigative work will be unaffected by their remaining, and significant, out-of-pocket costs. (In response to these expenses, MJ is currently running a dollar-match fundraising campaign.) Meanwhile, other investigative journalists must look at this event and ask themselves if they or their organizations have the deep pockets needed to survive such a victory.
If all that happens is that we hesitate to speak the truth, in so far the bullies and their sticks have won.