“Soft tyranny”

Recently a commentator labelled someone’s ad baculum fallacy as “soft tyranny.” This intrigued me so much, I decided to look a little deeper. Ad baculum is another fallacy of distraction, like ad hominem. If you can pull your opponent off topic–get him to forget the subject you were debating–you win. Ad hominem attacks the opponent with a slur (“Oh yeah? Well, you’re stupid!”). Ad baculum slips in a veiled threat.

Ad baculum can be as sleazy as an outright threat: “Someone might get hurt if he insists on sneaking around in my back yard.” It can be backhanded, almost as an afterthought. “Oh, he won’t try anything. I’m sure he cares about his family.”

Adolf Hitler was the master of fallacy. In 1938, while contending to the world that Germany was no warlike nation, Hitler inserted a pretty great ad baculum fallacy into a speech: 

If ever international agitation or poisoning of opinion should attempt to rupture the peace of the Reich, then steel and iron would take the German people and German homesteads under their protection. The world would then see, as quick as lightning, to what extent this Reich, people, party, and these armed forces are fanatically inspired with one spirit, one will. (February 20, 1938)

Not really a threat…just a hint of one. Enough to make someone back off just a little.

In politics, ad baculum fallacies abound on all sides. During one campaign, I believe it was Clinton vs Dole, the Democrats insisted that if the Republicans won, old people would be thrown out into the streets (Medicare would be destroyed), children would starve (the public school lunch program would end), and the waters of this country would be poisoned (the EPA would lose its funding). Yes, folks, the monsters want your vote. Don’t give it to them!

And this week, I’m sure just to provide more fodder for my blog on ad baculum, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke out about the proposed mosque that some Muslims want to build in the shadow of Ground Zero in New York City. She said, “I join those who have called for looking into how is this opposition to the mosque being funded?  How is this being ginned up?” (See the Youtube video from 8/18/10). If it weren’t intentionally done, it at least has the effect of stifling dissent. (“Wow,” one might think, “if I speak out on this issue, someone will be nosing around in my business. I don’t want to attract attention to myself like that. I’d better be quiet.”) Needless to say, this is a violation of the First Amendment, but since it’s a veiled threat, you can’t really call it a direct threat, right? Clever!

Ad baculum, then, has consequences: to shut up one’s opponent because he fears the threat, and to move the discussion from the topic at hand onto a side note or distraction. Striking fear in the heart of your opponent definitely fits the bill of what one commentator calls “Soft Tyranny.” The threat of harm will stifle a good, hearty debate. It’s a fallacy, it’s used by folks on all sides of the political spectrum, and it’s incredibly powerful.

For more discussions on logical fallacies, see my text, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric 1, available on Amazon.

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Filed under Logical Fallacies, Rhetoric

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