Jul 21, 2008

The Cause of History: Ideas or Insults?

In the last few years, I have frequently examined many advocacy websites. One of my purposes was to identify the manner in which the authors made their points; their style in responding to comments, especially critical ones; and their effectiveness as intellectual or political activists.

In some weblogs, one element of style stands out: insults to opponents. These writers call their opponents names such as: nutbars, nutjobs, morons, cowards, idiots, goat herders, ragheads, and scum. They also use adjectives such as: moronic, idiotic, stupid, nuts, crazy, loony, insane, delusional, and childish.

Why do these writers use insults? Judging from their statements of purpose and the contents of their weblogs, these writers want the world around them to adopt certain views. Do these writers think that insulting their opponents will persuade their opponents to revise their values? I am not sure of the answer. I have only a "working hypothesis."

What I see in some weblogs--and also, I am sorry to say, in some of my own writing in various forums several years ago--is the use of language primarily to either express the writers' own emotions (typically anger) or to evoke emotions (typically anger) in their sympathetic readers and perhaps even in their targets. For such writers, emotions, usually expressed indirectly as insults, seem to be both the values to be achieved and the means for achieving them.

Such writers also seem to assume that emotions--especially those expressed by or triggered by insults--somehow cause history, that is, cause people to change their actions. The writers seem to assume the world is filled with human monads, each one radiating emotions, and the monads radiating most vibrantly win whatever struggle they have undertaken.

Most of the weblog writers who use insults also freely use hyperbole, for example: "This is absolutely and totally the world's foremost case of stupidity in all of recorded history." Perhaps such writers think hyperbolic language makes their emotional "vibrations" stronger. I suspect it is the equivalent of shouting in English when trying to communicate with a man who understands only Spanish. This is intrinsicism applied to communication.

My "working hypothesis" is plausible but unproven. Philosophically, I still wonder: What worldview underlies such insults? And, historically, I still wonder: What benefit have such insults secured in achieving any objective movement's goals for improving the lives of rational people here on earth?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Feb. 17, 2012, P. S. -- Many of the individuals I have observed using terms such as "idiots" are conservatives and libertarians. However, the technique is not limited to them. There may be an underpinning epistemology shared by all such speakers. Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, pp. 177-178, offers comments about postmodernists' use of language as a weapon to change the world. Since postmodernists reject reason (and reason's premise, the idea that everything in reality has a definite nature), they are free to use language any way they want. To change the world to match their nonobjective values (egalitarianism, polylogism, and so forth), postmodernists use language to attack, not persuade. Hicks notes (p. 178, 2nd edition): "The regular deployment of ad hominem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodernist epistemology of language." (I have reviewed Hicks's book at: reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2012/02/bkrev-explaining-postmodernism.html


Lyle said...

I believe that the folks you are referring to are trying to elevate their status by pushing others down. It is easier to do this than to rise above the crowd. - Lyle Wilson

heroicdreams said...

I do not have a systematic explanation either, but just a few notes or thoughts on the matter:

(1) Presenting opponents as idiots obviously serves the purpose of "discrediting" their positions by means of an ad hominem attack: "You have to be a real idiot to hold such a view."

(2) A corollary of this employment is: "If you have to be an idiot to hold such a view, there cannot possibly be any good reasons for holding that view. You either have to be stupid (i.e. not be able to see that it is so plainly wrong) or dishonest (i.e. motivated by some selfish interest conflicting with the truth)." It helps to present one's own position as a matter of course, as _the_ one and only reasonable position one can adopt - if one wants to be recognized as a reasonable fellow by the person uttering the insult. In a way, there is an argument from intimidation implicit in this.

(3) As an extension of this, the insult is not primarily aimed at the person(s) being insulted. Rather, it is a device of building a "community-feeling" among the "reasonable" people who hold the undeniably true opinions of their spokesperson. It is a way of (mis)integrating an opinion-group by means of excluding people who hold opposing views by means of labeling them "idiots" because they hold such views.

I guess, it's a subtle kind of mass-psychological manipulation based on emotionalistic group-feeling (belonging to the one's who know what's going on). And it is contrary to rational communication because the use of insults replaces sound argument.

Sascha Settegast

Monica said...

Wow Burgess -- what a great post.

I'm honestly not sure insults are always intended to change the course of history. Sometimes, folks are simply angry and want to lash out. That is their "value." It's purely an emotional response and feels good to them. It's a catharsis for them to just write something nasty and post it for the world to see.

In other cases, even advocates of something are often range of the moment thinkers. They are not driven by principles, and thus, they do not think actively about what will work and what will not work.

I don't think insults do achieve much. They mostly work to try to shame others -- this will only work with people who have extremely low self-esteem. But I think even then, insults work poorly, because most people have at least *some* pride. Certainly insults don't work at achieving any rational goal with rational or mostly rational individuals with self-esteem. These types of behavior only serve as a "rah rah" session for the particular group conducting the insulting behavior. Thus, a form of collectivism. Wow.

I agree with Sascha -- that's a very good identification I had not thought of before. Insults can actually be a collectivist weapon of manipulation. I think I've realized much of this subconsciously but the identifications in the post and comments are good ones.

I'm left wondering whether labels that are insulting are always inappropriate. However, in assuming that the labels are appropriate, ever, I think one must assume that everyone in a certain group that one labels is basically irrational and unreachable. Perhaps that is a dangerous premise, because even if it could in certain instances be true, in a public setting it could really turn some spectator away from the conversation off entirely. I need to think more about that. Certainly you've given me a lot to think about in terms of my own behavior.

Such behavior does typify range of the moment thinking or emotionalism, doesn't it?

Monica H.

heroicdreams said...

Burgess; concerning your point that, from the viewpoint of these people, emotions seem to cause history: I think that is true _in some way_. I am not sure whether they would hold such a view explicitly; but indeed they believe at least that people can be convinced best by appeals to emotion or strong emotional "vibrations". I have often encountered this when arguing with anti-abortionists. Most of them hold their position not due to reasoned argument but due to some unspecified feeling. They cry that "abortion is murder" and show you pictures of human-shaped fetuses--and then they believe they have made a convincing case... and are bewildered if you tell them that a picture is not an argument, and just because it has the looks of a human being does not automatically confer personhood or rights upon it.

This is a very emotionalistic, anti-conceptual mindset. I think it is possible that the whole "insult strategy" is aimed at "convincing" people like that, people with what in German would be called a pretty simplistic "Stammtisch" mentality. (Is there such a thing as a - loosely translated - "bar room mentality" in English?)

Sascha Settegast

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


This is a very interesting post, and it is of personal interest to me because I have experienced this kind of attack in the blogosphere.

I think the purpose of it is to replace reasoned argument with assertions that will discredit the opponent i.e. ad hominem attack.

What is particularly interesting to me, is that in many cases, the person pursuing a reasoned argument is left with a "reputation" that is false and insulting. For example, in my case, I still end up corresponding with people who believe (based on no evidence I have given them) that I take the opposite view than the one I have taken. It is diffucult to repair this impression because many people do not read carefully in cyberspace.

I think the intent of these insults and smears is to weary the opponent so that she will leave the battlefield, so to speak, to the irrational emotional "vibrators," (I really like this term you used!) who then claim victory. Of course, they have won nothing, but they have the unthinking majority on their side. Ultimately their claimed victory this is total unreality--but much damage can be caused by those who refuse to dwell in reality.

Thanks for this post. It gave me a new way to think about this.

Michael M said...

Burgess, this subject needs to be dealt with across the board way more than it has been. Blogging has expanded argumentation by insult astronomically. While there is no rebuttal that will persuade those who rely on this tactic, it is absolutely necessary to develop compact razor sharp explanations of its usage to insert for the sake of the newly minted honest minds who are searching and lurking in the background.

I was mostly just nodding in approval while reading your post until this made me stop and say wow!

"I suspect it is the equivalent of shouting in English when trying to communicate with a man who understands only Spanish. This is intrinsicism applied to communication."

That's volume as the mystical path to a supernatural, intrinsic truth that the mind cannot access directly. Yes! And, if hyperbole = intrinsicism, I favor this explanation of insult:

Since there is never an intrinsic version of anything without a complementary subjective side of the coin, then the place to look for your cause of the insult arguments is subjectivism. And it fits. After all, the subjectivist, 1) rejects ideas in favor of direct physical experience (emotional), 2) holds all "truths" to be malleable, ephemeral, approximations and 3) relies entirely on consensus to distinguish between right and wrong.

Thus for the subjectivist, argumentation will never be about ideas, and your Objectivist ones will be rebutted only with emotions, because the subjectivist is not after a usable truth, but rather a body count of similar emoters (and they are legion). To confirm this, just go onto a subjectivist (invariably liberal) blog and argue with the insulters. You (and Rand) will inevitably be castigated as "dogmatic", "cultish", and "religious", the dreaded attributes of the subjectivist's primary arch-enemy, the (conservative) intrincicists.

And while we are on the subject, are you also familiar with this variant of the argument from intimidation? You make a factual statement about the negative implications of a person's position and to avoid rebutting your interpretation he goes ballistic with the accusation that you have insulted him. It is the insult argument reversed. My attention was called to this format by a recent city commissioner who could turn any criticism of one of his positions into a claim that such opposition was insulting. So just for him, I assembled this: Facts cannot be insults. Indignation is not a rebuttal.

Burgess Laughlin said...

A reminder to readers who want to comment. Unless I already know you by your initials, you must use your full name at least at the end of your post or on a homepage to which you link.

I do occasionally allow comments that use a first name and a last initial if the writer appears to be honest, if the post is insightful, and if I have an inkling that I might know the person.

Otherwise, always use a last name and at least a first initial at the end of your post, if not in your official blogger name. Blogger "profiles" that contain no distinguishing information are useless for identification.

That having been said, I must also say that I am very pleased to welcome the high-quality comments I have received and published. Thank you all.

Richard said...

Thank-you for an excellent post; one that has touched on a personal weakness I have been fighting my entire life.

I grew up under a very religious (Instrinsicist) father, who produced very loud shouts when angry. I have fought this in myself, but with limited success.

I particularly resent having anger used on me to achieve unjust goals with respect to my own views, however honestly mistaken the angry person, or I, may be. When confronted with insistent, unjust and/or dishonest, anger from others I head in the same emotional direction. Though Objectivism did a lot to inhibit that, there remain times when I cannot quell my anger. It seems eminently just to be angry, but it is no more than a lashing out at the Reality that wrongheadedness exists and acts.

The anger seems to arise from a buried belief that wrongheadedness can be stamped out, in some misguided attempt to defeat unreason, as if it were an intrinsic quality of others' minds; which I think fits with what your post explains.

Too often I find anger arises in situations where I cannot just shake my head and walk away. Sometimes it seems that outdoing the other person seems to work, but that boils down to out-bullying a bully. Onlookers are horrified and, as Elisheva points out above, they remember the wrong view entirely.

After the fact, I realize that it was counter-productive with respect to the a) onlookers and/or b) with the individual raising my ire, especially if I must continue to deal with him. The latter situation can be particularly frustrating, because he is unwilling to reason, and therefore creates ongoing problems in work situations (or other relationships).

I recall Rand, on the Donahue show, getting angry at the young woman who asked a question that had a snide implication. That event suggested there is a time when anger is appropriate, but most often it is not. It made Rand appear to be an angry soul. She is not, but she gets remembered that way, and opponents promote that view ceaselessly.

Writing requires measured effort, and so should speech. There was a time when people (usually in certain social classes) expected themselves and others to speak with the same thoughtful care as one would when writing. Now, it would seem, a great many people do not develop such care, even when writing.

Perhaps anger had a certain value in days when reason was an utter rarity, but in general it accomplishes very little, and is a tough habit to undo. Certainly anger should be restrained, and may require psychological assistance to fully control (e.g. anger management of some kind).


Burgess Laughlin said...

A reminder to commenters: See the November 18, 2007 post on etiquette. Commenters, as a general rule (applied by me) must use either their full true name or at least a name and an initial. A common name like "Mary" without a last-name initial, at least in the body of the comment, is not an identifier. (I encounter a lot of individuals named "Brian," for example.) However, a link to a unique, informative home page does help identify the commenter.

I do make exceptions occasionally, for individuals who are new to my site, new to me, and appear to have simply misread the etiquette post.

I have also been incrementally editing the etiquette post to make the name rules clearer. I do realize they are unusual.

Burgess Laughlin said...

The topic of the post, of course, is insults used in place of (or even in addition to) rational arguments. The topic of anger is relevant because anger is often the emotion accompanying insult.

I am not a psychologist. I do not have a general theory of anger. I can offer some observations that have helped me over the years.

1. In one sense, emotions are always valid, just as sense-perception is always valid. An emotional response is an automatic response to some value.

Whether that value is objective (logically based on fact or not) is another question. Whether we have accurately understood the situation is still another question. Whether expressing that anger in a certain way or at all is appropriate in a given situation is a further question.

2. Emotions are "analog," that is, they are proportional to the values involved. If I become very angry over a supposedly small issue, then what will I feel if the issue is great? Becoming very angry over a small issue (if it is truly even an issue, objectively) rings an alarm for me. It makes me wonder if there is some other, hidden issue involved.

Without professional assistance--from a competent psychologist or counselor with appropriate training--the process of uncovering hidden issues can take a long time. Professional help can shorten that process. I know, from experience many years ago. I had the good fortune to work briefly with a highly competent MSW (masters of social work) trained in individual counseling. She asked a few perceptive questions and within a few sessions I had an answer. Some problems, of course, take much longer to solve.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I have recently gained an insight that I owe to Roberto ("Tito") Sarrionandia, Tito's Blog.

His point, if I have understood it correctly, is that sometimes, when writers mix insults with proper analysis and objective insights, they are doing so because that have, momentarily and unwittingly, conflated two purposes:
- Engaging in intellectual activism.
- Venting their own frustration with the seeming density of the advocates of nonobjective positions.

Introspecting, I would say this fits my experience. Up until now, I failed to explicitly identify that phenomenon.

A writer should always have a clear purpose or set of purposes. If he has more than one, none should undercut the others.

Amit Ghate said...

Hi Burgess,

I agree with Tito's point. Another way to look at it is to think about showing, not telling. I.e. rather than present an evaluation (such as "this idea is stupid"), present the facts that lead to the conclusion. This is the only way to communicate an evaluation objectively, since without the argument, even if it's true, the reader can't reconstruct the logic necessary to arrive at the conclusion.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, pp. 124-125, offers fascinating comments about insults as well as pejorative statements generally.

She suggests leaving such bad wording in when you are quickly writing the first draft. Then when you edit you can replace insults and other objectionable words with words that convey an exact meaning (facts plus evaluation of facts, as some commenters here have already noted).

She also recommends understatement rather than overstatement because understatement still allows the reader to get the point but leaves him a quiet space in which to draw his own conclusions. On the other hand: "When you overstate something, you disarm yourself. A man does not shout when he is sure of his case. When a writer understates what he is saying, what comes across is an overwhelming assurance on his part."

Burgess Laughlin said...

Jason Crawford, on his own weblog, posts about a related subject: dealing with "stupid" people.


As a small part of his post, he questions the manner of those individuals who routinely blame others' views for their "stupidity."

More positively, and therefore more importantly, he offers guidelines for resolving disputes with individuals whom others are quick to label as"stupid" but aren't.

Rob Ta. said...

I think often the source of this can be traced to misunderstanding the purpose and target for writing. If one focuses on 'the bad' then the purpose would seem to be to 'smash' the bad ideas and 'villainous people' as forcefully as possible. If one focuses on 'the good' - then the target of writing is to provide value to good rational people and simply explain to them in clear terms (wrt bad ideas) the nature or essence of 'the bad' so they can understand and protect themselves. Insults not only aren't necessary in that context, but only get in the way of the exposition.