Today we’ll continue with word-borne attacks that I’m not including under fallacies. Some of these can fairly be called fallacies (possibly all of them, as lists of fallacies can be extensive), but I’ll let them stand as they are. What matters is that we know about them, and how to deal with them.
Once wrong means always wrong
Sometimes people who know you, or know something about you, will go to slash-and-burn tactics to get rid of your opinion, saying something like: You once said XYZ, and you were wrong. You’re wrong about this too.
That’s a silly statement, of course – we’ve all been wrong about something in the past – and so that rationale could apply to anyone, even though their present opinion was purely correct.
This is an emotional slap, and most likely an effort to chase other people away from your opinion. You can address this one by first absorbing the blow, then by making an appropriate response. Here are my suggestions:
- For a one-on-one conversation: You’ve made mistakes just like I have, Jim; is everything you say false too? [Slight pause] Now, shall we consider that facts?
- For a group conversation, not too risky: Everyone here has made mistakes, Jim. Are you saying that everything these people believe is false too? [Slight pause] Now, we can either consider the facts or not. Which do you prefer?
- If a group situation with a minimal amount of risk: Ah, then I guess I’m automatically wrong… as you walk away.
- If the situation could lead to danger: Just walk away. You probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place, so please review your decision-making process on where to go and not go.
Riding The Fear Cycle
Humans have an inclination toward recognizing threats, then finding ways to evade dealing with them. We say, “It couldn’t really be that bad,” or, “Just do as they say and we’ll be okay.” It’s a type of denial, and we’re very good at it. But what it really comes down to is fear: We’re afraid to stand alone, afraid to say what we really think, and so on.
And so, intelligent manipulators – and particularly those who are looking for long-term victories rather than immediate wins – can ride this weakness to what they want. Just make people afraid and steer them to your “safe” choice, which, by the way “everyone else” has already chosen.
And, sadly, it gets worse from there.
The next step in the fear cycle is internal: Once they’ve made a first mistake, most people will vigorously defend their error. No one wants to admit they played the sucker, after all. This is how errors perpetuate themselves and end up at crazy extremes. Humans are immensely creative beings, quite able to conjure one plausible justification after another, and at great length.
And so, once a long-term manipulator (usually a group of manipulators at this level) gets people to make the first error, they can keep it going for a long time, especially if they can make examples of the first few brave souls to break with the crowd and condemn the initial error.
The solution to this is first to recognize it. Once our eyes are open to this, understanding that it’s a perpetually abused human weakness, we’ll overcome it. It’s confusion that keeps it alive.
And, of course, we need to learn how to stand alone, and to take pain for doing so. That’s not fun, but for the moment that’s the price of keeping a free mind.
Another favorite tool of abuser with some type of position or authority is to deny whatever crime or abuse they’ve been caught in. They’ll proceed with a long line of denials, such as:
I never did that.
The accounts were from my enemies.
They misunderstood me.
I was quoted badly.
And so on. The modern term for this is doubling down. That comes from the world of gambling; it refers to someone losing their first bet, then doubling the same bet again. And again. And again, if necessary.
What these people are actually doing is waging a war on your will. They are betting that the combination of denial and authority will make people increasingly uncomfortable, and that over time, they’ll come up with ways to ignore their crimes.
As we noted above, humans are very creative with their justifications. They are also creative with their evasions. And so, if the powerful person can keep their denial going, and hopefully ratchet up a bit of fear (“Governor Smith will survive this… and he’ll hurt those who tried to take him down”), most people will find a way to either justify him (“His accusers are dirty themselves”) or find reasons to evade the subject (“It really doesn’t matter in the end, does it?”).
Bear in mind, please, that these perpetual denials are running at more or less all times and have a long history of working very well.
As with the fear cycle, the solution to this problem is first to really see it… to understand that it is a war of wills, and that the deck is stacked against the individual: If the person doubling down is part of a governing system, as they usually are, they have not only power enough to create fear, but they have the inertia of the system itself. In addition, government-aligned organizations like news channels (who need access to important stories, leaked information, and favors) will ultimately befriend power.
The hard part of this is dealing with friends and neighbors who are in the process of surrendering their will to the lying leader. In my experience, fighting this is usually a poor use of your time. If you can reason with the person very early in the process, you can have some success, but if they’ve already decided to give in, you’re better off forgetting about it and preparing them for the next battle of wills.
I think it’s healthy for us to accept that while humans are exceedingly promising beings, they also carry weaknesses and are a long way from full development. We’re fighting our way out of a primitive situation, and by accepting that as a truth, our efforts to think clearly and well become much less painful and far more rewarding.
More next time.