A couple of weeks ago there was a political post to a list that I subscribe to, even though they’re forbidden for the sake of avoiding flame wars. He claimed it wasn’t really political because “this issue should be a no-brainer for anyone who isn’t a billionaire sociopath.” He didn’t get away with it, and it’s hard to imagine how he could; if there are any billionaires on that mailing list, they’re keeping quiet or using an alias.

Of course, he didn’t really mean that only billionaire sociopaths differ with him; he was just declaring any opponent unworthy of consideration, outside the debate. In effect, he was saying, “If you disagree with me, you aren’t one of our tribe.”

People like belonging to the social groups they’re used to. The fear of not belonging can affect what they do and say. If they think they’ll be less accepted for saying something, they’ll stay quiet. But this makes them feel like cowards, so they’ll try to forget they ever thought it, or pretend to themselves that they agree with the group. Sometimes everybody will claim to agree, even though nobody really does. No one wants to be the first to point out the emperor’s lack of clothes.

When people do speak out, the enforcers of conformity have ways of dealing with them. They’ll pretend not to hear. They’ll claim to feel sad that someone can’t understand something so obvious. They’ll denounce the dissidents. The parents of the kid in the Andersen story probably told him to shut up. Name-calling is an old standby. “Billionaire sociopath” isn’t going to stick very well, but other epithets can work, and what counts as an epithet depends on the group. “Liberal” can be a term of praise in some groups and a deadly insult in others. “Isolationist,” “racist,” “soft,” “insensitive,” “intellectual,” “populist,” “atheistic,” “religious,” the list can go on and on. I’ve even seen advocates of Agile development use “waterfall” to dismiss any practice that doesn’t fit their view.

Some governments will torture or kill people for having dissenting opionions about God. Is this because it’s so obvious that Muhammad was a prophet that only a billionaire sociopath could fail to see it? No, it’s because it’s impossible in principle to offer a shred of evidence. Where there’s no place for reasons, all that’s left is to denounce heretics and blasphemers. But no country has a death penalty for disputing Newton’s laws of motion. It’s unnecessary. Ignore them persistently enough, and they’ll enforce themselves.

What people say can reflect what they consider acceptable more than what they consider true, and what they take on authority more than what they’ve thought about. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to convince them, not easier. If better reasons would make people change their minds, a good argument might stand a chance. But when people’s chief concern is what somebody will think of them, the most airtight proof won’t help.

People can be passionate about what they believe, and that’s often a good thing. They can get angry at people who do bad things or say stupid things. But when they’re denouncing disagreement and resorting to social pressure, rather than offering counter-arguments, that’s a good indicator that they haven’t thought much about what they believe.

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