Proof by Intimidation
Updated: Oct 15
By the time I began graduate studies for social work, I already maintained a Master of Arts in Counseling degree. I’m not particularly intelligent, though I suspect I’m moderately astute.
Nevertheless, when in the social work program I was dumbfounded by much of the jargon used by other students. Apparently, many of the women and gender studies undergraduate students transitioned into the graduate program and brought with them a lexicon with which I was unfamiliar.
When debates occurred in class, multisyllabic words were often used. As an example, “Heteronormativity affecting peoples of the African diaspora is perpetuated by androcentric practices which are embedded within cisgender Anglocentricity.” Umm, what?
During one period of instruction, when a particularly heated discussion about how women were allegedly being oppressed—because there was mainly a victimhood narrative of this sort being used—I asked to sideline the argument until terms could be identified. I had no idea what was being said.
Some students rolled their eyes, a couple of them laughed, and I heard an expression of disgust for one person (i.e., pffftt). What I didn’t understand at the time was that a number of my classmates had been conditioned to argue in bad faith by needlessly confusing their speech.
According to one source, proof by intimidation occurs when making “an argument purposely difficult to understand in an attempt to intimidate your audience into accepting it, or accepting an argument without evidence or being intimidated to question the authority or a priori assumptions of the one making the argument.”
Here’s how it works:
Claim X is made by person Y.
Person Y’s presumed knowledge seems intimidating.
Therefore, claim X must be true.
As an example:
Social work student Y states, “Heteronormativity affecting peoples of the African diaspora is perpetuated by androcentric practices which are embedded within cisgender Anglocentricity.” I have no idea what is being expressed, though student Y seems confident in her statement which others appear to understand. Therefore, student Y’s claim must be true and I’m too intimidated to counter the proposal.
Regarding this sort of rhetorical fallacy, one source states, “The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim.” Though I don’t consider myself a victim of student Y, I was made aware of my own ignorance in comparison to her and other students.
Attempts to intimidate an audience or interlocutor into merely accepting the result of an argument without sufficient evidence, sometimes by appealing to ignorance and lack of understanding, are unhelpful and this crafty tool isn’t worth the fear with which it may be associated.
In Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), a technique known as the elegant solution may be used instead of disputing an irrational belief in order to tolerate and accept the presumably distressing matter. Here’s how it works in regards to my social work scenario:
Okay, for the sake of argument, suppose it’s true that I’m less educated or intelligent than my classmates. They certainly seem to know what each other are talking about and I clearly don’t. Can I tolerate being ignorant—lacking knowledge? Surely this isn’t the first time I’ve been clueless in a classroom setting. If I’ve been able to endure ignorance in the past, can I also accept it in the present?
This is a matter of elegance, because rather than jumping through mental hoops in order to land on optimistic grounds I acknowledge the is-ought problem—one cannot demand what ought to be when faced with what simply is. This refined approach is accepting of reality.
Therefore, claim X from person Y doesn’t evoke fear, guilt, or other unpleasant consequences, because I admit my own human fallibility. I don’t know what I don’t know and that’s okay.
Dear reader, have you ever experienced proof by intimidation? If so, what are your thoughts on how you responded to the event? If you’d like to know more about how REBT could help you in this and other situations, I’m here to help.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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