Argument from Status
January 19, 1999
readers are aware of certain basic fallacies the non sequitur, the
straw man argument, the ad hominem argument, and inferring causation from
sequence (post hoc ergo propter hoc). But there is one common fallacy or
debaters trick that Ive never seen identified.
Lets call it the argument from social
status. It takes the form All the experts agree that proposition X is
true. Put this way, it may be a legitimate appeal to authority. It
doesnt exclude the possibility that all the experts are wrong; it merely
presumes that they are probably right, putting the burden of proof on those who
disagree. Fair enough.
But the argument from status comes into play
when the advocate says or implies that his opponents are lowlifes. In the
Shakespeare authorship debate, for instance, defenders of the traditional view
say, Professional Shakespeare scholars agree that there is no real doubt
that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays bearing his name. Fine.
But then they go on to sneer that those who doubt
Shakespeares authorship are snobs,
eccentrics, and so forth, usually adding that such people are
ignorant and resentful. For good measure, they often
throw in a bit of unflattering psychoanalysis of the dissenters.
This argument is false, of course, since Walt
Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, and other great authors have disputed
Shakespeares authorship. Thats bad enough.
But the real point is that the argument attempts
to bully the reader. It says in effect: Never mind the merits of the case.
Rest assured that if you question Shakespeares authorship, you will be put
in low company and convicted of bad taste! You dont want that, do
This is enough to deter most readers from
pursuing the question, since most people care less about the truth than about what
may happen to them if they take an unfashionable position. They arent
afraid of torture and prison, which are remote possibilities; they are much more
afraid of the faint derision of the best people.
This kind of argument can be seen
on a much larger scale in politics. Since
the early twentieth century, liberal and progressive
political views have claimed the moral, intellectual, esthetic, and social high
ground. Some of the greatest modern intellectuals and artists have espoused such
views, often flirting with or embracing communism or socialism: Picasso,
Einstein, Hemingway, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Charlie Chaplin, to name a few.
In its heyday, this intellectual
class an odd but instructive term enjoyed a prestige that is
hard to imagine now. It managed to create a cultural atmosphere in which aspiring
intellectuals and artists, however mediocre, sought to establish left-wing
credentials, and in which right-wing became a synonym for
Never mind that communism had killed tens of
millions of people: communist sympathies were signs of good taste, while anti-
communism was vulgar, silly, and vicious. Most liberals could always forgive a
communist, but never a Joe McCarthy. McCarthyism signified not
only tyranny, but, worse, low company and bad taste. Nowhere was this truer than
in the prestigious universities of the Ivy League, where the nominal egalitarians
of the Left enlisted snobbery as their weapon of choice against the reactionary
This is a facet of Americas ideological
wars that has received surprisingly little attention. It began to change with the
growth of a conservative intellectual movement, led by the brilliant young
polemicist William F. Buckley Jr. Others (Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, James
Burnham) did the heavy thinking, but Buckley was the indispensable public figure,
sneering back at the liberal intellectuals and getting the better of them with
Buckley was called many things, but nobody could
call him a redneck. As the first conservative intellectual celebrity, he was
bitterly accused of snobbery by the people who were used to doing all the snubbing.
His patrician style disarmed the liberals argument from status.
Today there are other conservative celebrities:
Tom Wolfe (the satirist of status who memorably nailed radical
chic), George Will, Pat Buchanan, and Rush Limbaugh, not to mention Ronald
Reagan. Liberalism still has its media and academic strongholds, but its no
longer the philosophy of all the best people.
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