Brain Hacks: Using Moral Superiority to Turn Arguments
One of the most annoying, horrible, and downright irritating situations you'll ever run into socially is someone suddenly inveighing against you with emotionally-charged, finger-pointing, judgmental arguments.
These attacks are usually unexpected when you run into them, and they'll frequently catch you off guard. They can be confusing to know how to respond to if you're more accustomed to calm, cool-headed debates about the merits and drawbacks of a specific subject - then suddenly here's someone sandblasting you with hatred and unadulterated emotion. I'm sure you've experienced it at some point or another:
“People like you are the lowest kinds of people there are! You think you can just take whatever you want and not have to suffer the consequences! You think of no one but yourself!”
Suddenly, you're so deeply on the defensive trying to prove these
accusations levied against you are untrue, that you end up effectively
putting your hands up and saying, "Whoa, hey, stop, that's not true at
Morality attacks also usually have a powerful communal effect, with any bystanders to the argument usually feeling either a) swept up in the argument and equally enraged and emboldened, or b) so afraid of being castigated themselves that they either just agree out of fear, or they remain quiet and let things unfold, not wanting to get in the way of an onrushing freight train.
That means that when someone starts hitting you with moral superiority, you need to be quick on your feet to not get quickly cast out as whatever you're being labeled as - and the way to do that, of course, is fighting fire with fire: you must use moral superiority right back.
I grew up in a religious town, and attended Catholic schools growing up. By upbringing, I'm naturally familiar with people waxing moral, and leaning on you with a sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness.
That means that I know how to use this tool with the best of them. However, because I prefer logic and reason whenever and wherever possible, I also detest its use as the polar opposite of logic and reason, and reserve its use only for special situations.
In the article on overcoming depression, I discussed realizing what a bad effect judgmental thoughts in my mind were having on myself and how I combatted them, and in the articles on making people stop judging you and stop judging yourself we explored this topic even deeper.
Moral superiority is judgment dressed up as an argument. It's used to whip people into a frenzy by setting up an individual or group of individuals as "other" and as "not sharing our values."
It is, put in simplest form, a means of violently subjugating a foe by using almost pure emotion, mixed with just enough logic to make the argument appear valid.
Where Will You Run into Moral Superiority?
It takes a special kind of person to wield the sword that is moral superiority, and an even more special one to wield it against unsuspecting persons.
For instance, I'm sufficiently adept at wielding moral superiority, but you'll rarely see me take it out against anyone who hasn't wielded it against me first. Moral superiority is the atomic weapon of arguments; it immediately obliterates the other party's position and silences the opposition.
It's an instant win, 99% of the time.
However, start nuking everybody and you'll very quickly find the world turning against you. You become too powerful, in a scary, rogue-state kind of way, and everyone else gangs up to take you down.
Therefore, the people you'll see using it most often are those who aren't thinking too far ahead about consequences, and are more focused on immediate satisfaction. Wielders of moral superiority tend to have the following traits in common:
Satisfaction-Seekers. People who think about the past a lot are usually too introspective to spend much time getting self-righteous about what others are doing or how others are thinking or spending their time. People focused on the future are usually more aware of the negative consequences of wielding moral superiority too loosely, and tend to in any event be more focused on building the future than gaining satisfaction right now. The people who gravitate to moral superiority most frequently are those who want immediate satisfaction.
Black and White Thinkers. Seeing the world in absolutes - in clear "rights" and "wrongs" - is more or less a prerequisite to moral superiority. You need the feel of moral certitude that only absolutes give you to find the confidence and thrust to lay into someone and tell him he is completely and unequivocally wrong - seeing the world in grays doesn't cut it.
Puppet Masters. This is a nicer, less emotionally-charged way of saying "manipulators." I've met a lot of people pointing fingers with moral superiority, and while they always do their best to seem earnest, if you dig deep enough you can always reach a level with these people where you find out they know exactly what they're doing. They know they're on the attack, labeling someone as an "other" and as far worse than that person really is, and they know they're destroying the other person's self-confidence and sometimes even the other person's life in order to achieve the ends they want to achieve.
Moral superiority is scary because it has so much power to destroy and derail people's lives. When people use it around your workplace, you risk losing respect, promotions, or even your job. When people use it around your social life, you risk losing friends, potential lovers, or even your social circle.
The worst of it is, the people who use moral superiority invariably use it for very selfish reasons. It is always used as either:
- A power grab, or
- A means of vengeance
Moralizing like this is all about what the moralizer wants, and nothing to do with the people or ethics he or she often claims to represent.
What's This Looks Like in Real Life?
The best real life example I can show you off the top of my head was a duke-out section in the comments of the "Girl Has a Boyfriend? 3 Things to Do and 7 Things NOT to" article. The first commenter was someone who found it distasteful that I'd put up an article on how guys get girls unhappy with their boyfriends, and he chose to express this sentiment by passing judgment against me as clearly the most disreputable sort of villain.
Not a bad guy, by the
way... just a guy who read the article, had an old insecurity bite up
and jump him, and lashed out at me blaming as the cause of his
troubles. However, you must put these
kinds of attacks down, because even if the person perpetrating
them isn't a "bad person," the effects of these attacks CAN be bad,
long-lasting, and increasing, like a snowball rolling downhill. You
need to nip them in the bud before the attacker gains steam or rallies
troops around him.
My response there was doing the same as what I'm going to tell you to do in response to people claiming moral superiority over you: throw the argument right back at them.
This requires you to know that what you are doing is "right" - or at least, that someone else is NOT "right" in telling you you are "wrong." There are some other requirements, too, which we'll go over just below.
Here's a common example you might run into if you're out meeting girls in a bar or a nightclub and you run into a particularly nasty person looking to pick a verbal fight and get some satisfaction from wherever she can get it:
You: ... so then why'd you end up changing majors?
Girl: Well [laughs], it's kind of a funny story, but...
Girl 2: [interrupting, to girl] Come on, we're going.
You: [to Girl 2] Pardon me, we're having a conversation.
Girl 2: No, you're hitting on my friend. She doesn't want to talk to you; she has a boyfriend.
You: Um, she seemed like she was enjoying talk to me to m-
Girl 2: I am SO sick of desperate guys coming up to hit on us. This isn't a whorehouse, you know.
You: I never said it was a-
Girl 2: You should just go. Go, before I call security.
(I don't want to alarm you if you're not going out much yet; of the thousands of approaches I've made, I can remember this happening to me maybe twice. Women are usually either thrilled to meet you at best, or ambivalent at worst. Very, very rare that someone is just rude and aggressive outright)
That's the kind of nasty, vindictive, and often humiliating kind of attack that moral superiority produces (and it isn't just angry girls in bars; men, women, young people, old people, all races, colors, and creeds employ this tactic to get what they want or lash out for their own satisfaction).
Generally speaking, the people who will use this against you are just negative, spiteful people in general, and you don't want to be around them.
That said, people attacking you with moral superiority can really do some damage if you let them - and much like in a fistfight, the way to win is not rolling over (which can get you stomped on and killed as your opponent flies into a frenzy) but, rather, to hit back.
How do you fight back against moral superiority?
I'm a fairly nice guy by nature, I like to think, although I have been accused of having a bit of a temper. In the past, my traditional response to moral arguments used to be to just suck it up and go growl in the corner about it, and let the morally righteous go around beating their drums telling me and everyone else how "wrong" we were and what the "right" thing to do was.
Eventually this non-action cost me rather dearly - in terms of time, money, and opportunity. I realized that moral "thought police" were not just a trifle - they were a very real threat.
If you study the history of national revolutions, you end up studying the history of moral superiority. Somewhere right in the middle of a pack of revolutionaries, there is always a charismatic leader pointing firmly and saying, "They are the bad ones. They are the ones doing evil things, and depriving the good people of this nation their freedoms. They MUST be expelled!"
Sometimes this leads to a needed revolution (and perhaps it might even be argued that all revolutions, in their own ways, are needed), but it also often leads to a great deal of destruction and lynchings of people whom history often looks back on and says, "Wow, THAT person shouldn't have been executed!"
Usually you won't have to worry about an organized force of whipped up morally superior individuals coming to lynch you. But you will sometimes need to be wary of individuals trying to turn the crowd against you.
What you need to know how to do is turn the crowd back against them.
What Do You Need to Fight Back Morally?
There are a few things you need to be able to strike back at those who would use morality as a weapon against you. These are:
A purpose higher than yourself. We discussed finding a purpose greater than just your own aggrandizement in the article on selecting a purpose in life. The reason this is so important is because you need to be able to speak to what you stand for. People do not rally around others who only stand for themselves, and the moral high ground is all about appealing to the others around you. You must represent something greater than merely defending your own personal honor and reputation.
Certainty that you are doing no wrong. Because most people live life without clear purpose, they also tend to be uncertain about whether they are "right" or "wrong." Purpose is your yardstick for morality; without it, you will be subject to the whims of those who would judge you. Once you know what you stand for, you know whether you're helping to bring that into the world, and if you are, and your actions are in alignment with your purpose, you become immune to the judgment of others - and able to easily fire back, too.
A bit of a temper. I had to train myself to have this. When I was a boy, I used to shrink back in fear from scary situations. Only by forcing myself to get angry at fear did I teach myself to strike back at people and situations striking at me. So yes - you can learn this one too. Your response to people judging and blanket statement-ing and casting you out must be to be angered, so that you can lash back at them just as emotionally.
More fear of not acting than acting. This one's tricky, but you must basically see more threat in not confronting a moral attack than in confronting it. For instance, in the example used earlier, if your fear that the girl will get you kicked out by security is greater than your fear that not confronting her makes you look and feel bad and ruins your night, you will not be able to muster up the wherewithal to do anything about it.
On temper - yes, you do need to control it once you have it. A temper is something you only want to use with people who are deserving of it - that is, those who are already using their own tempers against you in a bad way (or, occasionally, people who need to be snapped out of apathy and cannot be any other way).
If you know what you stand for and that you are doing right by it (and no wrong), you will not be shaken much by someone bringing a moral argument against you.
Defend by Going on the Offense
If you're not a natural user of moral superiority, you have one advantage in combatting those who've been using it all their lives to gain power, position, and leverage over others.
That advantage is this: because you're consciously having to learn and use this technique, you can combine well-supported logical arguments with emotionally-laden moral attacks.
In "What Happens When You Label People (or Let Them Label You)," we discussed turning people's arguments back against them: e.g., someone censoring you by telling you you're an "-ist" for whatever you've said or believed (sexist, racist, ageist, ableist, nationalist, etc.). The old argument of "takes one to know one" is often true here (unless you really are blatantly an "-ist"... in which case, your accuser may simply have a good point); when you're not clearly an "-ist" but someone is accusing you of being an "-ist," that usually means that he is, in fact, an "-ist" himself.
Let's assume you are in the right, or at least not clearly in the wrong here (if you are clearly in the wrong, you're going to have a much tougher time making an argument).
What do you do when someone hits you in the face with morality shtick?
Answer: you hit back.
When Alexander the Great made his sweeping expansion of Hellenistic culture throughout the ancient world at the tip of his spear, he did so not by attacking his enemies' weaknesses, but by attacking their strengths.
You see, when someone defeats you by capitalizing on your weakness, you resent him. You view him as weak. You mumble and grumble about how he's a manipulator and a cheat.
But when someone takes you on in your area of expertise and comes out ahead, you respect him.
He beat you fair and square.
Thus, when someone picks a fight with you, you must seek to beat them on their own turf.
If you can do this, you win a REAL victory - with your opponent grudgingly respecting you.
Alexander wanted the peoples he conquered to know that he'd beat them at their own game, by attacking their strongest point. He also wanted to make it crystal clear that any hope of a rebellion - of turning things to their advantage and striking back - would be futile; he'd already defeated their strengths.
Turning the Morality Play to Your Advantage
When someone approaches you with moral superiority, you won't defeat him with calm logic (usually), because it isn't a logical argument he's making; it's an emotional, moral one. You must respond in kind.
There are four steps used to address a moral attack:
They work like this:
Refuse: the first step to combatting a moral attack is to refuse it - usually this means starting out with a hard "no." This is usually not what your attacker is expecting, since frequent moral authority users are used to bludgeoning and shaming their opponents into submission with the threat of ostracism. The normal response to a moral superiority argument is, "Wait a minute," or, "That's not what I said," or some other delay tactic or attempt to rationally explain - either of which only embolden the attacker more (it's a sign of being on the defensive - you're in retreat).
While usually you want to avoid saying "no," in this case it's exactly what you need to say. "No" is also more effective than usual here because people who use morality arguments against you are usually very sensitive to hierarchies, and being refuted with a hard "no" subcommunicates to them that they are lower status than you are (if you were lower status, as they're trying to position you as, you would not refute their claim, out of fear of repercussions, but would instead merely defend and ingratiate yourself).
Accuse: your attacker was pointing the finger at you, and now it's time to point the finger back at him. Rather than going on the defensive and explaining yourself ("Wait, I...") you will not talk about "I" but rather "you." This looks like: "No, YOU are the one who..."
This is more for the audience than the attacker. People who are using moral superiority against you know exactly what they're doing most of the time, mind you. They're trying to beat you into submission. When one person is saying, "You do this!" and the other person is saying, "That's not true, I...!" everyone who's watching knows the moral authority is on the accuser's side.
Conversely, when both people are pointing fingers at one another, there's no clear "right" person and "wrong" person - which prevents crowds from getting whipped into too much of a frenzy.
Subdue: once you've startled the aggressor and put him a bit on the defensive, it's time to back up your accusations with logic. This is where even most expert moral high ground takers falter, because as they're doing things emotionally they usually haven't thought out their argument too well, and are accustomed to winning simply by making a fuss. Instead, you will make a fuss back - then back it up with logic. This does two things:
It gets the crowd (if there is one) swinging to your side - where they were "out of the game" once you accused back and there was no clear "right" person and "wrong" person, now they see two people accusing each other - one with a valid argument to back up his accusations (you), and the other without (your attacker)
It takes away your attacker's teeth - whereas before he felt that getting upset and making a simple argument would be enough to neutralize you, as it is with most people, instead suddenly he finds himself having to defend against a better version of his own attack - and now he is the one unprepared for it
you've sufficiently throttled an attempt to morally banish you to the
outskirts of society, it's time to get things cool again. By making things cool again, you
communicate that his emotional attacks had NO effect on you. You
countered them, beat them, and now it's done. It makes it very clear
that you are a leader - followers brood, leaders make things cool again.
Some attackers will see this as
a sign of weakness and as an opening to attack back - if they
do, you have to turn it right back on and repeat the process again
(refuse, accuse, subdue, defuse). You'll know you've sufficiently
defeated them when they stop trying to paint you as morally bankrupt
and themselves as saints or the arbiters of morality.
Here's an example of what this looks like in a practical situation:
You: ... so then why'd you end up changing majors?
Girl: Well [laughs], it's kind of a funny story, but...
Girl 2: [interrupting, to girl] Come on, we're going.
You: [to Girl 1] Can you tell her we're having a conversation?
Girl 2: [to you] No, you're hitting on my friend. She doesn't want to talk to you; she has a boyfriend.
You: No, you're interrupting two people having a conversation and that's rude.
Girl 2: You're just some desperate guy hitting on my friend!
You: If you think a man has to be desperate to talk to Samantha, you're sorely mistaken.
Girl 2: Samantha, come on, we're going.
You: Sam, sorry, looks like you're going to have to choose.
Here, you're not out-and-out crushing the attacker moralizing against you, but rather painting her as the outsider who doesn't get it and asking the friend to choose. The reason you ask her to choose is to activate her decision making; without this call to action, she'll just listen blindly to what the friend tells her, but once you've told her to choose she must engage and assess her options and what she wants. She still may go with her friend, but she's also a lot more likely to ask the friend for a few more minutes, or give you her phone number and tell you to call her.
Here's a more general example, where you'd beat back someone trying to moralize against you for, say, a political position:
Guy: [interrupting you] You liberals need to stop trying to steal from productive people and redistribute to bums / you conservatives need to stop trying to protect the rich and ignore everyone else.
You: No, you [liberals/conservatives] need to stop trying to censor opposing viewpoints out of fear that your arguments will be shown to be as baseless as they are. The only people who try to get other people to stop talking about their views are the ones who don't have any support to back up their own views.
Guy: You're just some [liberal/conservative] piece of crud...
You: I'll take that to mean you accept that you don't have an argument and we can move on. Anyway, as I was saying...
Again, many times these disputes are quick, because people who go on the attack from a position of moral superiority aren't used to being effectively countered. They're used to using the element of surprise to shock, startle, and shame the opposition into silence.
By striking back quickly and hard, you shut down these attacks and can get back to discussing things calmly and rationally.
Not Letting Emotions Win
If you're familiar with the phrase "pacing someone's reality," it essentially means "roughly matching someone's emotional level / understanding of the world."
That is, when someone is very calm, if you suddenly start shouting at her, you're going to freak her out.
Conversely, when she's flipping out, if you try speaking very calmly to her, she's going to think you're not getting it or you're afraid of her, and she's going to flip out more.
Therefore, be calm when she's calm, and flip out when she's flipping out, then direct emotions the way you want them to go. If it's an emergency and you need her to spring to action, you start out somewhat calm but mildly panicking, then raise the stakes. If she's flipping out and you want her to calm down, you yell at her, then bring the volume down a few levels.
Morality attacks function under the same auspices as other emotional situations. You can't respond to someone throwing emotional judgment at you with calmness, much of the time, and win. Instead, you must bring judgment back to bear on them, support it with sound reasoning, and then calm things back down.
When countering people attacking you from the "moral high ground," remember:
If you can get meta to the other person's argument (e.g., pointing out to the political accuser that what he's really trying to do is censor you emotionally because he doesn't really have an argument to make), you'll very often win by default.
When you lose morality arguments, it can often be seen by everyone watching as a major defeat. However, when you win them, it usually looks like simple deft maneuvering and that you've outfoxed an opponent who bit off more than he could chew, and life just continues as usual.
Which is exactly how you want it: effortless.
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