(From the author’s Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice)
An Appeal to Peer Pressure uses the emotional and psychological feeling of inclusion in or exclusion from a group as a means of pressuring its victim to adopt a position. Crude examples say, “Everyone else is doing it. You won’t be cool if you don’t,” or “If you wish to join the club, you will agree with its perspectives.” We can also call this fallacy the “Appeal to the Mob” where the title fits, or accept the traditional name of Argumentum Ad Populum, “Argument to the People.” The fallacy threatens an individual with exclusion or ostracizing based on the desires of the majority, the possible anger or fury of the majority, the traditions, beliefs, ideology, or any other attribute of a group of people. “It is the kind of argument that plays to the galleries, not to the facts.”1 …
Peer-pressure fallacies appear commonly in marketing. One spammer boasted, “1,000,000 People Can’t Be Wrong: More than 1,000,000 people decided our 85% off Target, Wal-Mart, Sam’s and Office Depot prices was right for them.” The ad concluded, “IT’S RIGHT FOR YOU TOO!” This last claim commits a Fallacy of the Beard on top of the Peer Pressure. Also notice the emotional pressure added by the ALL CAPS!—another feature to get you excited enough to STOP THINKING AND ACT! But the heart of this spam rests on the “1,000,000 people” claim: peer pressure at its best. Can you argue with “a million people”? Well, actually, yes. Consider that 1.22 Billion people worldwide smoke cigarettes daily, millions use illegal drugs resulting in thousands of deaths and over a million emergency room trips, tens of millions of people bought adjustable-rate mortgages with millions later forced into foreclosure, and millions upon millions each day contract a computer virus by clicking through spam emails. So I would say the “1,000,000 people” argument does not guarantee what’s “RIGHT FOR YOU TOO.” It may, in fact, have something terribly wrong waiting ahead for you.
Mob Politics and Madness
In regarding this fallacy, philosopher and logician E. Morris Engel reminds us of perhaps the most powerful display of oratory in American history, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” Speech, delivered at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.2 Despite focusing on a narrow subject—the use of silver to back currency, as opposed to gold alone—Bryan hailed his mission as “the cause of humanity,” and included several other Appeals to the Masses. He concluded,
Our ancestors, when but 3 million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth. Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to 70 million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, it will never be the judgment of this people.… If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.3
Bryan’s overt Appeal to the Masses actually abuses the fallacy several times, referencing the increased numbers of people in the country (thus implying their greater collective might), referring to the courage of the elite group of founding fathers, and calling upon the “producing masses,” the “toiling masses,” and “labor” as a collective group (outright Marxist language, actually). All of these have the effect of Appealing to the emotions and desires of the particular group, and urging them to act as a group to achieve the agenda. All of this pushes aside reasoning and logical connections, and ignores any possible logical conclusions to the contrary, but rather assumes Bryan’s socialist platform as true and acceptable for society.
While Appeals to the Populace carry much weight, those who live by them can die by them—especially in politics, where an Appeal to the Mob suffers defeat by a Bigger Appeal to a Bigger Mob. In Bryan’s case, his speech proved wildly popular to Democrats in 1896, who immediately nominated him as their candidate; but he lost the general election by a wide margin to William McKinley. He subsequently lost twice more: again to McKinley in 1900, and finally to William Howard Taft in 1908. Bryan’s career ended in disgrace as the agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow publically mocked him in the witness box at the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. Bryan died a few days after the trial at age 65.
The satirist and cynic Ambrose Bierce stumbled upon the roots of this fallacy in his The Devil’s Dictionary. Defining the word “multitude,” he wrote:
A crowd; the source of political wisdom and virtue. In a republic, the object of the statesman’s adoration.… If any men of equal wisdom are wiser than any one of them, it must be that they acquire the excess of wisdom by the mere act of getting together. Whence comes it? Obviously from nowhere—as well say that a range of mountains is higher than the single mountains composing it. A multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him; if not, it is no wiser than its most foolish.
Bierce, who held no love for religion, ambled upon the depravity of man in its collective effects. Human wisdom does not increase because several people, or millions, agree. In fact, human vices and avarice tend to amplify when compounded as mob lust. The greatness of “democracy” is a myth, and the old saying vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) makes a political idol out of fallacious reasoning. Oddly enough, the first person to record this Latin proverb was the British cleric and scholar Alcuin of York (AD 735–804), who also subsequently refuted it. He wrote to Charlemagne, “Nor are those to be listened to who are accustomed to say, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God.’ For the clamor of the crowd is very close to madness.”4
Bierce’s skepticism and Alcuin’s wisdom combine to remind us that “wisdom” is a gift from God which requires God’s nurture to grow. Wisdom does not arise from mere societal consent or “group-think,” which could sooner plunge society into rebellion than enlighten us. We need wisdom from outside the darkened mind of the human race in order to enlighten the human race. This comes from the wisest member of the human race, Jesus Christ. If “a multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him,” then let us not give into Peer Pressure, but follow Christ.
The Bible on Peer Pressure
Not many people realize, unless they have read the Bible carefully, that under the principle of not bearing false witness God’s law forbids His people to give into Peer Pressure. You shall not follow the crowd toward evil, nor sway a controversy by leaning after the crowd (Ex. 23:2).5 Commenting on this passage, the learned Baptist John Gill explained that “it is not the number of witnesses, but the nature, the evidence, and circumstances of their testimony, that are to be regarded.”6 Exactly. Peer Pressure—though a powerful force—has no bearing on determining truth. Truth stands or falls on its own merits, not on popularity. As Norm Geisler puts it, “When did reality become a democracy?”7 This is the biblical view.
The Bible contains many examples of man’s failure to withstand Peer Pressure, and the evils that can result. When Moses remained on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights, the people grew restless waiting for him. They rashly denied Moses and demanded of Aaron to make us a god who will go before us (Ex. 32:1–2). Aaron thus faced the pressure of a restless mob, despite the fact that they wished to blatantly break the First and Second Commandments that they had heard God Himself speak just a few days earlier. Aaron gave in and created the golden calf. As a result, God sent Moses down to execute the offenders, and a plague fell upon those who did not receive the death penalty (Ex. 32:25–35).
Likewise, Saul, the first king of Israel, ended his career in ruin due to his inability to withstand the people. Despite God’s blessing in securing the defeat of the Amalekites, Saul with the people refused to destroy the entire enemy, but rather saved King Agag as well as the best of the cattle (1 Sam. 15:9). This act played toward popularity (like the president’s “approval ratings” today) instead of God’s explicit command. When Samuel confronted Saul for his rebellion the king confessed, I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice (1 Sam. 15:24); and yet he still desired to retain the favor of the people. He pleaded with Samuel, I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and go back with me, that I may worship the Lord your God (1 Sam. 15:30). Saul ended his life defeated on the battlefield: wounded by arrows, he committed suicide on his own sword before the enemy could finish him (1 Sam. 31:4–6). The Philistines defeated Israel and took over their cities and towns (1 Sam. 31).
Other biblical instances of Appeals to the Mob occur in Peter’s denial of Jesus, certainly in fear that the people might have treated Jesus’ disciples as badly as they had Jesus (Matt. 26:69–75). Also, certain unbelieving Jews tried to inflame the entire city of Thessalonica with hatred against Paul and the Christians there. The assailants, taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people (Acts 17:5). Classic Mob action. As well, when Felix, the Roman governor at Caesarea, interrogated Paul, the governor wished to maintain good political favor with the local Jews. Despite Paul’s accusers’ inability to prove their charges, wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned (Acts 24:27). When Festus succeeded Felix, feared the people as well (Acts 28:9).
Perhaps the worst biblical case of an Appeal to the Mob comes from Pontius Pilate. Fearing that the bloodthirsty mob would turn to riot on his watch, Pilate released the murderer Barabbas instead of the innocent Jesus. Scripture clearly state that he did so out of fear of the people: Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified (Mark 15:15); When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves” (Matt. 27:24).
We find an even more insidious and wicked aspect of this story in the Pharisees’ explicit use of Mob Appeal to create the pressure on Pilate. They purposefully incited the mob: But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death (Matt. 27:20; Mark 15:11). And the crowd, acting in defiance of the Exodus 23:2 law against following a crowd to do evil, willingly obeyed the Pharisees: But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that He be crucified. And their voices began to prevail. And Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand be granted (Luke 23:23–24). This sad episode illustrates the power of fallacious reasoning: an Appeal to Peer Pressure effected our Lord’s torture and death.
Fallacies are sins, and as the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), so can wicked judgment have deadly consequences. So often does a mob wield such power, and so often do those with wicked motives attempt to create mob opinion behind their agenda. Yet for those who reject Jesus, the Truth, they will stand with that final multitude that shall not prevail, where only Truth shall prevail, where Christ’s judgment shall move the multitude instead of the crowd bending justice (John 5:26–29; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:11–15). God shall not be swayed by the mob. His people should not be, either.
- Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 97.(↩)
- E. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 5th Ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 211.(↩)
- Available at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/, accessed January 6, 2009.(↩)
- See George Boas, Vox populi; Essays in the History of an Idea (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 9; also quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vox_populi, accessed January 6, 2009.(↩)
- This is my translation, which I think is more faithful to the Hebrew. Compare the Geneva Bible, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil, neither agree in a controversy to decline after many and overthrow the truth.” The New King James says, “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice” (Ex. 23:2).(↩)
- John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 9 Vols. (Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1989), 452.(↩)
- Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking, 97.(↩)