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America by Gaslight

When institutions and authority figures present open questions as settled and use coercive power to get their way, the collapse of public trust is a predictable result

Ilana Redstone
November 24, 2021
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
People march across New York City's Brooklyn Bridge to protest a COVID-vaccine mandate for municipal workers, on Oct. 25, 2021David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

On Nov. 4, through an order from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), President Joe Biden declared that all organizations with 100 or more employees must require those employees to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests. Some Americans saw the order as overstepping, while others saw it as entirely justified. There’s a legal debate to be had about when and under what circumstances such a mandate is permissible, and U.S. courts will surely sort that out in the coming weeks and months.

But the controversy raises a broader question about coercion—the use of power to compel someone to do something they don’t want to do. Coercion can take the form of a mandate, or it can be more subtle, like intense social pressure. Compulsion in this manner, particularly in the workplace—given that people rely on their jobs for their livelihoods—should require a high level of confidence or certainty that what is being compelled is defensible. Sometimes this level of confidence is warranted. And sometimes it isn’t.

When a question has a clear and definitive answer, we feel justified implementing policies and procedures based on that answer. To take an obvious example, we can be highly confident that stealing is wrong. And because of this knowledge and understanding, we have laws that impose consequences on those who are caught stealing.

The imposition of consequences works well when the issue at hand is largely uncontroversial or the answer is universally accepted (like the idea that stealing shouldn’t be tolerated). However, basing policies or procedures on the false treatment of a contested answer as definitive—or committing the “settled-question fallacy”—can have serious negative consequences.

We commit the settled-question fallacy when we behave as if there is broad-based consensus on answers to important and controversial questions that aren’t actually settled.

We commit the settled-question fallacy when we behave as if there is broad-based consensus on answers to important and controversial questions that aren’t actually settled. Often this comes up when there is evidence available to support competing answers to a question, or when a claim is nearly impossible to prove or disprove. A particularly pernicious form of the settled-question fallacy appears when one side of the political spectrum asserts that a question is no longer up for debate.

Although the problem of combining coercion with the settled-question fallacy extends far beyond things like vaccine mandates, the example is instructive. Some find Biden’s mandate objectionable because it pressures people to undergo a medical procedure they don’t want. Others object because they see the mandate as based on assertions that one might reasonably question, citing evidence that the vaccine’s effects wane quickly or that vaccinated people can still spread the disease. It’s important to recognize that some people see the issue of COVID vaccine mandates as a simple dichotomy: If you care about others’ well-being, you’re in favor, and if you don’t, then you’re opposed. This equation is indeed powerful. But without nesting it in a broader conversation about the breakdown in public trust, it makes itself more vulnerable to skepticism and distrust than is perhaps necessary. Indeed, this is why we need more, not less, open and honest discourse that is willing to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge.

By its very nature, the settled question fallacy is likely to lead to coercive measures. It is associated with a level of confidence in what’s right similar to that which drives the prohibition on stealing. But the combination of the two—coercive measures and a false degree of confidence—can be particularly destructive.

The link between coercion and resentment is something psychologists have recognized for decades. In a 1959 paper titled “The Bases of Social Power,” psychologists John French and Bertram Raven wrote that coercive power “stems from the expectation on the part of P that he will be punished by O if he fails to conform to the influence attempt,” where O is the person with power and P is the person being influenced. French and Raven pointed to an important contrast between coercive power and reward power, which is another type discussed in their paper. They wrote: “Reward power will tend to increase the attraction of P toward O; coercive power will decrease this attraction.” Resentment is often the manifestation of this decrease in attraction. Other research has shown that, because the probability of resentment under coercion is so high, authority figures will often opt to leverage reward power instead.

The idea that coercion often breeds resentment should come as no surprise. At a basic level, children often resent their parents when they’re punished for inappropriate behavior or when they’re forced to go to the dentist. Indeed, some among us might resent the very laws (including the ones against stealing) that govern our society because there’s a coercive threat of punishment for breaking them.

But kids sometimes need to be pointed in the right direction to steer their behavior and, if having healthy teeth is important, they need to see the dentist. The reason someone can’t walk into your house, take whatever they want, and walk out without risking arrest is because of laws prohibiting such behavior. Without them, we might just descend into chaos.

In each of these cases, some source of authority—a parent or the government—is insisting either that they know what’s best for you (better behavior, clean teeth) or that you have to comply for the good of society (the alternative being chaos). To minimize the likelihood of negative consequences, it’s best if acceptance of those values is observed across the political spectrum. With a broad base of acceptance, any associated resentment is usually tolerated as collateral damage. But what about when that broad base isn’t attainable? Knowing how to proceed in such circumstances requires a more complete understanding of how coercive power works.

When it comes to pressure and coercion, the perception that the person being coerced has of the coercive source matters immensely. In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments that showed this clearly: In his initial and most famous experiment, 65% of the participants demonstrated obedience to authority when they were told to deliver an electric shock to an unseen confederate, often despite the person’s (fake) screams of pain. In a series of Milgram’s slightly lesser-known, follow-on experiments, lower levels of obedience were observed in the context of certain notable changes. For instance, when the study was conducted in the nearby town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, rather than on the Yale University campus, compliance decreased to 48%. When an “ordinary man” gave the order to deliver the electric shock, it decreased to 20%. In other words, perceptions of authority and social context matter enormously when it comes to the way that pressure is experienced.

The important role of social pressure was again brought to the fore by Phillip Zimbardo in the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in 1971. In this study, participants were assigned to the roles of guards or prisoners and, ultimately, came to behave in ways that were consistent with their fake roles (guards became dominant and forceful, and inmates became submissive). Although the study has come under criticism in recent years, Zimbardo has written in response that “the SPE serves as a cautionary tale of what might happen to any of us if we underestimate the extent to which the power of social roles and external pressures can influence our actions.”

The complex relationship between these factors is apparent when we look at instances of the settled-question fallacy in which coercion takes the form of judgment or ostracization, both of which can be powerful forms of social pressure. In our current moment, this scenario often arises with controversial and sensitive issues like those that touch identity or forms of social equality.

Consider for a moment some of the claims currently being made about the relationship between gender and biology: When we behave as though we know everything there is to know about how the two interact, we’re falling into the settled-question fallacy. For example, the assertion that “trans women are women” is based on a claim that biological sex and gender can be completely decoupled. This claim is in dispute, and yet it has started to reshape the boundaries of our discourse. In several well-known instances, author J.K. Rowling publicly stated her belief that the assertion of no distinction between trans women and women is false. Rowling was subsequently labeled “transphobic” and treated as beyond the boundaries of acceptable discourse by those who considered the question settled.

If Rowling is considered bigoted for her beliefs, the label can be applied to anyone who shares her view. But because the relationship between sex and gender is not fully understood, condemning her for the opinion she expressed is an example of judgment resulting from the settled-question fallacy. This makes it an unjustified attack on her character and that of anyone sharing her opinion.

A similar pattern emerges when it comes to questions of disparities between groups. Systemic (also sometimes referred to as structural or institutional) racism is often discussed as though it is the settled and unquestioned explanation for differences in educational attainment or wealth, among other things. Questioning or debating this causal relationship is often considered—in both public discourse and by some scholars—as a form of that same racism. However, labeling the act of investigating the role of systemic racism as itself racism requires a high level of confidence that we have all the relevant information we need to understand the complex causes of inequality. In other words, it requires that this be a settled question.

Tarring someone with a label like transphobia or racism is among the most effective ways to damage reputations in our society. In many ways, the fact that those terms carry so much weight is a good thing: We need them to pack a punch to keep people from doing things that are widely considered oppressive or unjust. However, when the terms are used in combination with the settled-question fallacy, it belies the reality of the state of our knowledge on certain controversial and sensitive topics and, predictably, it creates resentment.

This combination of coercion and the settled-question fallacy is a problem wherever it occurs. When it happens in the specific context of the workplace, employers ignore the consequences at their peril: Referring again to the literature in psychology, multiple authors have noted the power of “negative reciprocity” to build a hostile workplace. In one example, the author summarizes negative reciprocity as the fact that “the treatment people experience creates an obligation to respond in kind—favorable treatment for favorable treatment (i.e., positive reciprocity) and unfavorable treatment for unfavorable treatment (i.e., negative reciprocity).” This concept may help explain why, particularly in the workplace, discourse around many controversial and sensitive topics has become impossible to navigate.

And yet, in spite of the negative impacts, this dangerous combination—of coercive measures and misplaced confidence in our knowledge—is present in the vast majority of traditional diversity training programs, which commit the settled-question fallacy as it applies to identity and inequality. It’s also present when people who express a preference not to get the COVID vaccine are reflexively shamed or otherwise scorned.

We can avoid this toxic combination and the inevitable resentment it creates by asking ourselves a simple question: Based on what we currently know, could a reasonably minded and informed person come to a conclusion considered by some to be objectionable? When the answer is yes, procedures designed to compel behavior should be implemented with extreme caution if at all, and with full awareness of the resentment that’s likely to follow. This remains true in spite of the fact that some people come to objectionable conclusions for less than thoughtful reasons.

As with any stylized conceptual framework, this one has its limits. Most notably, the settled-question fallacy applies to issues about which we either can’t know the answer (if the claim is unfalsifiable or untestable) or don’t know the answer yet.

Let’s return to the example of J.K. Rowling. One might reasonably ask: Why is it that only her critics are committing the settled-question fallacy? Isn’t Rowling doing the same? If she makes a claim suggesting we know everything we need to know about how sex and gender interrelate, then she is indeed succumbing to the settled-question fallacy. But I’m not aware of any evidence that she has used it as a basis for labeling her ideological opponents as bigots: a form of judgment or ostracization. And it’s the combination of the fallacy with coercion that is particularly toxic. Avoiding it requires admitting to ourselves and to others what we do and don’t know about a long list of difficult topics. That is a daunting but achievable goal.

Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the Faculty Director of The Mill Institute. She is the co-author of Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education and the creator of the Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes video series.