pp37

The ‘You’re Too Stupid to Understand’ Debate Tactic

Debate and discussion is a great way to refine our ideas. But there are people who want to shut down discussion. Learn how to spot this, and how to fight it.

I was skimming Twitter the other day when a conversation caught my eye. A reporter had tweeted out pictures of protesters at the Capitol dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, and another person poked fun at the protesters in reply.

“Let’s dress up like characters from a book that really has zero to do with the legislation we’re protesting.”

“YES!! Great idea!!” https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/879762656432992256 

What was interesting, though, was the conversation that followed. Numerous commenters flattered themselves that they engaged in some serious ‘debate’ by hurling insults or questioning RBPundit’s intelligence:

“Let’s dress up like characters from a book that really has zero to do with the legislation we’re protesting.”

“YES!! Great idea!!” https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/879762656432992256 

Are you literate? Have you read the book? Perhaps you might see the parallels if you did. Try the Cliff Notes if the real book is to hard.

“Let’s dress up like characters from a book that really has zero to do with the legislation we’re protesting.”

“YES!! Great idea!!” https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/879762656432992256 

If you don’t see how Handmaiden’s Tale relates to healthcare for women, you are in desperate need of college. 🙄🙄

“Let’s dress up like characters from a book that really has zero to do with the legislation we’re protesting.”

“YES!! Great idea!!” https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/879762656432992256 

Sorry this protest is over your head. Must be nice to start each day with the mind a blank canvas.

“Let’s dress up like characters from a book that really has zero to do with the legislation we’re protesting.”

“YES!! Great idea!!” https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/879762656432992256 

You haven’t read the book, or you are willfully ignorant. Or stupid.

“Let’s dress up like characters from a book that really has zero to do with the legislation we’re protesting.”

“YES!! Great idea!!” https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/879762656432992256 

@openculture has tons of free college classes, including English & literature classes to help better understand the allegory presented here.

Notice what else was common to almost all of these responses: not one of them tried to explain the parallel they were attempting to draw.  Not one of them used the opportunity to educate people on their arguments.  Over and over they merely implied that disagreement with the protest, or with tying it to the book, was born of ignorance or a lack of education.  It’s the ‘You’re too stupid to understand’ defense.

This is a ‘debate’ tactic that I see quite often, from people all over the political spectrum.  There are several reasons why it might be employed, among them:

  • To make the other person look stupid to bystanders reading the exchange
  • To make the other person feel stupid for not ‘getting it’
  • To show that they are in the ‘cool’ tribe and the other person is not
  • To signal that their assertion or opinion is the only acceptable one for a person to hold

Sometimes people who engage in debate this way aren’t even aware they are doing it – it’s a tactic they’ve learned, but not thought much about.  They see other people replying this way, with insults instead of evidence.  And they see that it gets some positive reinforcement, so they copy it.  But there’s a good response to it, and @RBPundit employed it:

“You’re so dumb. You can’t see how A Handmaid’s Tale relates to the health care bill?”

“No. Explain it to me.”

*crickets*

He asked several times for the other commenters to explain the parallel, to draw a map for him.  A few tried, but most went no further than hurling abuse at him.  It might be that they were never really taught to debate the way we understand it – an exchange of facts, ideas, and theories that can be discussed and dissected between people who attack the other person’s argument.  Or they might have merely heard the parallel somewhere and absorbed it, without really considering it enough to feel confident in their ability to defend it.

But there also may be some reluctance to list the parallels in the above example because then those points could be challenged.  And that’s dangerous, because then the bystanders watching these kinds of discussions could see those challenges as legitimate, with points that make sense.  So they opt instead to distract from the argument and the requests for explanation.  If they keep dodging, maybe people won’t notice that they’ve offered no support for their position, or will accept that it is a position that should not be questioned.

When debate and disagreement devolve into name-calling and distraction, it’s not good for us.  Ideas SHOULD be questioned, challenged, picked apart, and hashed out.  It helps us to understand other people’s perspectives, and teaches us to think harder about the serious issues we face.  One of the reasons we’re seeing so few problems being addressed is that this tactic is so pervasive.  Politicians get more mileage out of name-calling than problem-solving.  We shouldn’t let them get away with that.  And we should take the opportunities we find to call it out, and support healthy, rigorous exchanges of ideas.

So when you see this tactic being used, when someone seems to be ducking the details and merely calling names, you should ask for details or an explanation.  And keep asking.

Because if the dodgers DO respond, then you can talk about their points and arguments, and have a real discussion.

And if they DON’T, then you can point their evasiveness out to all the bystanders following the conversation.  And THAT is where people are persuaded.  THAT is where converts are made.

We’ve let lazy or disingenuous debate tactics rule for far too long, whether in the press, on social media, or in political life.  Let’s get back into the simple habit of challenging each other, sharpening our arguments, and bringing real substantive debate back to the national conversation.  Let’s focus on attacking each other’s arguments, and while we’re at it, expose those who don’t offer an argument at all.

Image: By Daniel X. O’Neill (CC)