Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Credibility is no substitute for an argument

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #3: Open debate is only productive among people who are equally educated about or familiar with the issues at hand. Some people are more qualified than others to discuss certain matters. When we’re discussing the systematic oppression of certain classes, this includes by default the members the class whose oppression we are discussing, because they can see things from a perspective that privileged people cannot. It is a waste of time for educated or personally affected people to debate those who lack that experience or expertise.”

What this argument boils down to is pure ethos: an appeal to credibility as a means of persuasion in place of logical argument. The heightened credibility which feminists claim comes from two alleged sources: superior expertise, and superior personal experience.

Regarding expertise, Thinking Girl argues: [emphasis original]
“If you don’t know the basics of feminist theory, you can participate, but it would be easier on everyone if you did some reading on your own first. Don’t expect or demand that feminists in this space do your educational leg-work for you. This is actually REALLY impolite and if you’re male, reeks of privilege. It may sound condescending, but sometimes you actually do have to catch up to the rest of the class. If someone tells you to do this, try not to take it personally. It really isn’t feminists’ job or responsibility to do your work for you.”

Fair enough. Those who are not yet feminists would indeed do well to learn the basic parlance of feminism if they wish to engage a feminist in conversation, just as one who wishes to discuss economic policy should know the meanings of terms like “Pareto efficiency” or “supply and demand.” But it does not follow from this that open debate is ineffective. Once the facts of the matter are established, people who are not yet feminists do not need to be taught what you believe, as one is taught math or history: they need to be convinced of it. Debate with some adversary or another is the only way I know of to convince them.

It should come as no surprise that feminists are the experts on the patriarchy, just as communists are the experts on proletariat exploitation, libertarians are the experts on property rights, and Christians are the experts on the contents of the Bible. But that does not mean that any of those groups are right within their respective fields of self-proclaimed expertise. In fact, it does not even mean that any of those topics – the patriarchy, proletariat exploitation, property rights, or Bible stories – actually exist, as their existence is entirely dependent on the veracity of the theories which created them. Similarly, much of the terminology feminists complain non-feminists are “uneducated” about are self-created terms which presuppose the correctness of feminism at all, which makes “educate” a kind of arrogant word choice. An expert on the flat-earth theory may know all the ins and outs of his theory better than anyone else on the planet, but at the end of the day, that planet is still round. No amount of “educational leg-work” will change that.

Regarding the claim to higher credibility due to personal experience, this argument is rooted in a much broader progressive narrative. The theory is very roughly and hastily summarized as follows: everyone in society has a certain amount of privilege, conferred upon them by the complex web of socially constructed prejudices against certain classes of people which have been ingrained in our culture for centuries. Privileged classes include men, white people, wealthy people, heterosexual people, cis-gendered people, people of a socially acceptable body size, and many others. I’ll discuss the overall usefulness of this narrative in greater length at a later date, but for the most part I agree with them up to this point.

Where they go nuts is in the next step. Due to their devotion to fighting for oppressed peoples, feminists, and really progressives in general, have pretty much accepted the idea that the amount of privilege someone has is essentially determinative of their ability to be right about almost anything. It is utterly remarkable how comfortable they are with this assumption. It would be amusing if it weren’t so depressing.

The result of this narrative’s pervasiveness is that in the instant that any disagreement is detected in the radical progressive community, most participants will not continue to express their beliefs until they’ve sized-up their opponent: before proceeding, they’ll need to get a rough estimate of their opponent’s net privilege levels. If the progressive determines that their opponent is less privileged than they, this happenstance disparity is perceived as so damning to their chances of success that they will often forfeit outright. Privileged progressives frequently apologize preemptively, even when they remain utterly bewildered as to how in the world anything they said was the slightest bit objectionable. More often than reasonable people can imagine, privileged progressives will admit they are wrong, despite the fact that deep down inside they remain entirely unconvinced of it. Examples of can be found here.

If, on the other hand, they determine their opponent to be more privileged than they, such people will usually waste no time in demanding that said person “check their privilege.” If their opponent persists in disagreeing with them, the progressive is wont to berate them with emotionally charged insults and personal attacks, calling public attention to the oppression taking place. If their opponent dares object to this tactic, they will hurriedly accuse them of “tone policing,” on the preposterous but widely held belief that oppressed peoples are entitled to a lower standard of politeness than everybody else. And if their opponent infuriatingly continues to disagree with them, they will snidely dismiss their arguments as “______splaining,” with the insertion of one’s membership in a privileged class into that blank sufficing as a widely accepted substitute for any thoughtful retort. The consequences of such an atmosphere are described here.

What was that phrase the last lass liked so much? “[E]ndless, fruitless turd-pong”? Yeah, it turns out feminists do it amongst themselves too. In fact, I am fairly certain that the vast majority of feminists reading this article, if they even bothered to read this far, don’t give a rats ass what I think as a primary consequence of the fact that I’m a dude. It’d be “mansplaining”, and according to them, men can’t ‘splain anything worthy of knowing. I’m giving my two cents anyway on the long since abandoned principle that it is our ideas, rather than our identities, which determine who is right and who is wrong.


Anyway, what this argument boils down to is “some people are more qualified than others to discuss these things…namely, us.” I shouldn’t need to illustrate how this divisiveness retards the spread of feminist ideas, instead of accelerating it. Credibility may bolster an audience’s receptiveness to an argument, but it is not a substitute for an argument, and feminists who use it as such merely forfeit the opportunity to use it to their advantage. If feminism is to spread, feminists must convince non-feminists they are right; they cannot do that merely by telling them it is so.

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