If you’ve been on the Internets for more than ten seconds, you’ve probably heard someone in a discussion or debate say this:
“I’m just trying to get people to think.”
It’s such an innocuous- sounding phrase. I mean, if you’re in a discussion or debate, presumably you’re there because you want to think. You want to be intellectually stimulated. You don’t want to just hold your ideas in your own private bubble: you want them to be questioned and challenged, strengthened and clarified if they’re solid, modified or demolished if they’re weak. Sure, you’re there to persuade other people that you’re right… but in theory at least, you’re open to being persuaded that you’re wrong.
And yet, the “I’m just trying to get people to think” trope drives me up a tree. It drives almost everyone I know up a similar tree. I’m trying to figure out why.
Partly, I think, the trope drives people up a tree because it’s almost always used to defend positions that are outrageous, insulting, or just flat-out stupid and wrong. But I think there’s more to it than that. So I’ve been thinking about this trope, and trying to nail down what exactly is so messed- up about it.
See, here’s the thing. People who are sincerely explaining and defending positions that they sincerely hold… those aren’t the ones who say, “I’m just trying to get people to think.” “I’m just trying to get people to think” is something people say when they either:
a) sincerely hold a position, but aren’t willing to be held accountable for it;
b) have been cornered on the indefensibility of their position, but aren’t willing to admit they were wrong;
c) don’t know what they think, but aren’t willing to acknowledge that;
and/or d) are just trying to get people worked up for their own entertainment.
And there’s enough conflict in the world between people who disagree on positions they sincerely hold, without adding in manufactured conflict from people defending positions they don’t sincerely hold… or that they do sincerely hold but aren’t willing to take a stand for.
Now, it’s certainly true that rhetorical questions, and thought experiments, and the playing of devil’s advocate, are important and time- honored parts of the thought and debate process. But when people are asking rhetorical questions/ positing thought experiments/ playing devil’s advocate, they generally announce that that’s what they’re doing. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, I’m playing devil’s advocate here… but isn’t it theoretically possible that men and women have different intellectual capabilities? How certain are we that this isn’t true? Is this hypothesis consistent with the evidence? If not, why not?” It’s another to say, “Men and women have different intellectual capabilities” … and then watch people react angrily, to both your initial statement and your subsequent arguments for it… and then try to weasel out of it by saying, “I’m just trying to get people to think.”
People often don’t do our best thinking when we’re angry. Sometimes anger can’t be avoided — in disagreements on important topics that we have strong feelings about and that have serious impact on our lives, it’s almost guaranteed. Sometimes anger is useful and valuable: it can convince people that an issue is important, or motivate people to take action. But even people like me who see the value in anger still understand that it can interfere with clear thinking. And there’s enough serious crap and real conflict already in this world for people to be angry about. There’s no need to insincerely and manipulatively make people angrier than they have to be… in the name of “getting people to think.”
You know what gets people to think? Considering genuine, sincere alternatives to their ideas, offered by smart people who disagree with them. Being poked with a stick doesn’t get people to think. It just gets people to react.
Which brings me to my next problem:
Second: It’s a violation of the conversational contract.
I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s latest book on language, The Stuff of Thought. (Good book, btw: somewhat tough sledding in the first half, but it gets a lot more fun and engaging in the second half, and even the tough- sledding stuff is interesting and worthwhile.)
And one of the things he talks about is the linguistic theory that, when people talk, we make a set of assumptions about the intentions of the person we’re talking with. The conversational version of the social contract, if you will. We assume, for instance, that people aren’t saying much more than they need to, or much less. We assume that what people are saying is relevant to what’s being discussed. And we assume that people are sincere: that even if they’re mistaken, they sincerely mean what they’re saying, and believe it to be correct. According to this theory, these assumptions aren’t just social niceties: they are essential for language to function. They are deeply woven into the way that language works. Without them, communication breaks down.
Now, these assumptions are often honored in spirit, even when they’re not honored in the letter. When we use irony or sarcasm, or conspicuously leave out information we’d normally include, or exaggerate for comic effect, we break the letter of these communication rules — but we do it to communicate something else, something that isn’t being spoken directly. (Example: When somebody asks how your blind date went, and you reply, “He had very nice posture,” the fact that you’re focusing on irrelevant trivia while omitting the most obviously pertinent information is actually speaking volumes.)
But when people break these rules without the intent of communicating something else — when they break them for no reason other than to gain personal advantage — we get angry. We feel betrayed. Lying for personal gain is the obvious example… but even if we haven’t been overtly lied to, when people break these communication contracts, we still pretty much feel lied to.
And I would argue that “I’m just trying to get you to think” breaks the sincerity clause of the communication contract.
When you take a position in a debate — especially when you take a provocative position that is likely to upset people — people assume that you sincerely hold that position. When it turns out that you don’t — or that you do, but lack the courage to either defend your position or admit that you’re wrong — people don’t feel like they’ve been inspired to think. They feel like their chain has been yanked.
And they’re right. It has been. That is one yanked chain.
Which brings me to my third, and final, and most important problem with the “I’m just trying to get you to think” trope:
Three: It is so totally fucking arrogant.
Conversations and debates are generally assumed to be a two- way street. There are obvious exceptions, of course — when your teacher gives you information, when your boss gives you an instruction, when a cop gives you an order. But in online forums and blog comment threads and whatnot, the assumption is that we’re all in this together; that we’re all trying to think our ideas through and reach the truth; that we’re all on the same level. (A blog or forum host gets a small degree of privilege in our own spaces — we get to set the topics, and through comment policies and such we get to set the tone — but when it comes to the actual discussion and debate, we’re down there wrestling in the mud with everyone else. Which is exactly as it should be.) Regardless of whether a conversation is cooperative or adversarial — regardless of whether we’re pals trying to think something through together, or opponents fighting fiercely to change each others’ minds — the assumption is that we’re all more or less equals, playing by the same rules on the same muddy playing field.
The “I’m just trying to get you to think” trope assumes nothing of the kind. It assumes superiority. It assumes that the person saying it is speaking from a position of superior wisdom and intelligence. It is an attempt to place the speaker in the position of a teacher or a guru; the one person in the group who is responsible for getting everyone else to clarify their thinking.
And they’re placing themselves in that position without having earned it… and without it being consented to.
In a free and equal society, we sometimes consent to give other people some kind of authority. We consent, within reason, to let a teacher impart one-way information to us and to guide our thinking… on the theory that they have specialized knowledge and training. We consent, within reason, to let cops enforce our laws… on the theory that laws are meaningless without enforcement. We consent, within reason, to let a boss tell us what to do… on the theory that the company will fall apart if nobody’s running the show. (Or, if we don’t consent to that, we join a collective or start our own business.)
But in a group discussion or debate, the person who’s “just trying to get people to think” has essentially taken that authority upon themselves. They have set themselves above the rest of the group; appointed themselves teacher and guru, the leader of other people’s thinking. And they have done so without the consent of the group that they’re participating in… and without doing any of the hard work that earns someone a position of genuine intellectual authority.
No wonder they piss people off.