Standing on the shoulders of assholes

First of all, I need to apologize for the visual that is now in your head (or will be shortly) of an asshole with shoulders. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of colliding metaphors. Here’s something to cleanse your mental palate:

Many of us (myself included) have had the decidedly unpleasant experience of expressing the unpopular opinion in the room and getting just piled on by dissenters. You think that there may be a position that deserves exploration, that isn’t being discussed or considered. There’s a gaping hole in the logic of the room, and you’re apparently the only person who sees it. This group-think, by circumventing your clear counter-example, is leading people to draw erroneous and potentially harmful conclusions about the topic at hand. It’s up to you to show the room the error of their ways, so you carefully craft a bulletproof refutation of the central tenets of the argument, or provide an insightful counterexample that is sure to immediately change everyone’s minds. Then you sit back and let the accolades for your erudite and clear thinking roll in.

But what’s this? You’re getting responses all right, lots of them in fact, but they’re not complimentary at all! Instead of seeing your point for the iron-clad fact that it undoubtedly is, they’re throwing all kinds of accusations at you! They’re calling you a KKK member! They’re saying you advocate the rape of children! Neither of these things are true – you just don’t think that their central point is correct. Why would they be bringing child rape into the conversation? You weren’t talking about that at all! Further clarification and re-statement of your point must be necessary, you think. After all, they must have simply misunderstood your point. You’ll simply identify the ways in which everyone else is wrong, find another way to say the same thing you originally said, and then all will be well.

Hmm, it’s not working. Try it again.

Hmm, it’s not working. Try it again.

(Repeat ad nauseum)

Maybe you’ve never been this person. Maybe you’re always on the right side of the argument all of the time and never do anything stupid or without being in full possession of the facts (although it’s far more likely that you’re a filthy liar). But surely you’ve seen this kind of tires-spinning-on-ice response. It was on display last week in the comment threads, on the various discussions of DJ Grothe’s… thoughts,  it happens pretty much any time a controversial topic is raised that requires anything more than superficial knowledge to fully understand. There are three possible explanations that I can see for the kind of over-the-top response that a seemingly-innocuous comment can elicit:

  1. They’re wrong
  2. They’re crazy
  3. You don’t have all of the relevant facts

Let’s explore these one at a time.

1. They’re wrong

Sometimes people are just factually incorrect about things. It happens. Nobody likes their wrongness pointed out, especially in public. However, most people don’t fly into a “you’re pro-murder” rage every time their errors are exposed. Which brings us to the next one…

2. They’re crazy*

It’s entirely possible that everyone has just lost their shit and needs to calm the fuck down. There is a grain of truth to this in a very general sense. While it is often time-saving to jump right to the end of an opponent’s argument (especially if it’s one you’ve heard a thousand times before), if you (the refuter) don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs between the statement you’re refuting and the point you’re making, it’s hard for the speaker (and anyone in the audience) to understand what’s happening.

But of course that presupposes that the refuter sees it as hir responsibility to teach your ignorant ass. After the 50th runaround of the “why are there still monkeys?” question, patience wears thin for humouring this bit of juvenile sophistry. The fact is that you may be the proverbial straw upon the camel’s back of the question that you’re asking, and with a little bit of effort and consideration, you could have figured it out on your own.

Which brings us to…

3. You don’t have all of the relevant facts

Unless you’re parachuting into a discussion that is running rife with well-debunked arguments (like a homeopathy fan club site or something), the likelihood is pretty high that people know at least a bit about the topic they’re discussing. And while you might think that your brain-wave is particularly clever, there’s also a pretty good chance that everyone’s heard it before.

But let’s talk for a minute about who they’ve heard it from. I’ve (occasionally on this site, more commonly in real life) had people give me their ‘thoughts’ about why it is that black people are more likely to be arrested, why First Nations communities are impoverished, why men are more successful than women. In many of these conversations, the speaker then went on to bestow on me some of hir other ‘insights’ about racism, sexism, classism, what-have-you. These shopworn arguments are in the arsenal of every “politically incorrect” would-be-rebel who won’t let the “lame stream media” dictate hir beliefs like the rest of us “sheeple”. I’m sure you’ve run into this person before.

These arguments, though thoroughly defeated, come back again and again like an undying zombie horde of relentless brain-devouring idiocy. When people jump on your “I’m just saying” argument with gusto and guns a-blazin’, it’s because they’re smart enough to know that the guy who says “I think it bit me, but I’m okay… just feeling a bit woozy” is about to turn, and they want to get their head-shots in before it’s too late. While you might feel it massively unfair to be so unceremoniously plugged, the fact is that when you make your argument, you sound indistinguishable from every “race realist” and “Men’s Rights Activists” that actually does think that white people are genetically superior and that women dress provocatively to encourage rape.

So if you ever find yourself in this position, where you’re getting buffeted by seemingly-unfair conclusions from what you thought was a totally innocuous statement, consider the possibility that you might be wrong. Consider also the possibility that your wrongness might just be the same wrongness that props up positions that you would otherwise abhor. Consider that you might just be standing on the shoulders of assholes.

Then consider apologizing and listening.

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*Pro tip: never never never never make this your go-to explanation/accusation when talking to women. Even if you were correct, you’re likely to get piled on for saying so. There’s a long history of women’s legitimate objections being dismissed as “overreactions” or “hysteria” that they’re more than a little, justifiably, sick and tired of hearing that kind of language.



  1. Pteryxx says


    …I’m going to name my shotgun “Refutation” now. If I don’t just name it Crommunist.

  2. Emrysmyrddin says

    Crommunist, if I weren’t already attached, I think I’d be in Internet-love with you. Kudos for the great writing.

  3. says

    “Refutation” is a much better name than “Crommunist” for a shotgun. Or “Rebuttal”.

    “Interesting point,” growled the sheriff as the last of the hail of bullets thudded ineffectively into the hood of his cruiser. Adjusting his aviator sunglasses, he stood up and rounded the front of the hole-riddled vehicle, his trusty short-barreled shotgun at the ready. “Allow me to present my Rebuttal!” *Cha-CHUK* *BOOM*

  4. says

    Another very good article Ian. I was a slow learner, but I have learned to pick my battles. I have been in groups where a Ouiji board was being used, or people were discussing their ghostly or other supernatural experiences. In those situations, I will probably make one comment about the lack of evidence for these beliefs and let it drop. Unless the topic of conversation is specifically something I have some expertise in, I tend not to be insistent about the relative accuracy of the general beliefs. It just leads to a very negative experience for everyone in the room. as I said, this was not something I knew intuitively, I learned the hard way, and sometimes I am a slow learner.

    On the other hand, if I am with one or two other people, I do tend to go into a topic in more depth.

  5. Julia Suggs says

    Your reference to those who use the term “sheeple” reminded me of a quote by my best friend: “I take a little solace in the fact that everyone who uses the term ‘sheeple’ learned it from someone else.”

  6. Chrisj says

    Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” features a man-portable gatling called “Reason” for much this kind of joke.

  7. Hekuni Cat says

    These arguments, though thoroughly defeated, come back again and again like an undying zombie horde of relentless brain-devouring idiocy.

    😀 😀 😀

  8. Brownian says


    I went on a first date once, but since my date’s friend was having a birthday party at a nearby bistro, we went there first for a drink or two.

    I don’t recall exactly what happened, but many of the party-goers were LGB or T, and, not knowing many openly LGBT people back then, I tried to say something relevant. Thinking back on it, I think I tried to pull some “orientation-blind” heterosplaining, but the end result was hard feelings and tears all around. Having been an obnoxious loudmouth all my life, I probably chalked it up to the party goers being overly sensitive and/or drunk: I mean, who could get upset with a sentiment like “orientation shouldn’t matter” from some privileged white straight guy, amiright?


    I bring this up because I was about to respond with some snarky comment about how I’m “always on the right side of the argument all of the time and never do anything stupid or without being in full possession of the facts” (I am proudly one of the FtB group-thinking controversialist sheeple, after all) and then this incident from nearly 20 years ago hit me full in the memory. I now realise I was utterly sincere and utterly clueless, but I stopped at 1 and 2 and never considered explanation 3.

    So, well written as always, but I especially thank you for the (probably unintended) consequence of helping me understand a confusing incident from my misspent youth.

  9. Brownian says

    I’m not usually a fan of quotes (they’re rarely about me, and even I know it’s bad form to quote myself), but I’m going to borrow this one if your friend doesn’t mind.

  10. says

    I agree with your main points, though I would make a caveat that it is unwise to headshot the guy who says “I think it bit me, but I’m okay… just feeling a bit woozy” the moment he says it. You might first want to look for the bite mark before you murder a guy who actually just cut his arm on something and could have been useful backup. In fact, even if he was bitten, it can actually be a good strategy to try to keep the guy alive a little while as you keep a watchful eye on him, especially given that there’s always the off chance that you’ll stumble across the antidote or you’ll learn that if you just kill the original zombie or the voodoo priest who cast the spell, everyone who turned might actually revert to normal.

  11. says

    It depends on the kind of zombie outbreak we’re talking about. I’m talking about the “infectious disease” type, as opposed to the “voodoo curse” type. Also, when has it EVER been the case that it turns out not to be an infectious bite? It’s always an infectious bite.

  12. LeftSidePositive says

    Oh Maude, did I ever get one of those “I don’t know much but I still think I can swan in and tell you you’re wrong” over on Stephanie’s brine shrimp post:

    Since he wasn’t overtly hostile I decided to actually give him a more-or-less-patient full rebuttal, in the hopes that maybe he was just innocently wrong or woefully underinformed. 1,122 words later I had finally covered all his misconceptions and substantiated each of them thoroughly enough to (I hope) get through to a clueless person or at least demonstrate that our positions are well-supported even if he, the flyby internet commenter, is not familiar with them.

    And yet they wonder why they usually get, “Oh, fuck off, troll!!” instead–because maybe we have other things we’d rather discuss in those other 1,100+ words…

  13. LeftSidePositive says

    Thanks–I’m actually unreasonably grateful that someone else read it & appreciated it. I feel so validated 🙂

    And, if you’ll notice the time stamp on my post above, that was me venting *before* he got into all the misguided, argument-mangling, circular, reality-denying “rebuttals” and “strawman” accusations. I guess I certainly called it right after just his first post that he didn’t know much, but oh boy was I ever wrong that he might be innocently clueless!

  14. Raine says

    Seconded. I’m yoinking this so I can deliberately use it on a ridiculous conspiracy-theorist friend of mine who’s railing against The Man on the regular.

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