Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rhetoric: "You Don't Know What It's Like"

One of the ways that people dismiss their opponents in political debates is by saying that they can't identify with certain people.

Basically, the argument goes that, "you're not a member of this group, you haven't lived the life they've lived, therefore you can't understand what it's like for them and you can't represent them or be trusted to do what's good for them". If you haven't been in their situation, you can't judge them (or judge them correctly), because you "just don't get it". They have some sort of expertise that we can't question.

This is ad hominem reasoning, which is flawed reasoning. (It's also a sort of faulty appeal to authority: "only people in our group have expertise on what's best for us"). I might not be a member of a certain group (whether it's a religious group, economic group, racial or ethnic group, or a member of the military or a particular economic class, or an immigrant or a cancer survivor, etc.), but that -- by itself -- doesn't prove that I can't represent you or that the policies I support are wrong for you. It's the content of what I do that matters, not the background or group membership of the person doing it. If I support the same things you support, it's not like those positions are right when you take them but wrong when I do.

But, more than flawed reasoning, this kind of rhetoric sometimes denies our ability to sympathize and empathize with others, which is one of our most important traits, morally and politically speaking. Aren't we sometimes able to identify with the plight of people who are different from us? Isn't that something about us that we should be cultivating, rather than denying? To say that people are unable to empathize sounds a lot like demonizing, or maybe saying people are "out of touch with reality".

More, the "you don't know what it's like to be me" assertion implies that most all of us have no representation in government. If the President doesn't share the same gender as me, then the President doesn't represent me. If my senator doesn't come from the same economic background as I did, then the senator won't represent me. If my member of Congress isn't the same race or ethnicity as me, them my member of Congress can't represent me. Are we all really this unrepresented?

This rhetoric needs to be challenged. People can't be allowed to dismiss a candidate or a position based on the background of that person. Whether you're an insider or an outsider with respect to a certain group, people need to justify the positions they take according to their content, not according to having a certain background.

"I think the bigger problem is not being personally rich. FDR was very wealthy, had his own train line to his own summer house and was a great progressive president. But the question is for all politicians, especially her today, when you live in a bubble of privilege, surrounded by and marinating in the world view of elites, business elites, rich donors, can you really connect with the policy concerns of people outside of the bubble? It's a challenge for her, for Bush, for everyone in Congress where everyone's net worth is getting higher and higher every year."
-- Pundit Nicholas Confessore, posted June 15, 2015.

Comment: This is "you don't know what it's like" rhetoric.

Let me start by saying that a white guy is not ideally positioned or situated to evaluate or make sense of the moral and psychological equities of a someone trying to pass as black. (For a second I thought, hey this is kind of like all the rightwingers who are confused and think they're honorary Jews because they're so into Bibi Netanyahu or really, really, really want to kill them some Palestinians. But okay, not really the same.) So let me tentatively and respectfully offer some impressions from this imperfect vantage point.
-- Pundit John Marshall, June 13, 2015, remarking on Rachel Dolezal, an NAACP activist who falsely claimed to be African-American.

Comment: First, Marshall somewhat disqualifies himself from commenting on Dolezal on the grounds that "you don't know what it's like". Second, he demonizes right-wingers, characterizing them as wanting to kill Palestinians.

HARWOOD: Have you seen some of the quotations from people on Wall Street, people in business? Some have even likened the progressive Democratic crusade to Hitler's Germany hunting down the Jews.

SANDERS: It's sick. And I think these people are so greedy, they're so out of touch with reality, that they can come up and say that. They think they own the world. What a disgusting remark. I'm sorry to have to tell them, they live in the United States, they benefit from the United States, we have kids who are hungry in this country. We have people who are working two, three, four jobs, who can't send their kids to college. You know what? Sorry, you're all going to have to pay your fair share of taxes. If my memory is correct, when radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent.

HARWOOD: When you think about 90 percent, you don't think that's obviously too high?

SANDERS: No. That's not 90 percent of your income, you know? That's the marginal. I'm sure you have some really right-wing nut types, but I'm not sure that every very wealthy person feels that it's the worst thing in the world for them to pay more in taxes, to be honest with you.

HARWOOD: It came out in disclosure forms the other day that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, in the last 16 months, have made $30 million. What does that kind of money do to a politician's perspective on the struggles you were just talking about? Does it make it difficult for recipients of that kind of income to take on the system?

SANDERS: Well, theoretically, you could be a multibillionaire and, in fact, be very concerned about the issues of working people. Theoretically, that's true. I think sometimes what can happen is that—it's not just the Clintons—when you hustle money like that, you don't sit in restaurants like this. You sit in restaurants where you're spending—I don't know what they spend—hundreds of dollars for dinner and so forth. That's the world that you're accustomed to, and that's the world view that you adopt. You're not worrying about a kid three blocks away from here whose mom can't afford to feed him. So yes, I think that can isolate you—that type of wealth has the potential to isolate you from the reality of the world.
-- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), posted May 26, 2015, during interview with CNBC's John Harwood.

Comment: First, there's no citation provided for Harwood's claim that today's progressive movement has been compared to the Nazis hunting down Jews, but such a comparison would require clarification at the very least, given that people on Wall Street aren't being sent to concentration camps. Second, Sanders engages in "out of touch" rhetoric. Third, Sanders believes it's unfair to call his tax policy "radical" given that it is no different from the tax policy in place under President Eisenhower. But he does think it's fair to disparage opponents of his tax policy "nut types". Lastly, Sanders engages in "you don't know what it's like" rhetoric.

"I don't really understand how Hillary Clinton can be marching forward with a progressive reform agenda that tackles income inequality as a sort of central tenet, while Bill Clinton is having very splashy events around the world with big dollar donors who are standing onstage taking photos of him and bottles of Coke as basically product endorsement. I just think it dramatically complicates the optics of this, and that may be surface, but it's also going to dog her throughout the year and next year if it continues. Do you think he stays on in the same public role that he has right now with the Clinton Foundation?"
-- Pundit Alex Wagner, posted May 11, 2015.

Comment: Wagner is saying that, because of her wealth, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn't know what it's like to be poor (i.e., on the losing side of income inequality). Is this a suggestion that Clinton therefore cannot represent the poor (which would be ad hominem reasoning)?


Examples from 2012.

"Look, clearly, the president is in way over his head, this is what you get when you elect a president who has never run anything before until he got to be president. We can't afford on the job training. The only thing he ever ran was his campaign. ... The mistake this country made when we elected President Obama, I know you and I didn't vote for him. But the mistake we made when we elected President Obama is that we elected a president, we elected a candidate who has never run anything. Never balanced a budget. Never made a payroll, no track record."
-- Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), September 15, 2011, on "Hannity".

"Republicans don't represent ordinary Americans, and they don't have any understanding of what it is to have to go out and try to make ends meet."
-- Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, June 6, 2005.

"You think people can work all day and then pick up their kids at child care or wherever and get home and then have a -- still manage to sandwich in an eight-hour vote? Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that, because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."
-- Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, June 2, 2005.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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