Eight More Stupid Things People Say All The Time
This is a follow-up to my earlier post, Now Not To Be A Demagogue: Ten Stupidest, Most Dishonest and Most Cowardly Arguments People Make All The Time. A good chunk of my (very) rough draft for that post did not make it into the final version due to the fact that some of the things I originally listed are not, strictly speaking, demagogic or displays of bad faith. For the most part, they are just plain stupid. So here is the list of gems that did not make it into the previous entry. Every time I hear one of these, I cringe. Enjoy.
1. ”Kudos to her for knowing what she wants!” This is a statement that’s often made when someone does something “controversial”, unpopular, or drastic and irreversible: like, I don’t know, engage in marathon childbearing or something. In this context, having a strong desire is interpreted as a sign of maturity or strength of character. But is it?
Like that bit about giving people credit for being really stubborn, this one puzzles me. My six-year-old often knows exactly what he wants (and on many occasions, what he wants is something that I’m pretty sure he will regret) — but that doesn’t make him an adult, an intellectual, or a social rebel. It doesn’t take a genius to want something and be aware of it; nor is it necessarily proof of wisdom or courage to pursue the object of one’s desire in every single case. It may or may not be — it all depends on the context.
I’ve seen this phrase thrown around a lot, and I’ve noticed that it is almost exclusively employed in reference to women — by women, no less, making it a prime example of how even feminists can whole-heartedly embrace casual misogyny. A man is rarely congratulated simply for knowing what he wants. The implication here is that women are fickle, impulsive, mentally and intellectually unstable, and incapable of decision-making — hence the back-patting for the awesome feat of knowing what you want. This ugly stereotype of women is why men almost never get this kind of “praise” — and thus it is ironic indeed that avowed feminists often use precisely this kind of language. It is a kind of “praise” that ignores the fact that people should be allowed, if they wish, to leave bridges behind them, to change their minds, to mull and weigh their options — ends that are hardly served by subjecting people to pressure to “know what we want”, particularly in the case of choices that are likely to have problematic ramifications.
2. ”Stop forcing your opinion on me!!” People say this a lot, and it always puzzles me: what does “forcing” one’s opinion on others entail, exactly? Do I have a gun to your head? Am I trying to get the First Amendment repealed? Am I threatening to kill your dog unless you agree with me? No to all these? Alright, then I ain’t forcing diddly squat. I’m just saying something you don’t like.
A conversation that I recently had with a family member who is slightly to the right of Rush Limbaugh exemplifies this scenario:
Her: “I’m merely expressing my opinion, while you are trying to force your opinion on me.”
Me: “How exactly am I doing that? I’m just talking, like you. What’s the difference between expressing one’s opinion and forcing it on others?”
Her: “Well, you don’t respect my opinion, for starters.”
Me: “Do you respect my opinion?”
Her: “Your opinion is stupid and wrong. Why should I respect it?”
Me: “So it’s a ‘no’ then?”
Her: “You are engaging in sophistry.”
Me: “It’s not sophistry. I asked you to define the difference between merely articulating your beliefs and actually quote-unquote forcing your beliefs on someone. You defined the difference as lacking respect for the other person’s opinion. But you then admitted that you don’t respect my opinion. So by your own definition, aren’t you trying to force your opinion on me?”
Her: “This is exactly why people hate lawyers.”
Me: “Why is that, exactly?”
Her: “You use words to trap people.”
Me: “Is it possible that it is you who trapped yourself by using words gratuitously?”
Her: “That’s a tautology.”
The take-away here is that the accusation of “forcing your opinion on others” is particularly beloved by people who either don’t realize or don’t care that words have meaning.
3. ” ’How are you doing?’ has turned into a meaningless ritual. People who say it don’t actually care about what’s going on in my life, so why do they ask.” At the risk of elucidating the obvious, “How are you doing?” was never meant to be an actual question. It’s an act of common civility. And that’s what civility is — token niceness that does not necessarily indicate genuine or profound interest, commiseration, etc. It’s a paradox: civility can be sincere, while its verbal expressions are not; but this is no reason to write it off as a form of hypocrisy. The purpose of civility is to establish what will hopefully be a friendly rapport, the cornerstone that can lead to more meaningful interaction later on. As long as we say “please” and “thank you”, we can still have a dialogue about substance. If we sincerely treat each other with hearty meanness, I don’t see how any dialogue is possible.
Objecting to common greetings or condolences is one of the most obtuse forms of social critique. Do I really need to care about you very deeply to be nice to you? If I give up my seat on the train to an elderly person, that doesn’t mean I am losing sleep with concern over that person’s health; it’s just a nice and appropriate thing to do at that place and time. Does it mean I’m being insincere? If someone says to me, in whatever context, that their spouse has just recently died, I will automatically respond “I’m so sorry,” — but it’s not like I’m devastated or anything, and I’ll probably forget soon, and I technically have nothing to be sorry for. Does expressing condolences where I’m not literally racked with grief make me insincere? I believe losing a loved one is a horrible thing, and when I say “I’m sorry”, I mean it.
We all pay tribute to social convention. It is the glue that holds society together, it is what keeps the channels of friendly communication open. If we throw off the bounds of social convention altogether, I frankly don’t see how we could function as a community.
And, if you are one of those people who object to “insincere” greetings, another thing: stop being so bitter over something so absurd. Perfect strangers don’t owe it to you to care about your personal troubles. That person saying “How are you doing?” to you isn’t trying to insult you.
4. ”You shouldn’t be judgmental.” In the abstract, almost everyone will agree that being judgmental is a bad thing. But context is important here. All of us end up judging other people, and quite often. Even your own personal choices are, to some extent, seen as a form of judgment of other people’s different choices. (If you need proof, just check out the nearest Internet debate between people with children and the “child-free”.) But most of all, we simply form opinions of other people based on what they do — always. Sometimes those opinions are biased and unfair; sometimes they are spot-on. Context is key.
Recently, a magazine I usually enjoy and whose quality of journalism I usually respect, ran a piece about the plight of elderly prisoners serving life sentences. While the topic is one that certainly deserves attention, I found it intellectually dishonest that not only did the author decline to mention what any of his subjects did that lead to a life sentence, but added that he is not judging them for what they had done because “they’ve already been judged once”. Oh, really? I don’t know if it’s necessarily charitable to withhold personal judgment over a man who, say, raped and murdered a toddler — even if it was thirty years ago. Wanna let a convicted child rapist babysit your kids? Give Bernie Madoff your retirement money? Cut the guy some slack; he’s old and he’s already been judged, so I guess the slate has been wiped clean? (”Fuck my victims,” the nice old man said from prison, after it was no longer expedient to pretend he had any shred of decency in him.) Providing such people with basic medical care and a humane environment as they approach death is a laudable goal, but I don’t see how pretending that they didn’t do what they did, or that it does not define them as human beings, is justified.
It is a good practice to stay out of things that are none of your business — try not to judge people for purely personal choices that do not negatively affect anyone else, or choices made in a unique situation that you yourself have never experienced and cannot relate to. But being non-judgmental of what is obviously and outrageously wrong is just being obtuse.
In fact, if you think about it, the range of situations where you shouldn’t judge is quite narrow — and even then, paradoxically, the determination that you shouldn’t judge is in and of itself a judgment. That single mother working two jobs and living paycheck-to-paycheck? You shouldn’t judge her for putting her kids into a less-than-excellent daycare. You know that because you have judged her.
5. ”Don’t say that ___ did X, because he’s innocent until proven guilty.” I am especially dumbfounded when I hear crime victims admonished to preserve their victimizers’ reputations until there has been a trial and a conviction. What someone who invokes the presumption of innocence this way is really saying is: “I refuse to believe that this person did it, but I’ll rely on legalistic nonsense to give myself the appearance of being impartial. And if there is a conviction down the road, I’ll claim the legal system is flawed.”
The presumption of innocence is a legal fiction. It is one of a great number of rebuttable presumptions, whose function is strictly limited to allocating the burden of proof in a court of law. A child born to a married woman is presumed to be legitimate; if there is a lawsuit at some point challenging the child’s paternity, it is the challenger who must prove that the child is illegitimate, rather than the child having to prove his or her own legitimacy. The contents of a document created in the ordinary course of business are presumed to be truthful; the litigant who relies on it does not have to introduce evidence to prove the truth of the contents, but rather, it is the one claiming the contents are false who must prove his or her claims. A will that’s regular on its face is presumed to accurately reflect the testator’s wishes; if the validity of the will is challenged, it is the challenger who bears the burden of proof. In a rear-end collision, the rear car is (usually) presumed to be at fault; if a lawsuit results, the rear driver bears the burden of proving a different cause for the accident. And in a criminal case, it is the prosecution that must prove that the defendant committed the crime, rather than the defendant having to prove his or her innocence.
Rebuttable presumptions are a legal device. They do not impose a moral obligation to believe a certain thing, they do not prescribe what can or cannot be said in a conversation. (Believe me, you don’t want ordinary human interactions to be subject to the rules of evidence.) They have no force in the court of public opinion, and they are certainly inapplicable to people’s private beliefs — least of all, to the beliefs of those who know what happened.
6. ”You only believe what you believe because of your personal experience.” It is undeniable that bias can skew perception, and that personal experience cannot automatically be generalized. The existence of bias is, therefore, relevant to the validity of a person’s opinion. However, the fact that someone is biased through personal experience does not necessarily mean that this person is wrong. I routinely see people veer off deep into crazy territory on this bias issue, to the point of arguing that someone’s personal experience consistent with that person’s generalization disproves the generalization itself. That, of course, is utter nonsense. If anything, personal experience confirms the generalization — it is the weight that we should give the confirmation that’s questionable, not whether someone who is biased can form a valid opinion at all.
Suppose I said that medical errors are a huge problem in medicine today. You can observe in response that because I work as a defense attorney in medical malpractice cases, I am too often exposed to the dark side of medicine, that just because I see horrible things every day, that does not mean they are all too common across the board. And you would be right, to an extent — it is my job to deal with the consequences of things going horribly wrong, and that doubtless colors my perception. But that does not mean that my essential claim — that medical errors are a huge problem — is incorrect; my bias merely impacts the matter of degree to which the problem is pervasive. Or suppose if I said that medical errors often have complex causes and are rarely a straight-up consequence of doctors’ negligence. Once again, the fact that I see the issue from the defense perspective is relevant, but it does not disprove the assertion as a whole.
As I probably mentioned in my other posts, I grew up in the Soviet Union. As such, the most outrageously stupid examples of this phenomenon I’ve seen have come in the form of circular arguments that the accounts of people who have experienced totalitarianism first-hand are inherently partial and cannot be believed, given that such people are biased against totalitarianism by virtue of having experienced it. “Since you had your phone bugged by the KGB, you are incapable of being impartial, therefore I don’t believe your claim that the KGB bugged people’s phones.” If anything, such attitudes prove conclusively that politics stupidifies people to an extraordinary degree.
7. ”Designed by nature/evolution.” (Disclaimer: If you are a believer in “Intelligent Design”, a/k/a creationism, skip this part.) Although I am not bothered when people put “design” and “nature” in the same sentence as a way of phrasing something that actually makes sense (see next item on the list), it’s downright alarming how often “nature” is anthropomorphized and described as an autonomous entity. In fact, there is now an entire discipline — which, I hope, history will expose for the pseudoscience that it is — that’s premised on precisely this idea, that “nature” has an intent and that evolution has a plan.
To begin with, people who view nature this way do not have even the most basic understanding of how it works. The idea that our species evolved to be a certain way 50,000 years ago, and then stopped, and we must now follow the patterns of behavior and social organization established at that time to the letter, is preposterous. That’s not how evolution works, and besides — the story of life on this planet is one of species dying out as a result of being too rigid in the face of changing environments. Adaptability and readiness to change is an organism’s best tool for survival in a hostile world.
But scientific issues aside (I can’t discuss them in more than a cursory manner, anyway, seeing as I am not a scientist), it’s the philosophical underpinnings of ascribing human qualities to nature that amuse me to no end. Nature is a fiction. It does not exist as a discrete entity, and it is not capable of intent. “Nature” is just a collective term we give to things outside of ourselves. With that in mind, talking about what nature supposedly “designed” or “intended” produces a whole lot of nonsense.
8. ”It’s stupid when people say ‘at the end of the day’/’when all is said and done’/’as it happens’/’may or may not’, because duh, it’s obvious, moron.” I want to end this installment by picking a bone with other curmudgeons’ widely held opinions about stupid things people say. There are complaints about allegedly stupid use of language that I hear often, and I find those complaints, well, stupid. “May or may not”? “As it happens”? Folks, those are just turns of phrase. (And to those who have an issue with “may or may not” and such, a disclaimer: when I say “turn of phrase”, I don’t mean there is a physical phrase out there somewhere that’s turning. Just wanted to make that clear.) What pompous, self-important asshole invented this rule, that absolutely anything you say that’s closed off by punctuation must convey a literal, factual, discrete meaning? That’s not the way languages function, and anyone who thinks otherwise is in sore need of a wedgie. I will agree that people sometimes overuse frills, cliches and disclaimers, and that redundant phrasing is common. But that doesn’t mean that common turns of phrase are stupid or useless. If you abolish them, you might as well ban auxiliary verbs. And I don’t think you would find that fun, unless your name is Jorge Luis Borges (and he’s been dead for twenty-five years).