Report From The Field--Name Calling Is Not An Argument
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
In discussions in my philosophy class, one of my goals is to get them to slow down and actually wrestle with and engage with the content. To thaw their dogmatism, in other words. Students can be very dogmatic. I know the stereotype of dogmatism is that it’s only or primarily the religious and conservative folk who are dogmatic, but at least in my class, the secular progressive kids are just as dogmatic, maybe even more. Accomplishing this goal has been a tall order. When I ask students what could change their minds, most often the answer is “nothing.” Maybe that’s more of a bluff than anything else, who knows. But it does bear mentioning. However, there was a moment the other day in class where I *think* I might have actually made headway on that goal, just a bit.
We were discussing race. The previous day, someone asked a great question: “why is it so hard in our country to talk about race?” Another student replied that people (meaning: white people) who were uncomfortable in discussions of race were simply "showing their true colors," ie, their inner racism. So the next day, I asked her how she knew they were showing their "true colors.” How did she know it is that, instead of them simply being uncomfortable in, say, a DiAngelo-style shakedown session, where they are immediately tarred with pretty much the worst thing you could call someone, just based on the color of their skin? I mean, if I called someone a pedophile based solely on the racial/gender group they belonged to, that'd probably make them uncomfortable. How was she able to read their hearts and minds? She replied "I worded that wrongly. I'm just saying that you shouldn't be uncomfortable, so it shows your hatred." Hmmmm. Hate is a strong word. You used that word 'hate.' What do you mean by 'hate'? A lot of folks, some black voices like John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes, have gone to great lengths to disagree with the anti-racist perspective. They make detailed arguments and point to data. Are they haters? Her: "Well, they are just being ignorant." Now wait a second. Are you saying that those that disagree with the CRT perspective are ignorant? Her: "Yes." Now I’m a tad frustrated. "That's simply argument by labeling. Name calling is not an argument. If you want me to take that seriously, you are going to have to go into depth and explain exactly how their ideas are ignorant. These guys actually have deep arguments and you need to deal with them squarely. You are going to have to show me how they are wrong. Just slapping a label on their arguments isn't good enough. Can you do that?" She admitted she'd have to think about it. GOOD. One of the few moments where a student actually DID slow down and chew on things right then and there. The tendency--with adults as well as with students--is to let the labels do the heavy lifting. Ibram Kendi speaks, and folks think “he calls himself the anti-racist, and he looks the part, so he must be the anti-racist. Anti-racism is good. That must mean he’s the good guy. I want to be the good guy too, so I’m going to agree with him.” Then they hear a counter-perspective that takes issue with some things Kendi says. Many times that counter-perspective comes from a black person or other minority. Folks hear it, and immediately think, “he is critiquing the guy who calls himself anti-racist, which means he’s critiquing the anti-racist, which makes him the anti-anti-racist, which makes him a racist. This must mean he’s the bad guy. I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to be the bad guy, so I’m going to disagree with him.” Again, just slap a label with good feelings here, slap a label with bad feelings there, and let your own feelings follow the labels. That’s the method, and it sums up a large portion of the discourse these days.
So don’t let them get away with that, and don’t go for it yourself. Push past the labels. Address the actual arguments. Teach your own kids to recognize when that game is afoot, and to not fall for it.