This is my favorite version of the “Credible Hulk” meme. I love the idea behind “Credible Hulk” that you can, in passionate defense of your own position, make a devastating argument with properly documented scholarly sources. It is, in many ways, the essence of my work: I attempt to refute the idea of virginity with properly cited scholarly sources and rigorous original arguments.
I approach a lot of other things in this way as well. Things like conversations with friends and family. If I care about something then I’m going to know about it. That’s just how I work. I won’t be an expert but I’ll have a good idea of the different arguments and sources. Maybe not everyone does that? I can’t say. I’ve never not been me.
Also, if I care about a person, I’m going to argue with them if we disagree about things I care about. Maybe not everyone does that? I can’t say. I’ve never not been me. The reason I only argue with people I care about is because it takes time and energy to argue. Quite frankly, I don’t have time and energy to waste on people I don’t care about. The other thing is, I believe I’m right until proven wrong. I think most people do that but I can’t be sure. I’ve never not been me.
If I care about you and I care about a thing then I want you to understand where I’m coming from on that thing. I want to create community and understanding between us by explaining myself to you and being heard. I may not change your mind and that is okay but I will certainly support my opinions with properly cited scholarly sources.
Except, it seems, that properly cited scholarly sources are not a good way to make an argument anymore. I’m not sure when it started but I’ve really noticed it in the past year. I noticed it when I was in a discussion with someone about the killing of Michael Brown and said that I could offer studies about mass incarceration and police brutality’s disproportionate focus and devastating effects on the black community in the United States. To my surprise the person told me that studies didn’t matter because they had black friends who had never experienced such a thing. I said that was great for their friends and I was glad but their friends experience wasn’t necessarily representative of the black community in the US as a whole. I was told, in stronger terms, that I was wrong.
Similarly, I said that the NFL was a racist and misogynist organization and offered studies to back up this assertion: studies and news reports on the NFL’s systematic downplay of players domestic violence and the ways in which professional sports support stereotypes about people of color and reinforce the school to prison pipeline and so on. I was told none of this mattered. I was wrong. This person was a long time NFL fan and was not racist or misogynist so I had to be wrong.
In another incident, I was explaining to someone why I don’t shop at Walmart. [It’s important, I feel, to note that I did not bring this up because I never bring this up. I simply don’t shop at Walmart. However, someone else had relayed this information about me and I was asked for my reasons.] I explained my reasons. I said that Walmart relies on federal subsidies and that trickle-down economics don’t work and how we know that. Much to my surprise the person responded, “Well, I guess we’re all just so stupid then, aren’t we?!”
I was shocked. I didn’t think the person I was talking to was anything less than very intelligent. I think many intelligent people shop at Walmart and they all have their reasons. I think many unintelligent people don’t shop at Walmart and they all have their reasons. What I don’t understand, and can’t seem to figure out, is why using credible sources in an argument means that I am being condescending or accusing individuals of the faults of systems.
Perhaps this is a problem of mine. Perhaps there is something about the ways that I defend my views or the tone I use, something inherent to me, that gives this impression. It is not intended but it seems to happen.
However, without relieving myself of all culpability, I think this may be a larger problem. Reasoned arguments do not seem to be winning in the political sphere. If reasoned arguments were valued then Donald Trump wouldn’t be leading in the Republican primaries because he has yet to make a sustained reasonable argument about anything. He talks in logical falls: ad hominems, glittering generalities, and vague generalizations: Jeb Bush is low-energy, Carly Fiorina is ugly, he is a winner, other people are losers, and we need to be great again.
We can see it in the attack on teachers whose professional work has long been undervalued in the United States but whose character has been attacked by politicians and certain media in recent years. The logical question is if teachers are irresponsible, lazy, moochers then why do we let impressionable young people spend all damn day with them?!
We see it in the attacks on higher education funding, already at historic lows, and the idea of higher education itself. Certain parties want to convince us that the sole purpose of higher education is job training but it isn’t. Most people, no matter how advanced their degree, get their job training on. the. job. Higher education should be about learning to think about how your job, and your life, impact the society around you. It should be about developing as a thinker for the fundamental reason that thinking is important.
C.S. Lewis wrote an essay titled “Men Without Chests” critiquing the idea of logic without compassion. I’ll own that I agree with most of what he says but as I look around a world that is often bewildering and frightening I find myself thinking more and more about the dangers of men without heads. Acting on feeling is natural and satisfying. Most people don’t want to be racist and feel affronted when asked to think critically about their participation in racist systems or organizations tied to upholding racist systems (such as the NFL). The feeling of rejection and acting on it to turn away from larger facts, from credible sources, is satisfying but it is also dangerous. For individuals and for society as a whole.
We need both chests and heads to balance each other. We need logic rooted in an emotional connection to the people and world around us. We need passion to fuel the difficult research that generates new knowledge.
As Stephen Colbert says in this video at roughly minute twenty, “It matters who is right.” Not only so, but it matters why someone is right. Are they right because they feel it? If so, then what does that mean? Are they right because they are the loudest? If so, then what does that mean? Are they right because they used properly cited, credible sources? If not, then what does that mean?