Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who are You to "Who are You" Me? [Jay Watts]

“Who are you to judge?”

This veiled accusation comes up a lot whenever anyone dares to question a particular behavior. No matter whether the subject is abortion, gay marriage, polyamory, pornography, or any of a host of actions that people argue are morally wrong and ultimately destructive to society, once anyone makes a claim about the moral nature of someone else's behavior we can start a count down to how long before the “Who are you?” bomb goes off. 3... 2... 1... Boom!

The problem with this response is that it is as meaningless and content free as claiming you are offended. (see here) It is lazy thinking, if it can be categorized as thinking at all. How so? Here is how. When someone says that, we could just respond, “Who are you to judge me?”

Did you see how easy that was? The original question assumes that it is perfectly legitimate for one person to judge the behavior of another person as wrong or else why are they bothering to challenge your behavior to begin with. As offered, this objection cannot mean that judging in total is wrong without being self referentially incoherent. In order to make sense, the question is actually centered on determining who has the best reasons or position by which to judge a behavior. If by “Who are you to judge?” they mean to imply judgment is wrong then they are wrong to judge you. If they mean that you are wrong to judge others based on your criteria of judgement, then they need to focus on the reasons offered to support your criteria and not you.

I hope you also see that this response gets us no closer to anything resembling a cogent point. No matter how dumbfounded they may be to find someone who disagrees with their worldview standing before them and articulating reasons for a divergence from the present cultural currents, sooner or later they have a responsibility to offer reasons for their position. That is the hard work.

Dr. Robert George gave me permission to reprint a portion of a comment he left on Facebook that succinctly addresses the “Who are you to judge?” ploy within the context of a conversation about polyamory. It is a model of graciousness but on point interaction:

"The "who are you?" rhetoric can easily be turned right back against you. Then you'd have to defend your position by making a substantive case that could not rely on the "who are you?" business. That doesn't mean your view is wrong (though I think it is), it only means that the "who are you?" is not doing any real dialectical work. It's just a rhetorical trope. I'd suggest just dropping it and going straight to the substantive argument."

Dr. George demonstrates what I have learned to model from people like him: How to educate your audience while interacting with people that passionately disagree with you. When young audience members offer this kind of response, I use it as an opportunity to teach them about discourse. How do we figure out who is right and who is wrong? I want them to be able to offer the best forms of the arguments supporting their view available. It is the only way to clearly demonstrate for others the weaknesses of their ideas.

In order to get there, we need to stop others from infecting the conversation with what Dr. George referenced as rhetorical tropes. They don't help either side. They just drag the discourse down and keep us from getting to the real arguments.

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