Someone sent me a blog post the other day by a young school teacher. The setup was interesting and well-written. She reflected on how she referred to her students as “her kids” when talking with her husband. My kids drew me the sweetest picture today. One of my kids scraped his knee on the playground. Do you think the kids will like this science project? She thought of them in the same way as her own two children and felt a similar responsibility and care for them, which is exactly what anyone would want in a teacher. When you send your kids to school, she says, they aren’t just your kids, they become her kids, too. All kids become our kids. She sounds great. So can you guess the ultimate topic of this short blog post? Yes, of course, you’re right. Gun control.
The brief conclusion was that, because all kids are our kids, we should all work to protect them, especially at school. Further, because the teacher thought of her students as her own kids, it wasn’t fair to ask her, in the event of a school shooting, to choose between protecting her students lives or protecting herself for the sake of her biological children. Therefore, we should ban assault rifles, have background checks, or otherwise limit weapons, particularly at school.
Now, this post, I assure you, is not about gun control. I’m not interested in taking a side on that issue, but I do think it is worthwhile to examine her rhetorical strategy, because I think it is emblematic of the way we tend to argue in public spaces. Nor do I want you to think I am picking on this poor teacher or misrepresenting her (I wish I could let you read the whole piece, but it was on a private site), because she does something that all of us do. I’m not trying to refute or criticize her argument; I only want to point out that she doesn’t actually make an argument at all.
What she does is take a position. The position happens to be in favor of gun control, but it could have been anything. How she arrived at this position is unknown but irrelevant. We don’t know from the post whether she inherited this belief from her parents, whether she fully reasoned it in discussions with friends and fellow teachers, whether she consulted the latest statistics and research on guns and schools, or whether it’s the result of fear and anxiety over recent school shootings. Probably it’s some combination of all of these things and more. There are many reasons we believe the things we do, not all of which are conscious decisions. The important point is that, for the sake of the piece, the support she offered for her position was the idea of all kids being our kids and her own devotion to her students as a teacher.
Notice that this is not an argument about gun control. It is a credential. She is a very good and loving teacher who cares about protecting all of our children, therefore what she says about gun control in schools must be correct. She stakes out a moral high ground and then asserts a political position. The problem isn’t that she must be wrong (that’s as may be), but that her position is unassailable. You cannot argue with her unless you are prepared to say that she is actually a terrible teacher and that she actually doesn’t care about children. In fact, if you try to argue that it is possible to be a teacher who cares about children and yet opposes gun control (for a different but equal variety of reasons), she will most likely interpret it as an attack on her character anyway.
If that sounds familiar, you may have read the internet sometime in the last few decades. Although it’s possible to do it in any setting, it’s particularly common online, where context is weak, space (i.e. attention) is limited, and relationships are nonexistent. Long, complex arguments and academic facts and dull historical examples do not tend to capture wide attention. You might take the time to sit and listen to a friend, but you can’t take the time to read every stranger online. It’s easier to present your credentials (particularly since no one can verify them) to signal what you believe. Those who agree will already understand your reasons. The fact that it’s unlikely to convince anyone who disagrees is irrelevant. We argue with our friends. With our enemies, we fight.
Appeals to authority or expert witnesses aren’t new, nor are they improper. However, when we make ourselves the expert, because of a our own moral superiority, that’s a dangerous situation. Not only might we neglect to test our reasons and thus fall into error, but we will eventually come to see taking the correct positions as a sign of moral superiority in itself. In that case, those who oppose us are not only idiots but evil. So the public sphere ceases to have any discussion among opponents and becomes a game of staking out positions, gathering faithful followers, and holding territory. Each side tries to gain moral high ground and undercut the other. Witness the results.
The answer isn’t to examine our positions and state our reasons, though that would be a good thing in itself. As we can see wherever we look, facts and reason too easily become subservient to our desires. We can select and spin them however we want. First we must take the simple step of acknowledging our own weakness and accepting the fact that we are often wrong despite our best intentions. We very seldom have any moral advantage over our opponents. Neither of us would come off well from being exposed in all our faults. What we learn, however, is that our rightness does not depend on our righteousness, thank God. We have as much to learn from the weak as from the strong. Our faults, whatever they may be, don’t disqualify us from finding the truth, but nor do our virtues make it guaranteed. We often arrive at it slowly, after many tests and trials. Sadly, that doesn’t sell online. Although, it might, if more of us were willing to buy.