"NO ONE SAYS" & What a Strawman Is
I grow weary
On Facebook awhile back I made what I thought was a mildly combative argument, but was surprised to find others felt it was extra spicy - it’s great that Simone Biles felt empowered to withdraw from competition for her health, but strange to give her greater adulation than those competing, utterly bizarre to say withdrawing was more impressive than when she won, and a category error to call her a hero. I find the deification particularly cruel in light of the fact that many women went to the Olympics who will receive no publicity and very close to no financial compensation at all and will go home from the Games straight back to their jobs at Geico. They’ll never be on a Wheaties box and they won’t do Jimmy Kimmel and they certainly won’t get endorsement money. Biles has been appropriately celebrated and financially rewarded for her amazing accomplishments, and good for her; perhaps her withdrawal was a good opportunity to celebrate others. But, no.
Anyway, who cares, right, it’s the culture war of the moment. What I want to react to is a response I got to this that I get every time I ever react to any dumb argument: someone loudly bleating “NO ONE IS SAYING….!” In this case, no one, supposedly, is saying that Simone Biles is a hero, so my complaining about people saying that is invalid. To which I can only say….no one is saying Simone Biles is a hero for withdrawing? No one? Really? Click that link, please.
There are many, many more.
It’s all very strange, the “no one is saying” game. You are on the internet. The internet gives you the instantaneous ability to see that, in fact, someone is saying. Oftentimes someone will be saying what you say no one is saying in the very Facebook post, Twitter thread, comments section, or group text that you’re participating in. Of course plenty of people were saying that Simone Biles was a hero. The reason people rushed to tell me that “no one was saying” that Biles is a hero is because, problem number one, that’s a harder position to defend than the one they wanted to make. Many people replied to say “but she put her mental health first and took care of herself and and!” Which is fine, and I don’t disagree. Good for her for making an adult decision, sincerely. But I wasn’t disputing that point; I was disputing the point, now being put forward by athletes and celebrities, that Biles’s decision amounted to heroism. (As is the way of these things, people praising Biles were in the immense majority, but pretended that they were a brave, tiny faction fighting against the tide.) Heroism is about putting others first. Biles was being praised for putting herself first. Those are complete opposites. Mature? Absolutely. Heroic? No, of course not.
But why did people still feel compelled to dispute my disputing a point they say they weren’t making? Well that’s problem number two, which is that we live in culture war hell, and even though I was criticizing a claim that they didn’t want to own themselves, they also didn’t want to let a criticism of their broad tribe go. So they sort of nibbled around the edge of what I was saying to make sure that I knew that it was bad to criticize a take that the Bad Guys also don’t like. So many people in the left of center now seem to live their entire lives in fear that somewhere a guy wearing Oakleys in his Facebook profile pic will go unchallenged.
My tendency is to see all bad social dynamics as accelerating, so maybe this isn’t true, but it seems like I’m battling this meta-war all the time now. The past year has been dizzying in how often I felt compelled to argue against people explicitly making Stupid Claim X, only to be immediately scolded that “no one says Stupid Claim X!” Arguing on the internet is always pointless (and my vocation!) but this kind of arguing on the internet is a new level of stupid.
A really good example is the notion that the police come from/stem from/evolve from/sprang from/etc slavecatchers. This was an all-timer for the “X!”/“No one says X” thing. Some people really, explicitly believe that the concept of modern policing is a direct offshoot of slavecatchers who were sent to recover escaped slaves from the South. That seems pretty wild to me - in ancient Babylon, when someone stole shit from your house, were you just like “ah well”? - and also a huge waste of time to argue. In that debate, someone will point out that there were things quite like the police in ancient Rome, but then people will say no those weren’t really police by today’s definition, and what does it really mean to “come from” something, and it’s all just a bunch of pointless lawyering. (“Elements of modern policing have been influenced by the practices of Southern slavecatchers” is a much more sensible and defensible claim, but it doesn’t sell on social media.) But before you get to that stage, you have to have permission to argue the point, and you can’t do that when someone is “NO ONE SAYS”-ing in your ear all the time.
But people really do believe that. The original headline of this USA Today piece was “Law enforcement’s history of racism; First police departments date back to slave patrols.” Here’s “The racist roots of American policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops.” Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece kind-of-sort-of made the slave catcher claim. If you are familiar with radical Black spaces on the internet this argument is ubiquitous. If you would like to say that none of these pieces or people matter, perhaps you should consider that Jim Clyburn, one of the three or four most powerful people in the United States Senate [Edit: the House!], said directly “Policing itself started out as slave patrols. We know that.” That’s the position in its least-hedged and most direct form, stated by someone with immense influence in our country. You don’t get to “no one says” about this one, I’m sorry. Advance a less extreme version, as is discussed here, and you’ll be on better footing - but you also won’t get retweeted nearly as much as if you just tweet Clyburn’s statement verbatim.
Getting rid of standardized testing? I argue about it a lot. Unfortunately I don’t have a pithy always test/never test stance, which really hurts you in the marketplace of ideas. (I’m a get-rid-of-routine-census-testing-but-use-targeted-sampled-tests kind of guy.) But sometimes I want to talk about those who have gone to the extreme of rejecting all objective testing whatsoever, and I want to articulate my problems with their position. Sadly when I try I am constantly told “no one wants to get rid of standardized testing altogether,” which is simply not true. I studied under professors who explicitly wanted to end all standardized testing! It takes five minutes to Google this shit. FairTest’s name is a little misleading; they are pretty much out-and-out anti-testing. (And functionally anti-Asian American kids, but we’ll leave that for another time.) Here’s someone called Thomas Vander Ark, who modestly describes himself as “building the future of learning.” This woman runs one of the most powerful organizations in American education:
There are also people who want to get rid of conventional literacy and numeracy standards altogether. Really. I do not like this idea one bit, at least as usually debated, but I do like the idea of more avenues for older students to pass through high school, and I can see some ways these impulses might fruitfully dovetail. To have that conversation first I must be permitted to have it by the anti-testing people… who frequently deny that anyone goes past rejecting standardized testing to the point of rejecting conventional literacy and numeracy because they're afraid that stance makes their own look bad. Yes, it’s true folks! First I have to argue with the people who tell me “no one is saying” to get rid of all standardized tests, then I have to argue with the people who want to get rid of all standardized tests when they say “no one is saying” we should reject those traditional concepts. I wonder what the anti-literacy and numeracy people will tell me no one is saying, some day.
Or take, God help me, defund the police. Christ, the defund the police debate. For every word of substantial engagement on that topic there were a thousand yelling at you about how no one says you should get rid of the police, that defund doesn’t mean abolish, that no one has ever said abolish the police, that abolishing the police was a right-wing canard. And all of this was weird, because I came up in lefty organizing and have heard people calling for the literal abolition of police for decades. It’s always been a fringe idea, but it’s a real one that deserves to be taken seriously and evaluated, and then when it was suddenly pushed into the public eye, it was dismissed out of hand… by people who thought they were defending the radical tradition that idea came from! This is one of the worst parts of “no one says”: it shrinks the realm of the possible by self-defensively rejecting radical ideas that some people really do believe. I found it darkly ironic last year when white people who had deputized themselves the champions of BLM would tell me, with great disdain, that “no one says” we should abolish the police - and in so doing foreclosed on what some radical Black activists had been calling for since well before BLM.
Occasionally, an article like this comes out, and for a moment there is clarity. But only for a moment. You know what the “no one is saying” crowd do when you show them incontrovertible evidence that someone is saying it? They say “oh that person doesn’t matter,” and roll right along. “No one is saying” morphs easily into “no one important is saying.”
Why are we living like this? Because we’re trapped in the aforementioned culture war hell, and so everyone feels that they have to fight to the death for every opinion expressed “on their side.” So when opinions on their side get stupid and hyperbolic enough that they don’t want to have to defend them, rather than saying “yeah some people on my side say some stupid shit, but I don’t feel that way,” they deny that the argument on their side exists. We therefore spend endless amounts of time hashing out what the various sides (just kidding, there are only ever two sides to anything, idiot) are arguing, and you end up with something like the defunding the police debate, which was an obsession of our political and media class for months and yet which is still so poorly defined that no one can intelligently say if the idea is good, bad, or indifferent.
Relatedly, the strawman accusation. A strawman is an easily-rejected argument advanced by someone looking to knock it down, in lieu of engaging with the stronger real arguments their opponents are presenting. Do people do this? Yes. Have people made the accusation so relentlessly that the term now obscures more than it reveals? Definitely yes. Please, I implore you: every argument that is not the particular argument you would make is not therefore a strawman. If you are arguing with me, and you put forward a claim, and I then dispute a claim that you’re not making (because it’s easier to dispute), then I am guilty of strawmanning. If we are arguing in a discursive environment in which people are genuinely making certain arguments, and I criticize an argument that is particularly prevalent or popular or made by a prominent figure, that is not strawmanning even if you would not make that argument yourself.
You could also say that this is all one big motte and bailey problem, which is where you say something extreme and outrageous to get credit with your tribe (Simone Biles is a hero for withdrawing) and when challenged by the other tribe you defend a markedly weaker version (Simone Biles did what was best for her). Which, you know, is precisely what you’d expect to get in an environment where being extreme is financially rewarded and where no one expects anything to ever get solved.
This is exhausting. I hate it here.