Trying To Get People To Think

If you’ve been on the Internets for more than ten seconds, you’ve probably heard someone in a discussion or debate say this:

“I’m just trying to get people to think.”

It’s such an innocuous- sounding phrase. I mean, if you’re in a discussion or debate, presumably you’re there because you want to think. You want to be intellectually stimulated. You don’t want to just hold your ideas in your own private bubble: you want them to be questioned and challenged, strengthened and clarified if they’re solid, modified or demolished if they’re weak. Sure, you’re there to persuade other people that you’re right… but in theory at least, you’re open to being persuaded that you’re wrong.

And yet, the “I’m just trying to get people to think” trope drives me up a tree. It drives almost everyone I know up a similar tree. I’m trying to figure out why.

Partly, I think, the trope drives people up a tree because it’s almost always used to defend positions that are outrageous, insulting, or just flat-out stupid and wrong. But I think there’s more to it than that. So I’ve been thinking about this trope, and trying to nail down what exactly is so messed- up about it.

First: There’s enough genuine conflict in the world, without manufactured conflict being thrown into the mix.

See, here’s the thing. People who are sincerely explaining and defending positions that they sincerely hold… those aren’t the ones who say, “I’m just trying to get people to think.” “I’m just trying to get people to think” is something people say when they either:

a) sincerely hold a position, but aren’t willing to be held accountable for it;

b) have been cornered on the indefensibility of their position, but aren’t willing to admit they were wrong;

c) don’t know what they think, but aren’t willing to acknowledge that;

and/or d) are just trying to get people worked up for their own entertainment.

And there’s enough conflict in the world between people who disagree on positions they sincerely hold, without adding in manufactured conflict from people defending positions they don’t sincerely hold… or that they do sincerely hold but aren’t willing to take a stand for.

Now, it’s certainly true that rhetorical questions, and thought experiments, and the playing of devil’s advocate, are important and time- honored parts of the thought and debate process. But when people are asking rhetorical questions/ positing thought experiments/ playing devil’s advocate, they generally announce that that’s what they’re doing. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, I’m playing devil’s advocate here… but isn’t it theoretically possible that men and women have different intellectual capabilities? How certain are we that this isn’t true? Is this hypothesis consistent with the evidence? If not, why not?” It’s another to say, “Men and women have different intellectual capabilities” … and then watch people react angrily, to both your initial statement and your subsequent arguments for it… and then try to weasel out of it by saying, “I’m just trying to get people to think.”

People often don’t do our best thinking when we’re angry. Sometimes anger can’t be avoided — in disagreements on important topics that we have strong feelings about and that have serious impact on our lives, it’s almost guaranteed. Sometimes anger is useful and valuable: it can convince people that an issue is important, or motivate people to take action. But even people like me who see the value in anger still understand that it can interfere with clear thinking. And there’s enough serious crap and real conflict already in this world for people to be angry about. There’s no need to insincerely and manipulatively make people angrier than they have to be… in the name of “getting people to think.”

You know what gets people to think? Considering genuine, sincere alternatives to their ideas, offered by smart people who disagree with them. Being poked with a stick doesn’t get people to think. It just gets people to react.

Which brings me to my next problem:

Second: It’s a violation of the conversational contract.

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s latest book on language, The Stuff of Thought. (Good book, btw: somewhat tough sledding in the first half, but it gets a lot more fun and engaging in the second half, and even the tough- sledding stuff is interesting and worthwhile.)

And one of the things he talks about is the linguistic theory that, when people talk, we make a set of assumptions about the intentions of the person we’re talking with. The conversational version of the social contract, if you will. We assume, for instance, that people aren’t saying much more than they need to, or much less. We assume that what people are saying is relevant to what’s being discussed. And we assume that people are sincere: that even if they’re mistaken, they sincerely mean what they’re saying, and believe it to be correct. According to this theory, these assumptions aren’t just social niceties: they are essential for language to function. They are deeply woven into the way that language works. Without them, communication breaks down.

Now, these assumptions are often honored in spirit, even when they’re not honored in the letter. When we use irony or sarcasm, or conspicuously leave out information we’d normally include, or exaggerate for comic effect, we break the letter of these communication rules — but we do it to communicate something else, something that isn’t being spoken directly. (Example: When somebody asks how your blind date went, and you reply, “He had very nice posture,” the fact that you’re focusing on irrelevant trivia while omitting the most obviously pertinent information is actually speaking volumes.)

Liar liar
But when people break these rules without the intent of communicating something else — when they break them for no reason other than to gain personal advantage — we get angry. We feel betrayed. Lying for personal gain is the obvious example… but even if we haven’t been overtly lied to, when people break these communication contracts, we still pretty much feel lied to.

And I would argue that “I’m just trying to get you to think” breaks the sincerity clause of the communication contract.

When you take a position in a debate — especially when you take a provocative position that is likely to upset people — people assume that you sincerely hold that position. When it turns out that you don’t — or that you do, but lack the courage to either defend your position or admit that you’re wrong — people don’t feel like they’ve been inspired to think. They feel like their chain has been yanked.

And they’re right. It has been. That is one yanked chain.

Which brings me to my third, and final, and most important problem with the “I’m just trying to get you to think” trope:

Three: It is so totally fucking arrogant.

Conversations and debates are generally assumed to be a two- way street. There are obvious exceptions, of course — when your teacher gives you information, when your boss gives you an instruction, when a cop gives you an order. But in online forums and blog comment threads and whatnot, the assumption is that we’re all in this together; that we’re all trying to think our ideas through and reach the truth; that we’re all on the same level. (A blog or forum host gets a small degree of privilege in our own spaces — we get to set the topics, and through comment policies and such we get to set the tone — but when it comes to the actual discussion and debate, we’re down there wrestling in the mud with everyone else. Which is exactly as it should be.) Regardless of whether a conversation is cooperative or adversarial — regardless of whether we’re pals trying to think something through together, or opponents fighting fiercely to change each others’ minds — the assumption is that we’re all more or less equals, playing by the same rules on the same muddy playing field.

The “I’m just trying to get you to think” trope assumes nothing of the kind. It assumes superiority. It assumes that the person saying it is speaking from a position of superior wisdom and intelligence. It is an attempt to place the speaker in the position of a teacher or a guru; the one person in the group who is responsible for getting everyone else to clarify their thinking.

And they’re placing themselves in that position without having earned it… and without it being consented to.

In a free and equal society, we sometimes consent to give other people some kind of authority. We consent, within reason, to let a teacher impart one-way information to us and to guide our thinking… on the theory that they have specialized knowledge and training. We consent, within reason, to let cops enforce our laws… on the theory that laws are meaningless without enforcement. We consent, within reason, to let a boss tell us what to do… on the theory that the company will fall apart if nobody’s running the show. (Or, if we don’t consent to that, we join a collective or start our own business.)

But in a group discussion or debate, the person who’s “just trying to get people to think” has essentially taken that authority upon themselves. They have set themselves above the rest of the group; appointed themselves teacher and guru, the leader of other people’s thinking. And they have done so without the consent of the group that they’re participating in… and without doing any of the hard work that earns someone a position of genuine intellectual authority.

No wonder they piss people off.

Trying To Get People To Think

22 thoughts on “Trying To Get People To Think

  1. 1

    I love it! Sadly, unlike (say) your cogent criticisms of religious errors, there’s no way the sort of person who says that will read and take in this sort of thing: one universal about those who say “I was just trying to make you think” is that they don’t themselves think.

  2. 2

    I sometimes use anger as a means of “cutting the crap.”
    Frequently in arguments people try to tiptoe around what they really want to say, but avoid just baldly saying it because they know it is wrong.
    Which doesn’t stop them actually saying it at all, they just say it in “not so many words.”
    And that, irritates me, so I call them on it until they finally get annoyed and outright say it.
    Or they manage to get me to see that I am attacking a straw man, in which case I feel sort of sheepish.
    I have been trying to stop doing that as much lately.
    It is like there are three main stages to growing up online: You start off nice, get mean, then realise that being “mean” all too often equals being a dumbass.

  3. 4

    I’ve just been doing some related thinking on this. I have had my first extended debate with a troll in a long time (on astrology, if you’re curious) over the past few days, and it’s boggled my mind. I’ve been reflecting on it and thinking that I really ought to debate trolls more often until I manage to really drill it into my head that some people care more about “winning” or provoking anger than they do about reaching the truth, as astonishing as that is.
    The debate itself amuses me somewhat, because I don’t think the original poster expected it. Someone posed the question “Do you discriminate [when seeking potential romantic partners] based on astrology?” apparently intending to ask if people discriminated in the sense of “I’m not dating a Leo ’cause I’m a cancer.” But he got a bunch of responses, mine included, that responded positive in the sense of “I don’t believe in it, and I tend to avoid dating people who do.” Fireworks and accusations of close-mindedness and blindly following the lab-coats ensued.

  4. 5

    All your arguments are cogent — indeed, perhaps “overthought”… I’d say the basic reason why that phrase is so noxious, is a particular subset of your #3: It’s not only arrogant, but insulting, because it implies that “nobody here is thinking” without the “help” of the troll in question.

  5. vel

    I’ll have to perhaps play devil’s advocate here and say that, in my experience, sometimes people *don’t* think and do need help from a good questioner. However, I think that the phrase that should be used in that circumstance is “I want you to consider this because it may help you understand.”

  6. 7

    Here’s what usually helps me in those situations:
    For a few moments, cast away all doubts and know that your position is undoubtedly superior. That mostly results in two things – it helps remaining very calm while facing some utter nonsense, and at the same time sending out a signal to your “trying to get people to think” opponent: I am not at all impressed with what you’ve just said.
    But that’s just the foreplay. Because then you start lurking beneath the sea, waiting for the inevitably upcoming opportunity to mercilessly rip your opponent to shreds (of course only in terms of discussion), leaving their bloodless body on the ground for all others to gloat over the opponent’s misfortune.
    But that’s just me 😉

  7. 8

    I would take that one step further and say the phrase used should be “I want you to consider this because it may help you understand my opinion.”
    I think the last is very important, because otherwise it’s easily read as “I want you to consider this because it may help you understand [the truth].” Implying that the poster knows the truth and placing them, once again, in the position of being self-appointed guru.

  8. 9

    Acutally, vel, if it were me, I would hear the phrase “I want you to consider this because it may help you understand” as every bit as problematic as “I’m just trying to get people to think”… and for exactly the same reasons.
    I don’t see what’s wrong with simple, “Have you considered this?” Or words to that effect. That’s a statement between equals… not a statement from a superior trying to help their inferior see the light.

  9. 10

    Pissing people off can get people to think. Being irrational (using ad hominems) can ironically make people think rationally.
    Case and point: The Spirit of Truth
    He’s God Almighty, curses, insults, blasphemes, but is a motherfuckin’ genius. He’s one of the most influential people in my life and this is coming from an atheist. In a metaphorical sense he is GOD!:

    Dr. Gene Scott: This is a rant from one of the greatest religious hustlers on television. He made a lot of people think in his unorthodox preaching. Kudos to the christian watchdog group the Trinity Foundation for saving this rare clip. This is a clip that is often taken down by Pastor Melissa Scott, so watch it while you can. Priceless!

    Smooth and masterful real life pimp Bradley pimps off bitches ‘because they can’t think for themselves’. Bitches have to be dealt in different manner than people open to rational thinking.

  10. vel

    I can agree, yogurtbacteria 🙂 but that only is if it is my opinion. Soemtimes what’s being discussed is indeed a fact. Then it may help someone to understand. I think this applies to your point too, Greta. I also think that some people are indeed that stupid to have to have it stated to them “if you consider this, you may understand”, when it is obvious that they don’t.

  11. 12

    Great post. Point three is the one that particularly galls me. It often comes up with men talking about abortion rights or workplace sexual harassment or something that doesn’t affect them directly– one of them will say something totally reprehensible and then follow it up with “well, look, I just find this conversation very interesting and I wanted to bring up this opposing view for discussion.” And the women on the thread are like “dude, we have heard that opposing view a million times and this issue matters to us. It is not just some abstraction.”

  12. sav

    A fair bit of narcissism, which is different than but related to arrogance and superiority, is also usually an ingredient in the “I’m just trying to get people to think” dish. Infuriating, indeed. Great post, Greta.

  13. 14

    Actually, vel, I don’t agree. Of course there are times when one person in a discussion is in possession of facts that other people aren’t. But my point is that there are ways of conveying the message, “Here are some facts relevant to this discussion that other people seem not to be aware of,” without at the same time conveying the message, “I am the God-King of the Internet, the intellectual superior of all, and I am here to lead the rest of you into the light.”
    I’m arguing that “I’m just trying to get people to think” strongly conveys the second message… even to the detriment of the first. And I would argue that “I want you to consider this because it may help you understand” does much the same thing.

  14. 15

    I like this. It’s a good comment on something that gets up my nostril as well.
    I think I’ve invented a word for these people, based on your list of why they’re so annoying: Cryptopedants.
    What can I say; you made me think. 😉

  15. 18

    I don’t know if this was what inspired this post, Greta, but PZ had a post the other day about some Christian pastor from North Carolina who commented on an atheist blog, pretending to be an atheist, and said things like, “Since there’s no absolute right or wrong, why shouldn’t I go out and rape and kill if I want to? It’s all about whatever makes me feel good, right?”
    When he was unmasked and called out on his lying and smearing of atheists, he gave the exact lame response you discuss here: “I was just trying to get people to think.” It’s that excuse – trying to pretend that dishonest, unacceptable behavior was just an innocent conversational gambit – that really gets me upset about people who say this.

  16. 19

    Great, Greta, great!
    Very rich in fiber, IMO one of your better posts & threads.
    As for me:
    a) It makes me appreciate how much of YOUR backstage patrolling of trolls et al. goes into making this blog so worthwhile.
    b) The Pinker book sounds pretty great.
    c) This thread helps explain why my mentor likes it when I get angry, something that has puzzled me.
    d) Likewise explains, esp. David Harmon’s & sav’s comments, why I find a friend’s BF so boorish. He is THIS disingenuous and controlling.
    e) OTOH, I’ve also been at the butt-end of part 1 of Devysciple’s advice, ouch. Even we of relatively rhino-hide temperament get hurt when we know we’re being frozen out in the midst of discourse that is both rational AND heartfelt — in other words, NOT utter nonsense.
    Just a thought.

  17. 20

    After spending some time pondering the topic…
    a) Greta, you ROCK!!!
    b) Punch ’em on the nose, will ya?! Because anyone stupid and desperate enought to resort to those rhetorical figures does not deserve anything else! 😉

  18. 21

    It’s at once hilarious and saddening to think how that illustrates how out of touch fundies can be with what atheists think. One can only assume that McFundy thought he would at least somewhat blend in with the crowd while advocating rape and murder. Which is…wow.

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