On Aggressive Countering: NPR, Kessler, and Challenging the Garbage

On Aggressive Countering: NPR, Kessler, and Challenging the Garbage

By Elizabeth Harper

This is a response to this article.


I don’t listen to NPR. I saw my friends’ reactions to the NPR interview with Kessler on Facebook. This article about it is a reminder to me to develop my aggressive countering skills. Often when people say egregiously false, offensive, wrongheaded things to me, in my head I think, “What you are saying is so stupid I don’t even know where to begin to explain to you how your presuppositions and worldview are false and the so-called scientific studies, statistics, evidence, and “facts” you’re using to support your argument have been debunked.” And because I really don’t know where to begin, I say very little and go home and stew and write angry poetry. If they are really good friends of mine, I might try to address it in a series of conversations. I’m angry with people because they haven’t read all the books and articles I have and don’t know the stuff I know. But that’s petty and wrong of me, because nobody knows everything, and ideas and science and language evolve and history progresses. How is knowledge going to spread if we don’t share what we know? How are people supposed to know these things if I don’t tell them? (Well, there’s Google, but not everything on the internet is true and it takes some effort to sort through and evaluate it all.)

Often I’m reminded of this quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/  Are full of passionate intensity.”

The smart people will ponder and contemplate and collect information and second guess themselves and hold their tongues while the stupid people dominate the public conversation.

Even if you’re arguing for a progressive cause, you shouldn’t use fallacious arguments, debunked science, or regressive ideologies or prejudices to make your point. It isn’t a case of the end justifying the use of any means. Bad arguments and bad science and bad prejudices ultimately sabotage whatever cause you’re arguing for, even if they initially persuade some people. Or maybe they don’t actually persuade, and people just silently accede because they don’t want to hear any more of your garbage arguments.

Some of my friends might pooh-pooh this idea, but I imagine the people attracted to Kessler’s, or others’, bad ideas feel that something is wrong and they lack the intellectual tools to articulate it for themselves and so they latch onto these bad ideas. I imagine they feel dismissed, discounted, denigrated, but of course this is only speculation on my part. I can’t know for sure how anyone feels unless they tell me, and even then, well, there are liars and posers and manipulators among us. So I’ve learned the hard way not to take what anyone says at face value, although for me that would be the most natural, intuitive, and seemingly rational thing to do.

Because I can’t know what someone else’s experiences or feelings are, I think it’s important for people to tell their own stories, to speak for themselves. We should provide the space and intellectual tools for them to do that. We need to empower other people. We need to listen.

But we can’t let garbage ideas go unchecked. We need aggressive countering. And aggressive countering is not denying someone else their right to freedom of speech and expression. And if you tell me we should be tolerant and tolerance means being silent and not disagreeing, well, I aggressively disagree with you. An ethos of tolerance that demands all ideas and facts be considered equally valid is a false tolerance.

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NPR didn’t need to give Kessler airtime. We pay way too much attention to these alt-right, united white, whatever they want to call themselves. After I read the article, I actually did listen to the interview. His freedom of speech is being threatened? Really? Because someone is making him feel bad for his point of view? Poor baby.

NPR didn’t have to give him airtime. (And, just for a moment, try to imagine all the people and underrepresented groups and points of view they’re not giving airtime to.) But I agree that if they’re going to do so, it’s irresponsible to allow him to spout bad arguments without countering them. The interviewer did try to question him, and I don’t want to put her down or criticize her. I couldn’t do that job. I know I couldn’t do that job, as I indicated at the beginning of this response. But at some point, the idea that white people’s freedom of speech in the United States is under siege should really be broken down and dismissed for the nonsense it is. Not only does Kessler have freedom of speech, he has a public platform on NPR radio, which then gets him even more attention via The Washington Post and all the other websites who reposted the article so that it showed up in my Facebook feed and Google searches. How is this denying him freedom of speech? Does he mean that if he says what he thinks, pretty hipster girls won’t be lining up outside his hotel room to give him blowjobs? What does this guy want? A pat on the back and gold star sticker?

I care about freedom of speech and expression, probably more than just about anything else. I often say, “If you don’t like what someone is saying, say something else. Don’t try to censor what you don’t agree with. The best response to problematic speech is more free speech, not less.”

I’ve also been saying, “We need to open up our mouths. We need women and minorities and the marginalized and disabled and those with other experiences and from other countries to open up their mouths (or write or use sign language or make art or resist or express themselves in whatever way they are able).” We need spaces, forums, opportunities for people to do that. But I’m not talking about safe spaces. No one is safe. Wear comfortable shoes and know where the exits are. No one is safe from having their cherished ideas challenged. No one should be.

But also many of us know that even with our families and friends, there is no point in arguing. We have learned from painful experience. There are those whose bad ideas are so entrenched, there is no way to make them understand. They are cognitively incapable of understanding the ideologies and prejudices and presumptions they cling to are false. They will dismiss anyone who tries to challenge them. They will call anyone who tries to argue with them or disagree with them or point out factors or facts they're not acknowledging or taking into account crazy or wrong or out of touch with reality. No one can talk them out of their conviction that they are right. They’ll call it common sense. If you don’t know what the problem with common sense is, you’re the problem. I don’t want to waste my energy. None of us can afford to waste our energy, and especially not on gaslighters.

But I should look for, and take advantage of, those opportunities in which gentle countering is possible, when and where there’s the possibility of conversation, dialogue, of understanding where someone is coming from and how they’re thinking, and question them, make them think, make myself think, reevaluate my view and see if it still holds with the acquiring of new information.

In public forums, we need aggressive countering. By aggressive countering, I don’t mean yelling and name-calling. I mean basic logic. I mean calling out fallacious arguments. I mean understanding scientific and historical evolution, progression, and revolution. I mean understanding that there is bias in history and science and calling it out or questioning it. I mean knowing that correlation does not establish causation. And calling out those who make their arguments by taking advantage of their audience not understanding these concepts.

And when I speak of calling out, I mean on the level of ideas. I have no use for a call-out culture  that focuses on shaming individuals. The problems are ideological and systemic. Abuse of power should be called out, certainly, and those guilty of abusing it should be removed from positions of power. But let’s not kid ourselves. Power that can't be counteracted, monopolies on violence and of resources, hierarchical and institutional authority are the problems, not the individuals who abuse their positions in a system already in place. Bad ideas permeate our discourse and our culture and we are maintaining them when we should be challenging them. I’m saying this to myself more than anyone. I have to keep thinking and collecting information, but I also need to open up my mouth, or write, since I’m better at that than spontaneous conversation. This is a skill I need to develop. I need to practice and rehearse. Thank you for reading this.

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