I have been thinking a lot in the last few months about ‘them’. You know, ‘they’, the ones who are behind it all.
Or rather, I have been thinking about the generic use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ in how people think and reason – I might advisedly put ‘reason’ in quotes there.
One aspect of this is the way that ad hominem arguments are used. By this I mean ways in which in an argument or a discussion, the real point, the aim, so often seems to be focused on the person who is speaking, and not on what exactly they said – or insofar as the focus is on what is said, it’s interpreted through the lens of who the person is. ‘Oh, you don’t believe that, THEY said it,’ or, ‘Do you know what THEY said about topic X?’, or, sometimes, ‘that person can’t be trusted, THEY agree with something that’s also said by THEM.’
A lot of debates in various areas are about trying to wrestle ground, wrestle attention, from those who are seen to be dominant or privileged; to get multiple viewpoints heard. (‘They’ are trying to stop this, usually.) The common assumption is to fight against an essentialist world view which claims an allegedly bogus objectivity; commonly, tired dualisms are also critiqued, such as the binary opposition of male and female, masculine and feminism, mind and body. Commonly, a social constructionist view of some sort is advocated, or some kind of cultural relativism.
And commonly too, debates quickly degenerate into suspicious accusations and a welter of ad hominem arguments.
But ironically what lies behind much of these cat-calling rolling critiques of escalating attacks on personalities is precisely a kind of essentialist dualism. Because what is often going on is an attempt to get behind somebody’s statements, their tweets, their spoken or written word, their actions, behind who their name was next to on a petition or a letter to the editor, to ‘what is really going on in their head’ – not to a piece by piece assessment of the issues, of the arguments, not a careful and detailed look at what they said in the context of a larger whole of argument and the settings of argument – but an idea that by interpreting their latest tweet, or whatever, it is possible to get to what is really going on in their head –
and next, the staggeringly simplistic notion that you are a Good guy or a Bad guy. (Oops, mustn’t use a generic ‘guy’, must I, or I’ll be anti-woman. Or, something. Not sure what, but it is probably bad.)
In other words, what lies behind many of the escalating, stupid, vicious, self-righteous rows which clutter up our rapidly exhausted brain waves, is the idea that there is something, some unitary thing, which is what a person is ‘really like’ and that there are two options, Good, and Bad. And Good, usually means, ‘just like me’.