You Don’t Know How It Feels

“No you don’t know how it feels to be me.” –Tom Petty, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”

Hence the name of this favorite rhetorical technique of the left, the Tom Petty (TP).  We hear it often when dealing with issues of race, gender, immigration, and poverty.  Because “you don’t know how it feels” to be black/gay/female/poor/an illegal immigrant/etc., you have no right to speak about crime/abortion/immigration/gay marraige/urban decay/etc.  An obvious retort is simply that you have the “right” to say whatever the hell you want about anything, but that won’t stop it.

Lefties don’t recognize it as such, but it’s a rhetorical and a rhetorical devise only.  We know this because of its counterpart, the Heartbreaker.  If you express conservative views and actually are black/gay/female/poor/an illegal immigrant/etc., they’ll get even more angry at you.  Instead of an ignorant WHAM (white heterosexual able-bodied male), you’re a traitor who despises his or her own background or people.  You won’t hear liberals screaming about how Clarence Thomas doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer from racism because he obviously does.  Instead, he’s one of the worst kinds of Heartbreaker, the Uncle Tom.

Despite their claims to the contrary, whether or not you understand isn’t the issue; the issue is whether or not you agree.  The purpose of both the TP and the Heartbreaker is not to refute your argument, it’s to de-legitimize you.  (I won’t get into the Heartbreaker because I haven’t experienced it, WHAM that I am.  I suspect it’s most effective refutation would be a variation of “Go to Hell”, but I could be wrong.)  They seek to throw you off, to make you excuse yourself, to hem and haw and concede points that under any sort of scrutiny may or many not make any sense.  The implication of the Tom Petty is that Truth is subjective; their Truth is somehow fundamentally different than yours.  How one experiences reality defines reality.

Part of the TP’s power is that it has a basis in Truth.  I don’t know what it’s like to be black.  I’ve been passed over by taxis before, but I doubt it was because of my race.  You can’t tell whether I’m a Republican or Democrat from several hundred yards away.  I’ve never been followed around a department store by security staff when I was looking for a new pair of jeans (except that time when I hadn’t showered or shaved for a few days, but that was my fault).

There is some validity to the TP, but it’s not in the way most lefties think, and not in the way that most of us see it, either.  As conservatives or libertarians, when confronted with the TP we will usually either:

1.  Hem, haw, apologize, and start babbling like an idiot.

2.  Try to claim that in fact we do understand.  Perhaps we’ve undergone similar hardships (a poor family, growing up as the only white boy in Harlem, etc.) so we draw some sort of equivalence.  Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but you do know what it’s like to get strange looks from people because you’re attracted to obese women with acne.

3.  Completely discount it and plow through.

One of the problems with 2. is that it implicitly agrees with the assumption that what you’ve been through or who you are determines your authority to speak on a matter.  You unwittingly buy into the notion that Truth is subjective.  It’s not.

Furthermore, somebody using the TP (or even somebody using it on somebody else’s behalf, (i.e. a rich white girl tell you that you’ve no right to judge black people) strongly believes in the subjective Truth of his or her collective experience.  Even if you’ve experienced damn near every disadvantage most blacks have in that you had no father, were raised in a crappy neighborhood, were turned down for jobs because of how you talk, and had teachers who never expected you to learn the alphabet, you’re not black.  Right or wrong, you’re out.  They’re looking for an excuse to de-legitimize you, and if you buy into their assumptions, they’ll find a way to do it.

This same proclivity renders 3. moot as well.  Even if they don’t get the chance to say how much their victimhood has become an intrinsic part of their identity, it’s intrinsic, and if you don’t address it, you won’t get anywhere.  You might excite observers who already agree with you, but you’ll be unlikely to bring anybody on the fence over to your side, and your opposition will remain opposed.

Instead, I propose two rhetorical disarming techniques, one direct, one indirect.  Furthermore, there are ways to disarm the TP before the conversation even begins, but that takes some homework.

The direct approach, which may or may not suffice, is verbal De-Framing.  “That’s BS and you know it.  Herman Cain agrees with me and he’s been through all that crap.  Address whether I’m right or wrong, not my right to say it.”  This works best after you’ve already gained some respect and legitimacy, or if your conversation is already more dialectical than rhetorical.  Sometimes it can also work in a rapid-fire environment when multiple people are firing one-liners back and forth.  If the response is “Herman Cain’s an Uncle Tom” or “93% of black people don’t agree with Herman Cain,” it hasn’t worked.  It should, but should’s got nothin’ to do with it.

The more indirect approach takes longer but is less confrontational and usually has a more lasting impact.  “Surrender, but don’t give yourself away.”  Accept, but don’t acquiesce.

The experiences of the man or woman across from you are real.    Their feelings are genuine.  The historical oppression of many of America’s victim groups is factual.

Furthermore, you “don’t know how it feels” to be them.  I’m not saying it necessarily matters, but I am saying it’s true.  There are zillions of little subtle awkward things that people unlike you have to undergo all the time that may well blow your mind if you had to experience them.

However, certain behaviors are productive, certain behaviors aren’t.  No matter how understandable it may be to boink like rabbits without contraception every night of the week because you don’t feel like America has anything to offer you, having three kids as a teenager ensures that your life won’t go anywhere.  Your grandfather may have been horribly degraded and screwed out of the GI Bill, but threatening to shoot your math teacher isn’t going to help the old guy out.

In fact, sometimes the awfulness isn’t just in the past.  I’ve studied up on the Watts riots recently.  Those guys were pissed, and they had a right to be, but all they accomplished was scaring every business out of the area and guaranteeing that the regions would be destitute for the next three generations.  It may have been unfair for that cop to stop you, but talking back to cops doesn’t accomplish a hell of a lot.

So when I hear “You don’t understand” I say “You’re right, I don’t.”  When they say “You don’t get it,” I say, “You’re right, I don’t.”

And then, once I know that they know that I know what I don’t know, “But I’m still right.”  You’re right to be pissed, it’s true that it’s unfair, I haven’t had to go through what you’ve gone through.  But how is teaching kids that without more welfare that they have no chance to get by in America going to help them succeed?

A line I like to use is, “I don’t know what it’s like to catch on fire.  I’ve never had to endure that pain.  But I know that you’re supposed to stop, drop, and roll.  If I see some dude on fire, am I supposed to just shut up because I don’t understand what he’s going through?”

We’ve become so wedded to the concept of “trust your feelings” that we’ve forgotten that feelings are subjective by their very nature and often destructive.  Sometimes, the only way to progress is to shut them up.  What happens to you, how white people/men/straight people treat you matters, and I’ll never begin to claim that it doesn’t.  What you do about it matters more.  All too often, leftism simply encourages people to be weak, especially those who can least afford it.

(Obviously, in North Korea things are so oppressive that “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” isn’t an option.  In America, it is.  If somebody tells me that “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you’ve got no boots”, I reply, “Good point.  There aren’t any bootstraps on $200 Nikes.”)

Getting that through to anybody takes work, and you probably won’t pull it off during a single conversation.  But the belief that Truth is subjective in nature is what we’re fighting here, and at least this gives you the chance to address it.

Also, this begins to point out one of leftism’s fundamental errors.  To them, to promote equality, we have to treat everybody differently.  Our backgrounds vary immeasurably.  Some of us have good parents, some of us don’t.  Some are great at math, some struggle to follow the plotline of Girls.  There’s no way to account for all of it.  There’s no way to be fair.  “Rectifying historical injustices” only creates modern ones.  Like it or not, that’s how it is.

Lastly, one of the reasons the TP doesn’t work on me is that in many respects I’m more knowledgeable about the perspective of certain minorities than many of my fellow WHAM’s.  I’ve studied the reasons for the LA riots, I watch documentaries and read books on black education, the Black Panthers, and the Civil Rights movement.  I’ve read books like Venkatesh’s Off the Books that describe the economy of urban America so I can make tons of specific references how and why poor blacks struggle in ways that other free market advocates simply can’t.  Abstract discussions about widgets and gadgets aren’t any more or less true, but describing the struggles of Laquanda trying to start a hair salon has more of an impact.  I still get the TP, but when I’m citing black marraige statistics from the 1950’s, it makes it harder for it to stick.

Nevertheless, I was just as right in my free-market beliefs before I read those books or watched those documentaries.  Now I”m simply better than expressing myself.  This is an advantage black conservatives have over whites, and that’s why lefties find it so important to label them as Heartbreakers.

But that’s just icing on the cake.  I was good at this before I had as much knowledge as I do now because I understood principle.  My harsh judgements of urban thugs (which many blacks agree with, good luck getting them to admit it to a white person, though) don’t derive from my racism, they derive from my lack of it.  I believe in standards to which my fellow human beings are to adhere.  Truth is Truth whether in Winnetka, Paris, or Newark.

I don’t in my heart, but in my head I do understand why so many of my countrymen have given up, why they party instead of study, why they feel so powerless.

But I also understand why leftism is making them even less prepared to fight it.

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14 Responses to You Don’t Know How It Feels

  1. Ulf Elfvin says:

    Excellent! One of your best. You’re adding up to a book or at least a large pdf-file.

  2. JG_htown says:

    I’ve been TP-ed many times. My response is basically, “What does that have to do with anything? Explain to me how exactly the point I made would be any different if I did “Know how it feels.””

    I like what you are doing here, Martel. Quality stuff. You have not put a foot wrong yet, IMHO. Keep up the good work!

    • Martel says:

      This is my shorter variation, and it can work. Which approach to use depends on circumstance. When the conversation’s moving more quickly or the TP is just a quick bullet point they’re using, yours will suffice. I favor the longer approach when I can tell that the TP is truly central to how they see things so as to more thoroughly delegitimize it in their heads. The more central TP seems to be to their way of thinking, the more thoroughly I debunk it.

      Thanks for the compliment. However, IYHO at some point I would undoubtedly “put a wrong foot.” When I do so, I humbly request that you point it out so that IF I’m wrong, I can learn something. I’m pretty hard to persuade, but it has happened before and will happen again.

  3. But very often, shooting one’s mouth off without knowing how “it” feels… can make you look profoundly stupid. Telling you to shut up if you are unaware, can be 1) an unwillingness to do Whatever 101 with you and explain basic things all over again, or 2) a very real contempt for people who extensively and authoritatively babble on, even with NO working knowledge of their subject.

    Let me give some examples that you might identify with yourself.

    Person says: “Why did you go into the military–you didn’t have to! You signed up for it, so stop bitching about whatever happened to you, you signed up for that too.”

    Actually, as I think you know, some people really do “have to”–but if you are not one of those people or have never belonged to that class of people, you may not get that. Thus, the appropriate answer is, “you don’t know what you are talking about, are you a rich kid?” And you will find out that daddy paid for their college education and like Mitt Romney famously counseling us to “ask our parents for a down payment”–it sounds resoundingly clueless. But sometimes, you have to color that in for people in BRIGHT PRIMARY COLORS.

    Or this one:

    “Just get on the subway for ____(don’t know the price of a subway token these days)__ and its cheap and you can go anywhere for 50+ miles and get a good job! Transportation is no excuse for unemployment!”

    And it usually shocks the people who live up north, that there is not a single subway system in the south that extends into the suburbs, much less the adjacent counties. How many of them know that? I have found, surprisingly few. Thus, it is proper to say, “shut up, you don’t live here, idiot”–and that is the appropriate response.

    I think the examples you give are the ones that have pissed you off specifically, so I provided a couple you might get behind. Also, I see the men’s rights movement now using identity arguments, and they are making some important ideological inroads while doing so.

    Anybody can play, dude. Are you banishing the appropriateness of the argument for ANYBODY to use?
    My problem with the TP argument is that all this damned explaining is necessary, i.e. Motherhood 101 or something like that. I remember actually linking a bus schedule for someone who didn’t believe me when I said buses in my county (that do not extend even to the county line) only ran once every 60-90 minutes, and yes, the day care closes at 7pm and there is a hefty fine if you are late, etc. I hate having to link and explain forever, since I also doubt they really care about that stuff (PS: About 27 yrs ago, I was a ‘welfare mother’, and I learned to “explain myself” during that period of time, but it is very wearying and depressing when people consider you a freeloader and you have to continually explain why you think you and your kids have the right to eat.)

    iLefties don’t recognize it as such, but it’s a rhetorical and a rhetorical devise only

    I disagree here… I think it is the truth, as you say… and often people sound tone-deaf as hell (see Mitt comment above) and maybe you don’t realize that this tone-deafness can totally shoot down a good argument. The reason they aren’t replying to you is because it is such a bad argument that they have written you off already. NO, 1) we all don’t have parents in the first place (both of mine have passed on) and 2) money for a down payment? are you serious? This is regarded as a GIVEN in some environments, so if the person keeps on pressing, “Get a down payment from your parents, did you even ASK them?” you just want to slug that person to get em out of their misery.

    Of course, I do believe much (not all) truth is subjective, but that’s a whole Buddhist thing and I won’t go there. 🙂 Good post.

    PS: The only ‘Heartbreakers’ I dislike are the one described by Skeptifem, some woman saying “I’ve always been treated like a QUEEEEEN by men at Skeptic/atheist conferences! You bitches who say otherwise are WROOOOONG!”–well, um, that’s nice that they treat you so well, but maybe you have bigger boobs than I do? Don’t invalidate my experience while sharing your own. In fact, we can start there–okay, why ARE you treated better and others are not? (Unfortunately, Third Wave feminism has made it uncool to ask the boob question, although it always flits through my mind…) If some people are treated equally in an environment in which others are not, lets go through the reasons for that and try to understand why, it could help us to solve the problem. But first, you have to concede both of us are telling the truth as we have experienced it. You are treated well at the Skeptic events and some are not… lets figure out why. But if you try to tell the Skeptic gals (note: I am not talking about myself) that they are wrong in their conference-experience and somehow (the parallel assertion, the implication) , you are so wonderful and sexee that YOU are greeted by all the male Skeptics like you are Charlize Theron, well, that just ain’t gonna fly.

    • Martel says:

      There’s a difference between not knowing how it feels and not getting your facts straight. The facts are the facts, your feelings are your internal response to them. If you’re not getting the facts straight, it’s true that you don’t know how it feels, but more importantly, you don’t know how it is. Such is the guy “who extensively and authoritatively babble on, even with NO working knowledge of their subject.” This is why I recommend conservatives and libertarians familiarize themselves with themselves with black history, urban economics, etc. When you actually know how it is, you have more leverage in discussing how it feels.

      Regardless, even if you don’t entirely know how it is, as long as you don’t pretend you do, you may in fact know certain principles like cause and effect. No matter meager the economic opportunities in your neighborhood may be, rioting will make them even more meager. Whether I’m completely cognizant of the extent of police oppression in Watts in 1964 or not, if the business next door is gets demolished, you’re likely to take the jobs in your shop elsewhere.

      Thus, the examples you cite are factual errors which DO deserve criticism and are invalid.

      “‘Lefties don’t recognize it as such, but it’s a rhetorical and a rhetorical devise only.’ I disagree here.”

      Partly right, partly not. I didn’t word it as well as I should have. There is an implicit belief on the part of the left that understanding a feelings involved in an issue are essential to correctly interpreting how that issue should be handled. In that sense, TP is more than a device. I explore that a bit here:

      However, when it’s inconvenient, TP goes straight out the window. If Herman Cain’s (who knows how it feels) is debating Harry Reid (who doesn’t) on race issues, Herman’s the bad guy.

      I’d address you PS as well, but that would require an exceptionally long essay on identity, perspective, and interpretation, and I have a post to write. But thanks for the comment.

  4. Anonymous says:

    There are some really great points in this piece, and I actually disagree with the majority of your views once you take them beyond pure logic and speak on individual’s choices. However I really appreciate the majority of the breakdown. Do you have anyone or any media (blog, site, etc) source you respect on the left that writes in the same style, using logic, facts and truth, with opinion after?

    • Martel says:

      The person who fit that description best I haven’t seen for years. She went by the name of Auntie Pinko on Democratic Underground, and she made every attempt to be sincere and honest in her assessment of conservatism and her refutation of it.

      Some folks are more measured in tone, i.e. Ezra Klein, Glenn Greenwald, and most of the commenters on NPR. However, in such cases although they’re not using insults, they’re often simply omitting the best arguments we’ve got (and omission is ALWAYS the most effective refutation, and I’ll gladly concede that everybody does it).

      Using facts is an important bare minimum standard to which most commenters on both sides at least sort of adhere. What matters more is one’s underlying frame that determines how to interpret the facts and which ones to leave out.

      You won’t hear Chris Matthews spend much time on small businesses refusing to hire because of Obamacare, and Hannity spends very little time on how black WWII vets got screwed out of the GI Bill. We ALL prefer the facts that fit easily into our pre-conceived notions.

      Which means it boils down to a) the correctness of your pre-conceived notions, and b) whether or not the truths you find inconvenient can actually fit into your visions.

      I don’t want to be an ignoramus, so I’ve consciouisly sought out views contrary to my own. It makes me uncomfortable at times, but although my perspective is continually becoming more nuanced, I believe what I believe without ignoring the ugly facts. I’m not going to spout off unless I really believe I’m more or less right, and I do.

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  6. Emma the Emo says:

    So.. simply said, use logic, and make the feelings argument irrelevant.
    Worked pretty much every time so far.

  7. Martel says:

    Yes, but the feelings argument holds an inordinate sway over people, so the logical among us need to recognize that. If the feelings argument is inartfully dismissed, the hearer may lose the argument, but they are unlikely to be persuaded. If anything, they’ll cling more tightly to their TP.

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