“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.