Let me educate you...I'd rather not.
November 6, 2012 2:38 AM   Subscribe

Please help me not find it dismissive when people ask me for sources to back up my information during an argument/discussion.

Just yesterday I was discussing some election-related stuff with my boyfriend when we got to the topic of dog-whistle politics and racial motivation in voting. He...oddly enough wasn't aware of the history of this in the US and rather than engaging me in good faith, asked me to find sources to back up my point. Even though I sent him links to the relevant Wikipedia articles and op-eds, he still found it incredulous that this sort of thing happens. I was pretty surprised at his naiviety, and then started to wonder if he isn't naive at all and that maybe this was a argumentative tactic designed to dismiss something he didn't agree with.

I don't care if someone agrees with me in a conversation, but I do find it frustrating when I discuss something with someone who (apparently) doesn't share my frame of reference and stalls the discussion so that I can give them an annotated bibliography on whatever I'm talking about, especially when it's not uncommon knowledge. Are people doing this to me in good faith or is it actually meant to be dismissive? I avoid political conversations because I feel like I'm disproportionately asked to back up anything I'm saying, and I don't want to spend my time spewing facts at people. I find that I'm culturally literate enough to follow along with what other people are saying so I tend not to derail conversations with these sorts of requests. I often feel like I can't say anything about certain topics and be taken seriously. Is my perspective on this the problem or should I just expect that I'll have to go all Professor Thisjax on some people in order to not be seen like I don't know what I'm talking about? Alternatively, how can I respond to this sort of situation credibly without feeling like I'm expected to be a walking encyclopedia?

*Some likely relevant information: I don't want to turn this into a race thing, but I'm black and female, and my SO is white and male. This isn't a DTMFA situation - we are generally good at the conversation thing. We're Canadian, university-educated and politically literate, as are the majority of the people I associate with. I find I run into this issue mostly with white males when discussing anything regarding race/sex/class.
posted by thisjax to Human Relations (44 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Comments on your question:

1. Your statement "especially when it's not uncommon knowledge" is important. It may be common knowledge to you, and you may feel that everyone obviously knows this piece of information, but that may not be the case. I consider myself a fairly intelligent person, but my wife's knowledge on SO many subjects far surpasses mine in nearly every conversation. It all started when she was telling me about fresh water sharks (pre-internet conversation), I made her prove it. And, it's not that I don't trust her knowledge, or truthfulness, sometimes my stubborn beliefs are so firmly held that they need a swift kick with a sharp toed citation. I'm not being dismissive when I do this, it's just me knowing what it takes to make me understand/believe that x=x and not y when I've believed x=y for 64 years!

2. Also, we live in an age of lies, people who need/want verification are a good thing.

3. As to how to respond, two options: "Wow, good for you for seeking the absolute truth in this, I admire that, the citation for this could be found in Whosit's book, the title is "Whosit's Book of Absolute Truth About This Topic." Or, "Wow, good for you for seeking the abolute truth in this, I admire that. I wish I had the citations off the top of my head but I don't, try googling it and, when I find my source, I'll send it to you."

I think those will work with most people. As for people who are intentionally stalling the conversation, call them on it if you're certain, and if they continue, do you really want to be talking to them?
posted by HuronBob at 2:50 AM on November 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

"I don't care if someone agrees with me in a conversation, but I do find it frustrating when I discuss something with someone who (apparently) doesn't share my frame of reference and stalls the discussion so that I can give them an annotated bibliography on whatever I'm talking about, especially when it's not uncommon knowledge"

I don't know, this seems to me like a kind of situation where sources are all the more important. We live in an age with the world's libraries at our fingertips, which should make lies all the harder to get away with, but in a sense it seems to almost make it easier, where that access causes a trust in what people are saying when it emotionally fits because it is all to easy to assume that it will turn out if the minimal amount of effort necessary to research it is done. Lies are able to spread not just in spite of unparalleded access to raw data but almost because of it, as rubes remain just as unwilling to go back to original sources to evaluate. The cure is habits just like your friend's, even if they are intended as dismissive snark, it is still a continuation of the conversation in a way that is more likely to be convincing and more likely to end up with a true result. I think it is a good idea to make a habit of collecting primary source materiel for exactly these kinds of awesome conversations, where people I'm talking to are actually interested in developing real knowledge of the thing being argued about, which is so much more important than the shallow surface opinions that most people value anyway. I tend to carry around my laptop everywhere with me and have an intense number of firefox tabs so that I can do this sort of thing in real time - you still believe that vaccine ingredients lists are proprietary and thus scary? Here have a full accounting of all of it down to the media used to grow things that don't even end up in the final batch, You feel the rich are unfairly taxed? Well how do you feel about these graphs?, you want to sell your gold and feel the guys on that commercial will give you a fair shake? This is a neutral explination of how the second hand gold market works and how you can best interact with it.

With most of the arguments on the internet that I see on topics that I know well, it is painfully obvious that neither side has any real understanding of the thing being argued about and are just borrowing opinions from people they trust for whatever reason - some more trustworthy than others. For example with vaccines its almost exclusively people with at best 1930s era understandings of immunology and epidemiology either buying into woo bullshit, or using simplistic understandings of complex arguments that are at best only half understood. With this and the other few things I know well, I see both sides as almost always being able to benefit from following things back to their sources and trying to understand and evaluate what is actually going on with their sources of knowledge.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:34 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are people doing this to me in good faith or is it actually meant to be dismissive?

Why can't it be both, really? In my experience, everyone has their own little worldview built up out of the sum total of their experiences, their felt truth about the world --- their sense of What People Are Like. People spend time on that shit, both consciously and unconsciously, massaging the facts they get and the people they encounter so they fit in to the world view, to make a cohesive whole. It's rare that people change their worldview in response to one person or one encounter or one new fact.

The thing is, of course, that no one knows what they don't know. Most people, you tell them something that doesn't fit in their worldview, their instinct is to challenge it. Because everything in their life up to now is working against their acceptance. It's a relatively small percentage of people who even bother to dedicate a small fraction of their mental budget to the possibility that they themselves might be full of shit, and they're the only ones who are going to give you a fair hearing on first go. Even then, actually getting them to change their mind is quite difficult. The vast majority of the time, they'll just file you away as wrong about subject X.

So that's why I say something can be both in good faith and a form of dismissal --- they think you're wrong and that therefore you won't be able to back up your bullshit. However, by at least asking for proof rather than just thinking to themselves "Man, is she a nut on Subject X" and changing the topic of conversation they are at least opening themselves up to challenge.

Here's the thing, though: I do this. I bet you do this. After all, as I have discovered through my long years of life, this is just What People Are Like. We all need to believe we understand the world in order to feel safe acting in it. I don't think that there's something defective about your boyfriend because he resists thinking that he might be wrong about something he believes. Everyone does.

Plus --- an in regard to your situation in particular --- sometimes you can have a discussion about something that leaves someone apparently unconvinced, but the discussion itself stays with them, becomes something they chew over on their own, and gradually their opinion shifts without their quite realizing it. You can't guarantee that'll happen, of course. I just mention it to give you heart if you end up shaking your head after one of these talks.
posted by Diablevert at 3:47 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I find I run into this issue mostly with white males when discussing anything regarding race/sex/class."

I just wanted to add a note that especially this kind of shit gets old real fast for almost everyone and the privilege of dumbasses is totally not your responsibility to address, its theirs.

Also, with this sort of thing the academic discipline of studying race in North America has gotten pretty uniquely awesome in the last couple of decades here would be a great place to start:

The Impact of Anti-Black Racism on Approval of Barack Obama’s Job Performance and on Voting in the 2012 Presidential Election (PDF)
Executive Summary
  • Anti-Black attitudes became slightly more common between 2008 and 2012.
  • Sizable proportions of both Democrats and Republicans manifested anti-Black attitudes, though anti-Black attitudes were more common among Republicans than among Democrats.
  • People who identified themselves as Republicans in 2012 expressed anti-Black attitudes more often than did Republican identifiers in 2008.
  • People with more negative attitudes toward Blacks were less likely to approve of President Obama’s job performance.
  • The influence of racial attitudes on approval of Mr. Obama’s job performance decreased between 2010 and 2012.
  • If anti-Black attitudes had been converted to be neutral, about 2 to 3 percentage points more people would have approved of President Obama’s job performance in 2010 and 2012.
  • If both anti-Black and pro-Black attitudes had been converted to be neutral, the proportion of Americans disapproving of President Obama’s job performance would have been 1 to 3 percentage points lower in both 2010 and 2012.
  • In 2012, holding negative attitudes toward Blacks increased the likelihoods of voting for Mr. Romney and not voting at all and decreased the likelihood of voting for Mr. Obama.
  • Neutralizing anti-Black attitudes led to a projected increase in Mr. Obama’s 2012 vote share of 4 percentage points and a projected decrease in Mr. Romney’s 2012 vote share of 5 percentage points.
  • Converting both anti-Black and pro-Black attitudes to neutral led to a projected increase in Mr. Obama’s 2012 vote share of 2 percentage points and a projected decrease in Mr. Romney’s 2012 vote share of 3 percentage points.

  • posted by Blasdelb at 3:57 AM on November 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

    This is a classic derailing tactic. You notice that it comes up with white men who are being confronted with their privilege - you're forcing them to acknowledge that things exist that they don't know about and which are horrifying. One in six women in the U.S. has been raped? Racism still impacts Americans on a massive scale? When you haven't experienced these things firsthand they can seem like a nutty conspiracy theory, and it can be hard to disprove. Should you name all the times racism has affected your life? Should you list the women you know who have been raped? It's not your job to educate him. If he really cares about understanding the issue, he'll educate himself and not assume that *you* are acting in bad faith.
    posted by chaiminda at 4:00 AM on November 6, 2012 [27 favorites]

    I sometimes find it useful to ask "what evidence would convince you that this is the case?"
    posted by rmd1023 at 4:17 AM on November 6, 2012 [21 favorites]

    I think it is a derailing technique. You are not expected to be a walking encyclopedia or to have instant reference to authoritative sources. No one does that. But an inability to respond to that kind of challenge gives the other person a chance to dismiss your comment for what appears to be a good reason. Notice that none of them ask for facts to back up the points that they agree with.

    It is a virtual guarantee that, if you did come up with a reference, it would be immediately dismissed as partisan, based on outmoded data, etc. It's a variation of the "no true Scotsman" trick.
    posted by yclipse at 4:24 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    rather than engaging me in good faith, asked me to find sources to back up my point

    Since when is asking for evidence a lack of good faith?

    Further, you're accusing wide swaths of the American electorate of acting in bad faith and then insisting that you be treated in good faith. I'm starting to wonder whether it's even possible to have good faith in a conversational environment like that.

    when it's not uncommon knowledge

    This in particular is one of those things which one side of the political divide adamantly believes to be the case while the other adamantly does not. Ironically, the whole "dog whistle" thing seems to be something that liberals accuse conservatives of doing, but most of the time it's liberals hearing the "whistle" before conservatives do. But saying that "Everyone knows this!" just isn't true. Certain people of a certain political persuasion "know" this but others most definitely do not.
    posted by valkyryn at 4:25 AM on November 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

    1) Yes, this is a classic derailing tactic.

    2) It's not that unreasonable for someone to want to see some external confirmation of things that are outside of their personal experience (especially if the other person is making universal rather than personal statements.)

    It depends on what kind of place the other person is coming from IMO. If it's a 'tell me more about that, because I've never heard that before' then that's one thing. If there's a double standard where one persons assumptions about how the world works never get questioned but the other party has to reference a Cochrane review paper to back up every point they make then that's clearly completely unreasonable.

    Perhaps, when one of these points of contention comes up, *he* should be the one to go read up on it and then come back if he wants to take the discussion further? Of course, if he starts using wingnut sites as his point of reference, then that approach might backfire!

    (Mix and match with rmd1023's suggestion as appropriate!)
    posted by pharm at 4:26 AM on November 6, 2012

    He...oddly enough wasn't aware of the history of this in the US and rather than engaging me in good faith, asked me to find sources to back up my point.

    I find this statement troubling. "Good faith" does not mean accepting everything the other person says uncritically. It is not bad faith to ask someone to back up their claims with reliable sources. This is something you should always be prepared to do. The more that your claim is "common knowledge," the easier it is to do. Only you can judge within the context of the conversation whether this particular request was a good faith request for information or an attempt to derail or delay or browbeat you, but asking for a source is often part of good-faith participation in a discussion.
    posted by BrashTech at 4:27 AM on November 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

    If someone asks you to support your opinion with fact, that is not a "derail". That is rational. Your opinion only has value to the extent it is supported by fact. "especially when it's not uncommon knowledge" is key. If you were to say that the capital of France is Paris or that you went to the supermarket last Wednesday, your boyfriend would probably not ask you to back that up. The more extraordinary your claim, the more extraordinary the required proof. Of course, someone could constant be asking you for proof of every little thing as a stalling tactic, but you will have to use your judgment on that. However, the request for data, in and of itself, is not unjustified.

    It is definitely not appropriate for you to say to an opponent, "do your own research". As the party making the affirmative claim, the burden of proof rests with you. FWIW, op-ed pieces and Wikipedia articles are not most people's idea of "proof". It is also worth bearing in mind that in political discussions, "proof" is often not possible because what is being discussed rests upon subjective value judgments.

    Rmn1023 raises an excellent point that I regularly use. I will often say something to the effect of, "what evidence would be necessary to prove you wrong?" I am also sure to note that this question places the burden of proof on me and my opponent simply needs to provide the desired standard. This is a good cut-through-the-crap question that can see if someone is truly interested in learning or just playing word games.
    posted by Tanizaki at 4:36 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

    I think it's usually a derail.

    When it happens to me I do something like this:
    1. A quick gut check: Have I gone out on a limb? Is [whatever I said] unsupportable? If Yes, I'd say, well, maybe I exaggerate, let's check it out. I think you'll see the point is valid.
    2. But more often my gut check answer is No. Then I say, well, [whatever] is no big secret. If you're interested in finding more detail I'll give you a link or two to get started. But not off the top of my head, of course.
    3. Then, if it's an interesting & worthwhile topic, I might review some sources. (I admit to learning a few things that way, usually nuances.) But I certainly don't have time to research every point I make in conversation.

    BTW, when somebody says something nutty ("Did you know Obama's birth certificate has an Illuminati symbol in invisible ink?") I just say "No, I didn't know that. I still don't." I see no point in asking for "proof" of a flat-earth theory.

    Lotsa good points here.
    posted by LonnieK at 4:48 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

    I am also sure to note that this question places the burden of proof on me and my opponent simply needs to provide the desired standard.

    I'm really not sure that casting this whole thing in terms of "opponents" and "burden of proof" etc etc is going to be particularly helpful Tanizaki.

    Neither Tanizaki nor BrashTech (or several other commenters) seem to be aware that this is a *classic* derailing tactic, used over and over again to minimise or devalue the position someone else takes. Yes, it can be in good faith, but only if the asker takes exactly the same attitude to their own positions & statements and is willing to work with the other person in a spirit of engagement rather than outright challenge.

    Given that the OP otherwise has a good relationship with her partner I'd suspect that this is simply unconscious unfairness: it's perfectly *understandable* for the OP's partner to be suspicious of the provenance of something they've never heard of before, but at the same time they're almost certainly completely unaware of their own unconscious biases and things they 'know to be true' but don't ever expect to have to prove (and so don't carry around a laundry list of research papers in case they're required to back up these points of fact at any random moment) nor are they really aware that they're setting up an unpleasant double standard for themselves and their partner in these discussions.

    It seems to me that in discussions like this with people you care about, you should be 'good, giving and game' as the saying has it: "good" as in you should assume good faith on the part of the other person, "giving" in that you should give the benefit of the doubt to things you aren't sure about so that the other person can make their points & "game" to engage with these new ideas yourself. Then you can check them out in your own time afterwards & if there's anything that seems off you can circle back & ask if the other person would be willing to go over the ground again.

    It's not reasonable on the other hand to maintain a double standard where one person gets to make whatever points they like but their partner has to prove everything they say with full academic references right in the middle of every discussion.
    posted by pharm at 5:04 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

    I think it can be a derailing tactic, except when it isn't. Believe me, you will never cease being amazed at the things you assume are common knowledge that a person you hold as reasonably well informed has never heard of. In either case, I think it can be useful to simply say something like, "sources? Dude, this is common knowledge. Haven't you ever heard of the Southern Strategy? Seriously, look it up." This establishes that you are drawing upon something that is considered common knowledge, and transfers the burden of referencing the "backup" back to the other party. If the person insists that you have to provide citations to scholarly articles or whatever, then you know for sure it's a derail and you can call them on it or disengage.
    posted by slkinsey at 5:05 AM on November 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

    I think what you're running into is the idea bred into us since our youth that we must, intellectually, form and justify an opinion...and we can do that within the limits if our own experiences and sources.

    It hasn't occurred to your SO yet that his world is narrow and there are some things that its just not his place to have an opinion about.

    Until he understands that his experience of the world is not only not shared by others, but is actually enjoyed by a narrow few -- and he has no idea what the lived experiences of others are -- he really shouldn't weigh in on some things. That's true for most of us.

    It's a long journey. If he's a good person, his next effort will be to advocate on behalf of others. Like, he may see suffering in others and start to speak on their behalf. He's halfway there, at that point.

    The really disappointing thing about it is that your SO has an arrogance mixed with a naviete that you'd probably not like to see. And its not on purpose. His epistemological stance is a product of his developmental context -- (ironically, that stance includes the idea that you can intellectually choose an epistemological stance).

    Your efforts to bring him along to your viewpoint are less about needing to win an argument and more about needing to see him in a way that isn't disappointing.

    As you said, it's not fatal -- to him or to your relationship -- and on the plus side, it probably comes with perks -- like when he is in his element he is confident and the world mostly works out for him the way he expects it to. And he's not all cynical and chewed up by the world.
    posted by vitabellosi at 5:12 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

    It can be a derailing tactic but if you make the point it's your responsibility to be able to back it up, making an assertion that is impractical to verify (or refusing to help verify it) is another good way of derailing an argument.

    In my experience when the girl tells me something I'll often be skeptical and ask to see proof, not because I don't believe it exists but because our ways of analyzing things are so different and I'll often come to a different conclusion based on the same evidence, the important thing to do is to discuss it in good faith and in a respectful manner.

    To back up something someone else said:

    An op-ed is, for my money, not a source, it is an opinion piece and unless it is backed up with something a bit more scientific or written by someone of excellent repute I generally take it with at least a handful of salt.

    Wikipedia can be a useful but as a source I only find it useful for following back to other, primary, sources. Anything that doesn't have a primary source could be written by an expert on the subject or it could be a raving loon (or a terrifying mix of the two)
    posted by purplemonkeydishwasher at 5:12 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    God, people sure do overuse that "derailing for dummies" thing. Real life isn't an internet conversation and presuming that he's your boyfriend, he's probably acting in good faith.

    That isn't to say that privilege is irrelevant here, the fact that it's the facts that conflict with a privilege-soaked worldview that he's challenging is proof of that enough. But, you know, people can be blind to the experiences of others without being derailers or whatever. People are actually usually pretty blind, myself included, to be honest.
    posted by downing street memo at 5:24 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Are people doing this to me in good faith or is it actually meant to be dismissive?

    It is either. People are more willing to believe things they agree with, and less willing to believe things they don't. (I mean, look at the gas price thread. People were demanding proof that the supply-demand curve is a real thing.)

    As for your situation, it is really hard to prove things like dog-whistle politics. Someone either gets it or they don't, since pretty much nobody says "ok, from now on when I say state's rights, I mean slavery. [wink]"

    And then there is the thing where people mistake their framework for understanding the world as fact. The privilege thing is one of them. It is a very convenient and concise way to frame a lot of things that happen. But it isn't provable or measurable, so when someone doesn't understand or agree, it becomes an instant derail.

    So the goal has to be to work toward a mutual understanding of terms, frames of reference and motivations.
    posted by gjc at 5:37 AM on November 6, 2012

    Sometimes it's deliberately used as a derailing tactic, and sometimes it's a genuine request for more information, with a side effect of being a derail. It's always going to depend on your relationship with the person or people you're having the discussion with. And it's going to depend on what their (and your) priority is: Is it to "win", or is it to learn?

    If you feel like your boyfriend was trying to score points rather than learn more, that's a relationship flag (color of your choice).
    posted by rtha at 6:15 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Oh, and it can be a hard thing to judge if you're discussing via text rather than in person, because you can't see the person's expression or hear their voice. It's way easier to misread "tone" in text, as we've all experienced here!
    posted by rtha at 6:22 AM on November 6, 2012

    Sometimes when people tell me things I say 'wow, I really can't believe that' over and over again. Even if they show me proof. Usually I am saying that the information I have been shown is blowing my mind in some way, not that I don't believe or disregard the source/messenger. Us university-educated Canadians aren't dismissive like that!:) Seriously, I think he, or whoever, is just incredulous at the information itself, not being disrespectful or disingenuous towards you.
    posted by bquarters at 6:26 AM on November 6, 2012

    Right, here is why it's derailing and problematic: It's not on the internet. The boyfriend presumably knows his girlfriend very well, and ought to take what she says at face value. If she says "google it" and the conversation moves on, that ought to be enough. Having her sit down and provide a bibliography is insulting, and (I think unconsciously) says something about his trust of her knowledge.

    Now, I am not quite trying to say that he doesn't think she knows her stuff, not really. I imagine this impulse comes out of the sort of shock that comes from being confronted with your privilege. Like someone else said, I think people who have never had to deal with stuff like this can view race or gender issues as if they're conspiracy theories.

    But if I was you, OP, I'd probably point out that it's insulting when he does this, and ask him to reflect a little on his motivation. If his motivation is genuinely wanting more knowledge, he can go and google it, and think about why he's making you offer proof.
    posted by hought20 at 6:30 AM on November 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

    I think the world would be a much better place if more people asked for sources before accepting claims.

    But if you feel dismissed by your SO, maybe it's worth it to have a conversation with him. Maybe he can reassure you, or maybe you can negotiate a new way to have these conversations. Is he interrupting you and shutting down the convo? Does he actually read the materials you provide? Maybe if he hears you out first, then says "this is interesting, I'd like to read more" you can feel heard and he can satisfy his interest in pinning down the facts - which is a very good thing.
    posted by bunderful at 6:32 AM on November 6, 2012

    It is hard to answer this because I subjectively think that people have very different approaches to conversations and how they seek out information and interact with others, so what applies to one person might not apply to the next person.

    But I will try to answer this from the perspective that I do what your partner does frequently (ask: Why do you believe this? Based on study? ). I'm going to try to give reasons why it may not be dismissive, but this may apply to my bubble world.

    • I usually want to know what someone is basing their information, but this is so that more information can be achieved I may be curious as to what the person may think about studies that may suggest the opposite conclusion. So as an example, maybe the other person will tell me that vaccines cause autism. Is this premise based on a study that has now been retracted? Or how would that be interpreted with later longitudinal studies with and without thiomersal? But unless you know what the premise is based on from the other person, it is hard to bring in additional studies or points of view to discuss.

    • I do consider part of the responsibility to be that I look up some of the information that is discussed to evaluate it for myself. Sometimes a person may describe their rational for not believing studies X and Y. As a next step, I may go and look in pub med, google scholar, some journals to see if that has been evaluated and sometimes it is a pleasant surprise to find that there is and it may change my point of view. But unless the first conversation happens, there is nothing to evaluate further.

    • I would like someone to cite information and/or explain what it is based on. But I also do the reverse - if we were friends and you wanted to know what I think about X, I often do send links to abstracts and/or attach published journal articles. I usually tell someone that I don't know about X or this is an anecdotal example or a subjective point of view.

    • If we were friends and you sent follow-up links to articles, sources, etc.-that is phenomenal, fun. Mainly because sometimes I lack the vocabulary to know what to look up at a later point- and it gives a point to start doing a search for more information. No one can possible follow all the different fields, topics, points of view, and that is the reason for discussing these things with people.

    If I ask a person to cite and/or what it is based -- it is usually a sign of respect for the person. I really do often look up the study and/or try to find studies that have further explored the topics. I usually want to engage with the information and come back later and discuss it further. There are many people who I do not ask to do this because ...I might have rejected the premise, and even things that the person will say - so it might mean smile, nod, but it does not mean agreement

    • "....discussing anything regarding race/sex/class" This is interesting and this is just me. For these type of topics, I might find an editorial or two appropriate, but I would rarely ask for a citation. Mainly because these are often personal and subjective and I don't want to trample on someone's feelings. I feel that I can usually learn much, much more by just listening to the other point of view. This even includes when I might be part of the same race/sex/class discussed, because my experiences might not equal another person's experience, and you can still learn a lot.
    posted by Wolfster at 6:39 AM on November 6, 2012

    Do I think your boyfriend is intentionally trying to stall you or act in poor faith? No..

    Nonetheless, I do think it is indicative of privilege that he asks for evidence, presumably without scholarly evidence of his own. It's more telling, I think, that the evidence you provided has apparently been rejected by him, thus you are required to conform to his standards of what is "real evidence", etc... He's essentially making you responsible for teaching him about Thing X, and if you don't (or don't to his satisfaction), then it's not upon him to find further information.

    Again, I wouldn't jump to say this is intentional. The essence of privilege is being able to truly ignorantly say "I don't need to learn about this."

    I think some comments here are demonstrating that people get riled up when they think they're being "accused" of having privilege. Dudes! Privilege is not something you can help having. You CAN help whether you deny it and turn your head and don't want to learn about it when people ask you to think outside your worldview.
    posted by nakedmolerats at 6:45 AM on November 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

    When I'm doing this I'm not derailing. I'm either looking for new sources or gauging the rigor of your inquiry into the topic. That seems to be a requirement for thoughtful conversation. What is your frame of reference? Here is mine.

    If you're taking about your lived in experiences, then fine. If you're making claims that the literature agrees with you, then you should be prepared to discuss how it does.

    You assert that you have the cultural literacy to follow along with other's conversation. I'd say that following along on important topics is a low bar. If someone tells me something that doesn't mesh with my understanding I don't substitute their view for mine. I ask how they got to that understanding.
    posted by 26.2 at 6:53 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Lots of good advice here already, but do want to add to one person's comment above, "it is really hard to prove things like dog-whistle politics...since pretty much nobody says "ok, from now on when I say state's rights, I mean slavery. [wink]"

    There actually IS a pretty famous and disturbing quote on this from Republican strategist Lee Atwater that begins, "You start out in 1954..." - I won't paste the whole thing here, but it's worth Googling if you've never read it before.
    posted by see_change at 7:03 AM on November 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

    The concept of dog-whistle politics is introducing your boyfriend to the idea that most of the people he likes are secretly monsters. He probably resists this because he will no longer perceive the world as a safe place full of potential friends. It was his privilege to see it as a warm, comforting place. It's actually full of secret racists, sexists, and homophobes, disguising themselves from him with secret codes. Secret codes are designed to disguise how adversarial they are toward you-- but keep this in mind: they disguise themselves not from you (because that doesn't work at all), but from him, which is a fundamentally adversarial way to behave toward him. Worst of all, he'll never know who to trust. He can't just turn against everyone, because anyone could be fine and anyone could be a monster.

    If he's anything like me, your boyfriend probably can't comprehend what kind of mentality is receptive to dog-whistle politics. He lives in the invasion of the body snatchers now. And just like in a zombie movie, it's your boyfriend's own loved ones who will suddenly try to eat the brains of the woman he loves. After he accepts what you're saying, he may go through a phase in which his love for you poisons every other interaction he has.

    After I transitioned from a conservative to a progressive (thanks to Google), the reason I do not barricade myself inside my house behind a wall of sandbags and eat cold beans out of a can is that I realized most people can be trustworthy and hideously detestable at the same time. Framing it like this helped me transition my relationships with other human beings onto a new road; one that is, if not as smoothly paved as it used to be, then at least reasonably comfortable enough that I can function in the world.
    posted by matt_arnold at 7:23 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

    If your boyfriend was explaining something to you that contradicted your worldview, significantly, and he was firm in his conviction as you were in yours, would you simply agree to disagree, fight about it, pretend to agree with him, or ask for backup to his assertions? Which would you prefer that he do?
    posted by davejay at 7:30 AM on November 6, 2012

    As a black woman also in a relationship with a white male, I have also run into this, but for me, it's even more annoying. My partner is a PhD candidate at Yale whose field of study is abolitionism(!), and still he says things like, "Wait, positive stereotypes are bad??" I've found that a large part of privilege is just plain old ignorance, but not necessarily the willful sort. So in the case of my SO, because I love him, and because I know that he's not being purposefully idiotic, and because (and this is key) I would prefer that he not say things that make me want to kick him, I will send him "proof" of why positive stereotypes are bad, in the form of articles, etc. This is especially helpful for him, because of that whole academic obsession with source material.

    And yes, I'm sure that sometimes when he & I have these sorts of conversations, his reaction of disbelief is a knee-jerk defense mechanism, and yes, that's annoying, but I am knee-jerk defensive about things as well. Just because his defensiveness is related to something as complicated and fraught with emotion (for me) as race/ethnicity/gender, I try to not make his defensiveness mean more than it does.

    I pretty much take this same stance with most people, except if it's obvious they're being willfully obtuse. In those cases, I just let it go. There are people whose minds are already made up about certain things and there is no "proof" that currently exists that will make them think or feel a different way (see cognitive dissonance).

    But seriously: You can engage in these sorts of situations in any way that you choose. You don't want to provide proof of something that you feel is obvious? Don't. You want to be all, "X said this and Y did that. ERGO..."? Do that. You have no obligation to react in any specific way and you can pick and choose when to engage and when to be exasperated and refuse to take part. For the most part though, trying to figure out other people's motives is generally a frustrating undertaking.
    posted by eunoia at 7:30 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

    Wouldn't you rather debate someone who knows what they're talking about? I mean, technically it's a derail, but it's not necessarily a derail for the sake of derailing.

    Personally, if a person gets into a topic I don't know about (and the example you give as "common knowledge" is something that I, as a mid-to-late 20s well-educated female know little to nothing about), well, I'm afraid of sounding stupid and I'd rather go read up on it than listen to what someone else has to say about it. I wouldn't be trying to discredit you -- it's more that I understand the whole issue better when I can read something from both sides of it. If I can see the arguments and counter-arguments that already exist, I can then get a concept of the whole issue and discuss it intelligently. So yeah, I'll derail, but it's not about you, it's about me.
    posted by DoubleLune at 8:27 AM on November 6, 2012

    I think it's better than a more common reaction, which is just to say "that isn't true" when what they mean is "I feel like that's not true because it's not in accordance with my preferred world view." My best friend does that -- when I say something she doesn't like about politics or history or whatever she goes "nooooo" in this "come on now" tone --- and I wish that instead she'd say "wow, that's hard to believe, are there sources on that?"

    So I guess... I share your irritation, but it could be worse, is what I'm saying, so try to take it as an opportunity to share your research rather than as a "nooooo."
    posted by fingersandtoes at 8:30 AM on November 6, 2012

    I agree with the above posters that much of this is controlled by tone and context, and as you can see, different MeFites bring different presuppositions to your description here.

    FWIW, when I ask people I respect for information about their sources it usually means one of three things.

    1: That is really shocking, and the reason I am not dismissing it out of hand is that I respect you and trust your judgment. So I'd like to learn more and decide whether I should subscribe to this shocking claim.

    2: I believe and trust you, but all the same I wonder if I would characterize or interpret the facts in quite the same way. Maybe if I saw the underlying information I would agree with much of what you say but interpret it or characterize it in a different light.

    3: I believe you, but when I repeat this claim to others I know, they are going to ask ME about my sources, and they aren't going to be convinced when the answer is "my girlfriend told me". So if this is going to become a new piece of the fabric of my way of thinking, I would like to be able to independently defend it.
    posted by willbaude at 9:01 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    oddly enough wasn't aware of the history of this in the US and rather than engaging me in good faith, asked me to find sources to back up my point

    I think maybe the reason this is putting you off is because sending you off to find sources is a way of ending the conversation rather than continuing it.

    Normally that is not what you do when you are having a conversation with someone you like and respect. In that situation you're normally trying to engage the person in conversation and continue the conversation rather than just end it. You could continue the conversation by asking the other person why they believe that thing, or what examples they can give of it, or by giving a counterpoint example showing why they have a different opinion (which gives you the opportunity to respond with a different example), or any of a few dozen other ordinary ways we have to continue the conversation.

    Those are all different ways of essentially asking for proof or backup of your claims, but they are the ways normal people do this in normal conversation and they are ways of continuing to engage you in conversation. Simply asking for proof is, by contrast, a way of shutting down the conversation because nobody goes around with a bibliography or scholarly articles about random conversational topics in their heads. Once the demand for proof has been made, both parties know that there is no point in continuing the conversation until the requested proof is provided, which is not going to happen for a period of time, if ever.

    Also, there are plenty of ways to ask for more information or backup that don't shut the current conversation down--but I'll bet your SO isn't using those, but rather the ones that bring the whole conversation to a screeching halt.

    In short, I'll bet the reason you feel disrespected when he does this to you is not because he is requesting proof per se but because it feels like he doesn't want to talk **to you** about this topic and is using conversational techniques that end the conversation on the topic rather than continuing it.
    posted by flug at 9:24 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Continuing my thought from the comment above: Framing the problem as "I feel X when my partner uses conversational technique Y" might lead to different solutions than if you think of it otherwise.

    Why does your partner use this technique and why does it make you feel the way you do?

    Just for example, maybe your partner uses this technique because feels uncomfortable or intimidated talking about the topic at hand? Maybe exploring with your partner how he feels talking about these issues would be productive. Or maybe he uses the technique to shut down conversations where he thinks he is going to lose his cool and get into and argument or something. (In other words, maybe he is giving you a signal you should listen to? But maybe there is a better/less dismissive way for him to handle situations like that.)

    Maybe you feel this way because it happens when you discuss topics you are particularly passionate about, and that is why you particularly feel shut down when your partner ends the conversation this way. And maybe your partner can feel that you feel passionate about this but your partner also feels passionately about the opposite view point and doesn't like to have conversations of that sort or doesn't know how to handle them.

    Those are just ideas and not necessarily correct ones, because only you and your partner know how you feel when this happens.
    posted by flug at 9:40 AM on November 6, 2012

    I only enter into debates with people who have equal awareness/footing/standing. If I am teaching, then I calmly walk through all of the steps in a neutral tone (and would expect the same). For discussion, I try to take in what the other person is saying or what they know/feel at face value without any attempt to incorporate it into my world view or assess its veracity. (If anything, I will go look it up later to see how prevalent that perspective is. Then I might see what evidence there is for that perspective!)

    *If I am debating something, as a competent debator I needed to have anticipated the opposition and already based my case/remarks around evidence.
    *If I am teaching something, I need to lead with purpose and then fill in the supporting evidence in a logical way. And teaching has to be consensual, obviously.
    *If I am discussing something, and the other person wants cites and statistics, I will outright decline and say I am not asking them to believe it or trying to change their mind -- only to listen/understand to what I think or feel.

    I don't let conversations mix together debate, teaching, and discussion. That would be a verbal altercation more than anything.

    And at what point does "discussion" turn into a herangue? There's no set answer to the question but it is something to consider. If I am trying to share my perspective in a discussion, I try to hold to 60-90 seconds and will definitely keep it under five minutes. Rude as it may be, after 20+ minutes of receiving someone's "discussion", people might use all kinds of questionable tactics simply to escape the conversation.
    posted by 99percentfake at 9:53 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    This is absolutely a privilege thing. It took me meeting an actual decent open minded straight cis white dude for me to realize that people who actually care about discussing things won't try to shut down the conversation the moment you say something they disagree with. The whole "I need sources that aren't you because I can't take your word for granted so long as you contradict my preconceived notions" stance is incredibly dismissive and meant to halt the conversation before they have to rethink their view point. What they're asking for is qualified (read: usually rich, white) people's opinions because unless you're parroting them, it must be bullshit.

    Granted, this isn't a conscious process, but that's what it boils down to.

    I'm kind of a cranky jerk so I'd just call him on it and ask him why you need to repeat what a white dude says for him to believe you. (Protip: this usually leads to breakups. May not be advisable.)
    posted by buteo at 10:00 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

    I think it helps to ask the person the question "what would it mean if it were true" - because that's the problem right there. That if we did live in such a society then we might feel responsible, or angry, or powerless. And who wants to feel like that? People find it really hard to withstand the uncomfortable sensation of the burning of a thousand suns of feeling the world is not how they want it to be, and will do almost anything to avoid that - include piss off people they care about. And not just white people.

    So I think when they ask for information and sources to back them up, give them, but also put it back on their plate and ask them: what do you think the significance would be if my assertions were true?

    Have that conversation, because it's probably a more meaningful one.
    posted by anitanita at 11:34 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

    For me, it would be more about the frequency than anything. If it happens repeatedly, I would try to respond at least half the time with, "I'd be happy to send you some background - I've done it for you before - but I'm starting to feel like you're asking me to be responsible for how well informed you are. How about if you do some research yourself, and maybe tomorrow or over the weekend we can talk some more about what you've found?"

    As for this:

    "Are people doing this to me in good faith or is it actually meant to be dismissive?"

    I try (and often fail, but I DO try) to assume good faith on the part of the person I'm talking to. They can prove that they're not acting in good faith by making repeated, dismissive requests for proof of my assertions, but I try not to assume off the bat that a request for evidence is an attempt to derail. If I start to sense that they're more about derailling than learning, then I can address that, directly, as described above ... or, depending on the person, just decide that it's not worth my time to talk to them.
    posted by kristi at 2:53 PM on November 6, 2012

    It can be a derailing tactic or dismissive or such.

    For me, it's either
    - if it's something unexpected, that I think could potentially be true, I may well ask for a source. Why: I want more information, hard numbers, further references, etc., probably more than you remember or can quote off the top of your head.
    - It's something I seriously doubt. Which does happen. Like 'girls aren't good at math,' 'women are bad drivers.' Yes, I do intend to derail or dismiss their claim.
    posted by Ashlyth at 2:19 AM on November 7, 2012

    You may be having one of those conversations that Neo of peopleofcolororganize.com is sick of having:
    "7) Prove It To Me

    A common ploy by conservative white people. Whenever racism is brought up and POCs share their perspective and their experiences, they demand proof. They like to set themselves up as Judge and God and we have the burden of proof.
    “Prove to me that racism is real. Convince me. And if I don’t believe it, then it didn’t happen and it’s all in your head.”

    And it doesn’t matter how many facts, figures, statistics, essays, dissertations, you could have Jesus Christ himself come down from heaven to testify and they still wouldn’t believe you.

    So of course when you deem yourself their equal and not play their game of white supremacy circle jerk, suddenly they’re having a conniption. Because how dare you not grant them an audience or waste your time on them. How dare you think your opinion and experiences or more valid than whatever bass ackwards idea they’ve pulled from their rectum.

    I’ve heard this argument too many times (especially from self-proclaimed liberal white peepul), that I don’t engage people who disagree with me because my brain can’t fathom the idea that someone may have a different or *gasps* opposing view. Because in the near three decades I’ve lived on this planet, I’ve never encountered anyone who disagrees with me. Yes being a black gay man in the South, I’ve never come across any opposition regarding my orientation or my race and have had to defend myself. Also apparently it’s written somewhere that I’m under obligation to engage, entertain, and be talked down to by any pissant who trolls my blog.

    Or the common, “You just have a problem with my political beliefs.”

    Asshole, I’m not a political view, I’m a goddamn human being. And fuck you for getting mad and taking exception to the fact that I have problem with someone believing I should be discriminated against. And if you have a problem with my contention with said issue, then it’s YOU who can’t agree with someone who disagrees with YOU!

    I know the score, these folks aren’t on here to exchange ideas or to have a good faith discussion. They get off on seeing minorities angry and upset. That’s why they spew the bile they do online. So when you know the score and ignore them, that’s why they get pissed off because that lowly colored person just took their mighty whitey power away from them.

    Because how dare I make the determination that some (white) folks aren’t worthy of my time and how dare I ignore them and go on with my life without allowing them stress me. How dare I not grant them an audience or waste my time on them. But this goes back to our bodies, minds, and our times not belonging to us any longer.

    Being all uppity.

    An outrage! An outrage I tell you!!!!!!"
    posted by Blasdelb at 4:33 AM on November 7, 2012

    Someone making such a request in a conversation about such a topic is obliged to acknowledge that the request has all the markings of a derailing tactic used in bad faith, and convince you that it's not.

    Politely, patiently, and accepting that if you are not convinced that the request is in good faith, it's their responsibility to do the homework, not yours.
    posted by ead at 9:10 AM on November 7, 2012

    Wow, this is terrible, it's taken me nearly two weeks to get back to this question. Anyway, thank you all for your responses.

    Just to follow-up on some assumptions made in some of the responses here: my SO is a liberal, so I doubt that liberal/conservative ideology came into play in our discussion. Another point is that he asked for sources, read them, and continued the conversation as he gleaned information from them - he wasn't shutting down the conversation as much as he was guiding us into sidebar territory.

    I later learned from him that he not only hadn't heard of the issues I mentioned, but he was very shocked that they were of any significance in modern-day American politics (?!) and initially didn't want to believe me. But then he came around.

    Those of you who pointed out that this is a privilege issue are quite right - this simply isn't stuff that someone in his position needs to know in order to navigate their world. Realizing that maybe it's just easier for me not to discuss this sort of thing with him unless I know we both have a similar understanding of the background material will be important going forward.
    posted by thisjax at 11:01 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Yay, I guess? Sometimes people really do ask these questions from a position of genuinely wanting to know more.

    I like the distinction made upthread about debating vs teaching vs discussing & the importance of distinguishing between them upfront & having both sides acknowledge that different rules apply to each in terms of which interactions are reasonable and which are unreasonable. Something to chew on...
    posted by pharm at 3:52 AM on November 21, 2012

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