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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Oh, how do you know, were you there?"

In August of 2014 I analyzed one of the most moronic and annoying arguments people use: "Who are you to say [such-and-such]?"

Another equally absurd formulation is, after someone makes a relevant historical reference, to say, "How do you know, were you there?"

(I've heard the same person -- who happens to be a liberal -- make both "arguments.")

And I've never heard either "argument" made in other than a childish, petulant tone of voice.

You might say, for instance, that there was less freedom in the Soviet Union than there was in the US. ("Oh? How do you know, were you there?!")

If you refer to the fact that Stalin killed more than 20 million of his own people, you might get the same response.

When someone uses a nonsensical formulation like that, it's basically a tacit admission that one has lost the argument. Of course, the type of people who make such tacit admissions tend to never actually admit they're wrong about anything.

I'm not sure what the best response to this is. Maybe, just a simple, "Because it's accepted historical fact."

Or, "How do you know it didn't happen, were you there?"

It's tempting to say, "What kind of a moronic question is that? Of course I wasn't there, and neither were you. But certain things are just obviously true, and if you can't accept them, then you might as well not believe anything. You don't have to have participated in World War Two to know it happened."

But the best response is probably just to avoid this person in the future. 


Anonymous said...

Spartan said…..

Agree 100%. I've come across such morons. When they play that card, that's a clear sign to exit the discussion. Another brilliant response is "do you think you can do better" or "I don't see you doing it". I remember complaining to someone about a Sylvester Stallone movie I saw in the 90s. I told this person that Stallone doesn't have much range as an actor, and if he's not playing Rocky, I have no desire to see him. Her response was, "you shouldn't complain because I don't see you acting". I asked her if she ever received a bad meal at a restaurant. She emphatically said yes. I told her that she has no right to complain because she's never owned a restaurant. I do enjoy turning the stupidity around.

Anonymous said...

Having thought about this post and how I would respond, I suspect that I would have remained quiet and come to the realization that the speaker doesn't know what he/she is talking about, that U.S. and/or world history is not this person's strong point. I would try not to take anything personally because the questions themselves seem a bit off, unusual ones to ask. Just my two cents.


John Craig said...

Spartan --
Good response to that woman. It does seems that women are more likely to resort to ad hominem attacks more quickly. The person I was referring to in the post was a woman, too, and she is a perfect example. All of these arguments -- "Do you think you can do better," "Who are you to say…" and "How do you know, were you there?" -- are all either direct or indirect ad hominem attacks, and I've heard all of them coming from women more than men.

John Craig said...

Birdie --
You're absolutely right, these comments are generally an indication that the speaker has no clue.

Mark Caplan said...

Moreover, adding further to the stupidity of the question, even if you were indeed "there," you wouldn't in most cases comprehend what had happened. It takes multiple historians operating decades or even centuries after the event, who pore over letters, diaries, classified documents, company records, private interviews, before a clear idea of what happened emerges from the murkiness of current affairs. Few of those primary sources are available to the public contemporaneously.

John Craig said...

Mark --
That's a great point. How could people who were being starved in the Ukraine possibly have known that there were a total of 20 million other people being killed at the same time?

And we won't know what was really going on in "the most transparent administration in history" until years from now, if then.

Anonymous said...

My father was a grade school student during WWII, and his father had a "war critical" job that made him exempt from the draft. Both loved to talk about WWII endlessly, and sometimes they would make statements that were factually wrong. I learned to go along with whatever they said, because "THEY WERE THERE", even though they weren't. They lived through the time, but knew what was on newsreels, the papers and radio and what was talked about at work, and even that sometimes came out wrong.

My great-uncle was in WWII and he likewise was given to such eloquent waxing even though he was a supply clerk and spent most of his career stateside or in England: he was in Germany only after it was occupied. He also repeated many incorrect or dubious things about the actual combat actions, although he was pretty informative as to what he had himself experienced in training and in administrative work.

By contrast, the first real combat vet of WWII I had ever met was a man who lived down the street from my grandfather. He was reluctant to talk much about the war, and when he did it was often prefaced with, "I personally experienced X, and we had heard Y, but I am not sure about that". I later learned he had been highly decorated and he was a well read, somewhat educated man, and that my father and grandfather snubbed him because he was not given to accepting the standard "narrative" about the war or much of anything else.

The takeaway from that, for me, was even if you were there, you only saw a small piece of the whole in most cases. Very few people in WWII had a good overview of the war unless they were high ranking officers: you knew what you had done, and the people immediately around you, and the rest was the common opinion and propaganda of the time. I'm sure many veterans lived another half century or more and died never knowing a lot of things (or "knowing" pure falsehoods) now common knowledge among any reasonably interested student of the war today.

The same is true in any field. I am in IT and I commonly hear people say things about the history of computers that are pure nonsense, even from people who lived through that time as working adults. Again, they are speaking from what they happened to be working on or what they were told. I would hate to be a young student of the field talking to them ten years from now, hearing pure nonsense, and if they question any of it being told , "YOU WEREN'T THERE".

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you, that's a great description of how "being there" is no guarantee of understanding. Your neighbor sounds like an admirable guy on a lot of fronts.

Just think of how we're constantly fed misinformation on the political front; it's all propaganda, yet a lot of people swallow what one side or the other feeds them as fact. Or look at how the media will often present only one side of the facts, which is effectively just as misleading.