Monday, 18 November 2013

The "I don't understand you - so you're stupid fallacy

The "I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy is one of my absolute favourite bits of faulty reasoning. To be perfectly honest it is not technically a right-wing fallacy because it could conceivably be used by very stupid people of any political persuasion - however in my experience, I've only ever seen it used by those poor people suffering under the delusion that their haphazard collection of simplistic right-wing tabloidisms represent some kind of profound understanding of politics and the economy.

The user

The kind of person that uses the "I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy is the type of person that thinks that just because they are in possession of a collection of simplistic idioms, slogans and assumptions to explain away any given political phenomenon, this makes them an expert authority figure when it comes to political debate.

There are many problems with this mindset, not least the fact that anyone that has ever pursued genuine knowledge is familiar with: the more you learn, the more you realise you don't know. This problem was brilliantly summed up by Bertrand Russell who said "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."

Fools and fanatics allow themselves to believe that they are experts because they have a collection of very simple answers to support their worldview, whilst thinking people realise that the elevation of particular views to the status of "absolutely beyond doubt" is an impediment to the pursuit of genuine understanding.

A major problem for the tabloid thinker is that many of the idioms, assumptions and slogans they use to create their comfortable illusion of political expertise are mutually contradictory. 

For thinking people, the acceptance of two mutually contradictory views results in irritating bouts of cognitive dissonance until we can resolve the situation by rejecting or redefining one of them. The tabloid thinker is often almost completely immune to cognitive dissonance because they don't have a holistic worldview. 

One minute they can berate the unemployed as "idle scroungers", then the next spout some spurious justification narrative to defend the idle lifestyles of hereditary wealth. They can do this because they are unwilling to consider the idea that it is somewhat contradictory to generalise about the poor and castigate them for being idle, yet defend the rentier class despite the overwhelming evidence that their wealth allows them the freedom to be as idle as they like. 

The tabloid thinker is comfortable holding mutually exclusive explanations because they just don't do "joined up thinking"

Being a pub bore
The first time I remember noting the
"I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy was in a pub a few years ago. Now I admit that I was being a bit of a pub bore by talking about politics (one of the three forbidden pub subjects - politics, business and religion) but in mitigation this was a quite special pub, where the barman would play me at chess for free drinks* and intellectual conversation was not strictly forbidden.

Anyhow - I got talking to a bloke about the unrepresentative nature of politics. The thing I was trying to explain was that the average politician doesn't actually work for us, they work for their donors. The politician knows that they get their parliamentary pay whether they bother to represent their constituents or not - therefore it serves their self-interest to use their political power and their political connections to serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy minority in order to further enrich themselves with kickbacks, rather than devoting their time to serving the interests of their constituents (as they are supposed to). Thus politicians have a strong financial incentive to forget about the best interests of their constituents, and instead serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy in return for political donations, corporate junkets, ludicrously overpaid advisory positions,
corporate directorships, speaking fees and countless other forms of kickback.

The guy I was talking to was absolutely insistent that I was wrong. He maintained that we pay their wages so they must work for us. I tried explaining my point in several different ways, using numerous examples, however there was no convincing him. He soon became agitated and angrily declared that he couldn't understand what on earth I was going on about, therefore I must be stupid. Normally I would have argued the point, but the guy was as burly as he was drunk, so I decided to drop the "conversation" and challenge the barman to another game of chess instead.

Arguing with trolls

The encounter in the pub happened a while before I'd established Another Angry Voice, so for quite a while I remembered it as an probably the stupidest bit of "reasoning" I'd ever encountered. However, as the AAV Facebook page began growing in popularity and my exposure to cognitively illiterate right-wing ranters increased exponentially, I began to see ever more pitiful attempts at right-wing "logic" including numerous invocations of the "I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy.

One particularly impressive example occurred after I rebuked someone for a truly feeble attempt to claim that New Labour was a left-wing project. He said that the privatisation of the HMRC property portfolio into the hands of a company based in Bermuda for the purposes of avoiding tax was a left-wing policy, because it had happened under a Labour government.

My response was to question his assumption that everything that a Labour government does is by definition left-wing, even the extraordinarily right-wing policy of privatising the HMRC property portfolio. I mean what warped definition of "socialism" must an individual be using if it includes privatisation of public property into the hands of tax-dodgers?**

As part of this response I stated that New Labour had abandoned socialism in order to embrace the "right-wing psuedo-economic ideology of neoliberalism". The comeback to this was that it was nothing more than "a load of meaningless buzzwords" and that I was stupid.

The problem of course is that all of those words do have meanings. Even if you don't know the meanings of any particular word, it isn't difficult to go and look it up. Apologies to those that are arleady familiar with all of these words, but I'm going to briefly define each of them to demonstrate that they are not "meaningless buzzwords".

Right-wing : An outlook or specific position that accepts or supports social hierarchy or social inequality as inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable.

Pseudo-economic ideology : The prefix pseudo- is used to mark something as false, fraudulent, or pretending to be something it is not. Thus something that is described as a pseudo-economic ideology is something that purports to be an economic discipline, but is in fact an ideological agenda.

Neoliberalism : A word that is used to describe the economic orthodoxy of the late 20th / early 21st Century, which is built upon a foundation of neoclassical economics and pushes right-wing economic objectives (privatisation, tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich, attacks on labour rights and the right to protest, financial sector deregulations, abandonment of capital controls, centralisation of executive power, abandonment of monetary autonomy ...). Here's my article on the meaning of neoliberalism.

The moral to this story is this: If you don't understand all of the words, the person that uttered them is probably not the stupid one in the conversation.


I imagine that anyone that has managed to read this far without abandoning the article as "stupid" because it is full of "meaningless buzzwords" such as "cognitive dissonance", "mutually exclusive", "holism" and "neoliberalism" isn't actually in need of any tips for avoiding the "I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy, but I'll provide some just in case.

If you find yourself reading something that you don't fully understand, there are two possibilities. Either you're not getting it because you're missing some information or vocabulary
or it is actually incomprehensible gibberish.
It is fairly easy to identify incomprehensible gibberish, because it is usually presented in appalling grammar. However, Noam Chomsky demonstrated that it is possible to construct grammatically correct sentences with no actual meaning. The famous example he provided was "colourless green ideas sleep furiously". It is fairly easy to spot that this kind of construct is meaningless because of the glaring incompatibility of the words ("colourless" and "green" are mutually exclusive, it's not a great strategy to personify abstract concepts and "furiously" is hardly an appropriate adverb to describe sleep).

If the thing you are struggling to understand is written in acceptable grammar and is not filled with glaringly incompatible words, then it is likely that you need to look up some of the constituent words in a dictionary. Looking up the meaning of a new word is hardly an admission of ignorance, given that there are well over a million words in the English language
and the test your vocab data suggests that the average native English speaker knows some thing like 20,000 - 35,000 of them (between 2% and 3.5% of the total).

Whatever the case, it is probably better to avoid going around calling people "stupid" whether you understood what they said or not. If you have looked up any unfamiliar words and had a good think about what it means and you still don't understand, the best course of action is probably to ask politely for a rephrased explanation, not to resort to insults.


The "I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy is one of my absolute favourites for two main reasons. Firstly because it takes such an astonishing lack of self-awareness for the user to conclude that because they can't understand the argument, the utterer of the argument must be the stupid one; and secondly because it is such a remarkably daft stance that it actually quite rare (as compared to other much more common fallacies such as the inefficient state fallacy, the "Hitler was a socialist" fallacy*** or the "Waah you're censoring me" fallacy) so it is quite a privilege if you ever have it wielded at you.

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* Being quite good at chess I became somewhat of a regular there!

** Anyone who is even vaguely politically literate knows that one of the core socialist principles is the commitment to social ownership, which is completely incompatible with selling off public property to a Bermuda based tax-dodging operation.

*** The ludicrous "Hitler was a leftie" fallacy is one of the next articles to write in my political myth busting series.

 Click here to read more articles in the Political Myth Busting series 

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