The world is a big place filled with many different types of people, cultures, concepts, ideologies, and thoughts that float around. Even within our own countries, you’ll find people who hold ideas and practices that differ vastly from what you may consider the norms. When engaging in conversation with different people there’s one thing that seems to hold as a constant: if you disagree with their norms it’s because “you couldn’t understand.”
Today on Bad Arguments I’m going to go into where this type of argument comes from, and why it’s a bad one to use. This sometimes enraging dismissal of your contributions to discussion seems to forget the old teachings of the Socratic Method. While it most commonly arises these days in discussions regarding identity politics (as many bad arguments seem to come from), this also arises in the realm of more common political conversation such as economic policy or the like.
The initial issue with this phrase is the idea that the knowledge is beyond you. What I mean by this is that by saying “you couldn’t understand” they are effectively saying one of two things. They are saying you couldn’t understand because of your differing experiences, or you couldn’t understand because you lack the mental capacity.
Let’s review the latter first. Saying “you couldn’t understand” in this capacity is basically nothing more than an Ad Hominem. Translated through this lens it simply becomes “you’re too stupid to get it so I’m not going to bother responding to your questions or remarks.” Outside of that this phrase also falls into the trappings of an Appeal to Authority fallacy by claiming they are the arbiter of this knowledge and can decide who is and is not capable of comprehending what has been said. More formally this type of fallacy is known as a Courtier’s Reply.
The other form of “you couldn’t understand” is far more common. For example, you might hear “You were born in this country, so you couldn’t understand what migrants go through to get here.” In this usage, they are making the claim that the knowledge is solely experiential. Granted, much knowledge is best learned through experience, and knowledge that carries an emotional aspect to it (such as the thrill and fear of bungee jumping) is hard to completely comprehend if explained solely in words. That said, it doesn’t mean an understanding cannot be reached. I may not know the exact feeling of bungee jumping, but I can understand how it works, why people do it, the concept, and a rough understanding of the emotional side as compared to other experiences. Unless the discussion is solely about comparing experiences, which especially in the political realm rarely happens, I would still be able to participate in a conversation about it.
Another usage of this phrase is the claim that you couldn’t understand something, not because of mental capacity or lack of particular experiences, but because of who or what you yourself are. Consider identity politics. All throughout the spectrum of topics that idpol covers you will find this phrase in use. You couldn’t understand what poverty is like because you’ve never been poor. You couldn’t understand what being an immigrant is like because you were born here. You couldn’t understand what it’s like to be X because you’re Y. Again the emotional aspect is hard to truly confer to those without direct experience in a matter, but the lack of direct emotional understanding does not infer a lack of understanding of the rest of the topic; nor does it suggest a complete lack of emotional understanding.
Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If someone claims that you couldn’t understand something remind them that the onus is on them to explain it better. If their argument is purely an appeal to emotion then treat it as the fallacy it is. If you use this phrase yourself perhaps “you couldn’t understand” what it’s like to have a proper debate, but unlike those that say this, I’d still be willing to try.
Read more articles from Killian on Think Liberty here.