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13.5.06

Accounting For Tastes

Some recent posts at Pandagon have got me thinking about what it means to say we don't understand something. By "understand," I'm referring to something deeper than just intellectual acquiescence to a proposition. I'm talking about really grasping what it means for something to be true, to be able to see the world through it -- to "grok" it, in Robert Heinlein's expression.

I think there are at least three ways you can say that you don't understand something. I'll refer to them as "conservative," "liberal," and "leftist" because they have certain resonances with those political traditions. But all three play a role in any reasonable approach to life, and hence are used by people from all over the political spectrum.

The conservative way of saying "I don't understand" is a demand for an explanation. The burden of proof is placed on the person making a claim that you don't understand -- show me how what you're saying can make sense, or I'll assume it actually doesn't make sense. This way of saying you don't understand is useful in calling people out on their unquestioned assumptions, forcing them to think about why they think what they do, and whether it really is justifiable. It can reframe the discussion, depriving supporters of the status quo of the presumption of legitimacy. Note that this is a rhetorical gambit, not a logical proof. Treated as a logical proof, it slips into the fallacious Argument from Incredulity. Made as a legitimate rhetorical gambit, it requires us to be open to the possibility that our interlocutor will succeed in getting us to understand their position.

The leftist way of saying "I don't understand" is a plea for help and an admission of ignorance -- "I know it in my head, but don't feel it in my gut." To use a less politically charged example, this is the type of "I don't understand" that I would use in asking somebody to explain the Monty Hall problem to me. I accept that switching doors is the best strategy, but I don't really comprehend why. I would do fine if someone offered me a classic Monty Hall deal, but without real understanding I would fail if presented with a variant form. In political matters, the leftist "I don't know" is an important skill for members of dominant groups to cultivate in their interactions with members of oppressed groups. A commitment to an abstract rule of justice, and taking oppressed groups at their word about what changes will help them, is good as far as it goes. But to be a really effective ally, some understanding of their situation is invaluable.

Perhaps the trickiest form of saying "I don't understand" is the one I label liberal -- "I want to share my experience and understand yours." It's this liberal "I don't know" that the commenters at Pandagon have been struggling with in their discussions of choosing whether to have children. How do you get people to understand your position without suggesting that their position is illegitimate? How can you understand multiple positions while still adhering strongly to your own?

Commenter The Magpie Herself offers one easy out, when she tells Amanda Marcotte that her list of reasons for not being a parent is unimportant -- all that matters is that she doesn't want children. This response to the liberal dilemma is common in the classical liberal tradition, including economics- and behavioralism-influenced social science. Differences are chalked up to inscrutable variations in taste, which cannot be legitimately or feasibly be queried further.

While "there's no accounting for tastes" works well enough for relatively trivial questions like chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, and can be useful in shutting up irritating critics, it does a disservice to deeply held convictions when it's applied universally. Choices about parenthood link deeply into a person's identity and way of relating to the world. I don't think it's productive to put an understanding of such issues permanently off limits. Unfortunately I don't have a good answer for how to manage a genuine liberal quest for understanding. Perhaps one key element is trust -- trust that your interlocutors are genuinely asking the liberal question and will settle for "no accounting for tastes" should your explanation fail, rather than slipping over into the conservative question.

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