On “I Feel No Need To Defend Myself To You”

Let’s have one more post about people being wrong on the internet, then I promise I’ll get back to drawing blue-haired anime characters, which is probably a better use of everyone’s time.

Generally I don’t “engage” in arguments online; I used to, years ago, but that was when I was young and foolish and had plenty of time on my hands. However, for some reason I had a moment of weakness a few days ago and did engage. The discussion ended with the other person saying “I feel no need to defend myself to you.”

It’s a useful phrase, one I think I’ve used myself a few times (although I won’t anymore, now that I’ve given it some thought.) It allows you to quickly extricate yourself from a discussion while making sure the other party knows that your sense of intellectual superiority is still fully intact. But for some reason, this time around, the use of the phrase bugged me; eventually I realized it’s because it reveals an unhealthy way of looking at disagreement.

Really, it shouldn’t be “I feel no need to defend myself to you.” Unless the other person is engaging in personal attacks, it’s not yourself you’re supposed to be defending; it’s your opinion. A more accurate thing to say in this case would be “I feel no need to defend my opinion to you,” or “I feel no need to defend my position on this particular issue to you,” and so on and so forth.

Splitting hairs? I wonder: I feel like the phrase is indicative of the fact that many people have so much of their identity invested in their beliefs that any criticism of said beliefs actually does feel to them like an attack on their person. With feminism in particular, any criticism of it seems to register as a vicious attack to its adherents, and they’re inclined to lash out in response.

Phrase (probably) never uttered by anyone ever: “I respect the fact that you have criticisms of feminist ideas, but personally I find the ideology sound.” In my (lived) experience, any criticism of feminism is met by feminists with dismissive surliness at best, frothing-at-the-mouth rage at worst. But these people never feel like they’re the ones being mean or intolerant, because they honestly feel like they’ve been “attacked,” aka YOU STARTED IT. The fact that the critic is breaking down ideas, not people (when it’s done right, anyway) seems to be viewed as completely irrelevant.

Of course, I don’t believe we should all aspire to a faux-Vulcan-like state where we have no emotional investment in what we believe; that’s not possible. And it’s clear I’m invested in the things I blog about, otherwise I wouldn’t feel an urge to keep writing about them. But there’s a difference between feeling that investment, yet trying to remain as unbiased and rational as possible, versus not trying to separate yourself from your “cause” at all, and furthermore, thinking such separation is neither possible nor desirable.

A huge problem with our discourse right now, as far as I can tell, is that people are no longer even making the attempt to separate their sense of self-worth from their beliefs, and refuse to try. I remember being taught as a child that criticism can be hard to take, but as long as the other person is criticizing your ideas and not resorting to calling you names, it’s fair, and you should listen to what they’re saying, even if you decide you can’t agree. We used to acknowledge that listening to things that might hurt a little bit to hear is actually good for us in the long run. Now, there seems to be a widespread belief that anyone who tells you anything you don’t want to hear is oppressing you. How can personal growth take place in this environment?

It’s natural to have some of your self-esteem tied up in what you choose to believe–after all, you chose it, and that says something about you; maybe even something profound. But a person with a healthy sense of self knows that their character goes deeper than their current political and social beliefs, which can and do change over time, with the introduction of new information; a person with a wanting sense of self refuses to believe that change is possible or desirable, because they’ve already invested too much of themselves in their current beliefs to ever move on.

As I said, I tend not to engage; I just write down my opinions on this blog where a fairly small number of people can read them if they so choose. But what’s beginning to bother me is that I can’t engage even if I want to, because I can’t say anything without turning the discussion into a heated argument before it’s even begun. We’ve entered a realm where everything may as well be a personal attack, because that’s how it feels to many people, and I have no idea what to do about it.

 

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