Why I Won't Shut Up (even if you can't fight stupid)

Image Credit: Adam Brown

I like to push people's buttons. I know, you're not surprised. I believe we all need to be nudged out of our comfort zones in order to see what's going on around us. I don't just randomly push, though. I don't want you out of your comfort zone, scared and with nowhere to go. That's why I push buttons and then provide my position with my evidence and invite discussion. My hope is that this discussion can bring us closer to understanding each other, so that we can find our common goals and work towards them. This only works if our positions are backed by evidence, so that we can reasonably evaluate all of the evidence to determine the best course of action.

I hear tales of something called Journalism that used to serve this function. It has apparently become extinct and has been replaced by the 24-hour News Cycle. Instead of evidence, we are bombarded with a lot of opinions and speculations. The worst, in my opinion, is the anecdote presented as evidence.

An anecdote is a story, like: My friends got a dog from a shelter that had severe behavior problems.

I can collect a bunch of these, but they are still anecdotes. They don't prove anything except that I collected a bunch of stories from people who got dogs from shelters. It would be irresponsible for me to go around convincing people that you should not adopt dogs from shelters because they have behaviors problems, if all I know about the issue is based on my anecdotes. There may be many more examples that disprove my conclusion that I'm not aware of. Dogs that could otherwise have happy and loving lives would not be adopted. All because people had chosen to believe the misinformation I had spread without insisting on evidence.

Evidence, as I am using it here, means something that can be verified and repeated. I'm talking about science and math. So there needs to a series of surveys, or data collection, or experiments conducted in order for me to claim to have evidence. If I collect data on a set of people who adopt dogs from shelters and the behavior of those dogs, then I may be able to claim that I have some evidence linking the behavior of the dogs to the fact that they came from shelters. Notice that I said I MAY be able to. That's because one experiment or survey isn't enough. It might just be a fluke, or a mistake, or a bias.

My point is, evidence needs to hold up under scrutiny. Be careful about using anecdotes rather than evidence to support your positions on controversial and important issues. You may be doing this without realizing it. Not one to hold my tongue, I'm not afraid to talk about social issues in public. I've discovered that otherwise intelligent people sometimes find themselves stuck without evidence when defending their position. This happens a lot when talking about SNAP (food stamps). I think a lot of people are getting their talking points from the 24-hour News Cycle and maybe aren't taking the time to do their own research. That's a shame, because it's an important issue and has been soiled with racist and classist undertones. Not all people share these ideologies, which is why it is so important that you figure out where you stand on this issue and WHY. Don't just repeat what you've been told, because it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Here's out it usually plays out:

Defense #1: Food stamps are being abused. I know this because I saw a woman at the grocery store using food stamps. She had a cell phone and nice clothes. She went outside and got into a nicer car than I have, so she obviously has money and doesn't need food stamps.

The Problem: So many assumptions in that sentence that I almost don't know where to start. The most obvious is that poor people should look like street beggars. There's a real hypocrisy here. We want people to work while they get assistance. People who work need to look professional, but if you look professional then you don't look like you need food stamps.

Next, let's consider what has happened to the economy over the last few years. Many people, including myself, have gone from making very good money a few years ago, to being unemployed. Her possessions now do not necessarily reflect her ability to afford them now. I have a bunch of expensive clothes and toys that I bought when I had a good job (including a car) that I couldn't afford now, but I still own them. That has no bearing on my need for food stamps. I can't eat my cell phone. Or, she might have borrowed her sister's car. You don't know.

Even if she is a total fraud, this is an anecdote. You can't base your whole position on one lady you saw at the supermarket. Especially not when we're talking about feeding the hungry. I tried to find any studies that showed evidence of widespread food stamp fraud. I couldn't find any. I found one reference on a sketchy website that started with, "A college student said that his roommate qualified for $200 a month." Not evidence. Anecdote. I had a roommate in college that told me that Klingons were real. I'm not kidding. The good news is, that doesn't prove anything. (If you have links to any evidence of SNAP abuse, let me know in the comments. I really am looking for valid resources.)

Defense #2: Some variation of this: Food stamps are being abused. They are being used to buy gourmet/organic/fancy food that I can't afford and I work! That's not fair! And they're getting free cells phones when I have to pay for my cell phone. They get everything for free! ("They" are usually black, by the way.)

The Problem: This is a Distraction with a dash of I'm Better Than You. If you qualify for SNAP, you get a dollar amount, based on your income, to spend each month on food. If you choose to buy organic chicken breast, or a French cheese with that money, that should be your business. Big Government should butt out, right Repubs? If you run out of money, because you spent it all on expensive food, then you'll have to face the consequences and will hopefully make better choices next month. (Personal responsibility?) If someone can manage her budget, and splurge on a decent meal once in a while, then it's pretty condescending to call her out for using her SNAP benefits to do it. It is food, after all. It's not like she used her SNAP benefit to buy a gun or a Senator.

The free cell phone claim is actually true, but it's one of those half-truths designed to distract you from the point. There is a program called LifeLine, run by the FCC, that you can apply for to get a free cell phone. The program uses the same income requirements as SNAP, so if you qualify for SNAP then you'll qualify for LifeLine. LifeLine is not funded by SNAP and they have nothing to do with one another. It's like getting a credit card from two different banks. They might use the same credit report, but they probably have nothing to do with each other. There are valid criticisms of the LifeLine program, but they should be separated from the criticisms of the SNAP program. You can include them in a larger discussion about spending (because I do realize that they both draw from the same bank), but abuse of LifeLine does not provide evidence of abuse of SNAP.

Most people that I've talked to, when they've realized that they have no evidence for their argument, have opened their minds to rethinking the issue. That's progress. Some great discussions have followed and my mind has also been opened to new perspectives as a result. Some people, though, get defensive and angry. Some people are so committed to defending their position that they don't even hear what I'm saying and end up arguing against a point that I'm not trying to make. When you base your arguments on anecdotes or emotion instead of evidence, you lose credibility and intellectual discussion breaks down. I can't trust your motives if I can't trust your evidence. Sometimes it feels like most people are this way.

It takes time to research these issues. The evidence is often buried under the torrent of information the 24-hour News Cycle continually churns out. My current situation has given me time, so I see that as a bright side. It's frustrating to see how different the messages of the media are from the evidence, and how willing most of us are to just accept the narrative as presented. No questions asked. Well, I've always asked questions. Try stopping me now.

Many of my friends say, "You can't fight stupid. You are fighting a losing battle. I appreciate what you are trying to do, but you will never change their minds because they aren't listening to what you are saying."

That might be true. I can't make you listen, but you can't make me shut up. At least I can give you the chance to see my evidence and examine it for yourself. Maybe you'll do the same for me and we can start talking instead of yelling at each other.

Someone has to make the first move.

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