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Saturday 23 November 2019

Well, Actually...

Mr You-don't-want-to-do-it-like-that
Harry Enfield character
Maybe I'm wrong. Again. I don't possess the kind of hubris that makes it acceptable to discount this. I'm wrong pretty often, as it happens, as are we all.

This should be the starting point for anybody who's genuinely concerned with what's true about the world. It's especially true when dealing with our assumptions about people.

Here, I want to talk about a particular kind of assumption, one that directly colours the way we interact with others, and it's rooted in something that's becoming all-too prevalent in modern society, massively exacerbated by the anonymity afforded by social media.

I've long been aware of a phenomenon that has recently begun to be discussed openly in a way that it previously hasn't, whereby somebody interjects with an "explanation" of something or other as if those involved in the discussion aren't already aware of it or require some degree of education on the topic. There even seems to be a tendency to interject in arenas in which our experience precludes us from having any real, tangible insight.

The first thing to note is that it's entirely probable that I've engaged in it without being aware of it. Let's face it, I love to explain things. Indeed, I live for it. It's entirely the motivation behind my engagement in the public sphere in any measure and, if it weren't for my love of explaining things, I almost certainly wouldn't ever have bothered with social media at all. I'd be happily curled up with books and papers on quantum theory, or pottering around pretending to do something useful or productive. It's alluded to in the title of this piece, a phrase I use with an almost obsessive regularity.

However, I do like to think that I'm sufficiently aware of the issues and, indeed, sufficiently self-aware, that I think I can avoid it at least most of the time. I do know that many in my position are entirely unaware that it's a problem, and not nearly self-aware enough that they recognise the condescension their privilege engenders. Those for whom this is a lived experience, whether they be women, differently-gendered, gay, black, disabled, or whatever, have been saying this for some time. However, it's a function of the attitude that we're discussing here that those engaging in this sort of practice are generally impervious to explanations from the targets of their condescension, so it's incumbent on us, the allies, to take them to task for it.

I began contemplating this piece on the UK's 'National Poetry Day' and, since this particular issue is manifest in a now-famous and amusing story involving a well-known poet and a mathematician, relating this story will highlight the problem in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It may well be that the mathematician was being tongue-in-cheek when he wrote his epistolic admonishment; we'll never know.

The poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, wrote a wonderful poem called The Vision of Sin. I won't relate the whole poem here, but I recommend it. I will, however, include this verse, the subject of the letter:

Fill the cup, and fill the can:
Have a rouse before the morn:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

The mathematician, Charles Babbage, famous as the inventor of the 'difference engine', a mechanical marvel and the world's first computer, wrote to Tennyson:
In your otherwise beautiful poem "The Vision of Sin" there is a verse which reads – "Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born." It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death.
I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read – "Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born."
The actual figure is so long I cannot get it onto a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry. 
I am, Sir, yours, etc., 
Charles Babbage

Now, as I've said, it's entirely probable that this letter was a massive leg-pull, but it does highlight something we're all familiar with. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who hasn't, at some point, been confronted by somebody's adenoid-driven 'well, actually...' followed by holding forth on a topic you happen to be expert in and of which they have no grasp, so let's take it seriously for a moment and see where it leads.

On the face of it, this might seem like a good thing to do, and surely it's harmless right? Right?

Well, actually, it's far from harmless (SWIDT?)

Here's the thing: there can really only ever be one motivation for such practices, and it's not only horribly hubristic, it serves to undermine and dilute the voices that genuinely have something to offer to the discussion. A white person explaining to a black person, for example, that something isn't racist, has the chilling effect of shouting down the one with genuine expertise in the matter at hand. Insisting, with no expertise whatsoever, that somebody is wrong about their lived experience, is horribly dismissive. When it's done on widely-read platforms such a social media, the ideas expressed can easily gain popular traction. We are but meme machines, after all. We promulgate nonsense of all stripe, and it gets shared and spread around like wildfire, which prevents proper discussion of the issues from gaining the traction they need to have in order to address the real issues that people face in the world.

Even the purportedly harmless instances lend to this phenomenon, and it really is high time we worked to stamp it out. If you see something, say something, but always be aware that even interjecting on somebody 'splaining' might be ill-advised. All else aside, even this could be seen as 'splaining', so it has to be treated with care. Moreover, it's often the case that a little waiting will result in seeing something truly glorious. To highlight this, here's a beautiful example, with which I'll leave this subject.

There's an astrophysicist, well-known among those who pay attention to such circles. She's a fantastic scientist, engaged in cosmological research at the University of Melbourne on dark matter, cosmic strings, black holes and the formation of the earliest galaxies. Like all good scientists, while her research isn't relevant to this particular exchange, she does understand how science is conducted, and what it takes to describe anything as a discovery. Thus, when she speaks generally about an area of science not directly in her remit, she still speaks with the authority of somebody who knows what she's talking about.

In that vein, she famously tweeted one day in 2016:

Honestly climate change scares the heck out of me and it makes me so sad to see what we're losing because of it.
Katie Mack, Ph.D.

Of course, somebody's adenoids got the better of them. Enter reality-denier Gary Jackson:

Maybe you should learn some actual SCIENCE then, and stop listening to the criminals pushing the #GlobalWarming SCAM!”
Random internet fuckwit

There were lots of interjections to this, but the killer was delivered by Katie herself:

I dunno, man, I already went and got a PhD in astrophysics. Seems like more than that would be overkill at this point.”
Dr Katie Mack

Have a care. If you feel your sinuses starting to swell, and you feel yourself compelled to draw the bucket from the well, actually, what you should actually do is to ask yourself if you really are the smartest person in the room. Chances are you're not.

It's fine to make an idiot of yourself if you want to. There are much better ways to do it than to attempt to assert your superiority over somebody you don't know, and whose expertise you have no clue of.

It should be as splain as the nose on your face.

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