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Yes, I'm Definitely Saying Something About Your Mother

By Robert McHenry - October 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Nick Schulz published a short and rather courageous piece here the other day defending William Bennett. Bennett had ventured to comment on the very limited usefulness of applying crude statistics to the creation of public policy. If my synopsis of Bennett's point doesn't sound like what you believe he said, you are a victim of the phenomenon I'm moved to examine.

How many of you have ever been confronted with some variation of the challenge to which the title of this essay is the answer you never dared offer? It's a schoolyard kind of thing, a rite of passage of sorts, perhaps, but certainly a ritualistic performance involving several people. There's the challengee, of course -- you, if you're male and a little, shall we say, averse to rough play. You might be alone, but the odds are you have a couple of like-minded friends with you. Then there's the challenger. You know what he's like without my making you recall the details. Invariably he has some pals with him. This is invariable because what we have is a piece of street theater, and the star needs a sympathetic audience.

So Tough Guy poses to you the question that has no correct answer: "You sayin' something about my mother?" You've probably said nothing at all up to now, hoping to avoid trouble, and so you stammer out "No, no, of course not." [Cue the adrenalin: heartbeat up? Check. Breaths short and shallow? Check. That clammy feeling? Check.] To which the scripted reply is "You calling me a liar?" He advances, you retreat; he perhaps prods you with a forefinger. Despite the physical menace, though, he doesn't want to fight so much as simply to intimidate, and to elicit the moronic leers of his chums; you want only to wake from a nightmare.

Let's note two conspicuous features of this familiar drama: the unprovoked (at least so far as you are concerned) belligerence, and the rhetorical judo whereby you are put in the role of aggressor. He's not picking a fight; he's defending his mother, and the fact that you've never so much as thought of her, much less spoken of her, is not relevant. The show begins with the premise that you are in the wrong, and he is upholding honor.

From playground to Harvard: President Lawrence Summers speaks to a group of academics on the question of why there are relatively few women among the top ranks of scientists and mathematicians. He suggests that this is a matter worth investigating; that is, he acknowledges that the phenomenon is real and an appropriate cause for concern. Good. He goes on to mention several possible explanations that would presumably be taken up and looked into by such an investigation; that is, he lists some hypotheses to be tested. Excellent. One of them is that the distribution of whatever faculty it is that makes for top-level work in science and mathematics is different for men and women. Ah-hah! One member of the audience, a trained scientist though not a top-flight one, promptly swoons and has to be helped from the hall. Later, her syncope transformed into a full-blown case of the fantods, she inaugurates a campaign of vituperation against Summers, one in which a great many others join with evident glee and that eventuates in several abject apologies. What Summers does not say in these apologies, but might just as well, is that he is sorry for saying something about her mother.

Here we see the same two features, though in reverse temporal sequence: first, the playlet that casts Summers as the villain; then the belligerent follow-up that secures concessions.

The pattern has become so familiar in recent years that it almost seems normal, as though it had come down to us from the Sophists of old, who taught it to those students in Athens who were too sensitive to withstand the inquiries of Socrates. But I think not. It is, rather, a consequence of the cultivation of victimhood that has become such a useful tactic for achieving various personal and political goals. One such goal is placing certain ideas, and certain words connected with those ideas, and even other words that somehow suggest the taboo words, off limits. (In the last case, I refer you to the hapless city official in Washington, D.C., who used the word "niggardly" in a private discussion of budget cuts and was fired.) A key element in the application of this tactic is the twin axioms that certain persons may claim to be offended by anything at any time, and that being offended trumps being right.

And so to William Bennett. His case is recent enough that it is easy to trace the process whereby the initial application of the one-two judo has been abetted by those in the press and the blogosphere who, by incompetence or tendentiousness, quoted him selectively and gave space and air time to Mama's boys and girls. Most of the usual gang showed up to claim offense before taking the well-rehearsed offensive.

And, by the way, it was fascinating to read the Forum comments provoked by Nick's defense. (Full disclosure: I contributed a remark myself.) There were disagreements aplenty, but hardly any that did not quickly devolve into characterization. Every participant was, on the evidence of their counterparts but quite irrespective of the content of his or her comment, either a conservative (often a neo-c) or a liberal, and both labels are clearly understood not only as damning epithets but as sufficient grounds to ignore any substance. Almost no one took up Nick's point, namely that this entirely artificial controversy raises a very serious question about whether it is possible to discuss, calmly and impersonally, any very serious question. And as for Bennett's point, well, I'd say forget it, except that everybody already has.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).



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