On Dissent and Intellectual Honesty

You say a thing. I disagree with the thing you said and I tell you so. You say:

  1. Everybody is entitled to their opinion.
  2. Why are you so difficult?
  3. nothing, and look surly or distraught.

The first example is a ‘non-answer’, designed to stifle discussion and debate. I may have information you don’t have about the topic. Telling me ‘it’s just my opinion’ rather than engaging with the opinion or assertion of ‘fact’ achieves nothing except to silence me. Your original statement remains unchallenged and unchallengeable, because anything anyone might say is ‘just opinion’. This isn’t true. Not everything is opinion.

Academics are trained to research a topic until they know it inside and out. That doesn’t mean there can’t be new data at any time, that may shift the scholar’s position once uncovered. It does, however, mean the scholar is considered ‘an expert’ who has authority to speak on the topic. This authority has come with years of work and constantly challenging assertions and so-called common sense beliefs. It has not come from reading an article in the newspaper and then citing that article for the next year as authoritative.

Newspapers are not authoritative. Research is, as carried out by academics and other knowledge workers across many sectors who read widely, ask questions, observe, and engage in constant discussion and debate on a topic.

What you read in The Australian about climate change is not authoritative. What you read from the Union of Concerned Scientists is.

The second response (that I am being difficult) is also a non-answer, but a more aggressive one in which I am positioned as an unreasonable person who won’t let a person speak freely. This answer, while serving the same purpose as the first (to silence me), is, I would argue, pernicious. It allows statements that commit symbolic violence to go forth and prosper.

You’re not racist/sexist/nationalist – I’m just difficult.

I’ll admit it. I’m contrarian when people unreflexively reproduce stereotypes and prejudice that keep us from progressing towards a more egalitarian/cosmopolitan/sustainable society.

I will tell you I disagree with you when you say things that maintain hegemonic structures such as white privilege. Calling me difficult when I tell you I disagree is tantamount to saying you don’t care that you are privileged, and in fact you bloody well like it this way, so bugger the global south/Indigenous Australians/asylum seekers/women… Why don’t you try an honest approach and just admit it – the status quo benefits you – rather than obfuscating the point by trying to dismiss me as difficult?

But wait, you meant no harm? That is why I will disagree with you respectfully. People often reproduce stereotypes while meaning no harm. Wouldn’t you like to know that’s what you did though, so you don’t do it again? And please tell me when I say something unintentionally offensive or inaccurate.

The third one, silence (often surly silence), is spectacularly disingenuous – you get to be a victim of this difficult contrarian. Make sure your eyes look pained in your silence so everyone around you can see that I’m picking on you. In fact, I’m the elitist one, sharing what I’ve learned as a researcher, ‘me and my fucking education’. Yes, it’s awful that I have learned many things that have made me want to do more so that more people in the world can feed themselves and have choices in their lives as to what and where they will eat, study, work, marry, vote, live.

Rather than being so wounded when I tell you I disagree with you and why, try something different. Try saying, ‘Really? Tell me more. I’m interested.’ There should be nothing threatening about learning something new, something that may even change your mind. It’s okay to change your mind. I’ll change mine if you provide compelling evidence for me to do so.

You say a thing. I disagree with the thing you said, but I say nothing.

  • You believe I agree with you.
  • I feel dishonest for not saying what I think/know.
  • Your peace is kept, mine is disturbed.

If the world is to distribute resources and power more equally amongst all its people, then for me to imply with my silence that I agree with your statement that is promoting ignorance or prejudice is for me to support the very hegemony I am suggesting we should contest. I become complicit. My silence extends the symbolic violence of your words by giving the impression of consent.

I am then a lesser person for my intellectual dishonesty. I have remained silent and allowed you to believe that your comment about ‘those uncivil people of…’ was acceptable. I am unhappy with my silence, but I am so well versed in what happens (1, 2 or 3) that I have learned to pick my battles and ‘get along well enough’. In getting along well enough with you, I have failed to protect the voiceless. I have not used my own privilege to fight for the rights of others. I am wasting my privilege so that you may maintain yours.

You say a thing. I disagree with the thing you said, and I tell you so. You say:

  1. Really? Tell me more. I’m interested.


This piece was subsequently cross-posted to The Drum.

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

16 thoughts on “On Dissent and Intellectual Honesty”

  1. ‘Your long history of white male privilege is totally blinding you here.’
    Really? Tell me more. I’m interested.

  2. Great post. Sounds familiar. Historians are trained to be more argumentative: ‘Really? I don’t agree with you, tell me why?’

  3. Nice to see someone else has a bit of the ‘mongrel in them’ albeit wrapped in more compelling layers than I am able to muster!
    Your post reminds me of a famous quote:
    “On scholarship, the higher one climbs grants a view acrosss to another climbing her own pinnacle, revealing a divide as deep as it is long, but importantly, once were both sprung from the same earth.” Cecil St Hubbins, Huon sur la Mer

  4. Alan – I’m going to do a follow up post to explain that white (male) privilege better. I am a beneficiary of white privilege too, and keenly aware of it, which is why I use it in hopes of helping shift power structures and resources. But I am not male, and so am not a beneficiary of that aspect of privilege. I’ll write on it soon.

    Adele & Steve – thank you. I really appreciate the support.

  5. Excellent summary!

    I am so tired of the notion that all opinions are equal and that the right to hold an opinion equals the right to go unchallenged. An opinion is only as valid as the facts (or otherwise) it is based on.

    Debate should be about mutual enlightenment rather than winning or losing, but anyone who says, “It’s just my opinion,” or, “That’s your opinion,” loses.

  6. Perhaps your interlocutor’s “history of white male privilege” was “totally blinding” him. It seems a bit of a strong conclusion to come to though, from a single tweet in defence of a colleague’s use of a single (poorly chosen) word, from someone you have never met, whose writing you don’t read and who you don’t even follow on twitter.

    There are a lot of people on the Internet. If we don’t engage with everyone who disagrees with us, that’s not evidence of animosity. Perhaps we’re just not always in the mood for an argument with a stranger.

  7. Viveka – I did say that to Ben after a lengthy discussion about why Juzzy’s use of the word hysterical was reductive.

    Here’s the tweet: @tammois: Ben, sorry. Your long history of white male privilege is totally blinding you here.

    Note I said ‘here’ – as in, this discussion is not progressing because you seem unable to understand the way your privilege enables you to deny that dismissing a female scholar’s arguments as ‘hysterical screeching’ is unproductive and a sexist technique. By all means, disagree with Dines’ arguments, but apply some analytical skills to the rebuttal, don’t just sling (deeply gendered) insults.

    And I didn’t come to it from a single tweet. I came to it from having been in the midst of an ongoing ‘debate’ in which Ben’s position was entirely that I was an outrage for joining a critique of a word used by another writer. Juzzy had already conceded the point when Ben joined the discussion. Why he felt so compelled to berate me and others for what is a pretty straightforward and well-rehearsed feminist critique, I cannot say with certainty, but ‘privilege’ certainly jumped out as one reason why.

    Whether I’ve met him is irrelevant and you know it. His writing is everywhere so of course I’ve read some of it. I have no firm views on Pobjie’s writing – I wish him well with it, and understand he’s very popular. By all reports, he’s also a very nice guy. I didn’t have the opportunity to see that as he hurled abuse at me last night, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still actually a nice guy who got upset and behaved badly. I behave badly sometimes too.

    Ben engaged, attacked, then withdrew. Meanwhile, a number of feminists expressed support for the view that the word was poorly chosen in this instance. It’s not the end of the world, it’s not even a particularly big deal in this single instance, but it’s symptomatic of deeper ills across society. I (and others) challenged this example, Juzzy conceded, Ben did not. C’est la vie. Vive la Revolucion!

  8. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t have engaged with him, that you were wrong on your point, or about whether he’s nice. But other people are, so thanks for addressing those points.

    So here’s my point:

    “Ben’s position was entirely that I was an outrage for joining a critique of a word used by another writer”

    You missed something. That should read “a critique of him”. A sudden, vehement and sustained critique of him personally, from a whole lot of people he’s never met (yes, of course that’s relevant), over the course of a couple of hours, challenging his worth as a human being, asserting that he’s a “fuckwit”, laughing at his “cowardice” for blocking the various strangers who were insulting him (the “gutless wonder”), dismissing his right to defend his colleague, asserting his “total blindness”, and on and on.

    This was a mob. Maybe the mob was entirely justified and correct. I happen to *agree* with the specific point the mob was making. I can’t even say whether the mob should have behaved differently.

    My point is that it should be acknowledged that this *was* a mob, and that it was acting not to educate Ben, but to set him up as an example, to laugh at him, and to disenfranchise him.

    There are other explanations than “privilege” that might indicate why someone would want to disengage from a “debate” conducted on those terms.



  9. Great post Tammi.

    I’m sure it is unpleasant to have one’s privilege and blindness pointed out (in fact, I know it is, because my partner has done it to me in relation to the adult privilege that clouds my behaviour towards our daughter), but I don’t agree that this makes it a personal attack.

  10. Cristy – I don’t know if you’re responding to me, but I didn’t use the word “attack”, just “critique”. And I didn’t argue against critique, although I think the members of the mob who went with “fuckwit”, “coward” and so on were being particularly nasty. Tammi didn’t use those words, but she was surely aware of their presence in the debate as mostly they were in tweets CCed to her by people supporting her position.

    I think though that Tammi is jumping to the conclusion that the cause of all Ben’s disagreements with her are due to his privilege. Maybe they are, but she doesn’t know him and she can’t say that for sure.

    To assert that this privilege leaves him “totally blind” is patronising (yes, I’m aware of the gender history of the word patronising) and dismissive. To go on to assert that having his privilege questioned by her led to him withdrawing from the debate is also a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it was a response to being called a fuckwit, a coward, a blind idiot, and on and on, without any actual arguments being advanced?

    My problem is not that Ben’s privilege was pointed out. It was the assertion without evidence that he’s not aware of that privilege, and that’s what’s causing him to disagree with you. Assuming that your opponents in a debate are stupid and ignorant is just lazy.

  11. Okay, first on the ‘mob’ question. I don’t like it when many people join in at once, and I have on more than one occasion recommended to some who would join (because of course they see the debate, they agree, and they join a side, as I did when Brull was making the original point & @cosmicjester jumped in with his ‘thought police’ dismissal) that perhaps there are too many on one side now. The open forum of twitter means nobody gets to play boss and tell everyone else to back off, and lots of new people jump in as they arrive, it can be chaos. I really don’t like it when those who come in support of the point I’m arguing are rude, nasty or disrespectful. But I can hardly be held accountable for the others. Hold me to my words, not others’.

    As for the privilege question – I think there’s more going on than privilege, actually, but it’s part of the problem here. The follow up tweets (and during, actually) from Pobjie and Stuchbery were particularly unpleasant and in many cases, misogynist. But also, calling someone out on privilege is not the same as calling them stupid or ignorant. I don’t think he (or Juzzy) are either of those things. But I think they benefit from male privilege. As I do from white privilege, etc.

  12. It would appear that Viveka actually objects to the mob privilege that you were benefitting from during the debate, rather than male or white privilege.

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