Recently I’ve been getting a lot of comments on my blog that include speculations and assertions about what I’m thinking and feeling. Things like “you’re just scared” or “you’re insecure” or “you want to control others”. For the most part these comments go in the trash because I love me some censorship, but it’s gotten me thinking about how useful it is to play armchair psychologist on the internet.
The answer is of course, not very, but some people are still fairly certain that if they can figure out the underlying psyche of the author of a post or article, they have the upper hand in some fashion. They believe that they can undermine the arguments by showing that they come from a place of insecurity or fear or anger. Sometimes people I like a lot do this: they talk about whining man children who are just afraid of having their power and privilege taken away. And while this can certainly be fun, it’s not an actual argument.
Diagnosing someone’s underlying emotions (particularly when painting them as childish or negative) is really just a sideways ad hominem attack. The implication is that because the person is being driven by their emotions, they are not being logical. What they are expressing is in some fashion selfish or immature because of the emotions that underly it. Unfortunately, that’s not how arguments actually work: the emotions that an individual is feeling don’t necessarily affect their arguments. Simply looking at emotions is a kind of tone policing that ignores the actual content.
Now it is possible that what someone is saying is just an expression of emotions and in that case it’s possible to discuss whether those emotions are appropriate or rational. But in the case of discussing a more general concept like whether quitting something is failure or whether monogamy is always unhealthy, the individual emotions of the author aren’t relevant to the points that they’re making.
Example: let’s say someone writes “I think men are superior to women because more men are CEOs than women.” Your response could be “you are just afraid of women getting more power.” Unfortunately that response doesn’t address any of the points that the person made. A more relevant response would be to bring up other factors that could lead to men being CEOs more often than women. It might also be true that the first speaker is afraid and insecure, but that doesn’t actually matter. What matters is whether or not we can look at the substance of an argument. The reasons someone is making that argument are a different question entirely, and while they can be addressed, they’re not the same as responding to someone’s points.
There’s no way to know what someone is thinking and feeling unless they tell you, especially on the internet. While claiming you can know someone’s insecurities and fears isn’t on par with internet diagnosis, it’s on the same spectrum and plays into the same assumptions that an individual is not the expert on their own mind. Not only does that mean it’s unhelpful to the larger conversations at play, it also means that it plays into dangerous assumptions about who gets to make claims about an individual’s inner state. No rando on the internet knows me better than I know myself, thanks very much, so unless you have concrete arguments to bring to the table, I don’t want to hear it.