You don’t know THAT?!?!?
Have you ever been on the receiving end of that question?
Have you ever been the one to say it?
Recently, I have had several experiences where I was laughed at or made fun of for not knowing something or getting something slightly wrong. I’m sure that, when you read the title, the reason you clicked through was because it struck a chord with you. You remembered a time when someone said it to you. It may have been a time when you didn’t know the name of a song or the artist who is famous for it. It may have been a time when you weren’t “in the know” about a certain trending brand or TV show. Or it may have been a time when you were trying to have a serious conversation about something and either ran into an empty spot where necessary information should be in order to fully justify your point of view, you came up with the wrong word, or you got a fact or quote wrong. The other person instead of simply saying “that’s not the word you mean. You mean (insert correct word here),” guffaws at you and exclaims “you don’t know THAT?!?!”
If you’re nodding in agreement, then you’ve experienced what I call “intellectual bullying”.
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about bullying these days as I am in the process of developing a program to address it. When most people think of bullying, they think of some physically larger person holding a physically smaller person up against a wall and demanding lunch money. Or perhaps a bunch of sniggling girls excluding other girls from their social gathering because they aren’t “cool enough”. You may even think of social media posts embarrassing someone for being “too” something. There is another type of bullying that doesn’t get very much notice though. It’s when a person regularly takes the position that what they know is what everybody should know and therefore anybody who doesn’t know these facts is inferior.
Bullying is defined differently by different people but the common ground is that bullying is behavior that is aggressive, repeated and involves an imbalance of power. Some definitions include intentionality. I’m not sure I agree with that part so I’ll leave that open to discussion.
When a person takes a position of intellectual superiority and repeatedly demeans others for not sharing in their area of expertise, this is a form of bullying behavior. Here are some examples I have personally experienced.
1. I made a mistake trying to summon the word for a part of a flower while trying to talk to my son about nature. It had been many years since I last studied biology and to top it off I was very sleep deprived. My brain found a word that seemed correct and I blurted it out. This was overheard by someone who could easily have just said “ I think you mean ‘stamen’” but chose instead to laugh very loudly at me and (using a snide tone of voice) inform me that I was stupid for thinking the first word was the correct word. The effect it had was to humiliate me- in front of my toddler.
2. I have been kicked out of social media groups calling themselves “freethinkers”- not because I was trying to insert any kind of religious dogma into conversations about science but because I dared to come at the discussion from the point of view that science does not, in fact, know everything there is to know about anything. If science did know everything there is to know, there would be no reason to continue studying and figuring out how things actually work. Because I pointed out that there wasn’t any evidence that a certain commonly disdained process wasn’t happening and that since there is, at least, anecdotal evidence that it might be happening, that it isn’t rational to make fun of people for thinking that there could be a connection. I was derided and eventually booted from the group for not being enough of a “freethinker”. I personally find this ironic considering my point of view is decidedly more open-minded than the group think that decided I am some kind of “wacko loon”.
3. I have had the unfortunate experience of trying to have a reasonable conversation about medical remedies that have less scientific studies behind them than pharmaceuticals that have turned ugly and mean. This is something I have experienced many times in my lifetime with many people. The other person is almost always someone who works in a science-related field and is almost always an older male- just an observation of my personal experience. Instead of listening to another point of view, taking potential new information in and even potentially allowing it to change their opinion, they take to name calling, putting words in my mouth and predicting what “crazy nonsense” my point of view MUST be based on. These scientists are positioning themselves as inherently superior to me because I do not work in a “science-related field” and assume that therefore I know nothing about science. Some of these people have literally laughed in my face. Others have guffawed on social media about how next I’m going to tell them “it’s magic!” The derision has taken many forms but there is one underlying current: they have decided that they are better than me because they are professional scientists (and I am not) and therefore nothing I say could have any substance to it.
Here are some other hurtful behaviors I have seen people repeat many times over, resulting in intellectually beating up someone in their social orbit:
1. Talking about how “some people just have no common sense anymore” because the other person has a different way of approaching a situation. This often happens when times and technology have changed and a new way of doing something has emerged as the preferred solution.
2. Saying “you just can’t fix stupid!” I know many people who use this phrase repeatedly to demean people who work for them or who hold other social positions that hold less power (ie their children).
3. Making fun of or constantly correcting someone’s speech because it doesn’t adhere to the “rules” the corrector has learned in school or at home through caregiver coaching. Linguists acknowledge that different people from different locations or cultural backgrounds can have different grammars. That means that what feels like the “right way to say something” is their community’s grammar even if those “rules” do not align with the contrived “grammar” that is taught in schools. This is a source of institutional discrimination as it puts people who were raised in certain places, certain socio-economic environments and people whose elder generations were not native English speakers in a position of being thought of as inherently less smart, less well-educated, less skilled, less valuable etc. This often leads to them not being considered for jobs, promotions or educational opportunities. It is natural for anybody’s brain to take note when a speaker uses a pronunciation or structure that is different from our internal grammar. It’s one thing to think “that’s not how I say that” to yourself and it’s an entirely different thing to constantly correct another native speaker’s speech.
All of these scenarios hurt the person who is being put in a position of “intellectual inferiority” by humiliating, shaming or ignoring the value of what they have to say. When it happens on a regular basis, it serves to undermine a person’s self-esteem. This sometimes gets translated into that person passing on the bullying behavior onto someone else in order to make themselves feel superior. Research has shown that there are more “bully-victims” out there than just “bullies” or just “victims”. Furthermore, research shows that bullying behavior negatively affects both the person enacting the bullying behavior and the person receiving the behavior, and the person enacting the bullying behavior actually suffers more than the receiver.
None of us are perfect.
There is a good chance that you recognize doing one or more of these things. It’s even possible that someone who knows me comes back to me and says “oh yeah, well you did this to me when…” I probably did. I’m sorry. It’s not a matter of blame. I’m not writing this to say “you’re a bad person if you’ve ever done any of these things!” I am not taking a position of superiority to you or anyone else. I am writing this to try to make you more aware of how your every day interactions may be hurting other people. In fact, one of the major fallacies of bullying is that there is such a things as someone who is a bully and other people who are not. The truth is that we all engage in bullying behavior from time to time. The solution is to become aware of it so that we can intercept those impulses and treat those around us with more dignity and respect. So the next time you notice your eyes rolling, you might want to stop and take a look at the situation. It may result in repairing a relationship that you hadn’t realized was broken.