“So You’re Saying That We Should…”

When I write things online, strangers frequently send in angry responses. Most of these responses just consist of remarks like “this is the dumbest argument I have ever heard.” I actually like these responses, because they don’t attempt to undermine anything I’ve said. But by far the most frustrating form of reply comes in the “so you’re saying” format. This occurs when a person replies to a thing I have said by suggesting that I have said something else.

Here are some examples of points I have made, and the “so you’re saying” responses I have received:

“Democrats should pay more attention to the economic concerns driving Trump supporters’ anxiety and fueling their xenophobia.” “So you’re saying that we should ignore their xenophobia?”

“The Clintons are deeply unpleasant people with rotten politics and few moral convictions.” “So you want Trump to win?”

“You should vote for Hillary Clinton, because she is the better of the two possible options.” “So you no longer think Clinton is bad?”

“If it weren’t for the decision made by 500 Nader voters, Bush would not have won in 2000.” “So you’re saying you don’t think it was Gore’s fault as well?”

“The widespread prevalence of guns has negative social effects.” “So you believe in gun control.”

It’s not that the “so you’re saying” response is never logically valid. If I say “I don’t believe it’s ever morally right to kill another human being” and you say “So you’re saying you don’t think it would be right to kill Hitler to stop the Holocaust,” this is a perfectly fine reply. After all, if I really don’t think it’s ever right to kill someone, then I have implied that I don’t think it’s right to kill Hitler to stop the Holocaust. When the “so you’re saying” actually draws out some implication contained within the original assertion, it’s an important means of clarifying whether the person really meant their original assertion to be so sweeping, or whether they would add some qualifications.

But in the above examples, the “so you’re saying” statement is in no way implied by the original statement. Believing that guns have negative social effects does not necessitate a support for a new federal gun control measure. Believing that more attention should be paid to economic problems does not mean that xenophobia is not important.

This is truly an elementary point. And yet I am barraged by these responses every time  write online, so that I have to suspect that the people who make them are not operating in entirely good faith. I don’t think anyone who replies this way has made a careful effort to understand what my argument is. They’ve just seen me advance a position that they viscerally associate with other positions that they dislike.

The “so you’re saying” tendency is unfortunate, because it gets in the way of productive discussion. Instead of responding to arguments that are being made, you respond to arguments that are not being made. And we continue to talk past one another, incapable of resolving our differences. So when you tell someone “so you’re saying,” you should first ask yourself whether they are really saying that.