When You Assume, You Make an Ass of U and Me

Andrew Klavan in the LA Times:

“If you are reading this newspaper, the likelihood is that you agree with the Obama administration’s recent attacks on conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh. That’s the likelihood; here’s the certainty: You’ve never listened to Rush Limbaugh.

Oh no, you haven’t. Whenever I interrupt a liberal’s anti-Limbaugh rant to point out that the ranter has never actually listened to the man, he always says the same thing: “I’ve heard him!”

On further questioning, it always turns out that by “heard him,” he means he’s heard the selected excerpts spoon-fed him by the distortion-mongers of the mainstream media. These excerpts are specifically designed to accomplish one thing: to make sure you never actually listen to Limbaugh’s show, never actually give him a fair chance to speak his piece to you directly.

By lifting some typically Rushian piece of outrageous hilarity completely out of context, the distortion gang knows full well it can get you to widen your eyes and open your mouth in the universal sign of Liberal Outrage. Your scrawny chest swelling with a warm sense of completely unearned righteousness, you will turn to your second spouse and say, “I’m not a liberal, I’m a moderate, and I’m tolerant of a wide range of differing views — but this goes too far!””

I started listening to talk radio in 1985. (Gene Burns: he endeared himself to me by beginning every show by saying: “The Gene Burns show is brought to you by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”) I first heard Rush Limbaugh in late 1988 (possibly early 1989.) He was substituting for someone else, and I remember thinking: this guy is too obviously an idiot even for talk radio. Plainly, I was wrong.

I can’t say I have often listened to his show in its entirety, but that’s because for the past decade or so, I have mostly listened to talk radio in the car, and I very rarely drive for three straight hours. I have, however, listened to a lot more than snippets I get from “distortion-mongers”.

Also, I’m not a guy, I don’t have a second spouse, and my chest is not scrawny.

Since Klavan is “certain” I have not listened to Limbaugh, he wants to know why not:

“Let me guess at your answer. You don’t need to listen to him. You’ve heard enough to know he’s a) racist, b) hateful, c) stupid, d) merely an outrageous entertainer not to be taken seriously or e) all of the above.

Now let me tell you the real answer: You’re a lowdown, yellow-bellied, lily-livered intellectual coward. You’re terrified of finding out he makes more sense than you do.

I listen to Limbaugh every chance I get, and I have never heard the man utter a single racist, hateful or stupid word. Do I always agree with him? Of course not. I’m a conservative; I think for myself. But Limbaugh, by turns insightful, satiric, raucously funny and wise, is one of the best voices talking about first principles and policy in the country today.

Therefore, I am throwing down my gauntlet at your quivering liberal feet. I hereby issue my challenge — the Limbaugh Challenge: Listen to the show.”

Been there. Done that. Don’t particularly feel the need to do it again.

However, I have a few questions for Mr. Klavan, starting with the most obvious: What makes you so certain you know all about me?

Moreover: your contempt for your imagined audience drips off the page: my chest is scrawny, my feet quiver (??), I am “spoon-fed”, I don’t think for myself, I make little moues of outrage on command, and, of course, I am “a lowdown, yellow-bellied, lily-livered intellectual coward.” Why my second spouse has anything to do with me is a mystery that passeth all understanding, or would be if I had a second spouse.

If this were accurate, we would not need to ask why you think this way about me. However, truth is one, but error is infinite; and since you’re wrong, it is worth asking why, of the infinitely many misconceptions available to you, you chose this one in particular. Unlike you, I don’t care to make pronouncements about people I don’t know, but I’ll venture a few guesses.

For one thing, you are “certain” you know all about a large number of people you’ve never met. You could have written this piece about many of your readers, or liberals you have met; instead, you chose to write about all your readers, and to claim certainty about us. That was unwise — I mean, what are the odds that not one of your readers has listened to Limbaugh? — but you either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the likelihood that you were wrong. I imagine, then, that you do not make epistemic caution your watchword.

Nor does it seem likely that you make it a habit to be generous, or to give people the benefit of the doubt. You certainly didn’t do so in this case, and it seems unlikely that you would exercise charity towards people most of the time, but then abruptly switch to contempt when you get an opportunity to publish your thoughts before a very large audience.

You probably don’t listen very well, if this essay is anything to go by. Listening well requires not assuming that you know in advance everything the person you’re talking to is going to say. Again, most people start by not listening to individuals, and only gradually work their way up to not listening to the entire readership of a major national newspaper. So I’m guessing this is not an isolated episode.

By the same token, I’d guess that you do not have the kind of intellectual curiosity that would lead you to listen, above all, to people you disagree with. Those are the people who challenge you; the people from whom you are most likely to hear something you would never have thought of on your own. You dismiss them out of hand — an odd thing to do in an op-ed devoted to lecturing others on their closed-mindedness.

Which is why I’d also guess that you do not have a lot of insight into yourself. If you did, it might have occurred to you to notice the rather striking fact that your column displays the very intellectual failings you are complaining about. You might also have noticed the hatred that jumps off the page, and wondered what it says about you, and how you found yourself in a position in which you are so much as tempted to insult a large group of people who are, for the most part, quite unknown to you.

Maybe you picked it up from Limbaugh. He is certainly the most obvious source for your view of liberals. Since you’re a conservative and you think for yourself, though, I’m sure you didn’t just accept it because you were ‘spoon-fed’. There are any number of other possible explanations: hasty overgeneralization from a few liberals you met at parties, a projection of your own flaws onto others, unacknowledged anger, or a need to think of yourself as a lonely island of reason in a sea of idiocy. The one thing I do know is that you could not possibly have arrived at your certainty about what your entire readership is like based on careful reflection and close examination of the evidence. Because it’s just not true.


Why go on about this? Because it’s a danger for all of us, on any side of the political spectrum. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with making uncharitable assumptions about people you don’t know when someone else is making assumptions about you. But it’s always worth stopping and asking yourself: do I ever do this to the people I disagree with?

Because it’s no more justifiable to do this to conservatives than it is to do it to liberals.

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