To Critique Any Position, You First Have to Understand It

This is why my political perspective has shifted dramatically in the past several years.

Bernie & AOC, Wikipedia

On her website, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sells a $58 sweatshirt that says “Tax the Rich.” A friend of mine recently reposted a video of billionaire Kevin O’Leary wearing this sweatshirt and joking, “inside of every socialist there is a capitalist screaming to get out!”

I sent her a question about it, and my friend replied that it was just ironic that someone who wants to tax the rich is selling an expensive sweatshirt. To be clear, this friend is not a fan of AOC and also called her “irrelevant.” We discussed it a bit further, but then eventually ended the conversation by laughing at the theatrics of Kevin O’Leary.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized my friend didn’t have a grasp on the position she was criticizing. And then I considered the times I’d done the same exact thing: criticized a position I didn’t actually understand.

On Democratic Socialism and Expensive Sweatshirts

To break this down, I’ll start with the fact that AOC is a self-described democratic socialist. From her website, she defines it as such:

In a moral and wealthy America, no person should ever be too poor to live. Democratic Socialism is not about government takeover; it’s about workers having a decent amount of the wealth they are creating. It’s about how much of a say workers have in the operations of the businesses they sustain. It’s about dignity. Democratic Socialism means being willing to compromise only in order to live in a society that does not fail people’s most basic needs to live.

However you feel about it, the heart of Democratic Socialism is that workers should have a say in the workplace and be paid more. That’s the ideal at least.

In regards to AOC’s sweatshirts, her website claims they are U.S. made and union printed. As I told my friend, we are accustomed to cheap foreign goods because of underpaid labor — so, sure, a $58 sweatshirt does seem radically expensive. But counter to what my friend believed, I knew AOC wasn’t going to pocket $50 in profit.

Labor Costs When Labor is Fairly Paid

When you fairly pay labor — as AOC claims she did — then you’ll most likely see an increase in final price as well. Therefore, AOC selling a more expensive sweatshirt is right on brand for her — no irony at all. Additionally, the profits go to her campaign; therefore, the sweatshirt is pricier because it’s a political donation, too.

From my understanding, in an ideal Democratic Socialist world, we might have less access to cheap goods, and more access to high quality union-made goods (wages would rise so more people could afford these goods, too). For me as a minimalist, it doesn’t alarm me to have less goods produced by underpaid labor — I don’t want 10 cheap sweatshirts from Forever 21 anyways.

The Democratic Socialist Ideal

To someone who works union jobs — like both my parents did — an ideal Democratic Socialist world would mean higher wages and better benefits. If you’re someone who appreciates an influx of cheap consumer goods and doesn’t think you’d benefit from higher wages, then Democratic Socialism might not be your jam. Or maybe you have other criticisms of it.

I’m still learning about it and thinking it over myself. For example, I’m considering it must be good for society — both morally and functionally — for everyone to automatically have their basic needs met (even if there’s more to learn about how that ideal would work in practice). It seems like a no-brainer, right?

Ultimately, the one thing I do know is that I’m not going to criticize Democratic Socialism until I have a better understanding of it.

The Times I’ve Argued From a Place of Ignorance

I’m calling out this error in argument, because I’ve made the same one.

In 2014, I remember scoffing at people when they told me white privilege exists and telling them about how hard my white grandparents had it. Classic.

Then I scoffed my way right to an elective seminar at my university called “White Privilege,” which covered the history and current state of systemic racial injustices. The course was featured on a Fox News segment with Bill O’Reilly. The student that he interviewed was someone I studied abroad with and knew decently well.

Bill O’Reilly’s rant turned out to be a great advertisement because that’s how I found out about the seminar. I signed up with the mindset that I wanted to be able to pick apart how misguided the concept of “white privilege” really was.

For most of the class, I didn’t say anything during the discussion, and just listened. That was probably for the best.

Ultimately, that class was the first time I was introduced to the concept of systemic racism. I’d never considered that racism was more than being mean to someone. It would still be years before I’d get a better grasp on the mammoth that is systemic racism.

I left that seminar with only the mildest of concessions, “okay, there are some fair points.” But the biggest takeaway for me was that I needed to understand a concept better before I stood my ground so hard against it.

Going Forward With That Lesson

That same friend who posted the Kevin O’Leary video also works for a charter school. In a conversation with her about the effect of charter schools on public education, I was about to burrow down on how bad charter schools were until I realized, actually, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

I took a step back and considered that I’d only consumed negative tidbits from people who worked in public education and that I generally aligned with (i.e. my mother). But in reality, I’d done no research or thinking of my own.

It was just another example of needing to understand something before I could honestly criticize it. As I’ve learned from experience, sometimes you can learn with the intention to make counterarguments, but end up learning too much and flipping your entire stance.

Because of this attitude towards inquiry, my political stances have shifted dramatically in the past several years. I’d start off with the desire to understand another position so that I could argue against it. But then slowly, some of those positions became my own.

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