Over the break, I thought about a phrase we often overhear at Yale: “You need to understand.” These words are usually followed by an opinion or an unverifiable claim. You need to understand: it is not a phrase used to discuss cold facts bereft of emotional content. No one says, “You need to understand the Earth is 93 million miles from the sun.” Instead, it’s a rhetorical device of argument, used to corner rather than to explain.
You can hear the phrase uttered during discussions that shift into affect-laden arguments. I first noticed this during the controversy on campus in the fall of 2015. At the time, I took it to be the introduction of an important idea, fact or opinion. I gave the speaker my full attention. I prepared to absorb the message because I thought I would learn something new. Many disappointments followed when I realized that “You need to understand” often actually means, “I want you to agree with me.”
The implicit “I” contained within the phrase “You need to understand” is suggestive. Affirmation of our identities is everything to our generation. If you want to manipulate us, learn how to appeal to our identities. We’re slaves to our personas, and beneath our polished exteriors lies a storm of internal conflict. Would the type of person we want others to think we are buy this item, post this photo or take this job?
I have made efforts to adjust to campus definitions of words like “need,” “safety” and “fear.” Certainly these signifiers had different meanings when I was in the Air Force. For example, soldiers’ life-threatening injuries actually needed immediate medical care. The Air Force is a place of actual needs; Yale is a place merely of wants.
It has never occurred to me to say, “You need to understand” because I know many of my experiences lie beyond the understanding of most people at Yale. But this is true for everyone — we must account for each other’s unfamiliarity in our discussions. If I truly need someone to understand my point, I can’t assume they will climb in my skin and walk around in it. Even if they could, they still wouldn’t understand because they have been shaped by experiences that I would not understand.
When a controversial decision is made at Yale — about administrator titles, names of buildings or specific policies — a wildfire catches on campus. We connect to social media to post a wooden opinion. The opinion is examined twice. First, by the poster who removes any trace of controversy or anything that could be misconstrued as disagreement. Second, by the readers of the opinion who scrutinize it to ensure it is safe to agree. We need everyone to understand that we understand.
We often think if other people understand where we are coming from, then they would share our opinion. This comes from a mistaken assumption. In our own minds, we misinterpret our opinions and experiences for facts and reason.
Here is what I mean: If we are applying reason when we state our viewpoints, then anyone who does not arrive at the same conclusion is being unreasonable. We don’t think we are capable of being unreasonable, because we feel right. And if we are right, then the other person must be wrong. If they argue with us, it is because they don’t understand.
When we say other people need to understand, often we’ll find that they do, in fact, understand. They may even understand better than us. Confusion attends the realization that someone else understands what we are saying, yet holds a different opinion. We think the other person must be stupid. Or worse, evil.
This realization that others can understand our thoughts and arrive at different conclusions can be dangerous in other ways. When we accept that it is possible for smart people to hold different opinions from us, and listen to them with an open mind, we risk adopting their ideas. If we want to be certain of our own ideas, it is better to dismiss people who don’t share them. Even more than being afraid of seeming like we don’t understand, we are afraid of having misunderstood ourselves. The best way to hold onto our opinions is to not risk exposure to other viewpoints.
The choice is either to accuse the other side of being unreasonable because they don’t understand, or accept that they do understand and put our viewpoints at risk. “You need to understand” is a way to spread our opinions to others before their opinions spread to us. It’s protectionism at its worst, and the only way we can understand is by taking a risk.
Rob Henderson is an Eli Whitney student in Calhoun College. Contact him at email@example.com .