As a math major, there’s nothing I hate more than when a professor points to a theorem and says, “The proof is obvious.” More often than not, I then sit there confused. I definitely don’t understand the logical leaps required to arrive at the conclusion, but, looking around at my classmates’ silence, I don’t dare speak up. It’s obvious, after all. But maybe I’m just bad at math. So what?
Too often, appeals to the obvious quality of our opinions supplant reasoned arguments in favor of them. We’ve stopped defending our beliefs, instead presupposing that a certain raft of ideas is so self-evident they don’t need explanation.
I define the colloquial usage of the word “obvious,” often used interchangeably in this context with the phrase “of course,” to entail two ideas. First, the speaker believes the idea in question is true. Second, the speaker believes the idea is so true that any reasonable person also would agree it is true, so justification is not needed. With the rapid spread of the appeal to the “obvious,” this second stipulation proves problematic.
When we claim an idea is obvious, it shuts down debate. If you disagree, then you are unreasonable, irrational, or just dumb for arguing with the obvious. The assumption is that I don’t need to defend this opinion because everyone has this opinion. You can see why I am unwilling to speak up in math class—if everyone else understands the proof, then clearly I am just stupid.
More and more, I see our community at Georgetown, myself included, resorting to the obvious defense because it is easy—all the hard work has been done for us. We don’t need to know why we believe something, we can simply say it’s obvious, dodging the question, “Why is this true?” by asking, “How can you not see that it is?” We act like everything is obvious because we believe it passionately, but cannot articulately defend our position.
The consequences are dire. Our desire for confirmation bias divides us into discrete groups of thinkers who all share our opinions. To those inside the bubble, everything is obvious. They all agree; the problem is all of those unreasonable people outside who can’t see the simple, obvious truth. In a university setting where the vocal majority holds a core set of beliefs, retreating to the obvious causes questions challenging the status quo to become offensive. They no longer simply challenge ideas, they challenge the judgment of the people holding them.
When we poke around the foundations of positions propped up by the “obvious” defense, the arguments inevitably collapse in on themselves. Consider the outcry against two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations: Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). One of the most widely-touted arguments against DeVos centered around the fact that she had zero experience in public education, either as a teacher or as a student. On the other hand, the public mocked Carson for claiming his childhood growing up in urban, low-income housing while receiving government assistance contributed to his ability to run HUD. Lived experience under the purview of a government office is a prerequisite to run the office in question, until it’s no qualification at all. How can such an “obvious” claim—that these two nominees are unqualified to run their respective departments—be defended in such flatly contradictory ways?
Or take the widely reported disavowal of the pro-life women’s group, New Wave Feminists, by the organizers of the Women’s March on D.C. last January. After having previously accepted the group as a partner in the event, the organizing board abruptly changed course after outcries from pro-choice groups, prompting the question, “Can pro-life women be feminist?” The Women’s March organizers offered a resounding no, but declined to offer reasoning as to why, saying only that they “regretted the error.” For a movement so laudably committed to intersectional advocacy, the reversal seems at the very least off-color; a march marketed as demonstrating the widespread, shared popular outcry against Trump also demanded intellectual purity on a single issue from its participants.
I don’t claim to hold the answers to these or other questions, nor am I saying the organizations in question were in the wrong for taking the stances they did. But what I do find frustrating is their appeal to the shared values of those already likely to agree with their position on its face, instead of attempting to examine the underlying reasoning or consideration of what the values of those who disagree might be. The essential questions go unanswered.
Instead of bending over backwards to fit into our in-group’s pantheon of “obvious” beliefs, we have to try engaging the arguments, instead of avoiding them. The alternative is rolling our eyes, sighing, and saying “it’s just so obvious.”
Alan is a junior in the College.