It’s the political season and there are a lot of bad arguments being made these days. There are plenty of non sequiturs, red herrings, ad hominem attacks and ex hominem attacks. It is the season when we vividly see that there is no such thing as pure reason. Instead, cognition is always infused with emotion (as Antonio Demasio described in his excellent work, Descartes’s Error).
This is also the season of unrelenting rhetorical tricks. One of the most common rhetorical tricks is the constant misuse of the word “because.” Simply uttering the word “because” tends to convince people that you are correct and logical even when you have said nothing meaningful at all. The great power of the word “because” has been demonstrated in a classic experiment involving a stooge trying to butt in line at a library copy machine. I discussed that experiment at a post that I entitled “Just Because.” I highly recommend a quick review of that psychology experiment before proceeding.
Considering the persuasive power of the word “because” reminded me of a special day in sixth grade, back in the late 1960s. This is a true story. I went to All Souls Grade School, a Catholic grade school in Overland Missouri. It was a school where boys wore pants and girls wore dresses (Catholic school girl’s uniforms, to be precise). A few times a year, one of the parish priests would drop by to teach religion to the students (we were usually taught by nuns). One of the parish priests at All Souls was an energetic, articulate and likable young man named Father Wilkins.
In order to convey the proper emotion of this story, I need to emphasize that the children in the sixth grade class were all starting to get laced with sex hormones, compliments of our maturing bodies. We were 12 and 13-year-olds. We were all fascinated with sex, but no one talked straight about sex back then (remember, this was back in the 1960s). It was a land of half-truths and outlandish lies. Now, back to the story.
Into the classroom walks Father Wilkins with a big smile. He sat at the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom, chatted with us a bit and then paused for a couple seconds before starting his lesson:
“Do you know why boys wear pants and girls wear dresses?
I remember feeling shocked to hear this question. And I was also excited because I had wondered about this precise topic and I was eager to learn the answer. But no one raised a hand. I vividly remember the silence and I remember everyone looking down, hoping not to get called on. Undeterred, Father Wilkins asked the question again.
“Come on now. This is a simple question. Why do boys wear pants and girls wear dresses?”
Again, no one raised his or her hand and there was painful silence. Although my knowledge of female anatomy was quite limited back then, I assumed (with some embarrassment) that girls wore dresses for a reason that had to do with their lack of penises. I wasn’t about to raise my hand and volunteer such an answer, however. No one else was willing to volunteer an answer either.
Father Wilkins was starting to look frustrated. He cajoled us a third time.
“Nobody knows? Nobody’s going to answer my question? Well then, I’ll answer it. Why do boys wear pants and why do girls wear dresses?”
Father Wilkins folded his hands on top of his desk and looked straight at us.
“Boys wear pants and girls wear dresses because boys are boys and girls are girls! Now do you see? Now do you understand?”
Father Wilkins uttered his answer in a proud, almost smug way. He thought he was really onto something big. He went on to explain that things are often the way they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. And that’s the way they should be, et cetera. This was a perfect sort of answer for the sort of fellow who believed in the virgin birth and infallibility of the Pope.
To this day, I remember the immense disappointment I felt upon hearing this “answer.” His “answer” was actually no answer at all. I was certain of this, but I was not about to raise my hand to accuse the parish priest of pulling an intellectual con job on a classroom full of sixth graders. I can guarantee you, though, some of the kids in that classroom found his “answer” to be meaningful in the same way that they found his sermons to be meaningful. They believed that they had been provided knowledge when they had been subjected to nothing but a tautology anchored by that magically powerful word “because.”
“Because” is such an incredibly powerful word that a politician who sprinkles into his or her speeches sounds like he or she is a bubbling ferment of precision logic. We needed to attack Iraq because of 9/11. We need to fight them over there because we don’t want to fight them over here. We need to privatize Social Security because we’re trying to save it. We need to torture innocent people because other people are trying to kill us. Or “[Fill in this blank] because America is the worlds greatest country.” Or “because we’re freedom loving people.” or because [whatever].
For many people, it seems, hearing the word “because” turns off all sense of skepticism. It is for this reason that “because” is such a powerful and dangerous word.
I’m wondering whether the real lesson of Father Wilkins was the importance of stare decisis, the importance of doing something a certain way because that is the way it’s always been done.
I now believe that I have a much better answer to the father Wilkins question (and I do believe his question was a good one). I believe that girls wear dresses to display their legs in order to convince potential mates that the girls are biologically fit. In other words, this is a question for which evolutionary psychology offers an interesting perspective. For more on this connection, see my earlier post, “Killer High Heels.”
Do it just because.