Apparently, I´m at a point in my life where I should be exploring, doing new things, discovering who I am and shaping who I am to be in preparation of who I will become as I grow up. I’m in an orientating phase, rounding off my teenage phase and just before my early adult phase –or something thereabouts– exactly according to the steps of human development. Or am I..?
Phases are a very popular sociological concept to explain human behavior with. We do it all the time; with pubescent kids acting out, despondency of the elderly, personal crises of middle-aged men and women, girls grouping into packs, young men going clubbing, new parent’s caution regarding their children. You can probably name more than I can. However, very similar to the way statistics work, this Phases model of sociological explanations comes into very rough territory as soon as we try to apply them to individuals. You see, phases describe tendencies, trends, likeliness –on a large scale– and then extrapolates the findings of many observations –in order to formulate models of expectations about human tendency within parameters of certain social context– which we colloquially call Phases.
Because the thing is; 14-year-olds dó tend to want tattoos, middle-aged men dó tend to buy motorcycles and twenty-somethings dó tend to explore the world and figure out what to do with their lives. Humans are often quite similar and exploring these similarities is not only useful, it is a tool for greater understanding of who we are collectively.
But, and here comes the hiccup, insisting that I –in the first person– am acting this way in accordance with a certain Phase of my life is quite an erroneous statement to make. I can certainly understand the reasoning and can attest to the fact that I am tempted to think in such ways, but there are two major problems with this line of thought: a fundamental and an implicit one both of which I will discuss further.
The fundamental reason I’ve already hinted at; Phases don’t work on an individual basis because they grossly simplify (by generalization) the intricacies and dynamics of a person’s life. A Phase is too blunt a tool for understanding a single person because the actual reasons for an individual’s state of being can vary widely and diverge greatly from the neatly set out parameters that Phases provide. Perhaps the travel is out of necessity rather than curiosity, the rowdiness due to abuse rather than hormones, the crying out of pain rather than infancy. Similar behaviors can have very different motivators and Phases are neither meant nor suited for such purposes. So when conversing with another person (or contemplating your own life), do not attempt to presuppose any knowledge about that person’s life, tendencies and especially desires simply because you are familiar with popular socio-science.
The implicit reason is an insidious one, often subconsciously invoked, and sometimes not at all. You see, applying Phases to an individual can implicitly constitute an ad hominem assault. An ad hominem argument is an argument where instead of challenging a person’s assertion, you attack the person on purely personal grounds, hoping to discredit the person and by extension that person’s argument or feelings. The sentence in this case might sound like this: “you’re only making a big deal of this because you’re a troublesome youth”. The ad hominem in that sentence is the claim that the person only holds their position or feels the way they do out of personal, selfish reasons, in this case their age and associated (with their Phase) hormonal state, rather than for any reason most people would find reasonable such as an injustice a parent has exacted.
You can demolish any personal position, any feeling in this way, not just within the realm of Phases. “socialist-because-you’re-poor”, “conservative-because-you’re-rich”, “prudish-because-you’re-unattractive,”nudist-because-you’re-a-man”. All arguments that take this form are essentially doing the same thing: reducing any position you hold to the outcome of your individual desires and interests.
And while people do tend to hold positions that are in harmony with their lives and in accordance with their state of affairs, allowing this line of argumentation to stand is not only fallacious, it makes any reasoned debate impossible by excluding reason and objectivity from the conversation entirely.
You might think we’ve diverged away from our original topic, and that is partly true, but only as a setup to this last paragraph explaining why the Phases-flavored style of this ad hominem argument is emotionally harder to rebuke and get over. Because how are you going to defend yourself against it? Most of these ad hominem target somewhat static aspects of a person: gender, sexual orientation, wealth, age, these are things that are manageable to discuss. But Phases cast a net so wide, and are so personal, that it can cast everything you believe and stand for into doubt before you even have time to discern it as the fallacy that they are.
Because the crux of the matter is this: even if your opinion has been formed, strengthened and even inspired by the course of your life, even if what you believed were to come solely from the most base, egocentric and lazy of places, that would not make you wrong. The correctness of an argument is not determined by reasons for which it is formulated, it lies within the form and content of the argument, regardless of its formulator. If anybody ever tries to do away with what you’re saying on the basis that you’re young/black/female/bourgeois/whatever-else and therefore feel the way you do: simply insist that their dismissal comes from a lack of character, brought on by the absence of a brain.
PS: Did you notice that I didn’t actually get back on-topic in that last paragraph? Did you mind?