The “don’t understand” Trick

There is 1 particular silencing trick that plays such a big role in keeping society oblivious of all marginalised types of suffering, including school sufferings, that I see no civil liberty objection to wanting it banned. It’s the “I don’t understand” trick. This is when you say a thing whose meaning is clear enough, but because it’s at odds with the range of ideas the hearers are already familiar with, they say “I don’t understand”. Being up against this like a brick wall unless you only say what they want to hear, you are silenced.

There’s no honesty in folk saying they don’t understand. You get to notice that, after you see how as soon as 1 character starts it, 6 more rush to join in like apes and say they don’t understand either. You can see they are doing it to keep in with the group, shut out your point of view.

Of course a person can have genuine failings at following language and must be entitled to ask for explanations, but that’s the point: they would ask you to explain it, point by point, willing to understand. Players of the “don’t understand” trick never do that. They won’t listen any more, the “don’t understand” posture is always impatient and rejecting of any further explanation you have. That’s above all what proves it is a trick. Do they itemise what they haven’t followed and ask you to explain? That’s how you tell the difference.so no one ever actually needs to say “I don’t understand”.

The “don’t understand” trick is the greatest weapon of bigots and unfair obstacle to getting anything heard that’s not what popular culture already wants to believe. This is clearly out of order if the mob refuse to want to understand things to do with personal safety or schools endangering children.

It’s not real life, think about it, that the public will gladly recognise the truth of a fact outside the group consensus as soon as 1 voice speaks out, like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. In that fable as Hans Christian Andersen wrote it, the crowd’s minds were open to the discovery that their emperor was a nudist: they were disaffected with politicians, like today. The other side of the equation is the will to believe. If the crowd had been emotionally committed to believe in the emperor’s clothes, they would have ignored the boy, wouldn’t they? Silly sods still take comfort in being racist even though they know racism has no scientific basis. The real reason for saying “I don’t understand” is that you don’t want to believe a fact. Whether you get called articulate or hard to understand is determined by whether the reader wants to believe what you say.

I have written an extension of the Emperor’s New Clothes story, a vision exploring what would happen if the crowd were not keen to believe the embarrassing new fact they heard. The boy not being named in the original, I call him Archimedes, to make him sound like a frustrated scientist. The original fable was accepted into popular culture without its references to nudity being thought wrong, so the same must be hoped for this addition to it. It is written to make a serious point about social behaviour.

A continuation of The Emperor’s New Clothes:

“But he isn’t wearing anything.” “Hush”, said his father. “you can’t say things like that in front of people. They won’t understand you.”

All the passers by looked at each other, then at the emperor. To look at him, it seemed Archimedes might be right, just for a moment. Each person weighed the dilemma. Could the lone voice of this boy possibly be right, when everyone else had been admiring the emperor’s clothes? It was risky to think so, it might mean disagreeing with all the people, with all your friends. Would you sound sensible, saying they had all been wrong? What if you were wrong, for everyone had seen the clothes, hadn’t they? Surely they would agree with each other about that. So it was easier to think the same as them and keep your friends.

So all the folks thought how puzzling it was that Archimedes didn’t see the same as all the folks. They didn’t like thinking about it, because they had decided to see things their friends’ way, to see the emperor’s clothes. That was fixed. So, if they were not going to see what Archimedes saw, how could they understand why he saw it? They realised that it solved every problem to say they didn’t understand him. Whatever he said, now they would not have to listen to him.

“I don’t understand”, all the crowd started telling Archimedes. “No, I don’t understand either”, and “I’ve not got a clue what he’s on about”, the folks agreed with each other with relief. They felt so good to belong to the mature body of majority opinion, such a relief not to have to change anything. Poor Archimedes was bewildered. He had said something perfectly simple. How on earth could it not be understood? “It’s a simple sentence,” he yelled. “The emperor is not wearing anything”. The folk around him kept saying the same thing: “I’m not understanding you. You’ll have to tone down your excitement, we can’t decipher it.”

Archimedes tore his hair. This was quite frightening. “Decipher! What do you mean, decipher? The emperor, right? The – emperor. Got that? He – is – not: got that? The emperor is not. Wearing: you know what wearing clothes means?” “Stop being such a rude little boy. We know how to put a sentence together, we are intelligent people, but we can’t decipher what you are saying. We are all here admiring the emperor’s clothes, and you make out he hasn’t got any – we don’t understand you. Look, the emperor is right there.” Archimedes could well see the emperor was right there, in the nuddy. “I’m glad I’m not the only one wondering about that boy”, the crowd told each other. “Incomprehensible rants: just ignore him.”

Archimedes burst into tears and his father sent him home. It was an uncomfortable walk, with everyone pointing at him. “Look, there’s that nut who said the emperor is naked! Ha ha!” Even his father was on the crowd’s side. “People are just going to think you are strange. Talking about the emperor being naked. You might care about your ideas. Be a bit tactful, don’t stick out like a sore thumb, they won’t understand it.”

Archimedes felt angrier and angrier listening to this. He was hearing all his choices taken away. His father was telling him he could not articulate his thoughts, as plainly as “The emperor is starkers”, and have it register in anyone’s head unless they wanted to hear it. This wasn’t fair: how could he know what the crowd would want to hear? Why should he have to lie and pretend to believe the emperor had clothes, to stop all the folks reciting this nonsense “I don’t understand” every time he spoke? Then he thought “Eureka! I have it – I’ll write it all on a website, all about the emperor’s nudity. I’ll find someone who will understand it then”. So Archimedes wrote all the details he could think of, about how you could see the emperor was uncovered. He waited a day or 2 for comments. When he read them he was left crying again. They said: “Am I alone in not understanding what this is about?” and “This is a lot of legalese. What is this fool on about? Expecting us to understand this rubbish”. “No, I don’t understand either.”

Archimedes was really sore now. He was seeing a side to people that the grown ups never talked about in polite company. He was seeing that it only took 1 to start the bandwagon of not understanding, and 6 more folks would rush to join in and say the same thing, like apes. They were doing it just to belong to the crowd, to follow the leader. They couldn’t give a damn that he had written a simple sensible statement, “the emperor wears no clothes”, and he had backed it up with reasoned argument. Didn’t the truth matter? How would he ever make anyone hear it?

There were the religious evangelists on the street corner, a group of them who listened to what Archimedes had to say. But then they said: “I mean, I don’t understand that, but what we are here to tell you about is God.” Archimedes was livid. Folks who were so sure it was worth listening to them, while they put reasoned arguments, would not listen to him. They were so sure his reasoned argument was not worth bothering with. They decided before they heard it, “I don’t understand that”, and it put up an idiotic barrier to getting through to them. That was just a sneaky trick to shut him up. What sense did it make, not to expect him to be hurt, taken as not worth listening to while the same folks expected him to listen to them? But at least talking to them had given Archimedes an idea.

Archimedes tried giving out leaflets about the emperor’s clothes. The responses he got were: “My IQ is not up to your ideas”, “This is not having the effect you want, they don’t understand”, “Oh that’s all too deep for me. The emperor having nothing on: what an unusual thing to say, it’s deep, but I’m having trouble understanding it.”

Then Archimedes thought such a brainy idea had hit him that he leapt out of the lake to dash to a call-box. He would phone one of those helplines for children and tell them how everyone was being mean to him. So that’s what Archimedes did. There should have been a nice man on the phone to tell how mean everyone was, saying they didn’t understand. You guess what came next?

The man was mean, he told Archimedes he didn’t understand. He kept crossly interrupting everything poor old Archimedes said, stopping him completing a sentence. Every time Archimedes tried to explain, the cross man cut him off, snapping: “No, I have to say to you, I DON’T understand it.” He accused Archimedes of being incoherent, which was amazingly unfair when his own interruptions were stopping Archimedes complete anything he said. Finally the man said, “And in my opinion you are receiving mental health support.”

When Archimedes was a raging teenager, the emperor was still wearing the same set of clothes, if they existed. Archimedes had not changed his mind about the truth, but when he joined web groups to tell them about the emperor, they just said: “I’m sorry Archimedes, most of your posts are very hard to understand.”

“It’s no good trying to tell people your ideas about the emperor”, his mother chided him, “they are too way out. They won’t understand.” Archimedes exploded like a volcano. “It’s so simple. The emperor is not wearing anything. That’s 6 words. An infants class can understand it. The emperor is – right? Not wearing anything – right?” His mother was maddeningly unaffected. “It’s no good. It’s not the point, being simple. It’s too way out for ordinary people. You can’t say the emperor is not wearing anything, the idea is beyond them, they just won’t UNDERSTAND.”

In at least one thing Archimedes’ old mum was clearly wrong. She would never make him forget the truth about the emperor and only have the thoughts that idiots with no thoughts would agree to understand. She would never persuade him that life was so much more relaxing that way. But for Archimedes there was no living happily ever after. He grew into an embittered old man who no normal folks listened to any more, the crank who clung to his wild eyed theory that the emperor who used to reign back in his youth had been lacking in the wardrobe department. No historian of the period ever considered the idea, not even the sensationalist populists put it in their books, and no publisher would accept Archimedes. All these good folks couldn’t be wrong if there really had been any evidence for the no clothes theory, so of course Archimedes was just nuts. Readers of history books forced themselves to see the emperor’s clothes, and even showed Archimedes the pictures of the emperor’s physique and told him to see the clothes or they would socially reject him for his pigheadedness.

Archimedes spent his years of despair moping up and down on the beach, where the tides washing the sand smooth every day consoled him that all his mindless enemies were as impermanent as he was and would soon be gone. Before he died he would leave a hope for the future: his story of the emperor’s new clothes, that a child living in an unknown future time might possibly understand and convince other folks to as well. So Archimedes passed on, in the dignity of that hope, but rejected by the world that had listened so eagerly to the emperor’s tailors.

300 years later, his story did impress another small boy, who was a bit of a loner, not a follower of the crowd. He ran to tell his family what a clever man Archimedes was, for showing the scale of harm people do when they spuriously claim not to understand things, and how the crowd psychology of it can erase any truth and prevent a whole society being aware of things. This boy thought it was really important that caring folks should learn from the unfair hostility Archimedes had tragically fought all his life, and learn that any fair democracy must ban people from ever using the cynical trick of “We don’t understand”. So, girls and androgynes and Martians covered in little blue lights, what do you think the grown-ups said?

They said “We don’t understand”.

Maurice Frank

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