Hey! Today, Instead of Book 5, were going to have a guest paper written by my big brother on “Adultsplaining.” I spent almost all of yesterday kayaking, and so I didn’t have enough time to write a paper on the Republic. Anyways, enjoy!

“Is [Greta Thunberg] the chief economist or who is she? I’m confused. After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us.” – Steve Mnuchin 

The central paradox of life as a conscious being is the divide between how an individual experiences life, and how others experience that individual. From the moment of my birth to my last breath, I am limited to a single perspective — Abe Callard. I can imagine how others experience me, but even my attempts to see myself through another perspective are themselves filtered through my own. We are all imprisoned in our own minds, slaves to our own desires. Empathy is an essentially unnatural activity (perhaps this is why we find it so morally praiseworthy). 

One result of this limitation is that we must always view ourselves as rational, because our actions can only be driven by a conscious justification. I can only eat a bowl of spaghetti if, in some sense, I believe I have a good reason to eat it. Socrates argues along these lines in the Meno — if an action is intentional, it must by definition have an intention, and an intention can only be motivated by an internal justification. We think of ourselves, in the moment, as methodical computers, selecting the best option based on pure reason. It is a key component of our sense of agency that we are only able to recognize the non-rational forces in our thoughts retroactively.  

Of course, we do not see others this way. We observe, correctly, how often others are motivated by anger, revenge, greed, and irrationality. Because our mind is fully separate from theirs, and our actions do not need their justification, we are able to coldly assess them. The divide between our view of ourselves as rational and our view of others as irrational is a manifestation of the divide between our consciousness and the world. 

Youth is one of the non-rational factors that influences our thoughts. When we are adolescents and teenagers, we tend to be more impulsive, more easily swayed by untrustworthy evidence, and more susceptible to believing things for the sake of rebelliousness or coolness. This stems from a litany of influences (hormones, undeveloped prefrontal cortex, synaptic pruning). For all the “boomer” hatred and Gen Z booming right now, it’s an undeniable fact that experience hones rationality. Adults are by no means perfectly rational, and many teens are more rational than many adults, but the statistical average remains. 

Adults often criticize youth for being influenced by emotion, impulse, and lack of experience. They claim that the teens should trust the experience of adults, because adults (unlike teens) are able to assess the non-rational faults in their thought processes. As the website StudyBreak puts it, “when someone adultsplains, they firmly believe that they know what’s right based solely on the fact that, as an adult, they’re better and wiser than you.” The phenomenon of adultsplaining is a crystallization of the aforementioned divide — teens cannot believe that, for any given decision, they are being motivated by those factors, because then they would be acting differently. Adults, on the other hand, have no choice but to recognize the many ways lack of experience deprives the youth of a comprehensive perspective. This raises a question: How do we treat people who are mistaken not because of any particular logical fault, but because of a more deep-rooted pernicious influence on their reasoning? Do we pretend they are perfectly rational and address their arguments as such, or do we tell them honestly that youth limits their perspective, and risk adultsplaining? 

There is a strong argument to be made for taking the thoughts of young people at face value — treating them as if they aren’t influenced by emotion or lack of experience at all. It seems pointless to point out these influences, because it is not something they can will out of existence. If I am being motivated by anger, and my adult interlocutor points this out to me, I can hardly re-evaluate my idea and change my mind; the reasons that made it seem rational to me in the first place remain. But if the adult attacks those very reasons, I may change my mind. Telling a young person about how their lack of experience and sentimentality inhibits their rationality is like telling a short person about how their height inhibits their ability to see certain things — it may be true, but it accomplishes nothing and is offensive.  

It could also be argued that it is more respectful to take people at their word. This is a thought that applies not just to teenagers — everyone likes to be treated as if their arguments with others have arisen from purely rational disagreements, rather than their own cognitive biases and impulses. For this reason, adultsplaining is often associated with condescension. Condescension is disrespectful because it assumes the moral high ground of the speaker without giving any argumentation to such an effect. Adultsplaining, similarly, takes it as an immutable fact of the world that a teenager’s arguments and beliefs are pathetic imitations of an adult’s. Quite literally, it’s infantilizing. It should be clear, then, why young people being adultsplained to feel highly disrespected. 

The pro-adultsplainer will counter this by saying that adultsplaining is respectful. Adultsplaining is addressing someone with total transparency, as opposed to insulating them from the truth in order to protect their feelings. If two people in a conversation are totally honest about the perceived non-rational influences that are swaying each other’s arguments, they are treating each other like adults, and teenagers want precisely this — to be treated like adults. Thus, the disagreement about how to be respectful toward young people is rooted in the question of how to treat someone like an adult. The anti-adultsplainer argues that because adults are generally more rational, treating a teen as if they are rational is treating them like an adult. The pro-adultsplainer counters that guarding teenagers from the reality of their cognitive confusion is coddling them. The true way to treat them respectfully — like adults — is to adultsplain. 

I think the problem of whether adultsplanations are respectful and beneficial to inter-generational discourse is ultimately unsolvable. The unsolvability is a natural consequence of the impossibility of reconciling the interior and exterior perspective on a human’s mind. At the end of the day, the anti-adultsplainer is seeing things from the individual’s perspective, and the pro-adultsplainer is seeing things from the perspective of a third party. Perhaps it is the capacity of a God to see both perspectives, but as humans, we are inherently limited to one. We are either inside or outside a person’s mind. There is no reaching across that boundary, and so there is no determining whether we should adultsplain. 

2 thoughts on “Adultsplaining

  1. Great piece! If you’re interested, here’s even further support for your argument:

    • Honesty and empathy aren’t by definition antithetical. There’s an old Sufi saying which advises letting all thoughts pass through 3 gates before uttering them: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

    • The “adultsplaining” you describe also seems basically versions of some logical fallacies, including ad hominem (attacking the arguer in order to dismiss their premise as automatically flawed); appeal to authority (a premise is assumed to be true just because of the authority of the one asserting it, or in this case, is presumed to be false because of a lack of authority); and Bulverism (associating an argument with a psychological reason and then using that to declare it invalid). These are all ways to avoid engaging with the premise or argument posed itself.

    Lastly, to speak to your point about empathy, many behavioral & evolutionary psychologists believe on the other hand that it’s empathy that allowed early humans to survive in the first place. Indeed, even primates (and other animals) have shown evidence of empathy. One might argue that a perceived pervasive lack of empathy is more cultural than biological… Cultures which are more individualistic than collectivist are more likely to privilege one’s own experience over that of others, and this may well be exacerbated by a depersonalization that can be encouraged in digital interactions.

    But it’s important not to use appeals to logic or rationality as a weapon. (Indeed, that can develop into its own kind of fallacy.) In the end, we’re all in this together, so treating people accordingly with empathy AND honesty is the best recipe for us all to thrive. ✌️


    1. Thanks for all the great points! But I can’t take credit for this paper, as it was written by my older brother.
      On the last point, I kind of agree. Not only do you need empathy to form a larger society, but I believe it is needed to structure the human soul. Hmmm….. making CIty-to-soul analogies Macabee? Sounds familiar…


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