The Manning Fallacy

When did debates become more about identity than ideas?

The Far Side

Peyton Manning is a great football player, but what does he know about pizza? Tallying more career passing yards and touchdown passes than any other quarterback in the history of the National Football League, the five-time Associated Press MVP and fourteen-time Pro Bowl selection still holds more than 50 league records. It’s unclear if Manning knows pizza as well as he obviously knows football, but this hasn’t stopped Papa John’s Pizza from showcasing him in their television advertisements.

With that winning smile and down-to-earth Southern swagger, Manning has starred in Papa John’s commercials for the past several years, advertising with red aprons and NFL mascots a product in which he has no professional expertise. It’s all very charming, but it’s downright silly to think Peyton Manning is qualified to tell us the best pizza to buy. So why did Papa John’s bypass actual pizza critics to make Manning, the legendary NFL quarterback, their spokesperson?

Since Peyton Manning is so revered by generations of football fans the world over, his opinion on pizza gains credence because of who he is, not what he actually adds to the conversation. As Manning demonstrates, we have a habit of basing a person’s credibility on their identity and not on their ideas.

Another Manning shows just how far this fallacy extends beyond football and pizza. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf’s decision to rescind Chelsea Manning’s appointment as an Institute of Politics Visiting Fellow has drawn criticism from everyone from students to media critics to Twitterverse belligerents. In response to pressure from high-ranking Central Intelligence Agency officials, Elmendorf, now notoriously, declared Manning’s appointment “a mistake”—a miscalculation in comparing how much she would add to the Kennedy School’s intellectual forum as a military whistleblower versus how much she would contradict the School’s values as a convicted criminal. Most of the ensuing outcry and approbation, however, has focused less on what Manning offers the Kennedy School than who she is. We seem to care less about her ideas than her identity.

Things got personal from the start. Manning responded to her canceled invitation with a sardonic tweet about being Harvard’s first “disinvited trans woman visiting... fellow,” whereas conservatives criticized Harvard for extending the fellowship to a national traitor in the first place. On either side of the controversy, the Dean’s decision has been condemned or praised largely because of who Manning is—in terms of her gender identity or criminal record—not what she would contribute to the IOP’s intellectual discussions. This Manning may not be selling pizza, but we still far too readily award—or rescind—her credibility by judging her identity before evaluating her ideas.

Alarmingly, this habit isn’t limited to TV spots and newspaper controversies; it’s steadily crept into Harvard culture. In discussion sections, lecture halls, and even online forums, students without the proper identity credentials can no longer credibly opine on controversial issues—regardless of the intellectual merit of those opinions. As the logic goes, I must be a female minority to have a credible opinion about PC culture, since white males, having never experienced the brunt of political incorrectness, cannot possibly have a compelling stance on the issue. I must be a female to be a feminist, since men have no conception of a woman’s struggles and simply sabotage the movement they claim to support. I must be a racial minority to talk about prejudice, since a white person can never understand minorities’ struggles. And if I am so unfortunate as to be “privileged,” I am disqualified from commenting on practically any issue—from final clubs to campus values—affecting Harvard today. If my identity doesn’t make the cut, in other words, my ideas don’t matter.

It is undoubtedly impossible for a white student to fully understand the struggles of a black student, a male to grasp the difficulties of being female, a middle-class student to fathom the strain of inner-city poverty, or for any person to completely appreciate a situation they’ve never experienced. Empathy is certainly feasible, but it’s ultimately an insufficient substitute for personal experience.

This lack of first-hand knowledge, nonetheless, shouldn’t disqualify thinkers from contributing to controversial conversations. Expertise and intellectual insight aren’t contingent upon race, background, sexual orientation, or gender, so it makes little sense to discredit ideas simply because of who came up with them. Such discussions actually draw strength from views outside the affected circle, which offer innovative ideas and solutions frequently difficult to see from the inside. If, however, we insist on maintaining discriminatory standards for who can credibly opine on such issues as discrimination, minority rights, and campus culture, we’ll end up with a circular quibble over identities, and not a productive debate about ideas.

We don’t have to admire, agree with, or identify with someone—let alone name them an IOP Visiting Fellow—in order to recognize their ideas as valuable additions to the difficult debates that should happen at a university like Harvard. If we can remember to consider the weight of someone’s insight over the weight of their identity, we may not end up with better Papa John’s TV commercials, but we’ll certainly end up with better pizza.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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