I’ve been thinking lately about making arguments that give away too much ground.
There’s three examples in particular that sprung to mind in quick succession, which should explain what I mean.
1. Born this way
Sexuality is not a choice. When somebody declares that a person “chooses to be gay”, they are, to within a margin of error, empirically incorrect. The idea that one’s sexual preferences are a mere matter of taste, which can be willed away or ignored if one simply stopped being so stubborn, is a falsehood, as many people have pointed out at length.
But if you’re arguing in favour of gay rights, it may be better to downplay this aspect of your argument, when engaging with somebody who is misstating facts in an effort to demean or denigrate homosexuality or homosexuals.
It’s not that you’re wrong to point out that you were “born this way” (or at least, that nature plays a strong role in determining sexual preference). It’s just an argument that gives too much ground.
Sexuality is not a choice. But so what if it was?
If you make the “born this way” argument your central theme, you’re implicitly accepting way too many of the homophobic assumptions behind the other person’s assertions. If most of your time is spent pointing out that a person’s sexual preferences are entirely beyond their conscious control, then it starts to seem like that is the lynch-pin of your argument, and should it ever turn out to be flawed – or even incorrect – then your opponents’ bigotry will be justified.
There’s always some value in correcting a factual misstatement, but beyond pointing out “It’s not a choice,” you might get more to the heart of the issue with: “Okay, say it’s a choice. If it is, it’s my choice. I’ve made it. Your problem with that is what, and I should give a fuck why?”
2. Big is beautiful
You don’t need to spend much time as either a vaguely attentive man or a barely conscious woman in the modern world to notice that there are some fucked-up standards of beauty out there.
There’s also an encouragingly prominent backlash against many of them. Unless you’re hanging out in very different parts of the internet from me, you’ll regularly be bumping into tumblrs and gifs and photoblogs and memes and other internet doohickeys intended to remind you that fat chicks are among the sexiest things you’ll ever see. That sentence doesn’t even need a citation linked anywhere in it. Just Google it. And make sure SafeSearch is turned off first.
It’s beyond trivially obvious that curves can be gorgeous, and the standards of beauty still considered conventional on many magazine covers are insanely narrow and restricted. This defiance is important and empowering, and no doubt helps many people feel better about their bodies – but again, there’s an assumption behind it which deserves challenging.
Even if every human above a certain BMI were universally considered physically unappealing, so fucking what?
Why should being sexually desirable or attractive be the factor most associated with improved esteem? I don’t for a second resent anyone searching this way for validation, or using attractiveness to encourage and bolster the spirits of those who it might help – but the fundamental question of whether it ought to be considered so important deserves a place in the conversation too.
And let’s not forget the chubby men, incidentally. The internet seems to be mostly about the curvy girls, but I hope there are zones of love for the fuller-figured fellas out there, too, in areas I haven’t spent as much time exploring.
3. “Hardworking people”
There’s a lot for a lefty like me to get angry about when it comes to the government’s recent war on welfare and rhetoric about “hardworking people”. Many more active activists have pointed out data which render the coalition’s whole output completely asinine – such as that the majority of people struggling to make ends meet, visiting food banks, and claiming benefits are actually in work – completing undermining the workshy scrounger image the Tories in particular are so keen to propagate.
For many, work doesn’t pay; the system is fucked and allows the rich to exploit the masses for their labour without offering them a decent standard of living (let alone the inhumanity of workfare). This is all important to recall.
But there’s one more assumption tucked in there which it’s worth ferreting out, lest the argument take a turn and veer into the kind of divisive territory we should be trying to avoid.
I don’t want anybody to have to experience the stress of worrying about being able to feed their family, or keeping them warm over the winter, or getting behind on rent and bill payments and ending up homeless, even if they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and look for a job.
Those relatively few people who actually look like what the Bullingdon crowd imagine all poor people look like? I want a welfare system which supports them non-judgmentally too.
Compassion and an unconditional level of basic financial security, for hardworking people and feckless scroungers alike.
Classroom discussion questions
1. Is this a useful way to refocus the debate, or would it just distract from the liberating ideas that are already gathering momentum?
2. Are there any other obvious examples of this that I’ve missed?
3. How blatantly am I pandering to the overweight queer working class vote right now?