False Equivilence 1: Inappropriateness = Offensiveness
Sometimes, when I smell the first hint of spring in the air, I get sad.
Cumulonimbus is a Latin word.
Reparative therapy can successfully change a person from being gay to being straight.
I have not had sex in at least a week.
Hard-boiled eggs are infinitely better tasting than soft-boiled eggs.
God hates fags.
Deficit hawks are inherently correct about everything, because we’re all going to die if we don’t shrink the deficit.
I have stubborn toenails that don’t like to be clipped.
I enjoy anthropomorphizing various parts of my body.
The holocaust didn’t happen.
Wow. What a group of sentences those were. Some of them were offensive. I might rail on and on about how offensive they are, but then, you might get the wrong idea. You might think I’m operating under emotions, and not thinking rationally. See, I’m all “upset” and “hurt” because somebody called me a fag. Clearly I’m not reasoning well. Further, because I’m a fickle fellow with a god-complex, I’m going to be mean to anybody who hurts my feelings by calling me a fag, or saying that I could be straight if I wanted to. This is because I’m heartless. I’m the one who’s really intolerant. People should pity me.
Though, of course, they shouldn’t. And, no, being offensive is not what makes certain sentences inappropriate for specific contexts. Few people, I think, would be offended by my anthropomorphizing my toenails. Nothing is offensive about saying that cumulonimbus comes from Latin. Why deny the experience that the smell of spring brings me? Certainly not because I’m afraid of offending somebody. These are not offensive sentiments.
What makes these things inappropriate is that they do not further a purpose in this specific context. They are inherently non-sequitur. They don’t follow anything or contribute anything meaningful to the discussion at hand. That is why they are inappropriate. In different contexts it may be completely appropriate to debate superior methods of egg preparation. But not here. Not now.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t say these things ever. I’m just wondering why anybody would try to say them here, or in similar contexts.
Every time I’ve had an argument or “engaged in dialogue with respect and civility,” there’s always at least one person who talks about going to the mat, or to war, or something vaguely martial, for my right to say what I just said. Invariably they go on to say that although I have the right to say it, they totally disagree. What’s odd is that they do this as though I have an obligation to do the same for them – To go to the mat, the market, the Carolinas for their right to say what they think right here, right now. It seem also that by not doing so, it implies that I wouldn’t try to give them their right to say what they want to say somewhere else at a more appropriate time. This is unreasonable. It conflates the appropriateness of my sentiments with the appropriateness of theirs, even though our ideas operate independently of each other. Indeed, since most of these conversations have been in the US by US citizens, many actually bring in the first amendment. Because we’re all invested in that amendment, right? They have freedom of speech. Aha!
Of course you do, sweetums. But, why would you try to sing K$sha’s song “Like We’re Gonna Die Young” at a AIDS awareness fundraiser?
I’m not necessarily offended. I’m not saying that song is inherently bad. But, wow is that a horrible choice of song for this event. So I, as director of this hypothetical event, am going to deny your request to sing that song here and now. I will not go to the mat, or the bank, or the park, or anywhere else for your right to sing that song here. You’re choice is a fantastically bad idea. I’m left questioning your sanity, your intelligence, and your level of involvement in anything serious.
This example about the fundraiser to raise awareness about AIDS posits a very small context – A specific community of people. Further, this context was actively created for a specific time and place, and it is finite. It has an end. After the fundraiser is over, you may sing K$sha’s song again. Or you may sing it in a different place.
There exist many larger contexts, however. For instance, most people nominally claim that violence isn’t the best way to handle things. At board meetings, if there’s a problem with a member running late, people don’t suggest killing her. Parents don’t threaten their children by saying “If you don’t clean your room, I’m killing your brother.” This larger context – you know, with the goals of us not killing each other indiscriminately – it isn’t acknowledged out loud. It’s not like people think that killing is a viable option, but then go “Oh yeah, we don’t do that.” No. Everybody knows it to be true that we don’t just kill people. That’s a large context.
And the thing about that is, every small context that is created – Every AIDS awareness fundraiser, book discussion group, church fellowship meeting, neighborhood watch Christmas party – all of these things are created in the larger context. As it so happens, one context that matters a lot to people is that of free speech. We all want to avoid simply censoring things that we disagree with. People, at least nominally, seem to like the idea of discourse.
However, I would argue that such discourse is dependent upon a mutual understanding of the contexts in which people are operating. Otherwise, people may subvert the goals of a context. This has nothing to do with offense being taken or given. It has everything to do with what productivity necessitates for discourse.
Examine this following hypothetical discussion on antisemitism:
“I think it’s important that people acknowledge the other ways antisemitism manifests, in ways besides overt acts of violence. Even today, some people still deny the holocaust.”
“Right, but I can’t eat gluten.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I mean, we’re all sharing our points of view. I’m allergic to gluten. I can’t eat bread.”
“I’m really not following you.”
“Are you discombobulated like a kitty cat in a wine barrel?”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to please start making sense again.”
“I like toast.”
“Security. Yes, I need security.”
Am I discriminating against people with celiac disease if I think poorly of the man with the gluten allergy? No. No I am not. I’m not hurt or offended by what he’s saying. I’m not reacting from anger (Although there may be a fair amount of irritation I experience by the end of his random statements). Actually, he just can’t stay in the group because what he is saying is inappropriate – It does not further the goals of the context, which is presumably to foster discussion about antisemitism (And, one would hope, how to go about eradicating it).
This is an example of something that rebels directly against a small context by subverting the small context’s goals. This is what I’ll define as directly inappropriate.
If you go to a book discussion group about “Twilight” and talk about how much you hate Stephanie Meyer, you’re being directly inappropriate.
If you go to the Creation Museum with signs that say “Evolution is totally correct and creationists are dead wrong” you’re being directly inappropriate.
Any time you directly challenge or subvert the goals of a context, or otherwise prevent them from being accomplished, you are being directly inappropriate.
So how can one be indirectly inappropriate?
One needn’t assail a small context’s goals directly. Remember, each small context is embedded within a larger one. It’s tricky, because such large contexts are rarely spoken out loud – Most of us take them for granted. However, if somebody does not take a larger context for granted, they could attempt to subvert its goals. And in doing so, they could subvert those of the smaller context.
Take this next example:
“Welcome to our Freshman Discussion Program at Delphos Community and Technical College. Now, we begin our discussion on the relationship between English dialects and socioeconomic status in the US.”
“Dieses Thema ist wichtig. Ich bin sehr aufgeregt. Lassen Sie uns beginnen!”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t catch that. Would you mind repeating?”
“Obwohl ich ein wenig Englisch verstehen, kann ich nicht sprechen. Allerdings werde ich die Gespräche fortzusetzen.”
“Is that German?”
“Would you please speak English?”
“Warum müssen Sie ignorieren mich? Ich bin sehr wichtig.”
“Really. Anybody else.”
This is a smaller context – A talk about English dialects – and it’s embedded within a larger context: One that presupposes that familiarity with the English language is a given for Delphos, OH. Whether or not it is warranted or moral, often times we do not question the prevalence of English. Least of all at a talk on English dialects. The smaller context here, which was to discuss dialects and their relationship with socioeconomic status, would be subverted quite thoroughly were they to continue letting one random person speak in German. This is not because the German speaker is not furthering the aims of the discussion; rather, it is because the German speaker will not do so while operating within the same larger context.
Earlier, as an example, I showed how going to the Creation Museum and talking about evolution is directly inappropriate; well, talking about Creationism in virtually any other context is being indirectly inappropriate. In a panel on science, people would expect others to argue using data well within a majority consensus. To do otherwise subverts the goal because it effectively sidelines the whole conversation. Whatever they were saying about global health is now sidetracked into debating very large contexts that needn’t have been brought up. In doing so, they lose valuable time to further the goals in their smaller context: The global health panel.
You can believe in Creationism. Sure. You can proselytize to your heart’s content. But not where people believe in science. You may think that science completely stupid. However, you must either play a uniquely adversarial role in any conversation involving the science you don’t like, or you must start your own context that runs specifically counter to the larger context of belief in science.
Obviously, deciding what is appropriate and what is not is a way of establishing in groups and out groups. Many Evangelical Christians may believe in Young Earth Creationism. Believing or not believing does more than establish a context – It decides who belongs where. When somebody goes to the Creation Museum, and they believe in Science, they will experience not only a sense of disagreement, but a sense that they do not belong. Now, that’s a really interesting phenomenon that will result in further blogposts. But, in the mean time, let’s stick to the basic sense of displacement, of not belonging. Now, this sense is an unintentional result of warring contexts. The person who believes in science lives in a context that is at war with the context she currently occupies. This makes her feel like she doesn’t belong.
I believe that offense is related to this phenomenon. This is extraordinarily complex and tough to deal with and I’m not beginning to do it justice. Therefore, that’s all I’m going to say about the matter.
Or almost all, rather. Because it’s important to note that while all offensive statements are inappropriate, not all inappropriate statements are offensive. So if we define what is suitable for a context by its offensiveness, we may still let through several things that are inappropriate. Further, many people who say offensive things will either not understand why they are offensive, or insist that they shouldn’t be considered so. This subjectivity can be removed from the situation by bypassing the issue of offensiveness altogether, and measuring the appropriateness of a sentiment. This is relatively objective. Does a statement help or hinder the goals in a context? Is it hindering these goals directly or indirectly? These are questions that are relatively easy to answer, at least when compared to questions of offense.
Sentiments may be offensive or inoffensive, but in these examples, the sentiments posited are definitely inappropriate. They do not follow, and they run exactly counter to the goals and purposes of the context. They’re, quite frankly, either hostile or plain stupid.
Sure there’s a time to be inappropriate. However, you do that in full acknowledgement that what you’re doing does not not merely obscure a context’s purpose, but, instead, furthers the goals of a separate context that you are promoting. Which is fine for protests. But not great for dialogue.
Organizations that try to create dialogue between gays and Evangelicals need to recognize what is appropriate, and steer clear of judging statements by “offensiveness.” I find that oftentimes Evangelicals have a hard time seeing anything as offensive to LGBTQ* people short of “God hates fags.” Given that arguing about what is offensive is wearying, I thought it would be helpful to define what is appropriate. If you want to create dialogue, you do have to acknowledge the larger contexts in which the dialogue will take place.
Here’s one: Straight Evangelicals have more rights than gay people. That’s a context you had best acknowledge. And, to my mind, you had best acknowledge that it’s completely wrong for this to be so.
Here’s another: You need to establish whether or not your organization believes in science and psychology. If you think that ex-gay therapy is an interesting perspective, you don’t believe in either. Failure to acknowledge that is going subvert your goals for being an organization that’s about dialogue. It does not matter whether or not your organization supports such viewpoints – Merely treating them as valid viewpoints will warp the purposes of the organization. Imagine if an organization said that the idea that gravity does not exist is valid. No matter what the real purpose of the organization, it will be known as “The anti-gravity” organization. If you’re organization is about dialogue between people who don’t believe in science, that’s fine. However, there is no avoiding that your organization is warped to that group.
Here’s another: You need to establish whether or not your organization believes the Bible is relevant and standard. How do you create a dialogue between people who believe in the Bible and people who don’t if you don’t acknowledge what context the conversation should take place in?
There are, of course, many more examples. However, the key thing in all of them is that an organization must define its context by how it aligns to larger contexts. And an organization needs to acknowledge that, should it not align with a larger context, the goals of its own smaller context will warp – A phenomenon that is neither good, nor bad; it just is.
This has been a very long set up for a number of blog posts about various false equivalences I’ve heard while engaging in dialogue with Evangelicals. However, it is important. Firstly, this is a lens through which other blog posts will be seen. Secondly, having recently come off of a group that exists purportedly to create dialogue, I find that there are a lot of sentiments expressed that run counter to the goals of “dialogue,” because they are so inappropriate; but they are often not seen as so because they are not “offensive” enough. Further, protests against the appropriateness of certain statements is often, ironically enough, cause for offense in other people. Lastly, this blog post in itself prompts several new blogs.
Because appropriateness is constituted by clearly defined goals, “bridge-building” organizations cannot refrain from taking a stance. They are already taking a stand by having the dialogue, and whether or not the say so expressly, they are operating within specific contexts and defining their own. (For instance: By allowing ex-gay therapy to be considered a viable view-point, the entire organization is taking a stand about ex-gay therapy. This is because believing in ex-gay therapy runs against the larger context, and as such, skews the entire conversation by its very admission.) There will be a blog post about this.
Perhaps some don’t create a context. They, instead, have bridges built to nowhere. There will be a blog post about this. In this case, there is no context. There are no goals. But there are also no in-groups or out-groups. Does this mean there’s no offense? We’ll figure it out another time, in another blog post.
Offense does not require intent, nor does impropriety. There will be a blog post about this.
These are all separate ideas, however related they are to this first installment of False Equivalence. What girds them all are the following notions:
* All organizations create contexts with goals
* All of these created contexts operate within larger contexts
* Creators of these contexts should evaluate their goals, thus establishing what is appropriate or inappropriate.
* Creators of these contexts must further recognize that inappropriateness is not directly related to offensiveness, but exists as its own criterion. To believe otherwise is to believe in a false equivalence.
*Therefore, the appropriateness of a comment cannot be judged solely by its offensiveness.
*Further, people who ban inappropriate comments should be recognized as articulating their organizations goals, their context. They should not be branded as hurt, offended, intolerant, or against the First Amendment.
I’ll leave you with this last example:
“Welcome to our discussion on antisemitism. What did everybody think about the reading?”
“Well, I was upset because it kept referring to the holocaust; that never happened, according to some scholars.”
“Well, the holocaust did happen. What did other people think?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but, no. The holocaust didn’t happen. It’s a vast conspiracy.”
“Well, sir. I’m going to ask you act as though the holocaust did happen, because we all believe that it did.”
“Oh, so I have to try not to offend all of you?”
“Well, though your statement was offensive and belittles the suffering of thousands and thousands of people and undermines their experiences, and I do wonder if such a belief can come from anywhere besides antisemitism, that’s actually not why I’m asking you to desist. See, your statement was inappropriate because it denied what we in this organization view as a point of history beyond debate. This denial of what we see as simple fact is distracting and keeps us from our true purpose, which was to discuss how we can eradicate antisemitism. So. You must either, for the time being, continue this discussion within the context of widely accepted history, or you must remain silent. Those are your choices. At another time, though, I would love to discuss the reasons why you disbelieve history – Just the two of us. We just cannot do that now.”