The Golden Hammer of Disdain

A few years back on the late great message board Plastic.com I got into a debate with a religious conservative about gay rights, gay marriage, and generally all things gay. My opponent was on the anti-gay side, ostensibly for high minded reasons about preserving traditional social order, though it was clear that his real motivation lay in the fact that he was squicked out by the thought of male anal sex. His specific argument went something like this. “I’m not against gay people per se. Sure homosexuality is a sin, but the Bible teaches that we’re all sinners. I’m just as much of a sinner as any homosexual. So I’m not claiming to be superior: I’m simply choosing to focus on the sin of homosexuality at this particular moment.”

Now anyone could have handled this high soft lob of disingenuousness, but that day I happened to be quickest on the keyboard, so here’s what I said: “If homosexuality is just one sin among many, then why are you getting so worked up about it in particular? You may claim that, strictly speaking, all forms of non-procreative sex are wrong, but if tomorrow there’s a thread on this board discussing the sex lives of married post-menopausal heterosexual women, are you going to say that is equally wrong, because it’s a sin, just like homosexuality? I’m betting: no. The whole global presupposition of sin is just a smoke screen that allows you to vent some personal hostility without taking responsibility for it.”

The point of this story is not to beat up on the religious conservative, who at least had the guts to argue a point with people who didn’t already agree with him. Because behind the specifics is a general form of specious argument that you’ll see over and over again once you know to look for it. I call it the Per Se Dodge, and it goes like this.

  1. I disapprove of X, but I know that my disapproval will strike others as petty, mean, or irrational. (Perhaps because it is.)
  2. Instead of expressing disapproval of X, I express disapproval of Y, a much broader class of things that has X as a member.
  3. To head off challenges to your disapproval of X, you say that you don’t disapprove of X per se. You only disapprove of it inasmuch as it is a part of Y.
  4. Y also contains Z, a thing that–unlike X–is universally disliked.
  5. If someone challenges your disapproval of Y, you reply, “Oh, so you think Z is okay then?”

I don’t believe this is itself a classical logical fallacy, though it does chain a few together to achieve its effect. Steps (4) and (5) aren’t always necessary. Instead they are what you whip out when your opponent merely shrugs at (2) and (3). Step (5) is a non-sequitur but may be a necessary emotional blackmail fallback if you’re not proud.

Sound transparent, only something an idiot would fall for? Well, think again–this is a dodge with broad appeal. Recently Timothy Burke’s blog Easily Distracted had a post about the discomfort some sociologists expressed over their professional organization’s decision to hold its annual meeting in Las Vegas. Burke argues that the expressed reasons for disliking Vegas–its hypercharged consumerist spectacle, the sexism implicit in its many strip clubs–are disingenuous, because no one complains when an academic conference is held in New Orleans, a much classier city that also has a thriving sex industry. He goes on to neatly skewer the economic objection like so, “If you’re so upset by capitalist excess that you don’t want to go to your professional meetings, I assume you always complain when the meeting is in New York.” Burke doesn’t schematize his argument the way I do, but I think it’s useful to do so, and also to lay it out side-by-side with a traditional appeal to religious conservatism.

Homosexuality Las Vegas
1. I disapprove of homosexuality because I think it’s gross. I disapprove of Las Vegas because I think it’s crass.
2. Sin is wrong, and homosexuality is a sin. Consumerism is wrong, and Las Vegas is awash in it.
3. We are all sinners. I don’t disapprove of homosexuality per se, just sin. Consumerism is inescapable in a capitalist society like ours. I don’t disapprove of Las Vegas per se, just the broader economic system it exemplifies.
4. Murder is also a sin. Exploitation of low-wage workers is an aspect of consumerism.
5. You think homosexuality is ok? So I guess murder is okay too! You don’t think the excessive consumerism of Las Vegas is wrong? So I guess the exploitation of low wage workers is no big deal to you!

A modification of the right-hand column that pivots on sexism instead of consumerism is left as an exercise for the reader.

The art to these things lies in crafting the term of disdain in step (2). You need one that is elastic enough to embrace anything you damn well want it to, while still seeming specific. There has to be a touch of poetry about it too, so that it just feels bad without requiring you to think about it too much. Sin works by sheer force of tradition, though I find its modern secular cousin consumerism more interesting because it’s easier to unpack.

The term “consumerism” can be stretched to cover just about any economic activity, and in modern society pretty much every interaction with someone who is not a close personal friend is mediated through money. The waitress at the bar in which I am composing this very post can be confident that I will not stiff her because I have a lot of affection for both her and the institution she represents. Nevertheless she requests that I pay my check at the end of each night just in case. I don’t see anything wrong with this arrangement, but it is, strictly speaking, consumerism because I’m consuming things and money is exchanged. I am a consumer. I am a sinner. I am part of the problem. The inclusiveness of (2) makes it a cousin of the Golden Hammer Fallacy. Instead of a theory which is suspiciously adept at explaining anything thrown at it, you have a concept which is suspiciously adept at casting aspersions on anything it encounters. It is a Golden Hammer of disdain.

Ultimately the Per Se Dodge allows you to perform a sneaky evasion. Your objection in (1) is fundamentally subjective. It is something that offends your sensibilities. But because they are yours, your sensibilities strike you as being very important, so you play some games to make them appear to have universal validity. This is an aesthetic judgment slipped inside the Trojan Horse of morality. So don’t do this–it’s wrong. And if you catch someone else doing it, just start shouting, “Per se, Per se!” until everyone around you sees through the ruse.

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3 Responses to The Golden Hammer of Disdain

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