“Strong” and social discourse

In Posts on December 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I had an interesting debate with a lot of my classmates over “Strong,” the Rick Perry campaign ad in which he laments that “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military.” The debate wasn’t about whether Rick Perry was wrong (answer: he is), but about whether my classmates were justified in calling him names, most colorfully an “unimaginable asshole.”

I believe they were not, and over the course of the debate I understood my reasons better. Since name-calling is an attempt not to understand a person, the basic issue is how much curiosity we should have about a viewpoint we disagree with. And I think the answer has to do with whether it is possible to hold that viewpoint reasonably—making the answer time- and issue-specific, because the range of reasonable positions on any issue evolves unevenly with time. The Founding Fathers owned slaves, and would have been unquestioningly homophobic if anyone had even thought to ask. In 2011, both slavery and homophobia are as wrong as they ever were, but it is now far more possible to be a basically reasonable homophobe—as millions of everyday Americans are—than a basically reasonable slaveowner. In 2100, homophobes will be one in a million, dwelling in log cabins and mailing pipe bombs; but the 2096 outlawing of the meat industry will still spark heated debate among relative moderates.

Rick Perry is representing the views of a broad swath of the American population which believes, probably based on a particular religious upbringing, that homosexuality is wrong. Undoing this misimpression demands a society-wide investigation into the evidence on religious and scientific claims to truth—an investigation which, although increasingly conclusive, is still ongoing in the social discourse. In this environment, name-calling solves precisely nothing. By contrast, calling someone who opposes extending the franchise to ethnic minorities an asshole still doesn’t help anything; but that debate has been settled so conclusively in America that anyone who wishes to continue it is most likely just stirring up trouble. Or, if you like, just being an asshole.

  1. There have been a lot of people in each broad social movement that
    used stronger terms and simply state that something “is wrong” rather
    than saying, “I understand where you’re coming from, but…” Name
    calling plays an important role too, it shows that a lot of people
    don’t agree with what the asshole is saying. Given that Rick Perry and
    his statements continue to spread hate and misunderstanding with real
    consequences for how I am able to live my life, he can go suck it and
    his religious and scientific claims to truth.

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