"That's not true, but even if it were…"

So many debunking-type conversations that we have go like this:

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!” “Actually, children of same-sex couples aren’t any more likely to be gay.”
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.” “Actually, many people take birth control for medical reasons.”
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!” “Actually, many feminists have male partners and happy relationships.”
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.” “Actually, lesbians are Born That Way.”
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.” “Actually, polyamory is about love, not sex; many poly people have lifelong partners and raise children with them.”
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.” “Actually, most people with mental illnesses have jobs, friends, and relationships just like everyone else.”
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.” “Actually, most gay men are Just Like Us; all they want is to marry their soulmate and raise children together.”
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.” “Actually, for many women, abortion is a difficult and painful decision.”
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” “Actually, gay people never chose to be gay.”

These are defensive narratives. They’re defensive because they accept the opposition’s terms and assumptions and then respond as though those terms and assumptions are acceptable, even preferable.

It’s not always obvious what you’re accepting when you take these statements at face value. So let’s unpack them.

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!”: Raising gay children, and being gay, is a bad thing. The idea that same-sex parents might raise gay children is therefore a counterargument against letting them adopt.
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.”: It’s bad for women to have sex, and women who cannot afford birth control shouldn’t have sex.
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!”: Being unattractive by conventional standards and being unable to find a man to date is a bad way for a woman to be and it means I don’t have to take her opinions seriously.
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.”: If someone’s sexual identity stems from negative experiences that they’ve had, then that identity is invalid.
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.”: Wanting to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything is wrong.
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.”: Being unable to act like “normal people” is a bad thing and worthy of shame and stigma.
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.”: Being “deviant” and “promiscuous” is bad.
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.”: It’s wrong to treat abortion like any other medical procedure; it’s only acceptable if the person getting the abortion suffers emotionally because of it.
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” That one’s pretty obvious.

How do you know that you’re taking a defensive stance and accepting your opposition’s faulty assumptions? If you find yourself trying to claim that a stigmatized group is “just like everyone else,” or that your group or idea is really totally nonthreatening to the status quo, you may be agreeing with more of your opposition’s premises than you mean to.

Children raised by same-sex couples aren’t more likely than children of different-sex couples (or single parents) to be lesbian, gay, or bi. But so what if they were? Why is that a bad thing? How would that justify denying rights to same-sex couples?

Women with feminist views don’t generally come to those views by being “ugly” and rejected by men (if anything, some of us have had a little too much attention from men). But so what if they did? The ideas can be evaluated on their own merits, can they not?

Many or most lesbians have probably been lesbians for their whole lives, and didn’t have any particular experiences that “caused” them to be lesbians. But some did. Some women find that their patterns of attraction change after traumatic experiences with men. Aren’t their identities just as valid?

Most people with mental illnesses do have jobs and families and can generally “pass” as neurotypical. What about the ones who can’t? Don’t they deserve support rather than shame and stigma? Shouldn’t we fund programs that will provide much-needed services to these people, not just to the ones who “pass”?

Most LGBTQ people do not experience their identity as a choice that they got to make. But so what if they did? What’s the problem with choosing to be gay, supposing that’s even possible?

Progressive advocates don’t concede these points maliciously. Often, they understand what’s being left unsaid and disagree with it, but they believe that we need to go “one step at a time” or else we’ll never get anywhere.

Maybe that’s true. I don’t actually know. That’s an empirical question, but it’s very difficult to answer because studying attitude shifts is a process laden with variables that can’t be controlled. I obviously understand the reasoning–you can’t teach a child algebra until you teach them how to count–that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reasoning applies.

For instance, it’s also possible that this approach actually increases the length of time it takes to achieve equality or justice. When we accept the opponent’s faulty premise, we waste time that we could’ve spent challenging that premise. So we hear “Gay people are sinful deviants” and respond that actually gay people just want to get married and raise cute babies, why won’t you give them that chance? And the premise we accept is that being gay is only okay as long as you can look as much like a typical straight person as possible, and we choose our battles accordingly. If rather than battling homophobia, we battle the fact that two people of the same gender cannot get married, and next we battle the fact that in many states same-sex couples can’t adopt children, and so on, then when will we actually defeat homophobia?

Moreover, as plenty of people have pointed out plenty of times, this approach often ignores the most marginalized in a given group. If we’re always choosing the easiest, most press-friendly battle, then when are we going to address the fact that trans women of color are being murdered at really high rates? When do we address violence and discrimination against homeless queer youth, including the ones who do sex work and the ones who use or sell drugs?

I’m kinda wondering if the answer is “never.”

Accepting the opponent’s premise is not a neutral action; it causes actual harm to actual people. It marginalizes everyone whose narrative doesn’t fit into the tidy paths we’ve laid: the lesbian whose sexual trauma influenced her developing identity; the gay man who does want to have lots of random casual sex rather than finding a husband and raising children; the person who accidentally gets pregnant and immediately gets an abortion and feels nothing but relief; all the people who do want birth control specifically because they love sex and don’t want children. Which, by the way, is totally okay. That’s why birth control exists.

I won’t pretend to know what the way forward is, but I think we do have a responsibility to at least try to challenge faulty premises. It’s possible to say, “Actually, children of same-sex parents aren’t more likely to be gay or bi themselves, but so what if they were?” or “For many people, the decision to get an abortion is actually a really difficult and painful one, but for some it’s just another medical procedure. What’s the problem with that?” Throw that shit back in their face. Make them explain to you why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make them actually admit that they think that being gay is bad or that having non-procreative sex is wrong or that having occasionally smoked pot makes it okay for the police to murder you on the street. At least then you know where you stand.

~~~

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"That's not true, but even if it were…"
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18 thoughts on “"That's not true, but even if it were…"

  1. 1

    A great model for how to answer this type of question is the way Colin Powell talked about the “accusations” of Obama being a Muslim on Meet The Press. I thought he did a great job of quickly stating the fact (Obama’s a Christian), and then spending a lot more time elaborating on why the premise of the question is faulty. I think it’s worth time to correct both the faulty facts and the faulty premises, but the faulty premises are usually more insidious and more important to correct.

    1. 1.1

      I will never forget McCain’s appalling failure in this kind of situation – the famous town hall meeting gone wild where a lady said she doesn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab.” McCain defended Obama, but in doing so implied being an Arab is somehow incompatible with being “a good family man” and such.

      I don’t necessarily think that’s what McCain believes, he was just shoddy at thinking on his feet, maybe didn’t notice his implication. Either way, blech, and the party has clearly gotten even worse in the several years since.

  2. 2

    It’s possible to say, “Actually, children of same-sex parents aren’t more likely to be gay or bi themselves, but so what if they were?” or “For many people, the decision to get an abortion is actually a really difficult and painful one, but for some it’s just another medical procedure. What’s the problem with that?” Throw that shit back in their face. Make them explain to you why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make them actually admit that they think that being gay is bad or that having non-procreative sex is wrong or that having occasionally smoked pot makes it okay for the police to murder you on the street. At least then you know where you stand.

    This has many other benefits as well. This is asking them questions to clarify their position, so you can better understand what they’re arguing. It makes it more of a conversation (rather than people talking at each other), and shows that you’re willing to address their personal viewpoint. In many ways, challenging faulty premises is actually less confrontational because it’s being phrased as a genuine question.

    Sometimes they’ll say things that they’re not even sure they agree with. Like a person might say “gay marriage is wrong” but they might not understand the actual underlying bigotry behind it until they’ve looked at their own arguments. People use post-hoc rationalizations for a lot of their ideas. Forcing them to phrase it can sometimes make people question their own reasoning.

    I’ve seen a lot of facts be dismissed by people in arguments. Sometimes they are convincing, but oftentimes they are not. Oftentimes, the legitimacy of studies and sources is questioned and can result in slapfights.

  3. 3

    I think this is a good post.
    To me, criticism of lgbtq is very similar to centuries-ago criticism of being left-handed. While people used to say it was sinister and satanic, now we know such negativity is primitive and ridiculous. Making this analogy can help free us from taking unkindness seriously.

  4. 4

    Shiri Eisner mentions something similar. When bisexuals respond to bisexual stereotypes with “That’s not true!” they sometimes only perpetuate bigotry. For example, while it’s true that bisexuals can be monogamous, sometimes us bisexuals say it in a way that it makes it sound like being poly is a bad thing.

    1. 4.1

      Yeah, that’s a common one. It’s also really stigmatizing to those bi people for whom attraction to multiple genders DID influence their decision to be poly, WHICH IS OKAY. It is okay to want partners of more than one gender, either in general or concurrently.

  5. 5

    I started an indignant reply to this post after reading the first section – glad I read to the end. For #3, my immediate response was: I don’t want a man, I’m straight thanks very much. Not very useful to most people it’s aimed at, but made me smile. But it’s #2 with the implicit approval of men having as much sex as they want with the women being asked to suffer both shame _and_ to have to pay for it that really annoys me.
    You are so right – don’t accept the premises the arguments are based on. Don’t just answer back, change the way the person thinks!

    1. 5.1

      Haha, I should’ve included the other version of that: “Feminist men just want to get laid.” Also something that many of us dismiss immediately as false, and while I obviously don’t think it’s okay to join a progressive cause just to get laid, I do think there’s something to this idea that treating people with dignity and respect makes one a more appealing partner…

  6. 6

    The birth control one also implies that having sex is some kind of extravagance and that ‘not having sex’ should be considered the default, as if sex should be a luxury for those who have enough $. Sex should be (at least in my opinion) seen as a normal part of a healthy life, and medicine to reduce risks from sex should be as uncontroversial as medicine to prevent allergic reactions, pain from standing, sitting or walking too much, or a knee wrap for people who run who get knee pain. Birth control is part of health care, which is about health, wellness (including emotional health) and not just ‘keep the person well enough to work a job.’

    And the mental illness one I can relate to since I’ve had periods of severe problems where I was incapable of acting *normally.* Right now I’m doing okay, but I worry that ‘hey, I’m mentally ill and I’m doing reasonably well’ can make it seem as if mentally ill people who aren’t are just not trying hard enough.

    1. 6.1

      The “you just want birth control covered by insurance so you can have sex!” is a particularly baffling argument. I also, for example, want my insurance to cover me if I get a broken leg while I’m skiing, or get violent food poisoning from eating at a restaurant, and no one finds that controversial, even though both of those things are a lot less fundamental to human existence than adults having sex.

  7. 7

    I feel the same way about the common reaction to problematic comedy, “That’s not funny”. That’s presupposing that the shitty (racist, sexist, homobigoted, transantagonistic) joke would be ok if it were funnier. This just puts the ball in the comedians court, because he can likely point to a crowd of people who laughed at his shitty joke because there’s no shortage of crappy people in the world.

  8. 8

    This reminds me of how the “vaccines cause autism” argument is usually counted with just the science, and nothing else. The premise behind the argument, that it’s a bad thing that some people are autistic, is left unchallenged.

  9. 9

    I loved this post, it hits on something that’s been bothering me for years. If I could add one more example (a longtime source of annoyance for me): the argument that goes something like “homosexuality is unnatural, therefore bad.” It causes me no end of frustration when I see progressives take this argument at face value, responding that homosexuality is natural, and implicitly accepting “natural” as the criteria for deciding wrong or right. The correct response would be to call out the interlocutor’s assumptions: it wouldn’t take digging too deep to discover that they don’t really believe what they’re saying (presumably they live in an “unnatural” house, have access to plentiful food from unnatural sources, and wouldn’t want to face disease with only the defenses that nature alone could provide them). Not only is there nothing to be gained from granting “homosexuality is unnatural” the status of a serious argument by engaging with it, doing also holds back progress in serious discussions about the sociology of gender and sexuality identity. Homosexuality and heterosexuality may be natural, but sexual identity does not exist in a vacuum, and is strongly influenced by culture. Pointing out that male penguins enjoy fucking each other is great, but it doesn’t really express the key point that homosexuality in humans would be just as OK if we were the first species to ever do it.

    1. 9.1

      In looking up something about this I found out I’d been using “Naturalistic Fallacy” wrong in casual conversation. The word for this kind of arguing is an “appeal to nature.” I despise these because nature can be really horrible and shouldn’t be the underpinning of human values. I love the beauty of the natural world and want to preserve it, but that’s not incompatible with recognizing evolution has caused a staggering amount of human suffering, and I hate that. Even so, it’s hard to not see the appeal of and fall into using these kinds of arguments if one is not being careful.

  10. 11

    Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.” “Actually, lesbians are Born That Way.”

    Probably true to some extent but some women don’t recognize it until somewhat late in life. Case in point actor Meridith Baxter who was at one time married for 16 years to fellow actor David Birney with whom she had 3 children.

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