One of the most popular philosophy texts to hit the shelves in the past decade was a delightful little volume titled On Bullshit. “One of the most salient features of our culture” Harry Frankfurt opens, “is that there is so much bullshit.” In trying to understand what it is that defines bullshit, he distinguishes between lying and bullshit. Liars know that what they say is false, whereas bullshitters simply do not care whether it is true or false.
With the election season in full bloom here in the US, bullshit has been very much on my mind. A basic feature of elected governments is that leaders are elected by people, the majority of whom do not really understand the issues. Especially in this era of globalization, the problems that face us are stunningly complex and even the smartest among us who devote their lives to studying these problems can only have a good grasp on a limited range of the issues that face us (and even then, this often comes with an understanding of how very limited their understanding is). Now, the vast majority of people have neither the time nor the inclination to understand all the nuances of any of issues, let alone all of the issues. Probably much of the electorate lacks the aptitude as well (even in comparison to the limited the extent that the best of us has for understanding the stunningly complex issues of the day). Nuanced and well-reasoned arguments will not win you elections—soundbytes do, along with how people feel about you, and the tendency for the population to blame everything bad on those currently in power. And so bullshit is necessary for anyone who wants to win—repeat your talking points, stay on message. Further, any government is greatly constrained in what it can do by the beliefs of its people. In one party systems, you get rather one-sided propaganda campaigns. In a two party system, you get dueling propaganda wars. (Can you think of any government ever that didn’t rely on propaganda?)
So I understand the need for bullshit in politics, and I’ve come to accept it in governmental politics, but I’m bothered by the extent of it I see in some parts of asexual politics. To give my own biases, one of the reasons that I decided to get involved in the academic side of asexual politics is that—although I know that bullshitting is necessary (such as in media interviews)—I particularly dislike it. I admit that my hope was that the bullshit would be fairly circumscribed, but sadly this hasn’t been the case.
If I may pick on one of my fellow bloggers, Calinlapin recently wrote a piece on aromanticism that illustrates the sort of asexual bullshit that, quite frankly, annoys me. I don’t like it, and I don’t regard it is a necessary evil (which is how I see bullshit uttered by politicians). I don’t think we need it.
I don’t have anything against small and usually heart-shaped pink objects. Nothing at all. But what I do have a problem with, is a certain idea of romantic love. An idea that everyone seems to agree with. An idea that everybody knows. An unanimously acclaimed idea….
This story tells you that (heterosexual) romantic love is this experience without which you cannot really accomplish yourself as a human being. It’s also through this story that you learn that the real goal of your life is to find a partner with which you’ll engage in a long and everlasting romantic relationship.
Seriously? Everyone agrees with this? Now, there is no question that it is a widespread idea in many modern cultures, and it’s fair to say that this notion is not cross-culturally universal (there are cultures where homosocial relationships rather than marriage is expected to be the primary source of emotional intimacy, for instance). Reflecting on how and why the idea came to be so widespread and what other options are/have been used in other times and places is something I hope to see more of in asexual discourse. But to say that a certain story about romance is a “unanimously acclaimed idea” is quite different from saying it is widespread.
From everything I’ve read in the asexual community over the years, from all of the queer theory informed materials I’ve been reading for my dissertation, from the fact that around half the US population approves of same-sex marriage, and from the fact that there have been plenty of people over the years with negative views of romantic love, I’d say there’s adequate evidence for holding that this is not a unanimously held anything. Even a moment’s reflection on whether or not the claims were supported by the evidence would have made clear that they’re not. But the point isn’t whether the claims are accurate or not.
Furthermore, actual people’s views are nuanced in ways that this portrayal clearly isn’t, but this too is irrelevant. The point is to do aromantic politics by attacking a straw-man stuffed of hyperbole and overgeneralization. Further, by presenting this view as being held virtually unanimously (while being virtually unanimously rejected by this blog’s readers), this positions aromantic politics (and asexual politics) as being a counter-culture (and likely a counter-culture resisting an imagined hegemonic oppressive social order).
The rhetorical strategy employs a sort of cultural-critique that I first noticed back in my days as an Evangelical. A great many Evangelicals love giving cultural critique and seeing themselves as a sort of counter-culture. Now, a funny thing I noticed about Evangelical critiques of “the culture” is that they defined “the culture” in a way such that it excluded Evangelicals, which seemed odd given that they constitute around 25% of the US population. Since participating in asexual communities, I’ve discovered that a great many feminist and queer cultural critiques share this same characteristic.
I suspect that the sociological/political function of much of the bullshit attacking an imagined opposition is to “rally the troops.” The style, by attacking a caricature position not ascribed to anyone (or by finding the biggest jerk around and treating their views as representative of an actual or imagined opposition), is likely to do very little to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. It may, indeed, push away many who are sympathetic. Rather, I think the point is to inflame the passions of those who do agree with you, perhaps to get them more firmly opposed to some imagined opposition (even if that opposition’s positions are rather inaccurately represented). It is a strategy that can be effective, but at a high cost that deeply troubles me: polarization on an issue, inflaming people’s anger and sense of self-righteousness, driving away potential allies, and causing great annoyance to those with a dislike of bullshit.
With asexual politics, the question is “Do we need it? In asexual politics, there is no organized opposition. There are no counter-propaganda campaigns. No one is following us closely just waiting for one of us to say something that they can twist against us. Just because we have political goals, does that mean we need a national-level-politician degree of bullshit?
I think we need to ask ourselves some important questions: What are the benefits of this sort of bullshit? What are the costs? When should we use it? When should we not?