Bullshit and Asexual Politics

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?

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9 Responses to Bullshit and Asexual Politics

  1. Aydan says:

    I disagree. You’ve built a whole argument about “asexual politics” based off of one example, which is, at worst, a lack of specificity for rhetorical purposes. The difference between “a unanimously acclaimed idea” and “an idea that feels to me like it is unanimously acclaimed” is not great enough to constitute “bullshit,” especially in the context of Calinlapin’s post about her own feelings. To her argument, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether the idea is in fact unanimously acclaimed, or it only feels like it’s unanimously acclaimed, because either way the effect on her own experience is basically the same. (Calinlapin, please feel free to correct me on any of this.)

    It seems that your argument, ironically, suffers from the same lack of specificity, because you’ve generalized about an entire category of, oh, call it conversation, based on one instance. You need more examples if you want it to stick.

  2. Siggy says:

    This post reminded me of “Asexual Perceptions of Allosexuals“, which also complained about generalizations of allosexuals. The difference being that Annette provided no specific examples, while Andrew provides one.

    Honestly, I don’t think this example is too bad. To say it was “unanimous” was plainly an exaggeration, so did it really cause anyone to believe it was truly unanimous? On the other hand, I think most of us have been on receiving end of hurtful generalizations (eg, “every person is a sexual being”), and I don’t think we would accept “It was plainly an exaggeration!” as a defense.

  3. Andrew says:

    As I’ve been asked for additional examples–a reasonable enough request–I’ll give a few from other posts on this blog.

    From Asexual Pereceptions of Allosexuals: ” Society teaches us that men can’t help but rape, objectifies women, and tells us that a woman’s most important role is to have (heterosexual) sex and have children. Women are portrayed as constantly sexually available.”

    My impression is that most statements that contain the phrase “society teaches us” are BS. Modern societies are, noticeably, diverse. There may be some people that give such messages, but acting like their virtually universal to the point that we can say “society teaches us” is bullshit, and this kind of bullshit is quite popular rhetorical device among feminists and Evangelicals. It helps to paint a picture of some socially-dominant bad thing that righteous-us must fight against, while being nonspecific enough in who/what is being condemned that they cannot possibly respond.

    From : Sexism and asexuality: Part II: Women cannot express our desires, be they romantic or sexual or platonic, without being shamed and belittled, and being asexual doesn’t change that. We’re not supposed to have desires. We’re supposed to be sexualized, and sexy, but not sexual; available to men, but with no desires or demands of our own except for those which serve their fantasies.
    It’s impossible for women to express desire for a boyfriend or to want to hangout with her girlfriends without being shamed and belittled? My impression is that sexual and romantic desires are treated quite differently from each other. And even with sexual desire, context matters: it’s my understanding that it’s generally acceptable these days for a woman express sexual desire towards her partner in an established relationship. So I think it’s fair to call this a massive over-generalization.

    • Siggy says:

      I agree that both of those examples are overreaching generalizations. Although I’m not sure that the point is to create an us vs them narrative. I think the main point is to simply say, “Here is an idea that people have,” or, “Here is an experience people have.”

      And maybe there is a better way to make the same point? Maybe it’s better to literally say, “Here is an idea that people have”? Or to use “I” statements?

      I should say that while I see the point in all your examples, I don’t feel very worked up about them. I’m far more concerned about the cases where these overgeneralizations concretely lead to harm. For instance, if someone thinks that society teaches us to all be ashamed of having sex, they might deny that asexuals conflict with societal norms in any way.

      But if Calinlapin says that everyone thinks “the real goal of your life is to find a [romantic] partner”… well, I suppose I can see someone saying, “Actually, you’re erasing my experience, because at least among my gay friends, people are expected to hook up a lot, and people don’t support my long term romantic relationships.” But at least in this case, I think the harm is minimal.

    • Aydan says:

      “My impression is that most statements that contain the phrase “society teaches us” are BS. Modern societies are, noticeably, diverse. There may be some people that give such messages, but acting like their virtually universal to the point that we can say “society teaches us” is bullshit, and this kind of bullshit is quite popular rhetorical device among feminists and Evangelicals. It helps to paint a picture of some socially-dominant bad thing that righteous-us must fight against, while being nonspecific enough in who/what is being condemned that they cannot possibly respond.”

      I don’t think that’s true. For example, I couldn’t tell you where I first learned that it was unacceptable for (middle-class, white) American women not to shave their legs. It could have been from my parents, or other family members. It could have been from something on TV, or on the radio, or in a book, or in a magazine. It could have been something my classmates said. It could have been a conversation I overheard at church, or between my parents and some of their friends, or from friends of a relative. However, given that I did in fact receive the message from all of those places, I think it’s fair to say that “society taught me that it was unacceptable for American women like me not to shave their legs.”

      “It’s impossible for women to express desire for a boyfriend or to want to hangout with her girlfriends without being shamed and belittled? My impression is that sexual and romantic desires are treated quite differently from each other. And even with sexual desire, context matters: it’s my understanding that it’s generally acceptable these days for a woman express sexual desire towards her partner in an established relationship. So I think it’s fair to call this a massive over-generalization.”

      It is accepted, and also expected, for women to express sexual desire towards her partner. It’s also something that can get her labeled a filthy, filthy slut. If that seems contradictory, it’s because it’s an inherently contradictory system. Even in non-sexual contexts, the threshold for being called “selfish” is a lot lower for women than for men. (Example: words used to describe mothers who work outside the home vs. words used to describe fathers who work outside the home.) A more precise way of phrasing what I said would be “Every time a woman expresses desires she runs a significantly elevated risk of being shamed for it as compared to a man,” but I don’t feel that’s different enough from what I wrote to warrant being labelled “a massive over-generalization.”

  4. pianycist says:

    “No one is following us closely just waiting for one of us to say something that they can twist against us.”
    Except in very small pockets, I think. I think that it is fair to say that in the Tumblr asexual community, there’s a fair amount of individuals who have organized against aces, going so far as to create a “Homophobic Ace” meme and post quotations of various aces, including quotations that have nothing to do with heterosexism and are from aces who are LGB+ in their attractions. It is mainly a loose association of individuals rather than a legitimate organization, but many of those individuals employ similar strawman tactics against aces that you’ve ascribed to the one example you’ve given from aro politics.

    • Andrew says:

      My experience with tumblr is fairly limited, but I have read some of the trolls, and you’re right that this could be considered a limited exception. In academic stuff, my sense is that people who aren’t all that sympathetic towards us simply don’t care enough to publish anything on the matter, though they may give a quote if contacted by a journalist.

  5. Pingback: In defense of political writing in the asexual community | The Asexual Agenda

  6. Calinlapin says:

    This is really interesting, indeed. And there’s a lot to be said. For now, I’ll just say this :

    First : what Andrew seems to have a problem with is not just Calinlapin’s writing or Aydan’s writing, but it is in fact “great many feminist and queer cultural critiques'” writings. According to him, a great deal of social scientists and activists for let’s say 50 years were not “nuanced and well-reasoned” enough. And it’s his absolute right to think so. BUT : it will take more than a short text to prove so. In particular, what he calls “straw men”, the “counter-culture critique” and imagined “oppressive social orders” deserve a good and minute discussion. And we’ll try to have this discussion.

    Second : Even if I’ve exagreated (Yes, I’m guilty), the factual core of my text is, I believe, true. There is a widely believed narrative of romantic love. And I still think that this narrative is not well adjusted enough to meet the needs of everyone, in particular the needs of aromantic people. To support this idea, I can quote Eva Illouz, professor of sociology at the university of Jerusalem, wrote a piece which is called “romantic love” in the “Handbook of New Sexuality Studies” (P.53). She wrote that our culture is a culture of romantic love: “a culture whereby the definition of the good life includes finding a person able to generate long-lasting and yet exciting feelings, and being able to extend the experience of love throughout one’s life. In other words, a culture of love is a culture where the experience of love plays a central role in the definition of self”. In another book, Consuming the Romantic Utopia (p.28), the same author argues that our culture is characterized by “the glorification of the theme of love as a supreme value and the equation of love with happiness”. She even describes love “as a new religion”.
    So, to conclude with, to have a certain political stance is not the same thing as being wrong. Let’s not be confused here.

    And, Yes, I love political writings : https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/in-defense-of-political-writing-in-the-asexual-community/
    What can I say ?

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