Monday, December 27, 2010

If you can call it that...

I heard this phrase tonight on a podcast. It was a Dan Savage podcast, so you know the guests are going to be...interesting. Today's guest runs a program that helps men get in touch with their sexual energy by giving and receiving erotic massage, to/from other men.

The guy clearly represents a fringe position; he wants hetero men to share erotic massages with other men to improve their health, happiness, and sexual performance with their wives/girlfriends. True or not, this is a position outside the mainstream, yet when describing the program he says the massages "start with 'safe body parts', if you can call them that..."

That bothered me. Not the description of the program - if I was disturbed by people expressing non-standard sexual views I wouldn't listen to the Lovecast to begin with - but his inability to accept that someone might disagree with his position. Either that or he handwaved past a major component of his argument.

Sadly, both are behaviors frequently seen in people that hold fringe beliefs. They often have the unfortunate side-effect of making the outlandish belief seem more acceptable, because they hide the major flaw or faulty premise with a quick act of legerdemain.

Put differently, this is the tactic used by many tele-pundits in the Wikileaks coverage: "Assuming for the moment that Assange is found guilty; in that case, shouldn't we seek the death penalty?" Debating hypotheticals is one thing, but this behavior is problematic; in this country we're supposed to start by assuming innocence, until proven guilty, yet this premature discussion is jumping straight to sentencing! Now the airwaves are full of the hypothetical debate, instead of the actual one, and Assange's defenders are wasting time fighting the hypothetical instead of focusing on the actual issue. It's crappy argumentation, and they get away with it because no one calls them on it.

Of course, religious people are all too familiar with the behavior. Or, at least, they start to be if they take time to look around. I listen to, and occasionally enjoy, Ari Goldwag's Parsha of the week podcast; he has a bad habit of saying, essentially: "Given that Abraham had great mystical powers, it clearly follows that..."

Wait a second; back up the bus here. He has what now? How did we get there? You've made a huge cognitive leap that the rest of the home audience may not be able to replicate. It somewhat begs the question; we can't debate the mystic purpose of Abraham's sojourns until we establish he was, in fact, a mystic!

Unless you're using this to screen for like-minded people. Maybe it's a screen for education; he's assuming, or requiring, a certain amount of study or familiarity so he can just say, "As Rashi proved...", without explicating Rashi's proof. Maybe he is only interested in similarly mystical, scholarly adherents, in which case he's preaching to the choir. But an argument that only holds up within the group putting it forth is a bad argument.

I don't really want to pick on Ari here; his podcast is well researched and insightful, even when I don't agree with those insights. Once or twice per episode I have to turn off the iPod until I calm down enough to listen more, but I like that he challenges me and I have gotten several good ideas from him. I'm just pointing to him as an example of the type.

I feel I have lost the track of this train of thought, so I should bring it to a close. I was just stunned by my visceral reaction to someone that was more amusing than offensive, and examining my response I realized this was why. The casual way he dismissed his detractors; "...if you can call them that..."...

Have enough perspective to understand that those who disagree with you might, at least, have reasonable grounds to do so. Have enough perspective to recognize that, no matter how much sense it makes to you, your belief may be pretty "out there" for most people.

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