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Monday, June 17, 2013

What is Your REAL Objection?

Here’s the basic gist of what actually goes on in most people’s heads.  You hear some proposal, say someone suggesting that gay people should be allowed to marry, and for whatever reason, your subconscious doesn’t like the proposal.  But your subconscious never tells your mind the actual cause of this dislike, it just tells you that the proposal royally sucks.  So you voice your opposition.

But then some sly little coon asks you why you reject the proposal.  Well your subconscious never gave you that information, so your conscious mind searches around frantically wondering how to answer the question.  And in response, your subconscious feeds you some random crap it pulls from nowheresville that just happens to sound nice and pass some cursory inspection.  Something like ‘gays are the spawn of the devil’ or ‘it will ruin the sanctity of marriage’ or somesuch crap. 

Notice what is not happening here.  What most people very rarely do is reason “Hm… gays are the spawn of Satan so I’d best vote against this proposal.”  What happens instead is that some emotion (disgust at the idea of gay sex, perhaps) drives an emotional rejection of the proposal.  Only after the proposal is rejected does your mind produce a nice-sounding justification to save face.  Which means that a lot of the time, the justification your subconscious feeds you is not the actual reason for your rejection of the proposal.

With this in mind, I want to walk you through a process that will help you to determine your real objection.  And what I mean here is technically referred to as a ‘necessary condition.’  A necessary condition is a condition that must be met in order to reach a particular state.  That is, the process I’m going to outline will lead you to some fact/argument/claim that must hold if you are to reject the proposal.

(On the other hand, you might just find that there really isn’t any good reason to reject the proposal.  Either way, you’ll learn something.)

Let’s take our homophobe as an example.  Let’s suppose this person’s actual causal reason for rejecting gay marriage is disgust at the idea of gay sex.  But this is obviously a lousy justification, so when pressed, our bigot's subconscious instead feeds them “Gays are the spawn of Satan!”  This is the justification our bigot has presented, the ‘fact’ about the world that they presumably think is the most important reason to reject gay marriage.  So to move past this point, our bigot needs only ask themself one simple question.  What if gays weren’t the spawn of Satan?

Odds are, our bigot would still be against gay marriage even if it was clear that gays weren’t the spawn of Satan.  Thus “Gays are the spawn of Satan!” is a completely un-necessary claim for our bigot to make.  If there is a justification for the bigot’s opposition to gay marriage, it must be expressible without resorting to claims about Satan-spawn.  Because if such a claim was a critical part of their rejection of gay marriage, then they wouldn’t continue to be against said marriage if gays suddenly stopped being the spawn of Satan.

This, my friends, is the very basic method to move past all the hoopla your subconscious mind concocts and get a handle on real justifications.  It’s an iterative process.  You take your justification, assume it suddenly stops being true, and ask whether the difference would cause you to change your mind.  If the answer is no, then you haven’t yet found your critical justification.  So look for another, give it the same test, and keep going until you reach an epiphany.  And here’s something to keep in mind.  At the end of the day, you should reach one of two points.  Either you change your mind about the proposal by realizing that you have no real justifications, or you learn enough about your real justifications that you can tell me exactly what it would take to change your mind.

Remember that, waaaay back at the very start of this blog.  That’s right, you’re going to discover what it takes to change your mind.  This process of repeatedly eliminating what you think is a key justification is going to open your mind.

So let’s give this a try.  I’m going to walk you through part of the process that I went through a few years ago when I really thought hard about the topic of discrimination.  I’ll leave off partway through, to let you continue the exercise on your own.  But don’t worry, I’ll present my conclusions next week.

As I said, the topic of my inquiry was discrimination.  My inquiry began when I noticed that damn near every time the topic of racism or sexism came up, people would say things like “race is only skin-deep” or “women can do anything men can do” and present these purported facts as reasons not to engage in racism or sexism.  The particular moment that I first began my inquiry was when a friend of mine casually said something like “women are the equals of men and should be treated as such.”  Curious, I asked her if she would still insist on equal treatment if the IQ of every man in the world suddenly and instantaneously rose ten points.  I don’t think I ever got an answer from her.

But this was the first step in my inquiry.  People all around me were saying that we shouldn’t be sexist because women can do anything that men can do, and we shouldn’t be racist because non-white people are no less capable than white people.  So I asked myself, if women really couldn’t do anything that men can do, would it be okay to be sexist?  If race really was more than skin deep, would this justify racism?

If someone who is wheelchair-bound really couldn’t use stairs, would this be cause to repeal the American Disabilities Act?

But wait a minute, someone who is wheelchair-bound really can’t use stairs.  And none of my friends seemed to think that this at all justified repealing the ADA.  That is, the very people who went around arguing that sexism was wrong because women weren’t less capable than men were also perfectly comfortable with the idea that we shouldn’t discriminate against people stuck in wheelchairs, even though it is abundantly clear that such people lack certain capabilities (like using stairs) that walking people possess.

This is when it became clear to me that “women can do everything men can do” and “race is only skin-deep” are superfluous.  They are completely and utterly unnecessary.  If the American Disabilities Act is in fact justified – and most of my friends would agree that it is – then its justification has nothing whatsoever to do with some purported equal capabilities of people in wheelchairs.  There must be something else, something deeper and more important and critical.  Some REAL justification against discrimination that works not just against sexism and racism but also ableism.

I’ll leave you here, to see where you continue the process.  Remember, you simply cannot justify the ADA with claims like “quadriplegics are just as capable as you and me,” because such claims are patently false.  So what’s your REAL justification?  What is the actual reason that you are against discrimination?  What is the pivot point, the justification on which your decision hinges?  And once you think you've found this justification, ask yourself: If the facts changed, would I change my mind?

Just remember, while I don’t expect for you to change your mind about whether or not discrimination is okay, I do expect you to be able to tell me what would change your mind.

Reference:  The description of how people usually behave is a condensed version of what I learned from The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.


  1. I had thought I heard this tactic before, and I managed to trace it back to...a discussion with Michael Schermer :P


  2. At least our sources agree