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Double-bind insults: wrong vs. irrelevant

March 7, 2010

So, today I am thinking about double-bind insults

They’re cousins to the double-bind question: the old chestnut is “Do you still beat your wife?”, but there’s also one from the tabletop RPG Paranoia which goes “Are you happy, comrade?” – in response to which “Yes” makes you a communist traitor, and gets you shot, and “No” puts you in violation of mandatory happiness laws, and gets you shot.

The double-bind assertion works on a similar principle. It’s one where the assertion (usually an insult) is both factually incorrect and irrelevant (usually because bigoted), and the situation is such that countering both halves is made very difficult. I dealt with a non-insulting example in here, where I described them as cases where

a conclusion [is] flat-out incorrect, but the premises on which it was based are also incorrect, making the whole argument more or less irrelevant.

The double-bind insult is both wrong and irrelevant, and I will illustrate it here by one that I happen to have received with a couple of times (doubtless other people have encountered others) – namely, people have occasionally called me a lesbian in a manner intended to be insulting. This happened at least once upon the insulter’s finding out that I’m a self-declared feminist. I happen to be straight.

Now, correctly establishing my sexuality isn’t really the most important thing here: I’m not likely to be sleeping with anyone making this sort of comment, and I don’t care very much if some dingbat I’ll never see again goes away with the wrong impression. But even leaving that out, there are two wrong assertions to be countered, but no response that easily covers both.

  • Option A, “I’m straight,” counters the implication that all feminists are lesbian, but leaves in place the implication that ‘lesbian’ is a bad thing to be called.
  • Option B, “So what?” counters the use of ‘lesbian’ as an insult, but doesn’t explode the myth that feminist = lesbian. (And, for that matter, feminist = woman.)

Situations in which you’re getting insulted aren’t usually the kind in which it’s practical to explain exactly why your interlocutor is wrong on two counts before you tell them to kindly fuck off. And so you end up either misrepresenting yourself/someone else or leaving a (something-)phobic assumption in place.

So which one do you answer? Correct the wrong part, or challenge the irrelevant part? In the example I used, instinct says it’s more important to challenge the homophobia, because that’s the more immediately harmful attitude: the assumption that all feminists are lesbians is factually wrong but morally neutral (i.e. it wouldn’t matter if we were, to reasonable people at least), but the assumption that lesbianism is something to feel insulted by is an aspect of the gays-are-lesser mindset that gets people killed.

But I can easily envisage situations where the two assumptions being put forward are equally hateful, and leaving either of them unchallenged is equally bad. Then what? I don’t know.

There’s also the potential problem of, if you go for the ‘correcting the wrong half’ approach, how to prove your point. As a straight feminist, I have myself as a ready-made counterexample to claims that all feminists are lesbian.

But I can’t, for example, offer that sort of immediate refutation if the claim is that women are worse at science, or that literature is for girls, or that strong women don’t wear dresses, because all those stereotypes are ones that I coincidentally fit. What to do when your very presence is upholding the case of someone with whom you vehemently disagree? You have to get into the “But I know lots of X who Y …” which, true or not, ends up sounding like the “But I have black friends!” excuse and about as credible.

I’m fairly sure that people out to cause trouble know how difficult the double-bind insult is to counter, and use it deliberately even when they don’t necessarily believe both falsehoods themselves. Knowing this, it’s particularly galling that I still can’t figure out the optimum way to address both halves in an appropriately pithy and withering fashion.

There remains the option of double-binding right back, I suppose: “Are you just woefully misinformed, or actually a terrible human being?” is not terribly helpful if your goal is education, but would probably work a lot better than the enraged spluttering which is all I can usually produce.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. rhiannonproblematising permalink
    March 7, 2010 8:06 pm

    I might be tempted to reply, “Your penis is the size of a peanut.” Even – perhaps especially – if the speaker was a woman. They are likely to respond either, ‘No it isn’t’/’I haven’t got one’ or ‘What does that have to do with anything?’, at which point you can insert whichever of your points is appropriate.

    Or they might hit you, which is the flaw in this plan.

  2. March 8, 2010 2:58 am

    That’s the problem w/ stereotypes, isn’t it? They over simplify an issue that isn’t simple, and therefore, the response will always require more than a pat answer.

  3. Seamus permalink
    March 8, 2010 6:17 pm

    Situations in which you’re getting insulted aren’t usually the kind in which it’s practical to explain exactly why your interlocutor is wrong on two counts before you tell them to kindly fuck off.

    Here sits the root of the problem, and on that subject let us pay tribute to the great Michael Murphy, whom I have seen, more than once, chasing after someone demanding that they come back so that he can finish demonstrating why their remark was wrong.

  4. Heliconia permalink
    March 9, 2010 7:06 am

    I’ve encountered the lesbian-as-insult-but-I-happen-to-be-straight attack several times as well. I never had the dexterity to come up with a good response at the time, but I’ve thought about it and come up with what I like to call the “subjunctive to the rescue!” response: “If I were a lesbian, would that mean I’m a bad person/my opinions are invalid?” It makes it clear that I’m not a lesbian (and, I hope, that this means not all feminists are lesbians), while challenging the assumption that lesbian=bad.

  5. Schala permalink
    January 5, 2011 8:45 pm

    Try this double-bind:

    You’re a trans woman, and you get told by someone (probably a radical feminist of the anti-trans variety – ie not all of them) that your being feminine is because you want to turn womanhood into a parody by purposely being ultra-feminine – but if you’re masculine, then it’s because you’re really a man.

    You can’t be more or less personally enclined to be a certain way, always a ulterior motive is imputed. How do you counter this?

    Say there’s two trans women, one masculine and one feminine. Before they even open their mouths, they get told they are respectively:
    -Really a man invading women’s space
    -A misogynist asshole wanting to redefine womanhood as being exclusively of the Stepford Wives variety

    No other alternative exists. What can they respond without being told they’re being aggressive/assertive and hence “proving” they have male privilege and hate women?

  6. January 5, 2011 10:05 pm

    @Schala: That . . . is a hell of a situation, and really puts the one I was talking about in perspective. Especially as trans women run a substantial risk of murder from people who misgender them as men. (For readers less familiar with just how prevalent this is, I suggest this post by C.L. Minou, and this follow-up by Lisa Harney.)

    It’s the most insidious stew of hatred and gender/sex essentialism and it usually comes from people who should in theory stand against both those things. I’ve seen the reverse directed at trans men as well, though it seems to be less common. (Too masculine = just wants patriarchy-goodies, too feminine = a woman.)

    The vitriol directed at feminine trans women usually seems to be as least partly mockery, as well. The day I finally gave up on Germaine Greer was the day when she broke off mid- an article on something else (possibly the Caster Semenya fiasco) to rant about how hideous she found trans women with their “fuck-me heels and bird’s-nest hair”.

    The phrase really stuck in my head because it was just so . . . contemptuous, and hateful, and clearly aimed not at the ridiculous expectations of femininity itself (i.e. the demands that one do strange and often bizarre-looking things to one’s feet and hair, or how hard society makes it for ‘atypical’ – fat, disabled, trans, nonwhite – bodies to be read as feminine) but at women themselves. And, ironically, positioning these women’s success or failure as women as entirely consisting in their appearance. Which is something I thought feminists were generally against . . .

    I’m sorry, for you and for everyone else this has happened to. Thank you for bringing it up, as it’s undoubtedly a particularly horrible version of the double-bind and one I hadn’t considered.


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