Double-bind insults: wrong vs. irrelevant
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.