I saw an interesting statement recently. For some background, I decided out of nowhere, to suddenly pick up that habit college students are all supposed to have. Uh, the open-minded one, I mean. No, not weed. If you like it, great, personally it reminds me too much of skunk-related smells. And not alcoholism, either! I don’t care how uninhibited it makes me, I don’t want my mind to be open in the sense that it’s just empty. That defeats the purpose.
You see, I’m referring to good-old fashioned Liberal Arts idea of exposing ourselves to differing viewpoints. And so I’ve started reading articles expressing opinions that I know I’m going to disagree with; I won’t say that I approach them in an unbiased mindset, because that’s impossible, but I’m trying to be less immediately scornful of them than I am of, say, Twilight. And if any of you need me to explain why I’m biased against Twilight, I should probably recommend you some books on reading comprehension. There, see- I’m scornful even of my own readers! Ha! You guys are… uh… wait, this seems artistically hazardous. I’m just going to my usual thing and de-digress (re-digress? Post-digress? Perhaps metadigress?) before I really irritate any of you.
To bring us to the case in point, this was an article entitled, “6 Things I Don’t Understand About The Fat Acceptance Movement,” which was on another WordPress blog. My, my, am I not akin to Icarus as I fly dangerously close to the writing of someone who probably has a larger following than me? Pfft, who cares! I’ve dissed James Cameron in the past, we’re not stopping now! The first thing that occurred to me was that the author mentioned that, while she hasn’t lived in many other countries in her life, she has ‘done it enough to know that America is exceptional in its general permissiveness about obesity and ill health.’ You see, I’m not going to talk about the article at all. I disagree with a number of the points it makes, but that’s neither here nor there. I find it more interesting to write about the fact that the author considers it a mark of distinction that she’s lived in some other countries, and she uses this to argue that American culture is excessively accepting of obesity.
I would appreciate it if those of you from other countries would comment with your own thoughts to help steer me in the right direction (no obligations, of course), but I’ve always had the impression that the United States is one of the less accepting First World countries, especially when it comes to body image. Given the ridiculous glorification of physical sports (by which I mean American Football and nothing else), I can’t help but think it unlikely that we are the most accepting. An argument was mentioned that portion sizes in America are larger than anywhere else. I lived in Germany for four years, and I can say comfortably that we never left a German restaurant feeling less than full, and nine times out of ten we were stuffed to the gills. I also discovered that Jaegerschnitzel is one of the only foods on Earth that I can actually never get tired of, alongside breaded lake perch. This does not give me a solid understanding of Germany’s culture concerning obesity, nor does it allow me to make sweeping statements regarding the entirety of mankind, it just means I can name another country that offers large amounts of food by default.
In the past I caught myself on a number of occasions using my time abroad as a rhetorical bludgeon. I realized (much too slowly for my retrospective comfort) that this was dumb, and I should not claim to understand an entire country after having lived there for a few years as an outsider. I have no doubt that most native Germans do not fully understand every aspect of their country’s culture, because that would require them to fully understand the unique customs of each Bundesland and all the great cities and small towns within it. Eighty million people leaves a breathtaking amount of room for diversity. Here in the US, when we say that we have no culture, I think it might be because we simply don’t realize that no one has a completely homogenous culture. Japan was isolated from all but the most mild outside influences for centuries, and they still manage to be pretty diverse if you get into the details. Heck, look at the katana- so many variations major and minor on precisely the same idea! Some are double edged with needle points, some are absurdly large, some are really thin, many (as with any kind of sword in history) were just plain mediocre. Humans are weird like that; we can all get the same idea from the same place, but still execute it in a thousand different ways. It’s one of the things that makes life interesting.
Yet our very diversity means that you can’t just visit a culture that you were not born into, and claim to have a sufficient understanding of it to make a broad comparison between that culture and others. Furthermore, in order to use other cultures to argue that Americans are exceptional in any way (bad or good), I’d have to gather a comprehensive panel of experts on the culture and its variations within each country in the world, which seems like it would be extremely expensive and a possible waste of time and resources. I’m not saying you can’t get a general impression of a country’s culture, in some respects. But the more specific you try to get with your argument, the less valid this method is.
I could say that all native Germans speak German. This a safe observation. I didn’t say that they speak all that skillfully, or in a particular dialect, or that they necessarily enjoy speaking their language; within a whole country, even language has hundreds of variations. There are way too many spellings of ‘wollen’ in all its cases, and sometimes they vary on a town-by-town basis! Some differences are small, some are pretty mind-boggling- in the case of Schweizer Deutsch, quite literally so for someone who took conventional High German!
But then, here in the States we have the Mountain Man subculture of the Appalachians, and there are some of them that I can’t understand for the life of me, and I’m remarkably fluent in (Americanized) English. Well, that’s what I’ve always been told. Is it your considered opinion that the aforementioned statement’s veracity holds firm in the face of logical scrutiny? Heh. You saw what I just did, I don’t have to ask. You can’t even imagine how smug I am at being able to concoct that pompous porcine oaf of a sentence without any real effort. For the record, this is why English has so many words (that darn variability thing again): so the people who speak it from birth can feel clever, and condescend towards any non-native speakers gutsy or goofy enough to try their luck.
My overall point, buried beneath the rugged mountains of my self-indulgent verbal frippery (see, even I can’t tell if that’s a metaphor or not!) is that we humans are very given to thinking that because we know a bit about something, we know everything, or at any rate that we know everything we need to. Lived in a country for a few months? Excelsior! You now know the natives better than they know themselves. Lived in a few countries? Well, that’s basically the entire planet, so you might as well use your vast knowledge to tell other people who silly they are for not being like you. For the record, that article I lead off from? There were some valid points in there that merited discussion. It’s true that Fat Acceptance risks going too far. It’s true that what people find attractive is entirely their own business, although it’s also socially constructed to some degree, so let’s not get too individualistic here. A lot of it is also biological. But, that aside, it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t order people to find fat inherently attractive, any more than we should order them to be drawn to hour-glass figures and bulging cords of muscle (or both at once, which may or may not be possible).
But the thing about any argument is that it needs to be carefully constructed so as to offer as few dangling threads to Logic’s questing fingers as possible. Even one of them can, over time, unravel the whole thing. But as long as your opponent’s argument is even more tortured and sloppy than this allegory (or your argument, for that matter), it won’t make so much difference. So, in short, whenever you start constructing a logical argument, be sure to think very carefully about it. It’s important to have a solid rhetorical strategy that falls apart in seconds and leaves you and your opponent hurling ad hominems and ad hitlerums at each other ad nauseum. That way you can claim after the fact that you tried to be civil and reasonable, and it’s the other person’s fault that everything got so heated.
Now that you’re distracted, I’m going to end the post before you start trying to poke holes in my argument. Which you won’t be able to. I’ve covered it with this concrete-like casemate of my own enduring stubbornness.