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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Some thoughts on "opting out."

To return to a Michael Pollen note for a bit (sorry), I came across a section of Omnivore's Dilemma today that devoted some discussion to "opting out."  The context was home-schooling parents who also decide to buy their food from local farmers rather than from the grocery store, and Pollan described them as having "opted out once already."  By this, Pollan meant that they had already once said "no" to a segment of American culture to which the vast majority of people say "yes." 

I think most people underestimate the effect that opting out can have.  As much as I personally dislike being told that I'm opposed to some sort of behavior simply because it's "different" when I think that it's actually because I have a good reason for opposing it, it's true that people often regard things with suspicion because they're not normal. 

Having read Dan Savage's sex advice column Savage Love for-- gosh-- fourteen years now, I would estimate that at least half of the letters submitted are from people concerned about whether their sexual proclivities are normal.  And his answer is always some variant on the same sentiment-- who cares, so long as it makes you happy and it doesn't hurt anyone?  But clearly people do care.  If they're going to be strange and do things differently, it's like they want permission to do it.  They want to know that their desires are legitimate, and they acknowledge that having to explain themselves to interested parties for deviating from the norm is taxing, which is why they want assurance that what they're doing is in fact normal...even though it isn't.

Yes, I did just compare having weird sexual kinks to home-schooling. 

Sure, the two things are different in a lot of ways, but I'd suggest that the relevant difference here is mainly about taste vs. ideology.  There's not much you can do about taste-- you can either hide it or be open about it, feel ashamed or feel confident, but it's going to be there regardless.  With ideology, on the other hand, it's about trying to be a different person than you would be if you were "normal."  Some people are born into weird ideologies while others convert to them, but there's often a moral dimension involved either way. 

Opting out is a conscious decision-- it requires recognizing that one can choose not to do things the way most people are, and making that choice.  My understanding of homosexuality is that it definitely does not feel like a conscious choice, but deciding to be "out" is.  Even people who can look back and see their homosexuality written on the wall, so to speak, before they even realized it seem to have to go through a period of either going into the closet and/or (if they're lucky enough to be in an accepting environment) make a deliberate choice to embrace that aspect of who they are and live as openly gay. 

Does having opted out in one dimension of your life make it easier to opt out in others?  Maybe.  At Skepticon 3 philosophy professor John Corvino gave a talk comparing coming out as gay to coming out as a skeptic/atheist, and it certainly sounded like the first experience made the second one a lot easier.   And it's not necessarily a positive thing-- in her book True Porn Clerk Stories, former video store clerk Ali Davis writers about certain customers who have reached the point of renting six or more porn movies per day, the people she's no longer afraid to label "porn addicts," having rejected society's norms in other ways before reaching that point.  Sometimes opting out means taking control; sometimes it means giving up. 

Opting out has costs.  It might mean having fewer things to talk to your family about at Christmas.  It might mean being passed over for a job.  It might, as in the case of ethical choices, mean that people believe you are implicitly judging them for not joining them in your decision, and come to resent you for it.  It might mean that people conclude that you're being different just for the sake of being different, and mock you because others are being different in a very similar way, as if it's ever possibly to be truly unique.  It might, in some circumstances, mean that your rights are not acknowledged, or that life is made harder to live in some other way because most people simply do not have the same interests.  Can it suck?  Yes, very much.   It will always be mind-boggling to me to hear or read people say outright-- in conversation, in letters to the editor, in debates-- that they're not concerned about the interests of minorities if their own aren't affected.  Sure, let's ban tattooing, ferret ownership, strip clubs, Islamic mosques, urban farming-- I don't want any part in any of those things, so screw people who do!

Back to the taste vs. ideology thing.  People who opt out for moral reasons may be offended by having their choices compared to opting out for matters of taste because it seems to negate the seriousness of their committment, but you can't force others to take your interests as seriously as you do.  To them, it may as well be a matter of taste that you want to wear a burqa, raise your own chickens because you object to factory farming, or make sure your children receive their sex education from you and no one else.  What counts as being in the moral dimension for one person might well just look like a quirk or a hobby to someone else.   And conversely, what looks like a hobby or quirk for the person who wants to opt out to take part in it-- getting tattoos, going to strip clubs, smoking marijuana-- may have a moral dimension for others who are strongly opposed to it. 

Ultimately, I think that having a lot of people around who are openly "weird" in some way or another is a good thing, because it raises our level of cultural tolerance for weirdness.  The more homogeneous a society is, the more dangerous it seems (and probably is) to be different.  I have no particular desire to wear my hair in a mohawk, join a swinger's club, or homeschool children, but am grateful to live in a culture where those things are tolerated if not warmly accepted.  It's clear to me that the pursuit of happiness in a country can take as many different forms are there are members of its population, and it is therefore crucial that we protect each individual's ability to pursue happiness to the maximal extent possible.  That's clearly not to say that anything which makes a person happy must be allowed, but that the onus of proof for justifying standing in the way of such pursuit always rests on the person  who wants to do so-- not one whose pursuit it is.  Diversity of species on a farm makes the organisms raised on it stronger and better defended from attacks by parasites.  Diversity of interests and lifestyles amongst the population of a society makes individuals in it stronger and better defended from attacks on their own happiness.

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