General public busybody theory

Jan 23, 2010

I was idly thinking about the GIFT, which comes up often for me because I not only surf the net, I also play networked games, where the theory plays out so often and so emphatically. I was also thinking about the things that people think are weird and foolish in other people, because I happen to be traveling this week, and those things vary somewhat from one place to another.

It occurred to me when I thought about those things at the same time that they suggest a reason for the generally widespread hatred of gay people.

Personally, I’m male and, sexually speaking, I like women. But I don’t particularly care whether another person prefers men or women or both, or neither, regardless of their gender. It’s a little hard for me to see why anyone would care about such a thing, much less why they would hold demonstrations or pass laws about it. It doesn’t seem to me to be a lot different from passing laws about what flavors of ice cream you’re allowed to like.

But when I was thinking about things today, a couple of things occurred to me. First, I’ve observed that there is a tendency sort of similar to the GIFT, which I might call the “general public busybody theory”, which is that, first of all, a large fraction of people are inclined to be busybodies, and the inclination increases as it gets easier and more anonymous. In other words, the cheaper and easier it is to say that somebody ought to do something, and the less well you know them, the more likely you are to tell them what to do.

In general, I mean. Not everyone seems to have this impulse to boss people around, but it does seem to be very common, and it seems like a majority of people have it to some degree, some more than others.

The second piece of the puzzle is that if you have a sexual preference–any sexual preference–then it’s pretty likely to gross another person out if he or she doesn’t share it. I imagine that’s one reason that talking about sex is sort of impolite. That’s a tacit acknowledgement that people like different things, and what is appealing to one person is upsetting to another.

This is not too surprising, really. If you’re dispassionate about it, all sex is at least a little bit gross and ridiculous. Being aroused, of course, tends to obliterate any sense of embarrassment or distaste, so we never get much chance to notice that the things we like are weird or icky. But if you could somehow switch off all arousal, then I think most people would notice that their own sexual tastes involve things that are a little bit messy and undignified. It’s pretty much just the nature of mammalian reproduction to be that way.

But of course, people can’t just turn off their sexual feelings, and they’re strong feelings. Accidentally discovering that someone is turned on by something you are not can be very awkward. There’s a sort of “EEEEEEWWWWW!!!” moment that some folks in kinky-sex communities call being “squicked”. You are “squicked” when you are repelled by something that sexually appeals to someone else. The kinky-sex folks run into it kind of a lot, of course, and talk about it and joke about it, and have sort of social conventions for taking the sting out of it, so it doesn’t interfere with their hobbies or friendships. Folks less communicative about their sexual preferences don’t really have those conventions, because they don’t really have the need or occasion to develop them, so their only experience of being “squicked” is generally the thing itself–the experience of stumbling upon someone with a sexual appetite that makes them go “EEEEEEWWWWW!!!”

Well, nobody likes that, of course. If a person has little experience of such encounters, or of talking about the subject, awkwardness may well ensue.

When you combine that with the general public busybody theory, you have a situation that seems like it’s almost tailor-made for creating prejudice against gay people (or against anyone with any sort of tastes or proclivities that are in the minority). An average heterosexual person (who is fairly likely to be a busybody, because any random person is fairly likely to be a busybody) encounters a random gay couple holding hands or otherwise acting like they care for one another. This suggests the thought that this couple might be sexually involved. That creates the opportunity to imagine a sexual situation that makes our random busybody go “EEEEEEWWWWW!!!”, which, by the general public busybody theory, immediately creates a desire to insist that they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

Once I think of it that way, the prejudice, demonstrations, and legislation seem almost inevitable.