Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

Should

This post was originally published at therationalqueer.wordpress.com.

The Problem

A Nice Guy says “I should have a girlfriend by now.” A Feminist says “You’re not entitled to any woman!” A tirade ensues.

The misunderstanding lies in the multiplicity of meanings of the word “should.” It generally means one of three things:

  1. There’s the deontological “should”: “You should respect everyone without regard to their ethnicity.”
  2. There’s the utilitarian “should”: “You should invest in Vanguard index funds.”
  3. And there’s the rarer epistemic “should”: “You should be fine after drinking lots of water and resting.”

Most Nice Guys when they reflect on their actions, their values, and the fact that they’re incel (“involuntarily celibate”), think it’s strange that they haven’t been able to get a girlfriend. When these Nice Guys say “I should have a girlfriend by now” they mean the epistemic: “Given what I understand about the sexual marketplace based on what I’ve been told my entire life from family, friends, and the media, I’m confused as to why I haven’t been able to get a girlfriend.” The Feminist, on the other hand, interprets the statement as the deontological: “I deserve to have gotten a girlfriend,” and goes off to rail about patriarchy and how Nice Guys aren’t nice at all if they participate in rape culture by asserting their right to a woman’s body. The appropriate response to the Nice Guy is to point out that he’s been misled to by his family, friends, and the media, and instruct him that heterosexual women in fact are rarely interested pudgy, insecure men, regardless of how altruistic, level-headed, and physically and emotionally non-violent they are. Whenever you’re confused by an observation, whatever theory you have is DEFINITELY wrong, in anywhere from a trivial to a fatal way. In this case, the main error of the nice guy’s theory is the idea that women are interested in stable, nurturing individuals to the near or complete irrelevance of these individual’s bodies and charisma. After learning the new (correct) theory the Nice [and pudgy and insecure] Guy will then reflect, “In fact, it’s thoroughly unsurprising that I don’t have a girlfriend.” The Feminist’s tirade misses the point completely.

The Semantics

Which meaning of “should” is intended in any utterance can be discovered by replacing the containing phrase with another phrase:

  1. “I should…” → “I deserve to…”; “You shouldn’t…” → “Thou shalt not…”
  2. “You should [verb]…” → “It would make practical sense for you to [verb]…”
  3. “The [noun] should [verb]…” → “I would expect that the [noun] [verb]s…” or “I would expect that the [noun] will [verb]”

“You shouldn’t murder” translates primarily to “thou shalt not murder,” not “it would make practical sense for you to not murder” or “I would expect that you will not murder,” even if these latter are still coherent and true. “You shouldn’t walk alone at night” translates primarily to “it would make practical sense for you to not walk alone at night,” not “thou shalt not walk alone at night” or “I would expect that you will not walk alone at night.” Finally, “I should have a girlfriend by now” translates primarily to “I would expect that I had a girlfriend by now,” not “I deserve to have a girlfriend by now” or “it would make practical sense for me to have a girlfriend by now.”

In Practice

Much of (but definitely not most) pop-media feminism deals with issues created by confusion or equivocation over the meaning of “should.” It’s not always clear whether it’s the feminist at hand or the broader society which exhibits the confusion, but the confusion is real. The recent furor over the date-rape-drug detecting nail polish illustrates this perfectly. It’s simple: if the nail polish works, women should use it. But the scenario: a woman gets date-raped after being drugged with Rohypnol at a party. She didn’t wear the nail polish. “She should have worn the nail polish!” the local young republicans group’s president says, “it’s her fault!” It’s a fact that conservatives generally have a much more deontological worldview vs. liberals’ more utilitarian worldview. So what was originally a “shouldutil” regarding the nail polish gets confused into a “shoulddeont” and the slutphobic conservative is now able to blame the victim. This confusion rarely happens with other crimes, with no good justification for the discrepancy. You shouldn’tu walk alone at night, but you do and you get mugged. Everyone knows that you had the right to walk alone at night, and thus couldn’t possibly have shouldn’td walked alone at night, and so you don’t get blamed for getting mugged, even if some or many people think that you were unwise. Moralistically motivated should-shifting is the primary complaint feminists bring against rape “apologists,” and given how often it happens, it is completely appropriate to declare that our society has a problem with it specifically in regards to sexual violence against women.

Understanding the different meanings of “should” can bring much freedom. “You shouldd be nice to everyone” can be stifling, imprisoning, and embittering. “You shouldu be nice to everyone” on the other hand, lets you take the reins of your social fate and understand the causality behind it. In fact, one could say that Machiavellianism is the reanalysis of many (or all) shouldsd as shouldsu.  It can sometimes be impossible to determine which of the two meanings is intended, as they are often mixed. Should the USA offer universal health care? Well, perhaps an overwhelmingly wealthy, advanced technological society has the duty to provide all its citizen with health care (deontology), but perhaps also we would also save money on the inevitable emergency room costs (utilitarianism). “Women should date nice guys!” says the nice guy. If what is meant is that women shouldd date nice guys, then patriarchy is not too far off the mark. If what is meant is that women shouldu date nice guys, then perhaps the nice guy has a point in that it makes practical sense for the many women he sees getting pumped and dumped and hurt by jerks who turn them on but don’t care about their feelings. “Should” means many things, and which meaning you bring to bear in any situation reveals a lot about your inner character and worldview.

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