Once, several years ago, I was driving around with a close friend whom we’ll call Socrates, when we saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I Support Women in the Arts.” Socrates turned to me, rolled his eyes, and groused, “Well, I do not support women in the arts.”
I understood. My friend Socrates, who was (and remains) quite supportive of women in the arts, was mocking the bumper sticker’s implication that he wasn’t.
Socrates was reacting, in a natural if unfortunate way, to a goodyism, or weaponized platitude, a non-controversial statement designed to elevate the status of its invoker. Cheap to the point of costing nothing, the goodyism yields a great return, in the form of moral superiority and its concomitant political advantage. Holier than thou is a phrase that can be associated with goodyisms; yet for the balance of this essay, I would like to discuss not the holiness that the goodyism confers upon its wielder but the opprobrium that it delivers upon thou.
Many goodyisms, especially those one might see on bumper stickers, are subtle exercises in demagoguery. The goal of demagoguery is to make its audience ask itself, “Who could possibly be against _______?” In the current example, the operative question is “Who could possibly be against women in the arts?” The real answer is “Nobody,” which points to the hallmark of the goodyism: the lack of any serious opposing position, its non-controversial nature. However, the implied answer is “Scum,” and since the goodyist has taken a certain position, it follows that everyone opposed to him is scum. It matters not that no one really is opposed to him on the ground beneath which he has raised his banner (women in the arts, in this case); all that matters is that the banner has been raised. Defying no one, he has nonetheless issued a call of defiance. Hearing it, his audience is compelled to choose sides, either to stand beside him on the moral high plain or to sink into the scum.
That the audience is indeed so compelled is illustrated by the Lenny Bruce routine about one-upmanship in religion, in which one villager promises to give up five farms and three rivers for the Lord, and the next villager, not to be outdone, promises to give up ten farms and eight rivers. In our example, we are invited to pledge our farms and rivers for the sake of women in the arts, and nobody wants to be behindhand in making the pledge. The member of the flock who offers the fewest farms and rivers is branded a profane person; and the one who remains silent must surely be a lurking devil, for “Whoever is not with me is against me.”
The goodyism, therefore, is an offensive weapon disguised as a defensive one. It is passive-aggressive. It is designed to provoke a response (or a non-response), to divide the community on the basis of that response, and to anathematize everyone on the wrong side of the divide. The fact that it is gratuitous, based on an obvious proposition, highlights its offensive character. Since silence gives consent to the demonization implicit in the goodyism, there is really no choice but to push back against it. The worst thing you can do, however, is to return fire with irony, as Socrates did, if only to me, by joking that he was against women in the arts. Remember, the goodyist has set a trap for you; he has all but accused you of heresy. You have ample reason to be irritated, but giving vent to your annoyance with an irreverent jest only makes it easier for him to spring the trap. It is much better to answer with a purer form of humor, to cut him down to size. The next time someone aims a goodyism at you like “I Support Women in the Arts,” say to him what my father would often say to me: “Bully for you. Now what do you want, a dog biscuit or a cat biscuit?”