The pointless controversy.

This list sat on my web-site largely unregarded for a decade, before Manu Smith, with flagrant disregard of copyright laws, reposted it in its entirety on the Yehoodi website. Unknown to me, the list became a matter of quite heated debate, with a few other people also reposting the entire essay. Those posting it did so either to provoke entertaining argument, such as on Yehoodi, or else to offer other people an opportunity to express outrage. In humanity's defence, I should say that most people commenting expressed agreement with the article, but plenty did not, and some of the arguments levelled against it were patently ludicrous, suggesting that the article said all sorts of things that it simply did not say. At no point does the article say for instance that men should lead, or that women only follow. One lady said that my arguments were invalid because they made "an appeal to the norm". The essay is explaining the norm. One commenter asked why it was absurd for a woman to be assertive. I never said it was. I wrote "... the 1980s with their absurdly assertive women...". If any people are absurdly anything, they are absurd. To have misread what I wrote so badly would require someone's trying very hard to be offended.

Some while later, I met Manu at the Herräng dance camp in Sweden, and he said to me that "We have got to talk about your article." I didn't know what he had in mind, and was very far from reassured when he said in a reassuring tone of voice, "It'll be fun."

Some while later (16th August 2011 at 1.28 a.m. British time to be precise), Manu called me and recorded a discussion for his on-line radio station. Manu is an affable character and the discussion was good-natured throughout. There for the prosecution was a lady called Nicole Zuckerman, who objected to the article and near enough everything it stood for. I stand by this article for the simple reason that I believe it to be true. It would be an appalling act of moral cowardice to remove it just because some people disagree with it, or because some people who have misinterpreted it have decided to be offended by it. I would of course remove it or alter it immediately if it could be shown to be untrue.

Use this button to listen to the part of the Yehoodi talk show that deals with this topic, featuring my saying "um" and "er" a lot. It is 19 minutes long.

That the convention exists is true. While at the Herräng camp for over two weeks, where up to about eight hundred people at a time dance each night through, I took the trouble to count the number of times I saw a woman leading a man. The Herräng dance camp is a world populated by liberated, educated, middle-class, modern people, with broad minds, and a relaxed attitude to fun and experimentation. I saw it happen four times. The convention exists. Everything that exists has an explanation, and it is interesting and useful to try to find an explanation.

Nicole opined that sex is not part of the fun. I'm sure that a major reason why people like social dance is that they get to meet and interact with members of the opposite sex. It isn't the only reason of course, but my confidence that it is a significant reason is high. While it may be true that for Nicole sex is not part of the fun, for me it certainly is, and I am far from unique. When I observe behaviour on the dance floor, I am aware that the degree of sexual attraction between partners does affect the way they dance, just as it affects all other aspects of human behaviour. I cannot think of any reason why social dancing would be an exception.

I think the reason that some people have trouble with the article, is that they are treating it not as ten factors that go towards explaining why a convention that undoubtedly exists is the way it is (why men tend to lead and women tend to follow instead of the other way around), but instead as "Ten justifications, each of which is strong enough on its own to make plain why it has to be the case and should be the case that men lead in social dance and women follow." In fact, none of the ten reasons in the list on its own is strong enough to make it the case that the convention has to be the way it is. It was once the case, before the convention was established, that it could have gone either way. In the end, it came down on the side where men generally lead and women generally follow. I list in this essay factors that all nudged in the same direction. I am explaining the convention, not justifying it. Indeed, if you read the work carefully, you will see that I accept that perhaps there is a drawback to the convention's very existence.

Do I follow? Yes, but not very well. I danced as a follow in a competition just two days before writing this. I was knocked out quite early. The night before that, I was the guy who jumped into the jam circle with another guy. My leading is enormously better than my following, which is easy to explain: I've done much more of it. I specialised, you see (see reason 5). If there is anyone out there who can demonstrate that people who usually dance one role somehow get better at the other role faster, I'd be fascinated to listen to what they had to say.

I stand for fun. I want people to have as much of it as possible, and to share the fun with others. Social dance is one way to do this. Both men and women enjoy it. There are some people in the world, however, who find themselves incapable of having fun on the social dance floor, because of a nagging voice that tells them that they shouldn't be enjoying anything which has defined roles for the sexes. This nagging voice lessens the total amount of fun in the world. It was indirectly for those unfortunate few that I wrote the essay (and because I needed material for my website). My direct target audience was the people who encounter these unfortunates. I stand by every word of what I wrote, because I believe it all to be true, and I value truth. If anyone can prove to me that men are not taller than women, or that being taller is never an advantage in leading, then I will withdraw that statement as fast as I can.

I wrote of my ten reasons, "They should make you feel better, even if they do nothing to convert the person you are talking to." I think this makes it clear for whom the essay is written. Some of the other side read it instead.

Nicole seemed to be taking offence at being told to get out more (number 10). I never said she should. The 'You' in number ten does not address her. It very clearly does not address her. Nicole is a keen social dancer. I dare say she gets out often. She has been able to enjoy social dancing, so clearly she is able to operate in a world with conventional roles for the two sexes. The 'You' very clearly addresses people who cannot do this. Why then, did Nicole think that she was being addressed? My guess is that once she had decided that she disagreed with the essay, she saw it as a direct attack upon her opinions, and every 'you' she saw seemed in her mind to address her.

It must be very frustrating to want to object to something while having no logical or empirically supportable reason for doing so. Possibly it is because some readers have been unable to refute anything I wrote, that they have instead chosen to take offence. This is after all, a common tactic. The essay is 'wrong' because it has caused offence. To those who have taken offence I say this: don't. The only people I criticise in this essay are those who are unable to have fun because an unhelpful mind-set prevents them. So far, all the criticism has come from social dancers, who are clearly not suffering from this mind-set. I simply observe the world. I also express an opinion, which is that it is better to do something fun than not to do it. Disagree with that if you want.

In the light of people’s misunderstandings of the essay, I could rewrite it. I shan’t however, because I prefer to leave it as an historic document. I shouldn’t need to, because it is clear enough, and now it serves to illustrate a new topic: people’s ability to misread something and be outraged by it. However, if I were to write it from scratch now, I would do it differently. I would clump the ten entries into categories, and put them in a different order. I might start with 9 (It isn’t command and obey) which might set the tone better for the more politically sensitive and volatile. Then I might have a section called “It is better to have a convention than not”, and in this would go 1, 4, and 5 (someone has to lead, it avoids arguments, each sex can specialise) which explain why a convention exits, although note that these do not explain why the convention favours men as leaders and women as followers. Next I think I would put 6 (sex is part of the fun) which explains why men and women dance in couples together, but again does not on its own explain which way round the lead/follow convention might be). The next section would be called something like “Why the convention is the way round that it is”, and this would have 2, 3, 7, and 8 (men are taller, stronger, like to lead, and women like to follow). 10 would still go at the end, as it rounds the argument up and summarises it.

One eminently sensible reader of the page summarised it as saying the following: “Do not refrain from social partner dancing just because there is a convention regarding the roles for the two sexes, even if you think it’s wrong and sad that it in fact exists. This is my take on how this convention has emerged, and why we simply shouldn’t care...” Bang on.


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