March 17, 2016

You Are Wrong Not to Find Her Attractive

Physical attractiveness
Physical attractiveness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Physical attraction is something that has never struck me as being particularly rational. What I mean by that is that I've rarely understood or been able to clearly express why I am attracted to some people and not to others. On several occasions, I have been accused by friends of lying to them when I have said that I do not find a particular woman over whom they were drooling to be even mildly attractive. But when they demand to know how I can not find her attractive, I can't really explain it beyond saying something like, "I don't know. She just doesn't do it for me."

I have had this experience both with regard to women my friends and I knew in real life and with famous celebrities one would see only in the movies. I mention the celebrities because my friends have often used the celebrity status of some of these women as a way to insist that my perceptions are not just skewed but objectively false. "Everybody thinks she's attractive," they insist. Evidently, the fact that a particular woman is highly regarded by many people for her beauty proves to their satisfaction that I am wrong. But is it possible to be wrong about something as idiosyncratic as what one likes or doesn't like? It isn't like I'm claiming that a particular woman is unattractive, only that I don't personally find her attractive.

I don't think I'm at all unique in this regard. I suspect we have all had experiences where we found someone attractive that our friends didn't find attractive and other experiences were we weren't attracted to someone that almost all of our friends seemed to find attractive. This has always struck me as exactly what we should expect since people have different preferences in practically every other arena.

What I do find a bit more puzzling is how worked up some people seem to get when I disagree with their assessment of a stranger's attractiveness. It is almost as if some feel that their opinions are being invalidated simply because I do not happen to share them. When this happens, I am reminded of what often happens when I express differing opinions on politics or religion.

I used to think that religion was vastly different from almost every other domain in that this was the one area where many people could not (or would not) calmly handle differing viewpoints. It has become clear to me over the years that this is also true of politics and probably to a similar degree. Recently, I have found myself wondering if it might not also be true for assessments of physical attractiveness and a host of other issues (e.g., feminism, one's choice of smart phone).

Want a quick example of how ridiculously trivial this sort of thing can get? This is a tangent, but I find it a sufficiently odd one to mention. A friend recently got mad at me (and stayed mad for a couple of days) because I said I was in no particular hurry to see a movie he saw a few months ago that had just come out on Blu-ray. I did not say anything even mildly dismissive about him, mind you; all I said was that I hadn't decided whether I wanted to see this particular film, that I'd probably do so eventually, but that I wasn't in any hurry to do so. It wasn't like he was asking me to watch it with him or anything; he just keeps telling me that I "have to see it." It was obvious that he was mad at me for several hours after this interaction.

Here's my half-baked theory on all of this, whether it is the perceived attractiveness of a celebrity, one's opinion of a political candidate, cherished religious beliefs, or just some random movie. I think it boils down to our tendency to define ourselves by our various preferences so that we experience the expression of alternative preferences as attacks on our identity. When I say that I do not find some actress to be attractive, others hear that as if I was telling them they are wrong even though that is not remotely close to what I'm saying. And so, they attempt to argue me out of my preference as a way of validating their own. This does not seem to be so different from how some Christians react so angrily merely upon learning that atheists exist.

In the end, this all serves to make me think that we need to be careful about suggesting that reason will necessarily flourish in the absence of religious belief. While it is difficult to imagine that the erosion of religious belief will be anything but good for reason, we are far too irrational in other areas for me to imagine some sort of post-religious utopia. Reason, critical thinking, skepticism, and freethought will not automatically replace religion; a great deal of continued effort will be necessary even without religion.
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