Height can be a sensitive topic, as the following anecdote will show.
Bill and George have both always believed that they are tall men.
George is 6’4″ (193cm) tall. He comes from a family of tall people, so he has never felt strongly about being tall – it feels normal. But if you asked him, he would definitely say that yes, he’s quite tall.
Bill is 5’8″ (172cm) tall. He is the only male in his generation of his family, and the oldest child, and went through puberty earlier than his peers, so he is used to thinking of himself as tall. Bill finds it quite strange when other people think of him as average height.
Question: Is Bill entitled to think of himself as tall?
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would say that Bill isn’t entitled to think of himself as tall. (There’s bound to be someone willing to die on that hill, of course.) But most people, I think, would acknowledge that “tall” has an element of judgement, and that Bill is perfectly entitled to decide whether to think of himself as tall, short, or average. Whether Bill thinks of himself as tall is really his own business, and doesn’t matter to anyone else.
Bill and George have met before, once or twice. One day, they run into each other in a clothes shop. George is heading for the “For The Taller Man” range, and Bill says that’s where he’s heading too. Unthinkingly, George expresses surprise, and Bill feels hurt. Bill argues that it’s hurtful and discriminatory for George to suggest that Bill isn’t tall. Bill asks whether George thinks that anyone under six feet tall (182cm) should shop in different shops?
Question: Should George agree that Bill is tall?
This question is subtly different to our first question. The majority of us probably agreed that Bill is entitled to believe himself to be tall if he likes. But is he entitled to insist that George believes (or at least, says that he believes) the same? Indeed, those are two separate questions. Is Bill entitled to ask that George agree that Bill is tall? And is he entitled to expect George to believe, privately, that Bill is tall? Is George prejudiced if he does not believe that Bill is tall (even if he doesn’t say so out loud)?
For the first question, many people (myself included) would answer that George should agree on grounds of politeness. It is not a matter of life or death whether Bill is tall. It’s not a matter of huge importance at all to anyone except Bill himself. Bill has made it clear that this is something that is very important to him, so shouldn’t we agree? I would argue that yes, we probably should.
The second part is trickier. Is Bill entitled to demand that George believe that Bill is tall? Both Bill and George have reasonable beliefs about what the word “tall” means, based on their own experience. On the one hand, George’s belief is probably in line with the majority opinion in thinking that Bill is of roughly average height. Then again, Bill is forming an opinion about himself, which he is surely entitled to do (as we agreed earlier). So who is right?
I would argue, here, that Bill has over-reached by expecting that his opinion should overrule George’s. Both have fairly reasonable grounds for their conclusions. Both opinions are based on evidence, and neither has concrete proof that can decide the issue. Each should form his own opinion. Bill does not have the right to dictate what George is allowed to think.
However, since we are talking about whether Bill is tall, politeness would dictate that George doesn’t disagree out loud with Bill unless there is some other important reason to do so. Since this is a matter of Bill’s self-belief (or identity), George should not try to persuade Bill that he’s wrong. Our identities are important to us, and we take it badly when other people try to overrule us.
Bill has discovered that despite his best efforts, people keep referring to him as not tall. He feels that he is being disbelieved, and it affects his sense of self-worth. He has always considered himself tall, and it’s upsetting to keep being told that he’s not. Being tall is part of Bill’s identity, and it is being continually challenged.
Worse, some people don’t stop at disagreeing with him, but also make fun of him for saying that he’s tall or even threaten him. And they keep mentioning his height. Bill is aware that there is no fixed definition of what height someone needs to be to be considered “tall”, and yet people keep mentioning Bill’s height as “proof” that he’s not tall.
Bill decides that he will campaign to ban people from mentioning height. It will stop people using irrelevant facts to deny his identity and challenge him, and hopefully end the discrimination he faces.
Question: Does Bill have the right to try to ban people from talking about height? Are people entitled to make fun of Bill – or worse, threaten him with violence – for thinking that he’s tall?
We have two questions again. Let’s consider them in order.
First, let’s look at what Bill is asking for. Bill is no longer just demanding that people respect his belief, nor even that they agree with him. Bill is now trying to suppress the mention of facts that don’t support his case.
Bill argues that since there is no specific height that has been agreed as “tall”, so height as irrelevant to whether he is tall. That doesn’t seem to be an entirely reasonable conclusion. But whether it is reasonable or not, what Bill is asking for is that people not be allowed to mention height at all. He’s seeking to ban a whole area of debate, and to rule out some of the supporting arguments that his opponents might want to make.
At this point, to be honest, I have lost quite a lot of my sympathy for Bill. He is entitled to hold whatever opinion he likes about his identity, and people should be respectful when talking to him about it. But he is seeking to ban other people’s opinions and ban discussion of that facts that support them. In my opinion, Bill is in the wrong here. Neither Bill nor anyone else is entitled to do this.
However, the second question is just as important. Are people entitled to make fun of Bill – or worse, threaten him – because of his beliefs? Here, I hope, we all agree that the answer is an emphatic “No”. Regardless of whether Bill is right or wrong, it’s not okay to attack him for his beliefs or identity. Although you and I might disagree with Bill, it’s not okay to attack him – physically or verbally – for his beliefs unless he is harming us. Nor is it ever okay to physically attack people for having an opinion that is wrong. We can, of course, fight in self-defence – but hurt feelings don’t justify a punch.
(Nor of course should Bill attack anyone else for disagreeing that he is tall, no matter how upset he may be.)
Infuriated by people constantly denying that he is tall, and scared by the threats he’s receiving for his campaign to support tall-identifying people regardless of their height, Bill seeks to campaign even more strongly for his rights.
Bill campaigns to prevent people making things for “tall” people which are not usable by people like himself who are of shorter height. He objects to clothes for tall people which are not wearable by tall people of shorter height. He seeks to outlaw height ever being used as a criteria to allow or deny access. (Funfair and water park operators argue that this will damage safety as they use height restrictions for safety reasons, but Bill dismisses this as unfounded.) Bill argues that anyone trying to preserve height restrictions in any circumstances is acting purely from prejudice.
Tall people argue that they need some adaptations, such as larger clothes or beds long enough for them. Rather than them harming Bill’s rights, they argue that Bill is directly harming them by seeking to ban such things. Bill and his co-campaigners receive abuse on social media. As the issue becomes more public, and as more people disagree with him and his campaign, Bill feels more and more threatened.
Bill points out that short people are the victims of more violent crime than tall people, and have higher rates of suicide. He points out that taller people are more likely to be hired for a job than shorter people, and more likely to be wealthy. He argues that this makes the issue a matter of life and death for some people, and that allowing people to identify as tall regardless of their height will save lives.
Bill and some of his co-campaigners decide that since their rights are under attack, they are entitled to attack those who are prejudiced against them. They begin to doxx their opponents, and threaten them with violence online. A few times, they turn up at places that cater for tall people, and threaten their opponents with violence. In one such incident, George is badly beaten while trying to buy a suit in a “For Taller Men” range. (Funnily enough, the same shop where Bill and George first discussed the issue.)
We now have a whole lot of questions to consider.
Firstly, we can hark back to our original point and say that Bill is perfectly entitled to identify as tall. Nor is he provably wrong, as much as his opponents might like to think so. People’s understanding of what “tall” means vary from person to person.
Secondly, however, we have to note that Bill’s demands have progressed still further. Originally he was asking for people to respect his opinions, and then he was asking people to agree with his opinions, then he progressed to trying to stop people talking about facts that didn’t support his case. Now, sadly, he has moved to intimidation to try to force people to agree with him.
It’s worth noting that Bill is also being harassed. He has received abuse on social media, and he is clearly feeling threatened and frightened. However, the actions he is taking to fight back aren’t directed just at people who have attacked him – he is lashing out at anyone who disagrees with him. He is not distinguishing between people who are disgareeing politely and those attacking him, nor is he distinguishing between people with reasonable arguments and those just reciting prejudices.
Bill is also right to point out that short people are discriminated against. It’s right to raise this issue, and to try to change it. However, we might question whether allowing people to call themselves tall regardless of their height will really change that prejudice. People tend to judge height for themselves, and banning mention of height is unlikely to change the opinions that people form. Perhaps it would be better to raise awareness of the discrimination that short people face, and how it harms them?
Moreover, in my opinion Bill doesn’t really have a case. He is absolutely entitled to his own identity, but not to demand that other people agree. While Bill’s belief that he is tall can’t be proved wrong, it also can’t be proved right. While Bill is entitled to his own beliefs, so are others. While that may hurt Bill’s feelings, he’s not entitled to be protected from anyone disagreeing with him.
Plus, we have to note that Bill’s demands are now actually harming others: tall people who need clothes, tools, furniture or equipment that fit them. He’s also potentially inflicting incidental harm on people who are younger or smaller, and for whom height restrictions were being used as a protective measure. Then again, it’s worth pointing out that in many of the latter cases, it might well be possible to use something else other than height to achieve the same goal: age, for instance. Bill’s argument that people could use measures other than height has some validity. But does that mean that using height is a sign of prejudice? It’s not clear that this is the case.
However, again we have to note that while Bill has to put up with people disagreeing with him, he should not have to put up with people threatening him or physically attacking him. While Bill is wrong to use threats and violence to achieve his goals, so are his opponents: and the use of these methods by both sides is a major reason why this dispute is escalating so quickly.
Question: So where does all this leave us?
In a god-awful mess, quite frankly. Bill has several good arguments on his side, and has clearly been attacked by some hateful people. But he has also over-reached with his claims, and some of his demands have the potential to harm others. There is so much ill-feeling on all sides that it’s hard to see how the issue will be resolved satisfactorily.
If I had to make some suggestions of how this might reach a reasonable outcome, I would have to suggest a few points to both Bill and his opponents.
- Bill should probably accept that his belief that he is tall is subjective, rather than a matter of fact. He can’t be proved wrong, but nor can he be proved right.
- Bill’s opponents need to remember that if Bill has identified as someone tall, and put effort into defending his belief, that’s because this is important to him. They shouldn’t casually mock his beliefs or dismiss them.
- Bill should focus his campaigning on stopping people harassing him. People who mock or threaten Bill need to be dealt with according to the law. People who merely disagree with him, however, Bill may have to learn to live with.
- Bill’s friends (and those of his opponents who are well-meaning) should support Bill in his campaigns against anyone who abuses or threatens him. Threats are not an acceptable form of argument. They do not need, however, to agree with Bill. Indeed, agreeing with Bill just to avoid an argument is probably a mistake. They don’t need to disagree with Bill, but they should encourage him to tolerate people disagreeing with him.
- Both Bill and his opponents need to call out anyone on their own side who is using mockery, harassment or threats. They may feel that they cannot be held responsible for their allies’ behaviour – but if not they, then who? Criticism of our behaviour from an opponent is unlikely to sway us, but criticism from an ally may make us pause to think. At the very least, it’s important to show those who disagree with us that we respect them and will protect them even while we continue to disagree.
- Bill should recognise that while he has a lot of problems to deal with, other people do too. George, for instance, needs a suit that fits him – and a suit cut to fit Bill will not fit George. Bill has got a bit too caught up in his own problems, and should try to see that other people have their own needs too.
- Both Bill and his opponents should be wary of escalating the argument to try to win a decisive victory. This is not the sort of situation where one side will defeat the other, it’s a matter of conflicting opinions. If threats, intimidation and abuse over the issue are normalised, everyone loses.
I’m not suggesting that these would solve all of Bill and George’s problems. But they might, at least, stop them escalating completely out of control. No-one wants to live in a world where it’s normal to use abuse and intimidation to force others to comply with our views.
My aim with this post is not to solve the problem of whether Bill is right or wrong. Indeed, since this is a matter of belief and of the definition of a word, I don’t believe that such a resolution is possible. Nor is my aim to argue over whether Bill is entitled to respect for his beliefs, and to be free from harassment and intimidation. I strongly believe that everyone has those rights. My aim is to consider to what extent Bill is entitled to expect others to agree with his beliefs, and whether he is entitled to force people to comply. I argue that he is not entitled to that. Bill is entitled to his own belief and identity, but so are others. In seeking to make people agree with him, Bill is in the wrong.
I would also ask you to consider whether, if all of Bill’s current demands were met, Bill would find that he was satisfied and that everyone agreed with him. I think that he would find that many people still disagreed,. In those circumstances, I predict that Bill would have still more demands to try to achieve the impossible task of making everyone agree that he was right.
It’s possible that I mean this parable to be applicable in the real world. It’s even possible that I have more than one application in mind. I’ll leave that to the reader to determine.