You know this teacher. He’s the one who can turn any topic, no matter how thrilling or challenging, into something tiresome and predictable. Over years of repetition, he’s succumbed to his own droning voice, and no matter where he begins, he will eventually, inevitably work his way around to that same old, tired old pet theory or phrase.
You can lay bets on who can be the first to make him drag in Sartre, nativism, or Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe. If you’re really unscrupulous, you know you can get a solid B just by making even the most dubious mention of that key phrase, whether it’s “the sacred feminine” or “hermeneutic of continuity” or “fallacy of relative privation” or whatever impressed your teacher when he was in college. He has fallen prey to that most deadly intellectual predator: the hobby horse.
Hobby horses are toys, for children to play with. And yet so many adults ride them every day. And there is nothing more dreary than having a conversation that you think is actually going somewhere, only to spy the other person trotting out that ratty old hobby horse once again. It’s not welcome. It’s not relevant. But it’s so familiar, so reliable, so docile and easy to steer, how can we resist? Giddyup!
We all repeat ourselves sometimes. And some ideas are worth repeating! But a good idea becomes a hobby horse when it not only turns up all the time, but it becomes the answer to all questions. It’s not just that your favorite issue keeps coming up; it’s that it seems to you like nobody is really saying anything at all until that issue has been raised. Is something bad happening? It’s all due to [bad thing that you hate]. Is something good happening? Oh, just wait until it all gets ruined by [same bad thing that you hate]. Cloppity, cloppity, clop.
A few examples of popular hobby horses:
- illegal immigration
- Communion in the hand
- rape culture
- divorce culture
- princess culture
- failure to heed Our Lady of Fatima
- failure to heed Noam Chomsky
- failure to heed Ron Paul
- men, and how everything is their fault
- women, and how everything is their fault
- this one particular woman, and how everything is her fault, and here is her address
- failure to include homosexuals
- failure to exclude homosexuals
- abortion access/graphic abortion pictures/abortion shaming
- food stamps
- essential oils
- the evils of NFP/the wonders of NFP
- Hillary Clinton/Dick Cheney/Benedict Cumberbatch
- weed, man, weed
and so on. And guess what? If you read this list and thought, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe she put such-and-such incredibly important topic on the list with all those other trivial issues!” . . . then, my friend, you are the proud and devoted owner of a bona fide hobby horse. These are all important issues. They are, however, not the only issues. They are not always relevant.
So, listen up, everybody — and I’m including myself. If you spend a lot of time yacking online, ask yourself this: could I reasonably be known as “That [something] Guy” or “That [something] Lady”? Do I often find myself saying, “If you’d just open your eyes, you’d see that everything always stems from . . . “? Have you noticed that people can finish your sentences for you, and they don’t seem especially happy about it?
Try this: stop it. Just for 48 hours, conduct all conversations without hauling out your threadbare little pet. If it’s difficult to refrain for even that long, then you have a problem.
The truth is, there are a few occasions when one answer suffices for every question. “Why are bad things bad?” — “Original sin.” “Why are good things good?” — “God.” Everything that is bad is due to a turning away from God; everything that is good is due to God’s goodness. True, true, true.
But if you are interested in better understanding people you disagree with — or if you are interested in solving a problem, rather than being right about how awful the problem it is — then you are going to have to admit that your hobby horse is not actually going to take you anywhere. You might be able to work up a fine sweat charging around on it, but it’s only your own leg power that’s making you go. And that means that you can only go so far.