Thursday, April 16, 2009

The utopian cruelty of the opposition to homosexuality

Several things strike me reading pieces such as Rod Dreher’s arguments against legal equality for same-sex couples.

(1) Basing ethics on a conception of The Good is inherently tyrannical. Both in the sense of privileging certain people to decide what is The Good and in restricting the lives of those who do not conform that privileged notion of The Good. Hence the importance of "the pursuit of happiness" in the American Declaration of Independence as a principle for a free society, one in which people can pursue their various visions of the good.

I entirely agree with John Rawls that ethics should be concerned with how we get along, not with the pursuit of a singular The Good. We need criteria of judgement because we are purposive beings, but the question “how should we live?” is a different question to “how do we get along?”. (So I also agree with Roger Scruton that answering the second question does not answer the first. From a rather different perspective, Terry Eagleton makes a similar point.)

(2) Such conservatives are apparently committed to an unending war against human sexual diversity. This is a form of utopianism: dealing with human nature not as it is as it is (diverse in erotic orientation) but has it is conceived it ought to be (only one proper sexual orientation). With a history that has all the brutality that utopian wars against human nature involve. (The inherent brutality of utopianism I discuss a bit further here.)

That such anathematisatioin is utopian is obscured by it being “traditional”, though not by the brutality by which the tradition was established and maintained. Its utopianism is also obscured by it being imposed on a comparatively small and vulnerable minority. For there can be few more isolated, more vulnerable or more lonely people anywhere than a same-sex oriented boy or girl reaching puberty in a deeply religious family and community that anathematises same-sex activity and so rejects the legitimacy of their actual nature.

For the largely oblivious majority, such repression could (and can) be passed off as just "normality" or "decency". That some lived in a world of fear, hiding, informers and police brutality, where even to publish a novel which presented homosexuality positively was "obscene"—a quasi-police state in the middle of free societies, whose patterns are familiar to anyone aware of those in the various milder "making the glorious future" totalitarian societies—was a non-happening. It is precisely because modern states have retreated from that required brutality and repression that the tradition of anathematisation and exclusion is collapsing.

That both the opposition to homosexuality and revolutionary socialism are utopian wars against human nature means that there are various affinities between the two: notably the downgrading of consent due to the elevation of form. Just as revolutionary socialism holds workers consenting to work for a firm does not matter because capitalist enterprise is a "false form" of economic action, so the opposition to homosexuality says two men or two women consenting to have sex does not matter because same-sex activity is a "false form" of sexual activity.

There has also certain been a certain "airbrushing" of history, so quite false statements get passed off as "obvious" truths. An example is:
“until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history”
from columnist Charles Krauthammer, which is either smug ignorance of much anthropological data or else arch narrowing of terms. Even supporters of same-sex marriage such as Steven Schmidt can make statements such as:
“The institution of marriage is the foundation of society and alterations to its definitions shouldn't be lightly undertaken. It has always been defined as the legal union of a man and a woman, and it's understandable that many Americans are apprehensive about making a definitional change to so profoundly an important institution.”
while standing in a land whose preceding cultures included ones that included same-sex marriages.

(3) Homosexuality is discussed as an "optional extra" rather than manifestation of how (some) people are. But that is profoundly disingenuous. Disapproval of homosexuality is not mere disapproval of certain sex acts (even those—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, etc—which have their heterosexual equivalents), it is disapproval of love expressed by such sex. Of building lives together bound by erotic love. It is a disapproval of people’s lives in a quite fundamental sense.

To justify such on the grounds of a commitment to a conception of “human flourishing”, as Rod Dreher, Edward Feser, James Kalb and others do, is a conception that clearly excludes a whole set of people from the definition of humans-whose-flourishing-counts. (Any notion that such exclusion is in their “real” interests is just a monstrously disingenuous rationalization.) Indeed, it is a conception of “human flourishing” which entails creating human misery for those who do not conform to its notion of the proper form of the human. See previous comments about the tyrannical nature of ethics based on a conception of The Good.

After all, why be bothered at all that some men love other men, or some women love other women as if such people have to ask permission to live, love and build lives together? It bespeaks of a desperate desire to enforce a particular conception of the human.

The traditional Christian position has been to be as cruel to the same-sex attracted and oriented as can be got away with. If burning them alive can be got away with, that was done. If throwing them to dogs to be eaten alive can be got away with, that was done. If it is to be gaoled or flogged, that was done. Any way the message can be sent that they are contemptible and disgusting, that was done. As philosopher Richard Mohr observed:
unenforced sodomy laws are the chief systematic way that society as a whole tells gays they are scum.
If the message can be sent that daring to think themselves the equal of “real people” with “real relationships” is unacceptable can be sent, that is done.

The wonder is, people can believe that the God who sent His only Son to die on the cross for their salvation nevertheless also wants them to be as cruel as they can get away with to a particular vulnerable minority. The trick is to pass it off as not being cruelty, but as defence of “decency”. An old trick, but rarely done with such fervour as against the queers.

(4) The experience of being homosexual (and so the implications of "our disapproval counts because we have the numbers" for homosexuals) has no weight. It is just not a set of experiences or aspirations that count at all. So no cruelty to them in the name of "defending decency" counts as cruelty, which is how the believers reconcile their commitment to the Gospel of Love with inflicting as much cruelty as they can get away with without presenting it (above all to themselves) as cruelty.

So, to sum up (the opposition to homosexuality), homosexuals should not exist, they should not act upon their existence as people erotically oriented towards their own sex, the law should not positively recognise their existence, and should not protect the lives they build together. So, the fight is between the growing view that homosexuals are just folk—in the words of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
—versus the view that they are a twisted and perverted lesser form of the human whose experience and aspirations do not count. I know which side I am happy to be on.

ADDENDA: I have edited this post a bit to clarify some points, add or extend others, fix some grammatical errors, etc without changing the basic arguments. It is something of a work in progress.

10 comments:

  1. This is well-said and well written. Thank you.

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  2. Very interesting and thoughful piece...

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  3. This is indeed a thoughtful summary, but I raise two points for consideration:

    1) Who are these cruel people of today you refer to? There are, to be sure, some people who are violent and cruel but the vast majority who object to the homosexual lifestyle do so in quietude and with peace.

    2) In point #3 above we should be aware that it is a recent linguistic maneuver to refer to *being* homosexual versus engaging in homosexual acts. This shift has immense consequences in how we talk about the issue. Debates on the moral nature of sexuality often are in disconnect because each side speaks from presumption of either the new "being homosexual" frame of reference of the traditional "homosexual acts" frame. I happen to think the traditional view is more representative of our individual liberty and moral autonomy, but this should in no way be license for cruelty and sinful behavior toward any other person.

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  4. Duane: Most people who objected to Jews did not engage in violence, but the claim that they were not "proper" members of society inevitably led to violence. The same applies.

    Also, you seem very unaware of how much same-sex attracted children still suffer (though much less than used to be the case) far more emotional turmoil (or even outright rejection by their parents) than they need to due to the anathematisation of homosexuality.

    Finally, the framing as "acts" is belittling, because it wishes people to exorcise from their functioning identity a basic part of their nature: their erotic orientation. It is not an "optional extra" and writing as if it is shows a complete lack of understanding of what that implies. Framing it in that way makes it clear that the reality of human sexual diversity is taken to be morally invalid.

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  5. (1) Basing ethics on a conception of The Good is inherently tyrannical. Both in the sense of privileging certain people to decide what is The Good and in restricting the lives of those who do not conform that privileged notion of The Good. Hence the importance of "the pursuit of happiness" in the American Declaration of Independence as a principle for a free society, one in which people can pursue their various visions of the good.

    I think that one can base a conception of ethics on "The Good" if (1) "The Good" is defined in very general terms and (2) is very carefully chosen. Something like the Silver Rule ("do unto others good, then do unto others as they last did unto you" aka Nice Tit For Tat) or the Jeffersonian "right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" works pretty well.

    Such formulations are, alas, obviously and necessarily incomplete. For instance, I could subvert both the ones I gave to provide justification for anti-homosexual legislation (the Silver Rule, by claiming that homosexuality was "evil" and hence harm to homosexuals morally justified; the Jeffersonian by claiming that the homosexuality of others was so offensive that it violated their right to "the pursuit of happiness"). I consider both claims false, but the fact that I can see how they could be argued means that others, who would consider them true, could and would argue them eloquently.

    (2) Such conservatives are apparently committed to an unending war against human sexual diversity. This is a form of utopianism: dealing with human nature not as it is as it is (diverse in erotic orientation) but has it is conceived it ought to be (only one proper sexual orientation). With a history that has all the brutality that utopian wars against human nature involve.

    Complete agreement on this here. And like all such wars, any outcome other than giving up the fight will be bad for humanity: if we keep on doing as we have done through the last millennium, we will pointlessly persecute homosexuals; if we somehow find a technological solution and actually do eradicate homosexuality, we will have simply reduced our diversity as a species. (And if some sociobiologists are right and homosexuality has the evolved function in humanity of creating a reserve store of effort to be used to the benefit of others than direct descendants, and has thus become linked with creativity and intelligence, we will have reduced it in a particularly self-destructive fashion!)

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  6. That such anathematisatioin is utopian is obscured by it being “traditional”, though not by the brutality by which the tradition was established and maintained.

    The question then arises as to why something so cruel should become "traditional" in so many societies: it's similar in this regard to the tendency of the status of women as opposed to men to drop in all cultures which develop professional specialization -- which only reversed itself when medical technology reached the point that women could expect to survive childbirth and hence it became cost-effective to train women as specialists. Having not thought about the issue of homosexuality in this regard until just now (thank you, Lorenzo!) I'm wondering if the denigration of homosexuals is common to a particularly cultural or technological phase for cultural-evolutionary reasons, and if so if the (more recent) liberation of homosexuals has come from further cultural or technological change which has lifted the former cultural-evolutionary bias against allowing homosexuals equal status with hetrosexuals.

    One obvious possiblity is "be fruitful and multiply" -- at a certain point, victorious Bronze or Iron Age civilizations acquire the capability to expand very rapidly into the territory of the vanquished but only if they can keep their growth rate well above replacement. This ceases to be much of a factor when one develops mechanized warfare and contraception.

    Another possibility is that the former sociobiological role of gays as creative "bachelor uncles" (and lesbians as the equivalent for aunts) with reserve effort available for kin who were not direct descendants was superseded by the development of large-scale specialization and barter. In pre-industrial societies, specialists (including merchants) must be regulated by and to some extent limited to guild-like organizations, which often become at least semi-hereditary: perhaps randomly creative homosexuals interfered with such regular order? In that case, the development of banking, industrialism and freer trade may have reopened the niche for successful and useful homosexuality?

    I'm just speculating here -- what do you think?

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  7. Its utopianism is also obscured by it being imposed on a comparatively small and vulnerable minority.

    Crushing a small group is always easier and can be done with less fuss than crushing a large group. It's an even smaller group because

    For there can be few more isolated, more vulnerable or more lonely people anywhere than a same-sex oriented boy or girl reaching puberty in a deeply religious family and community that anathematises same-sex activity and so rejects the legitimacy of their actual nature.

    So the homosexual boy finds himself feeling things which society tells him are "dirty" and "shameful," and which he can hope for no LEGITIMATE means of acting upon. This is very different from the hetrosexual boy, who while his adolescent sexual stirrings would be seen as bad to act upon, has the example before him that boys grow up, become men, and marry women (or seek out prostitutes, in the case of the more degraded lower classes).

    What's worse, because the homosexual boy is strongly motivated to keep his secret, he may think he's the only one with such feelings. Or at least massively underestimate homosexuality.

    Note that since human sexuality is a continuum, what we're talking about here is maybe 1-5% of the population being strongly and exclusively homosexual, and another 5-20% being somewhat bisexual. Against that 5-20% social repression generally DOES work: if you're talking about someone with very slight stirrings toward the same sex but strong stirrings toward the opposite sex, in a repressive society (heck, even in a totally free society, assuming any degree of monogamy!) he will find it easier to live as a pure hetrosexual.

    For the largely oblivious majority, such repression could (and can) be passed off as just "normality" or "decency". That some lived in a world of fear, hiding, informers and police brutality, where even to publish a novel which presented homosexuality positively was "obscene"—a quasi-police state in the middle of free societies, whose patterns are familiar to anyone aware of those in the various milder "making the glorious future" totalitarian societies—was a non-happening. It is precisely because modern states have retreated from that required brutality and repression that the tradition of anathematisation and exclusion is collapsing.

    One could also argue that the persecution of homosexuals is a weakness in our liberal social order which can serve as a door for totalitarianism to re-enter. Note that the psychiatric persecution of dissidents, famously employed by Communist regimes, was to some extent carried out by Western ones against homosexuals -- Turing being the most famous victim of such abuse.

    (Turing is, of course, the object lesson as to just why such persecution is self-destructive: imagine if we'd had the use of his mind for another couple decades!)

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  8. 3) Homosexuality is discussed as an "optional extra" rather than manifestation of how (some) people are. But that is profoundly disingenuous. Disapproval of homosexuality is not mere disapproval of certain sex acts (even those—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, etc—which have their heterosexual equivalents), it is disapproval of love expressed by such sex. Of building lives together bound by erotic love. It is a disapproval of people’s lives in a quite fundamental sense.

    And an example of persecution justifying itself by its effect upon the persecuted, to wit:

    "I despise gay men because they are so immoral. Straight men fall in love and get married, gay men just tomcat around and never get married. That's why we have to forbid gay marriage."

    which is clearly a type of circular reasoning: if gay marriage is forbidden, then of course gays will not marry.

    (even though it is true that homosexual men are on average more promiscious and homosexual women less promiscious than straights, which derives from the greater promiscuity of men compared to women).

    Of course, if homosexual relationships were effectively forbidden, but homosexual acts necessarily tolerated due to the difficulty of enforcement of laws against them, then homosexuals in such a society would be practicing a nasty secretive vice rather than forming meaningful social bonds -- but that would be because of the law itself.

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