Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bigotry as an expression of reason (and claims about reality)

Bigotry is an expression of reason. Indeed, bigotry has a logic to it that flows from, and manifests, the reasoned nature of bigotry.

Maverick philosopher shows exactly what is wrong with the term ‘homophobia’ while also being quite mistaken about the nature of bigotry when he writes:
The neologisms 'homophobic' and Islamophobic' -- I hesitate to call them words -- ought to be offensive to people who value clarity of thought and speech. A phobia is an irrational fear. One who argues against the morality of homosexual practices, or gives reasons for opposing same sex 'marriage' is precisely -- presenting arguments, and not expressing any fear, let alone any phobia. The arguments may or may not be cogent. And even if cogent, one is free to dissent from their conclusions. But they are expressive of reason, and are intended to appeal to the reason of one's interlocutor. To dismiss them as an expression of a phobia shows a lack of respect for reason and for the persons who proffer the arguments. But that is the modus operandi of the Left. When they can no longer ignore their opponents, they shout then down, vilify them, engage in childish name-calling, disrupt their presentations, invent question-begging epithets such as 'homophobe.'
‘Phobia’ is indeed a silly suffix when the issue is hatred not fear. Yet, by focusing on the particular misuse of the language—as this passage does—the substantive issue can be evaded: another reason ‘homophobia’ fails as a term.

It is similar to people holding that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they are also Semites. First, that assumes there is a Semitic identity that Arabs and Jews generally conceive themselves as sharing, which there is not. Secondly, the substantive issue is Jew-hatred and of course Arabs can be Jew-haters: indeed, the Arab world is precisely where Jew-hatred is most intense nowadays.

So ‘homophobia’ is, indeed, a silly term. But queer-hatred is a genuine phenomena, every bit as real as Jew-hatred.

The nature of bigotry
The other error maverick philosopher makes is to entirely mistake the nature of bigotry (given that is the substantive accusation being made with the term 'homophobia' however unfortunate a neologism it may be for that). The notion that bigotry can never be an appeal to, or an expression of, reason is, at best, incredibly naïve. Bigotry is rife with expression of, and appeals to, reason. Indeed, bigotry typically involves appeals to moral reason. Bigotry is all about ruling particular categories of people either entirely out of the moral community, or massively devaluing their membership of it, based on reasoned claims about them (which is not the same as being reasonable claims). The history of Jew-hatred is full of arguments, of appeals to reason, of the expression of reason. As is the history of racism, misogyny, and so on.

What is distinctive about bigotry is not that it is unreasoned, nor even that it is not a moral claim. What is distinctive about bigotry is that it attacks people’s membership of the moral community by category unrelated to their specific actions against others and typically does so by attacking their nature. When Martin Luther King eloquently expressed a dream of someone being judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin, he was going against the notion that the colour of someone’s skin tells you something crucial about the actual or likely content of someone’s character, due to the nature of being black: a claim that dates back to at least medieval Arab-Muslim discourses, notably in that supreme example of the reasoning intellectual, Ibn Khaldun.

Similarly, Christian Jew-hatred judged the character of Jews negatively because they had failed to accept Jesus as Messiah: a failure of belief that was taken to be a failure of moral character that made them guilty of Deicide and rejection of God unless they became Christians and accepted Jesus. Just as Muslim Jew-hatred judges the character of Jews negatively unless they accept Muhammad as Prophet.

In both Christian and Muslim forms of Jew-hatred, believers are validating their own beliefs at the expense of those whose existence either confronts or contradicts the same. Just as Christian, Muslims and Jews judge the same-sex oriented negatively, for to accept them as a legitimate manifestation of humanity calls into question parts of their scriptures.

But that is what oppression by secular and religious ideologies have in common: theory trumps people. In each case, the view is “we have a theory of how people should be which you do not fit” thereby claiming the right to constrict, limit, repress or eliminate people’s lives. Hence such belief systems end up operating in grossly immoral ways, since they contradict the first principle of morality, which is that people are prior: that morality is about how we treat people-as-people. The function of morality is to allow us to get along in an organised society, above the level of small protection gang. Our existence as sentient beings is the base from which morality is built. As soon as one adopts a theory where some people count and others do not, some people are properly human and some are not, you are attacking the web of morality: grossly immoral behaviour will naturally flow from that. As, of course, it has.
One way to disguise that is what you are doing is to attack the character of those who are being denied the full protection of the web of morality, thereby making them “responsible” for their own fate. So, just as the moral character of blacks, or Jews, or non-believers or whatever are attacked, exactly the same applies to same-sex attraction and orientation. That one has and expresses such attraction is taken to show that one’s moral character, one’s nature, is deformed.

Now, of course, there are reasoned arguments for such claims, as there were and are reasoned arguments against Jews, against blacks, against women, against Catholics, against Protestants, against Chinese, against whatever. But that there are reasoned arguments, expressions of reason, uses of reason, tells us nothing about whether what is going on is bigotry or not. (Or whether said uses are reasonable.) What is a sure-fire sign of bigotry is to attack the nature of people by some general category not defined by some specific action against others. We can see that ‘murderer’, ‘thief’, ‘liar’, ‘fraudster’ etc are different types of categories in a moral vital sense than ‘Jew’, ‘homosexual’, ‘black’, ‘woman’, ‘Catholic’. By contrast, it is precisely the claim of bigotry that such categories are not different in some vital moral sense; that the designated group are morally deficient as a group.

The logic of bigotry
Bigotry comes in two basic levels: the claim that some group is lesser and the claim that some group should not exist. So—as instances of the latter—Jews should accept Christ, Jews and Christians should accept Muhammad, everyone should be heterosexual and so on, just as no-one should be a murderer or a thief. And one frames patterns and events very differently if one’s base assumption is that some group should not exist than if their existence is taken as legitimate. For example, if one believes homosexuals should not exist, one is going to see the Catholic Church’s child abuse problems quite differently (as one sees in recent statements by prominent Vatican officials that criticism of the Church over the issue is like anti-Semitism, that paedophilia is connected to homosexuality and so forth) than if one takes human sexual diversity as a given, and then asks what incentives Catholic practice and dogma creates given the reality of human sexual diversity. Bigotry has logic to it precisely because it is an expression of reason: just one based on particular premises.

We can see this in the example maverick philosopheruses in the passage quoted above. For the notion that there are moral arguments against “homosexual practice” is, irredeemably, a belittling term used to attack people’s nature. As is the cognate phrase ‘practising homosexual’.

To turn the issue into particular sexual practices is belittling in itself, since sexual acts are just a manifestation of something much deeper: one’s erotic nature. One’s aspirations to joy, intimate companionship and love. One’s sexual orientation is shown most profoundly, not by who one has sex with, but who one falls in love with.

This is one of the problems with the term ‘homosexual’: it provides comfort to the notion that the issue is certain sexual practices rather than erotic attraction and orientation. It then provides comfort to the notion that it is about particular, dispensable, acts.

Now, sexual acts are of course chosen acts. But the demand to give up such acts is also a demand to give up entirely the aspiration to live a life of erotic intimacy with someone you love, even if they are an adult who wishes the same with you. That all such aspirations must be abandoned forever. This is a monstrous demand.

By focusing on the notion of ‘homosexual practice’, the monstrousness of the demand is hidden while implying that all homosexuals care about is sex: that, somehow, they cannot have the “real love” of “real people”. It is intrinsically belittling.

But it is also an attack on their nature beyond this belittling way because, if the practice is morally wrong, then the inclination that drives it must be a moral deformation. The practice cannot be held to be wrong without the inclination of seeking to engage erotically with members of one’s own sex being a sign of a deformed nature. Making the acts problematic must belittle the same-sex oriented. It must be to see then as less rather than as full people.

Which, historically, is exactly how it has worked. And still does: that the inclination is a deformity is the Vatican’s position, for example.

If the acts are morally wrong then the same-sex attracted and oriented are offered no way to view their own erotic inclinations other than in terms of perversity and evil: an immense, indeed often suicidal, psychic burden. The possibly apocryphal offhand royal comment:
I thought men like that killed themselves
has all too often been true.

Much of the burbling on about the alleged tensions between “religious freedom” and equal protection of the law for homosexuals is about defending the “right” to emotionally and spiritually brutalise the same-sex oriented—particularly same-sex oriented adolescents raised in religious milieus. About “their God-fearing right” to attack those who are same-sex oriented membership of the moral community. As Anglican minister Rev. Dr Mark Durie notes in his examination of Muslim teaching and practice against Jews and Christians and their treatment under Muslim rule:
It is a crushing psychological and spiritual burden to live from generation to generation under a culture of curses and withholding of blessings (p.153).
Generations of queer folk cannot but agree. The point encapsulates, and extends beyond, philosopher Richard Mohr’s comment that:
… sodomy laws are the chief systematic way that society as a whole tells gays they are scum.
But if one should not exist, then the question of the burden imposed does not even arise. No more than it did for Christians repressing Jews (or killing heretics) or for Muslims repressing Jews and Christians: also cases of treatment of categories of people who should not exist.

Either way, the same-sex oriented are held to be morally deformed by category unconnected to specific acts against others: so it is a manifestation of bigotry regardless of what “expressions of reason” are advanced to support it.

Denying equal protection of the law
The same belittling operates in the arguments against same-sex marriage. These are arguments to deny a set of one’s fellow citizens equal protection of the law. They can be dressed up anyway one likes, but that is what they are. They work off the same belittling of the nature of the same-sex oriented as making the sexual acts morally problematic does, and are a product of it.

Historically, human societies have tended to cluster at the ends of the spectrum in dealing with the erotic diversity of the human. At one end of that spectrum are the monotheist societie that have held the position “same-sex activity is wrong so punishable by death”. (Plus a few polytheist societies—notably the Aztecs and the Norse, though there is some scholarly dispute about what is being condemned in the relevant texts and both cases are complicated by the existence of “third gender” priests.) At the other end are most animist and polytheist societies, who have taken same-sex attraction and orientation to be just a manifestation of human sexual diversity, of how (some) people are: many such societies having acknowledged various forms of same-sex marriage.

That the outlooks cluster by religious frameworks connects to how the accusations and arguments against homosexuals and homosexuality replicate the accusations and arguments against Jews (that they have betrayed their human role, that they are against God’s purposes, that they corrupt and pervert, that they prey on children …): both Jew-hatred and queer-hatred are processes of exclusion of a small minority on religious grounds which then transmuted into alleged moral grounds. But without the religious distinction in the first place, the moral critique would have never developed to anywhere the same intensity. “The homosexual problem” is as entirely a creation of hostile framing as “the Jewish problem” was (or is).

But both Jew-hatred and queer-hatred have been excellent training grounds for ignoring and belittling the humanity of someone else based on a particular characteristic so that what decency, creativity and ordinary humanity they may have becomes denied and devalued because they are member of a group who are deemed to be less: to be outside the bounds of the moral community, to be outside decency.

The religious distinction in the broad patterns of treatment of same-sex attraction occurs because monotheism has an inherently more hostile and restrictive attitude to human sexuality than animism and polytheism. Animist societies, living embedded in nature, are aware that same-sex activity is part of the natural world, and that sex is used for other purposes than reproduction. In both animism and polytheism, sex is part of the divine: to the extent that sex can be a way of connecting us to the divine.

Not so in monotheism: sex is not part of the divine, so sex becomes what separates us from the divine. The only connection between the divine and sex is via the creative act, via procreation. Hence the elevation of procreation and the concern for sharply differentiated gender roles built around that. This also helps to differentiate monotheism from the religious sensuality of polytheism and animism (a concern that is quite clear in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, though not notably the Gospels). It has adverse implications for women, since their sexuality becomes something threatening, something which diverts men from the divine and is without divine sanction except as procreation. (Consider the Adam and Eve story and the implications put upon it: Augustine is particularly illustrative for this with his notion that original sin is carnally transmitted.) That monotheisms have overwhelmingly insisted that only men can have religious authority both reflects and reinforces the misogyny that comes from such a fraught attitude to human sexuality.

Thomism, with its methodology of the conclusion being used to select its premises and the normative essentialism that both manifests and reflects that, is simply a convenient philosophical cover for underlying religious impulses.

The wider historical clusterings in attitudes to same-sex attraction and orientation occurs because the position in the middle between “kill them” and “full members of the community” is not stable, given any strong assumption of a common moral community. If the same-sex attracted and oriented are allowed to operate openly, then their clear wishes are given an implicit legitimacy: they become “just folks”, with the implications of equality that go with that. To see their aspirations as a deformity requires repressing its manifestation, denying any legitimacy even in verbal or other expression, and denying their human agency in a quite profound sense.

The tradition of the anathematisation of same-sex activity (and hence attraction) required brutality to establish and brutality to maintain. With the withdrawal of direct state-brutality, and active proscribing of private brutality, the tradition is collapsing because it cannot be maintained without that brutality, despite the best efforts of clerics and priests to keep it going via spiritual abuse.

Hence, in the Anglosphere, treatment of same-sex acts (and hence attraction) has gone from capital crime to same-sex marriage in less than two centuries. The positions in the middle simply are not socially stable: especially not in societies with notions of moral universality.

Hence also the phenomena that tolerance of homosexuality is directly connected to knowing “out” homosexuals: they become “just folks”. Of their actual humanity trumping theories against their humanity. All of which leads to the growing view that the same-sex oriented 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. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked what was wrong with apartheid. He replied:
It makes you doubt that you are a child of God.
That is precisely what making “homosexual practice” morally problematic does.

The focusing on “homosexual practice” is all about resisting and denying that move to seeing the same-sex attracted and oriented as full people, to seeing their erotic aspirations as legitimate manifestation of their humanity but instead as signs of the “deformed nature” of their humanity. To make “homosexual practice” the morally problematic salient issue is profoundly belittling, and inherently so, for it attacks their humanity in a quite direct sense.

Conservatism’s (and everyone else’s) shifting ‘realism’
Not only is bigotry an expression of reason, not only does bigotry claim to be about morality—indeed, to be defending “moral decency”—bigotry also claims to be reality-based. It is an essential element of bigotry that it claims to understand the “real nature” of things: in particular, the “true nature” of those it operates against. Jew-haters, for example, were utterly convinced they understood the “true nature” of the Jews, just as anti-gay activists nowadays are forever making statements about the “true nature” of homosexuals and homosexuality. The Vatican claim that same-sex attracted are “objectively disordered” is, most emphatically, a reality claim.

The claim to engage in “reality-based” politics is something of a fetish of contemporary American political discourse. When engaged in by those left-of-centre, it is usually a rejection of religious-derived claims in politics: specifically, of Judaeo-Christian based religious claims. (Other religious claims often get treated somewhat more leniently.) There are all sorts of ways in which such politics’ claim to be grounded in reality may well be contested (I have a few I could nominate) but the appeal of such a self-characterisation is obvious: we deal with reality, you deal with fantasy and delusion.

So it is less than surprising that conservatives also pass off their politics as ‘reality-based’: typically based on a sense of the limitations of human reason and action’s ability to change how things are. Maverick philosopher, for example, summarises a passage from a 1960 essay by Richard Weaver as:
The conservative is a reality-based thinker, whereas the radical is a utopian.
This is, no doubt, a consoling distinction. It is, alas, nonsense. If utopianism is waging war against people-as-they-are in the name of people-as-they-are-deemed-to-ought-to-be, then there are few clearer manifestations of utopianism than the long war against human sexual diversity. After all, the claim is not that all people are heterosexual: which is clearly false. It is that everyone ought to be heterosexual: that opposite sex attraction is how humans “properly” are. A claim every bit as utopian as any radical policy one is likely to consider. With all the brutality and patterns of repression such utopianism-in-practice means. It is also an impeccably conservative claim in that it has been defended by conservatives (and still is). Indeed, hostility to equality-before-the-law for the same-sex attracted has become something of a fetish of conservative politics in the US.

But bigotry, as previously noted, has always claimed to be “reality based”. It is those who oppose the “necessary” denial of full (or, in extreme, any) membership of the moral community for the targeted group who have been denounced as being ignorant, foolish, destructive, soft-headed, malignant, etc. For, it is claimed, they do not understand the reality of the matter.

A shifting set of claims about human “reality” that shows up the problem for any conservative claim to be engaged in ‘reality-based’ politics. Was conservatism being “reality-based” when conservatives defended coverture marriage, for example? Or denying women the vote? Was it being reality-based when conservatives defended religious tests for voting and office? Was it being reality-based when conservatives defended slavery? And so on. The concept of what it is to be human is itself a work in motion within the wider society and within the conservative tradition specifically.

All political traditions are works in motion, of course. The problem comes with denying this. To claim that one’s particular tradition is “reality-based” sets up patent hostages to fortune since the “sense of reality” of any political tradition changes over time: sometimes quite dramatically.

If one looks at the left, for example, one can see that over the last two centuries, the dominant view on the left about the role of the state, the role of nationhood, sexual identity, gender identity, imperialism, race, etc have all changed dramatically. What has not changed is the self-righteous sense of moral and intellectual superiority with which whatever the current position at the time has been typically defended. What we can see from this is that what the left has really been selling is a self-righteous sense of moral and intellectual superiority: the one true constant (apart from a certain fetish about equality which itself has been a perennial prop to that self-righteous sense of moral and intellectual superiority).

The silly term ‘neo-liberal’ is also a form of the denial of the reality that all political traditions are works in motion. It represents either a claim that the (classical) liberal tradition has been subsumed by the wider left or that its time has passed (since the “proper” tend of history is to ever wider collectivism), so “neo-liberalism” is just a passing fad which will fall by the wayside. The alternative—that the revitalising of economic liberalism is precisely a manifestation of a longer continuing tradition—suggests a contingency and partiality to their own political thinking that many folk on the left find unappealing.

Western conservatism has the inherent problem that Western civilisation (or, what we should perhaps now call Technic civilisation) has long been the most dynamic of all human civilisations. To defend that civilisation is to defend widening processes of change: an inherent difficulty for conservatism. Hence that prudential liberal Edmund Burke becomes an iconic “conservative” thinker.

All Western political traditions are works in motion due to changing circumstances, increasing knowledge and technical capacity and evolving senses of what it is to be human. It is denying this reality—which the claim to be ‘reality-based’ ironically so often does—that causes problems.

For example, Robert George’s claim to be able to derive moral positions “by reason alone” is nonsense. What he derives are positions plausible to contemporary American conservatives. If his audience were conservatives in 1900 rather than 2000, he would reach different conclusions: as he would in 1800, 1700, 1600, 1500, etc.

Similarly, John Finnis would have a different sense of which group(s) “fail” to be worthy of equality before the law if he was writing in 1900, 1800, etc. Just as a 1750 or 1850 equivalent of Ed Feser would be denouncing legal equality for Jews as a reductio ad absurdum of liberal modernity as he now denounces equality before the law for the same-sex attracted as a reductio ad absurdum of liberal modernity. We know this is true because we can examine the historical record and see this is so. The Catholic Church, after all, has never been in favour of equality before the law: it has just been forced to narrow over time which groups it seeks to deny such equality to. And how such lack of equality is to be enforced.

It is a bit of a problem to claim to be based on enduring realities, and enduring reasoned “truths” about that reality, if the conclusions keep changing over time. (It is, in fact, a major indication that there is something deeply flawed in Thomist moral reasoning that its conclusions change over time in ways entirely convenient to whatever is the current Catholic doctrine yet it claims to be using deductive reasoning from enduring metaphysical realities to reach its—shifting—conclusions.)

The problem is the connection between tradition and theory is complicated. Some enduring traditions (the legal degradation of Jews and queers, for example) simply manifest the persistence of particular theories of the human down the centuries. So to cite “tradition” against same-sex marriage is profoundly dishonest unless one looks at what created and maintained that tradition. That something is centuries old may simply reflect that certain power-imbalances persisted for centuries.

After all, the opponents of legal equality for Jews could cite centuries of tradition, could claim that such legal equality was a betrayal of Christian tradition and the Christian basis of Western civilisation. And do so completely accurately. That did not make the legal degradation of the Jews anything other than monstrous.

Maverick philosopher himself wrestles with the tensions between conservatism and the reality of change when he writes:
Change is a given, progress is the debate.

The radical thesis must be balanced by the conservative antithesis in order to get the appropriate synthesis and hence progress. The challenge is to go in the right direction at the right speed. It will always be too slow for the radical, and it will always be too fast for the conservative. We might question whether the western adversarial system promotes an efficient synthesis; we might question whether we need swings from right to left and back again before the synthesis is realized: do we need to live through the opposing theses? Is it a utopian ideal to think that we don’t? In any case the radical and the conservative need to learn to love each other’s strengths.
Very ecumenical.

But an ecumenism that needs to not try and claim that there is some inherent tension between bigotry and the operation of reason. Or that there is no utopianism in contemporary conservatism: its attitude to human sexual diversity is profoundly utopian. That is precisely what is wrong with it. That it is a triumph of theory over reality.


  1. I don't think the Maverick Philosopher person is listening to you, Lorenzo. I've just spent an hour or so at his blog (I assume it is a he). I think I need to take a shower. Never, in all my years of legal practice, have I seen such a cavalier attitude to evidence.

    I am very glad I'm a lawyer. We actually have to care about evidence.

  2. I could not hold back a wry smile at Maverick Philosopher's omission of THE leftist term of abuse for the 21st century; offensive. As in, "Mel Gibson's racist and offensive film."

    Maverick Philosopher's second sentence:

    The neologisms 'homophobic' and Islamophobic' -- I hesitate to call them words -- ought to be offensive to people who value clarity of thought and speech.

    As though the quality of an argument is to be judged by one's claims to be emotionally unsettled or not. And of course these people are invariably 'offended' not by some slight against themselves, such as - "jesus, don't go to that hairdresser again." But rather, "I am appalled by Mel Gibson's racist and offensive stereotypes of people of color."

  3. I've noticed that many people, including myself, let theory filter and distort their view of the world -something like a lens does. I found this post particularly valuable because it brings aspects of both the left and right 'lenses' and their consequences out into the open. I'd call myself a recovering liberal (in the American sense)and I recognize that you may have nailed it when you say that an attitude of moral superiority is what is common to changing positions on the left. I find these people suffocating, and 'yes' I once was one. Probably not totally or I would not have changed. :-) They sharply remind me of the Catholic church telling us what we ought to be rather helping us become who we are in the best possible way - to be a bit Utopian. I find I also strongly agree with your take on bigotry as a ruling out of people on the basis of identity rather than judging people by the content of their character. Whatever else I may have thought about MLK over they years I have always responded with total agreement to that phrase of his. What is also nice about this post is that I am aware I don't fully understand some parts of it - so it is actually worth reading again and following out the links. Well bowled.

  4. SL: Yes, I am positive he is not listening. I defer to your greater expertise in the matter of evidence :)

    PP: All very nicely put.

    Lgude: Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. (Though I am a little bothered that my post was not entirely clear.) I am trying to see, and bring out, what "lenses" are operating.