Thursday, September 23, 2010

Difference into distinction

Humans differ in all sorts of ways. The mere existence of human differences does not explain bigotry – that is, making a certain sort of claim that differences matter. How do we know this? Because which differences people turn into such moral distinctions varies greatly across history and across human societies.

One of the most revealing things about bigotry is precisely how specific it is to times and places: its historical contingency. What bigotry does is turn a difference into a moral distinction. Examining when and where, and so why, specific differences are turned into moral distinctions in some social circumstances, and not others, reveals the contours of what is going on.

If humans were like bonobos, pygmy chimpanzees, among whom same-sex bonding is such a basic feature of their society that female bonobos have enlarged clitorises to make female-female sex easier, then same-sex activity would never be regarded as a moral issue. It would be accepted as part of human nature.

If humans were in fact as bans on same-sex activity claim that they ought to be – universally only sexually interested in the opposite sex – then same-sex activity would never be regarded as a moral issue, because it would be so rare as to be of little or no concern.

It is only because human beings are in fact sexually diverse that same-sex activity can be regarded as a moral issue. The prohibitions on same-sex activity occur because of the reality that a persistent minority of humans are sexually attracted – or even sexually oriented – to members of their own sex, while a very large majority are not. Prohibitions on same-sex activity are a war against human sexual diversity that only occurs because humans are sexually diverse in a very statistically skewed way.

But the fact of human sexual diversity is not enough to generate prohibitions on same-sex activity. That fact has to be deemed to matter. It is a difference that has to be made into a moral distinction.

For – outside the influence of monotheism – very few human societies have thought the mechanics of sex, or the reality of human sexual diversity, something worth moralising over. Even those cases that apparently did tend to involve contested translations from scholars operating out of presumptions that come from monotheism. (And who really wants to use the Aztecs as a moral example?)

By contrast with the general lack of concern in animism and polytheism, all monotheisms have deemed the mechanics of sex to matter. All monotheisms are at war with human sexual diversity. Up to claiming that same-sex activity warrants the death penalty. Monotheisms make the difference between being sexually attracted to members of your own sex, or not, matter a great deal. They turn a difference into a huge moral distinction.

The claim is often made, of course, that such prohibitions are merely a prohibition on acts. But it is prohibition which requires a persistent minority – generation after generation – to be at war with their own sexual nature. To prohibit the acts is to be at war with human sexual diversity, with the diverse sexual nature of the human. (Note: the analysis in this post also applies to the gender diversity of the human.)

Conversely, the prohibition asks nothing of the vast majority. They are not attracted to members of their own sex, so give up nothing in following the prohibition. On the contrary, they are being offered the joys of effortless virtue. They can feel virtuous for not doing what they do not want to do and thereby feel morally superior to the minority who do so want.

If one is a priest, someone who acts as a “gatekeeper of righteousness”, who declares what the boundaries of the moral community is – who is within, who is without, and to what degree – prohibiting same-sex relations sells effortless virtue to the majority of one’s congregation against a small, vulnerable minority. For who is more vulnerable than a same-sex attracted boy or girl growing up in a family, a social milieu, a religious community where the vast majority feel no such attraction? The reality of human sexual diversity – generation after generation – means that the queers (those who do not fit in the simple, binary identification of sex and gender) are always there to pick on.

So, one can see why priests find it expedient to preach against same-sex activity. But the reality is that polytheist and animist systems have very rarely done so (at least prior to being influenced by monotheism). On the contrary, in many forms of animism and polytheism, being same-sex attracted was a path to specific ritual, shamanistic or religious status.

So, there is clearly something in the logic of monotheism – as distinct from the logics of polytheism or animism – that makes same-sex activity matter. Not that there is much difficulty in identifying what is about monotheism that drives it to turn this difference into a moral distinction. In animism and polytheism, sex (as in sexual activity) is part of the divine. In monotheism, it is not. In animism and polytheism, sexual activity connects us to the divine. In monotheism, it divides us from the divine.

In monotheism, the only aspect of sex that connects us to the divine is procreation, for the One God is the Creator. So, any form of sexual activity that is not procreative emphatically separates us from the divine. Thus does same-sex activity become the ultimate expression of everything that is “wrong” about sex. It is sex that is anti-God, and thus anathema.

Thus does this extract from the Zoroastrian Vendidad tell us that same-sex activity is demonic:
Ahura Mazda answered: 'The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daêva; this one is the man that is a worshipper of the Daêvas, that is a male paramour of the Daêvas, that is a female paramour of the Daêva, that is a she-Daêva; this is the man that is in his inmost self a Daêva, that is in his whole being a Daêva; this is the man that is a Daêva before he dies, and becomes one of the unseen Daêvas after death: so is he, whether he has lain with mankind as mankind, or as womankind.
A particularly revealing example, as Zoroastrianism is not an Abrahamic monotheism, yet it anathematised same-sex activity. As the Greeks knew. It is commented on in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium, where such anathematisation was deemed to be a mark of autocracy and tyranny – tyrants allegedly being afraid of love between men threatening their authority: the original tyrannicides having been a same-sex couple, hence claiming love between men was a bulwark of free politics was a rhetorical commonplace in the Hellenic world.

By such anathematisation, monotheism provides a vulnerable minority for priests to target in selling effortless virtue to the vast majority of their congregations, thereby shoring up their own role as gatekeepers of righteousness.

Since God is the ultimate authority, against which no human claims have standing, it avails the same-sex attracted not at all to cite their feelings, their aspirations, their existence, the effects of such prohibitions on them. Such are all merely human claims, and have no standing against God. In the words of Baptist pastor Daniel Y. Yearey:
Homosexuality denies the sovereignty of God. Genesis 1:27 says God created man in His own image. In God there are no disorders or confusion. He created male and female for distinct purposes. Homosexuality says we can be independent of God's direction and design.
The fact of human sexual diversity, interacting with the logic of monotheism, both drives the prohibition and is denied any standing against it.

Revealing patterns
All the patterns of bigotry are on display here.

A human difference is turned into a moral distinction. Bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim – that some group are outside the moral community, or have inferior standing within it.

That the designated moral distinction is a contingent one: occurring in some societies, some times and places, and not others.

That the framing is done in such a way that those defined out of, or as having an inferior status in, the moral community have no grounds to object. The framing denies their moral legitimacy in such a way that they have no appeal against their designated moral status within the framing. It is always them who are at fault, not the framing: their fault or flaw for being Jewish, queer, black, women or whatever which is what matters. It is only possible to “get out” of the bigotry by rejecting or changing the framing that generates it.

All this leads to the insult of equality. If a group are outside the moral community, or have inferior status within it, then to treat them as equals of “real” “full” members of the moral community is an insult. It is obvious, for example, than many of those opposed to giving the same-sex attracted equality before the law are outraged at the notion that homosexuality and homosexual relationships be given the same status as heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships. But one can see exactly the same outrage at the “insult of equality” among objections to giving Jews equality before the law, or blacks, women, or whatever.

That existential bigotry – the bigotry of moral distinction as inferior – reinforces epistemic bigotry – that no evidence is permitted to change the pre-set conclusions. (And, of course, vice versa.)

The natural law case
There is an interesting exception to monotheism being the driver of turning human sexual diversity into a moral distinction. That is certain forms of Greek natural law theory.
The problem was Aristotle’s mistake: his use of forms to construe things as being separably defined in ways which are not correct. If you turn being attracted to the opposite sex a defining feature of being human, or use for sexual reproduction the defining use of sexual organs, then human sexual diversity is turned into an aberration. Rather than it being a question of X or not X (or even X’s that grade into Y’s), it becomes a case of X, not X and X-but-not-properly-X.

Hence Philo of Alexandria finding it so to easy use natural law theory to support the bars in Leviticus on (male) same-sex activity, and those in Deuteronomy on emasculation (likely an early form of transgendering). and, fatefully, incorporate the former into his interpretation of Genesis 19. Thereby generating the idea of God being in favour, and a practitioner, of purifying extermination: that there are aberrant forms of the human that should be excised from human society. An interpretation of Genesis 19 which became the standard Catholic view, so that the notion of purifying extermination turns up in Catholic documents and the notions of the same-sex attracted being inferior forms of the human (due to being metaphysically deformed) is still Catholic doctrine.

Given the repeated Aristotelian error of latching onto some manifestation of a thing that is familiar (or otherwise comforting) and thereby deeming it defining, one wonders if it was as simple as reasoning:
Humans have a defined nature.
I am definitively human.
I am not interested in same-sex activity.
So same-sex attraction is not part of proper human nature.
So there is something wrong with people who are: they have departed from the “definitive” human nature.
There is certainly reason to believe that many folk since have reasoned in this way, and still do: to not be able to undertake the moral imagination to accept difference across a distinction traditionally held up, in monotheist societies, as being terribly important.

Here we see human categorisation dominating physical (specifically human) existence. The category is more important than the existence of same-sex attracted people. But, as biologist Joan Roughgarden points out, nature abhors a category. Aristotle’s error is not thinking that existence is pervaded by patterns and structures: there has to be pattern and structure for any thing to exist; for, to be a thing at all, that thing has to have pattern and structure. The chaos before Creation is the chaos of no structure, of no patterns (which means the "chaos" of nothing at all).

Aristotle’s error was to put too much credence on how separating and definitive patterns and structures are. In particular, too much credence that the patterns and structures in nature have some identity with patterns and structures as represented in the mind. Thus did Aquinas’ identify the forms in the world (the patterns and structures of nature) as being identical with the forms in the mind (the representations in the mind of the patterns and structures of nature).

Which led to many errors in its elimination of the possibility of human error about basic pattern and structure. Such as the failures of Aristotelian physics, which in turn led to the rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics – since identification of forms as allegedly defining of the nature of things clearly led to all sorts of errors – which led to the search for new bases for knowledge and so modern philosophy. Starting with Descartes’ search for a certain grounding of knowledge, since the Scholastic synthesis of Aristotle had patently failed, and leading on to empiricism and so forth.

None of which has led to an acceptable epistemology. As philosopher Stephen Hicks points out:
The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary
That modern philosophy has failed to find a basis for epistemology being widely accepted among philosophers.

I would suggest that the belittling of the role of pattern and structure went rather too far. Hume was, for example, quite wrong to claim all knowledge of the world comes from mere experience, because without pattern and structure there is no basis for connecting one experience with another. We come into the world primed to identify pattern and structure: we have to be, to be able to learn, to be able to connect one experience to another. In the words of a early childhood educator, babies:
… apply limited Action Schemes to everything they come across, which is part of learning about the world. The earliest action schemes are things like grab and suck. Babies are born knowing how to do this—or at least they can do it within hours of being born. Later there is grasp & shake, which is why we give babies rattles. There's also banging, dumping (around 9 months) and turning things over to see the other side. As babies develop they get to combine these basic action schemes into more complicated patterns. So younger babies are kind of looking at the world of objects as: is this something I bang, something I shake or something I ignore? Babies & toddlers put everything in their mouths too, just like animals do. Touch it, to feel its texture, grasp and shake and turn it over, taste it. Watch a gorilla do the same thing to an unknown item the next time you're at the zoo.
Which is not to say this priming is itself definitive. As a brain scientist Gary Marcus says:
“The initial organization of the brain does not rely that much on experience … Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises … ‘Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means organised in advance of experience” (Gary Marcus, 2004).
The priming is malleable and interactive with experience. We are not compelled to wander off into Kant’s world. All of which takes us to fascinating places, but far afield from the original topic of this post.

Monotheism deals badly with the reality of human sexual diversity. But so does Aristotelian metaphysics. Marrying the two together proved to be disastrous, letting forth all sorts of notions of human definitiveness that have proved profoundly noxious in their effects.

The subversion of morality
For that is the final effect of bigotry: the misery that comes from stripping people of moral protections. The harm that anathematising same-sex activity has caused enormously outweighs any caused from or by same-sex activity. The burnings alive, the killings, the gaolings, the violence, the psychic misery from being at war with one’s own nature, the dividing of families, the defensive deceit (and self-deceit), the denunciations, the alienation from society, the censorship, the fear: all the horrors that being at war with human nature as it is in the name of how human nature is deemed to “ought” to be let loose. That comes from letting mere categorisation dominate human existence: of being at war with the reality of human sexual diversity.

Which, in turn, leads to the nature of bigotry as being a moral claim, as being about “defending” “moral decency”. In reality, it is a subversion, a distortion, of morality. Taking the (currently five) moral foundations identified by the work of Jonathan Haidt and others, the objects of bigotry are stripped of moral protections by being outside the realm of harm/care and reciprocity/fairness on the grounds of offending against purity/sanctity, authority/deference or ingroup/loyalty. For, if you are not a legitimate manifestation of the human, then your aspirations, and the harm done to you, have no standing. Nor does the question of reciprocity arise for rejecting your nature, actions, beliefs, etc becomes “fair treatment”. None of the above record of misery counts. It is only by changing the framing, so that human existence comes first, that it does count.

Which is not in the interests of the priests and clerics, who get their authority from their categories dominating human existence: their categories (indeed, those of their particular rendition of monotheism) being, of course, God’s categories.

Which is a bit of a problem if one claims to be a Christian. For Christ said that His preaching could be defined by two principles. Love God and Love Thy Neighbour. Love Thy Neighbour being an admonition not to use God to strip people of moral protections, for everyone is your neighbour. Christ’s teaching in the Gospels repeatedly deny the right of priests to use God to strip people of moral protection. Was it not His threat to the authority of the priests that led to His crucifixion?

Which is a huge problem for priests in the Christian tradition. For using God to strip people of moral protections is precisely how priests get authority. (Note, this is not a problem in Islam, which is all about using God to grade, or even deny, people moral protections.) Hence the priestly need to subvert Love Thy Neighbour. Which defining people partly or wholly out of the realm of one’s moral neighbour – on the grounds of being against God and not a proper manifestation of the human – does nicely.

This tension between Love Thy Neighbour and priests – as the main propagators of Christian belief – getting power and authority from subverting Love Thy Neighbour is one of the great driving tensions of Christian history: the more so, the more elevated the concept of priesthood.

Hence the tension turns up with particular force in Catholic history, given Catholicism’s elevated conception of priesthood. Even the failures of the Catholic Church regarding paedophile and ephebophile priests are a manifestation of this tension.

Hence also priests are such avid promoters of bigotry. The Catholic Church, for example, has been an endless opponent of equality before the law – wanting to deny it to non-Christians, Jews, “wrong” Christians, queers. So much of priestly authority is about subverting Love Thy Neighbour while also preaching it. (Muslim clerics have a much easier time of it, since they have no such commandment to get in the way.)

Hence also the very mixed role of natural law theory: being a precursor for modern conceptions of universal rights in such documents as Sublimus Dei. Yet also providing a way to define people outside the realm of the “properly” human.

We live a world of patterns and structures. We must do, for there to be an us to live and a world to live in. But we must not let our categories dominate existence. How people are is prior to how people ought to be. That is the basis of moral understanding and why bigotry – however much it may make moral claims, and claim to be supporting moral decency – is always and everywhere a subversion and perversion of morality.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked what was wrong with apartheid. He replied:
It makes you doubt that you are a child of God.
Bigotry attacks your humanity. Doing so in the name of God just makes it more vicious, not more moral, for it makes it easier to sell it to otherwise decent and moral folk.

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