Friday, December 01, 2006

A long post about The Gay

Gay marriage is now legally recognized in South Africa.
The law was approved by MPs two weeks ago despite objections from religious groups and traditional leaders.

The Constitutional Court ruled last year that the existing laws discriminated against homosexuals.

The Civil Union Act gives gay people the same rights as heterosexual couples.

The ruling was based on the constitution, which was the first in the world specifically to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.

This is unusual in Africa where homosexuality is largely taboo - notably in its neighbour Zimbabwe.
Whodathunk that South Africa would have beat America to this bit of political progress. But I'm confident America's time will come, because the political stance against legal recognition of gay marriage is just so weak.

It's true that specifically religious arguments based on scripture are relatively difficult to attack (though I think that ultimately the politically most important version--the Christian one--doesn't really work), but these purely parochial arguments can't carry the full weight of anti-gay politics, and need to be supplemented by non-parochial political arguments. So we see the development of arguments based on concepts like "the sanctity of marriage", and these arguments are so thoroughly specious that I think they will certainly collapse in the face of the cruel onslaught of reality.

The American political community is genuinely responsive to reasons--it just takes a while sometimes. I'm going to go out on a limb, and give this process 20 years. This might sound overly optimistic in the current political climate, but back in the day one might well have thought the same thing about mixed-race marriages. (Today's arguments against gay marriage show remarkable parallels with yesterday's arguments against miscegenation, which carried the day in at least some American courtrooms until the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.)

So much for optimism. Against that, I see that the South African debate got caught up in a rather disquieting trend on the liberal side of the gay rights debate:
During the parliamentary debate earlier this month, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told MPs: "In breaking with our past... we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia."
What we see here is the common liberal assumption--or, let's say, the fantasy--that all moral/political opposition to gay rights is rooted in the psychological phenomenon of homophobia. And, to be clear, let's understand homophobia in the strict sense of an excessive emotional aversion to homosexuality or homosexuals. (The Wikipedia article on homophobia lists "discrimination" as part of the definition of "homophobia". This is a distortion of the psychological concept of phobia, but it's also commonly accepted, and often facilitates intellectually dishonest ad hominem attacks on the part of liberals.)

This liberal fantasy has a number of problems.

Most straightforwardly: it's empirically false. Homophobia is present in some cases, but it's simply false that all the opponents of gay rights are homophobic. There are people who make the moral/political judgment that homosexuality is immoral and needs to be legally distinguished from heterosexuality, and do this as a matter of principle, without any excessive emotional reactions to homosexuality, one way or the other.

And there are also moral problems with this liberal fantasy. For one thing, it at least partially removes people's responsibility for opposing gay rights--after all, it's generally unreasonable to hold people responsible for phobias, and the same ought to hold for homophobia. On a similar note: if the fantasy were true, then it would rule out the possibility of genuine conversation, because you can't reason with a phobia.

And, in any case, the fantasy is a form of insult and condescension towards opponents of gay rights, which makes it less likely that they'll enter into a reasonable discussion with liberals, which in turn reduces the prospects of political campaigns which attempt to further gay rights.

I'm not sure why this liberal fantasy has so much currency, but here's the naughtiest hypothesis that comes to mind. Probably the most common version of the liberal fantasy claims that the homophobia in question is the result of repressed homosexuality on the part of the opponents of gay rights. This is especially problematic, in that it exempts heterosexuals from responsibility for anti-gay attitudes: "heterosexuals don't hate homosexuals; repressed homosexuals hate homosexuals". And I strongly suspect that at least some liberals who hold to this view are themselves repressed homosexuals.

Here's how this would work. Our hypothetical repressed-homosexual liberal is a liberal only as a matter of abstract principle: as a matter of purely abstract principle, he supports equal rights for gays. But he doesn't want to have anything to do with gays in his personal life--his repressed homosexuality makes him homophobic. The way he covers up his repressed homosexual urges is by supporting gay rights in the abstract, and then imagining that all opposition to gay rights can be identified with repressed homosexuality--because if this is the correct theory of the psychological roots of opposition to gay rights, it follows that, as a proponent of gay rights, he himself can't possibly be gay. Thus his liberal attitudes, combined with the fantasy that all his ideological opponents are repressed homosexuals, amount to a very sophisticated strategy for coping with his own repressed homosexuality. "Heterosexuals don't hate homosexuals; only repressed homosexuals hate homosexuals; so as a supporter of gay rights I can't possibly be a homosexual"--he thinks such thoughts, and thus protects his shaky sexual identity.

I doubt this is a particularly common phenomenon, but I'm pretty sure it happens.

6 comments:

Tucker said...

Hmm, I have a handful of retorts for you, Toby.

You write,
"What we see here is the common liberal assumption--or, let's say, the fantasy--that all moral/political opposition to gay rights is rooted in the psychological phenomenon of homophobia. And, to be clear, let's understand homophobia in the strict sense of an excessive emotional aversion to homosexuality or homosexuals."

Retort the first: why should we? To wit, we, I think rightly, will accuse people of being 'racist' if they advocate policies that favor discriminatory treatment of individuals along racial/ethnic lines. And these days, being racist is generally conceived to be a bad thing-- although, arguably there may be legitimate forms of, as it were, corrective racism (i.e. affirmative action). In my view, the term 'homophobic' has emerged as a parallel descriptor to 'racist'-- it applies to just about anyone who holds a view according to which the state ought to treat individuals differently according to their sexual preference. If we can use 'gay' and 'fag' to impugn things that are neither gays nor fags, why can't we use the term 'homophobia' for a political world view rather than (or in addition to) a psychological condition? What's stopping us?
And if you want to be flat-footed, what term do you want us to use to mark sex orientation-discriminators? "Heteronormativists"? Goodness, I hope not.

Retort the second:
"And, in any case, the fantasy is a form of insult and condescension towards opponents of gay rights,"

Good. Then it's working.
I see no reason to "enter into reasonable discussion" with gay rights opponents. I'll educate the undecided and ignorant all day long, but I have no desire to engage whatsoever with people who openly oppose gay rights. Such people deserve all the condescension I can offer them.

Because (retort the third):
"There are people who make the moral/political judgment that homosexuality is immoral and needs to be legally distinguished from heterosexuality, and do this as a matter of principle, without any excessive emotional reactions to homosexuality, one way or the other."

It doesn't make any difference to me whether a person is anti-gay rights because they have pathologically distorted emotions or pathologically distorted principles. Pathologies either way.

Which brings us to Retort the Fourth!
"And there are also moral problems with this liberal fantasy. For one thing, it at least partially removes people's responsibility for opposing gay rights--after all, it's generally unreasonable to hold people responsible for phobias, and the same ought to hold for homophobia. On a similar note: if the fantasy were true, then it would rule out the possibility of genuine conversation, because you can't reason with a phobia."

To the second point first, I generally think the fantasy is true, and I accept the conclusion. Reasoning with people who have pathologically distorted emotional dispositions or pathologically distorted world views is in many cases well nigh impossible. But I disagree with the first point: We don't hold people responsible for the fact that they have a phobia, but we do hold people responsible for coping with their phobias as best as they can. This is true of many racists as well. For many southerners who grew up in a prior generation, we could hardly begrudge them for developing a racist world view-- they grew up in an environment with systematically narrowed horizons. But we do hold them responsible for coping with and adjusting the world view they inherited. Why should 'homophobia' (taken any which way you like) be different? Sure, people can't help that they're homophobes in the first place, but they can help remaining homophobes. They can willingly accept their homophobia, or they can recognize it as a pathology and attempt to overcome it (although it may be extraordinarily difficult for them to revise their conceptions or emotional responses, just as it is extraordinarily difficult for people to overcome, e.g., a fear of heights or a chauvanistic world-view). But, of course, someone who recognizes homophobia as a pathology and attempts to overcome it is unlikely to be an opponent of gay rights (and is thereby no longer deserving of disapprobation).

Finally, you write:
"Probably the most common version of the liberal fantasy claims that the homophobia in question is the result of repressed homosexuality on the part of the opponents of gay rights."
I don't think anyone would endorse this fantasy, and hence I don't think anyone would submit to removing heterosexuals from blame for perpetuating homophobic attitudes. Surely, it is a common belief among liberals (yours truly included) that some or perhaps many gay rights-opponents are actually exhibiting symptoms of a reaction formation against homosexuality. But in that case, the reaction formation does not explain the homophobia, but only the intensity or virulence thereof. To wit, nobody would form a reaction formation around a behavior they felt neutral about. But it would make sense to suggest that someone who antecedently felt shame about a set of behaviors or urges would form a reaction formation in order to pass off the shame onto other folks. And, one imagines, one would not feel ashamed of a behavior or urge unless one antecedently believed the behavior in question was especially shameful. So the reaction formation presupposes homophobia, not the other way around. And the reaction formation is only intended to explain the intensity of opposition to gay rights, not the opposition tout court.


For all that, I share your optimism. I suspect opposition to gay marriage will collapse in about 20-25 years time. Homosexuality is, I'm convinced, a natural phenomenon, and there's no good reason not to recognize its legitimacy in civic life. We Americans are pretty slow, but we'll come around eventually.

Toby said...

Tucker,

why can't we use the term 'homophobia' for a political world view rather than (or in addition to) a psychological condition?

I dunno about that "rather than" option, insofar as there's a real psychological phenomenon here, which is not essentially connected to political discrimination. As far as labels for the discrimination go, I don't see what "homophobic" has going for it over, say, "anti-gay" (unless the goal is to derail conversations, or confuse things with gratuitous ambiguity).

I see no reason to "enter into reasonable discussion" with gay rights opponents.

OK. You're not particularly obliged to do so yourself, but others do see reason to do so, and that's a good thing, and also important.

Such people deserve all the condescension I can offer them.

I doubt they do. And on a more prudential note, it seems to me that heaping condescension on our ideological opponents helps us not at all, but fits nicely into the playbook of right-wing propagandists.

It doesn't make any difference to me whether a person is anti-gay rights because they have pathologically distorted emotions or pathologically distorted principles.

I guess that makes sense given that you have no interest in any sort of conversation with anti-gay folks. If you did have such an interest, then that difference would make a difference to you.

And it makes a moral difference in any case. While it's fair to point out that there is room for holding people responsible for their entrenched psychological pathologies, it's also clear that freedom is particularly restricted with respect to such problems--and we ought not to suppose that this is always true of opposition to gay rights.

And regarding the final issue, I have witnessed people who outright claim that anti-gay attitudes are just the result of repressed homosexuality. More commonly, this idea isn't expressed explicitly, but can be seen as implicit in the disposition to infer immediately from "X is anti-gay" to "X is a repressed homosexual". I'm not sure why you're skeptical that this happens.

Tucker said...

Toby,

When I say "I see no reason to engage in reasonable conversation with gay rights opponents" take that to mean "As far as I can tell, there is no reason to engage in reasonable discussion with gay right opponents." That is, I don't believe the practice of having reasonable conversation with gay rights opponents is ultimately rationally sustainable-- anyway, not as a means of achieving progress on this front.
I see opposition to gay rights as embodying a serious pathology, either of disposition or of world-view, and I believe engaging in civil discourse with people who are subject to such mental distortions can actually wind up enabling the pathology in the long run. And I believe this because I believe, when empirical matters are not what's at stake, pretty much any position can be held come what may. Some positions clearly prove to be rational, and others not, but when it comes to matters non-empirical, asking of people that they be rational is, in my experience, really asking quite a lot. Hence, if you engage in civil discussion with people, you will find that a great many of them come up with frivolous arguments to support their own convictions that they cannot be persuaded to abandon, and that they even feel emboldened by. If people have an underlying disposition or orientation to the world that compels them towards a particular position, there is little anyone can do to steer them from their path. They have to come to see their orientation as an obstacle to be overcome-- and civil discourse doesn't seem like the way to go about foisting that realization on people. But for matter of that, uncivil discourse isn't either, just to be clear.

Regarding the prudence of condescenscion. It strikes me that the use of condescenscion as a political tool only feeds the right-wing noise machine if they are able to isolate and pigeonhole the condescenders. If the condescension emerges from popular usage, the target is far more vaguely defined and the right-wing propaganda machine sputters. See, for instance, the current move to blame unsympathetic segments of the electorate for the failure of the Iraq war (which many right-wing pundits have attempted). It backfires for obvious reasons: most people oppose the war in Iraq-- so if the rightwingers try to blame a segment of the American public, they come away blaming a majority, which is (obviously) electoral suicide. If homophobia is a condescending term that's used by a majority of people, the right-wingers can't as easily hang the term on effete Northeastern elites or whoever. Because we've all accepted the term. Or so in theory.

I still can't see your point about a moral difference among anti-gay folk. It seems you want to say something like, while people don't get to choose their psychopathologies, they can exercise some control over those beliefs that they come by rationally-- and some people come by their anti-gay attitudes rationally. I can agree that there would be a moral difference if it was possible to come by anti-gay attitudes rationally, but I'm just not sure it is. Of course, someone might rationally derive anti-gay attitudes based on massively false beliefs or something like that, but then having massively false beliefs does strike me as a significant impairment to rationality. I suppose I could be corrected if there was a rationally sustainable justification for opposing gay rights, but I haven't seen one yet. So I'm suspicious.

Finally, if you've met people who think that all homophobia is due to repressed homosexuality, then I submit that your proper target isn't liberals but sillypeople. As I tried to explain before, the more common, and often liberal disposition is more accurately described as the disposition to infer from "X speaks out fiercely against homosexuality" to "X is a repressed homosexual." And if I'm wrong about that, well, then, you'd be right to decry liberals as sillypeople, because it's just confused to think that homophobia (in the broad sense) is the effect of repression. If it was, then what, if not internalized homophobia, would be the cause?

Toby said...

Tucker,

...if it was possible to come by anti-gay attitudes rationally...

Here is an example of such reasoning (ultimately erroneous, but reasoning nonetheless): X believes that the bible says that homosexuality is wrong; X believes that this is sufficient grounds for believing that homosexuality is wrong; X believes that homosexuality is wrong. This line of reasoning can be a mere expression of homophobia. But it doesn't have to be.

I submit that your proper target isn't liberals but sillypeople

I don't see why that needs to be submitted at all. I mean, it is a silliness limited to liberals - but did you really think I was criticizing all liberals? Even worse, are you under the impression that I don't self identify as a liberal?

it's just confused to think that homophobia (in the broad sense) is the effect of repression. If it was, then what, if not internalized homophobia, would be the cause?

I'm pretty sure that's getting things in the wrong direction. The cause of the repression would be anxiety in response to homosexual urges. This anxiety could be caused by any number of things. Homophobia need not be involved, and in standard cases of the development of repression, nothing as sophisticated as homophobia is in the picture yet.

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