Homosexuality, civility, and contempt

December 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

How should those who support gay rights act towards those who oppose them?

A recent case study: the Manhattan declaration, a modern-day declaration of Christian conscience, states, amongst other things, that homosexuality is a disorder, and that gay sexual relationships are fundamentally misguided. It had an app on the iPhone, but this was pulled after people lobbied apple about it.

Unsurprisingly, those who support the declaration cried fowl. Tom Gilson, over at First things, argues that this behaviour unfairly closes out those who oppose gay marriage etc., and gay rights activists aren’t treating their opponents with the respect they deserve as fellow human beings. Melinda, over at Stand to Reason, has argued much the same.

I dropped in on Gilson’s post, and commented that this behaviour – both of the activists, and of Apple, is entirely warranted.

I don’t pretend to have read the Manhattan declaration, but I assume it will say something along the lines of this:

1) That homosexuality is some sort of disorder

2) That gay sexual relationships are immoral vis-a-vis a heterosexual “genuine article”

3) Gay couples are unfit to raise children

If so, ‘hate speech’ is semantically appropriate (although ‘vile and arrant bigotry’ is better still). It isn’t just mistaken (contra all the medicopsychosocial literature and the experiences of homosexuals and those who know them worldwide) but so far beyond the moral pale as to warrant approbation. Affirmation of these things is not just an epistemic lapse but also a moral failing.

This doesn’t mean you or yours really ‘hate’ homosexuals. Your intentions, be they hate, patronage, misguided moral concern or whatever else aren’t relevant. You may well (barring this) be morally incandescent. Regardless, you should know better than this, and your attempts to organize yourselves into lobbying against justice and dignity for homosexuals is toxic to a just and humane society and an outrage to the human condition. That you have the audacity to posture as you do here about how homosexuals should be nicer to you and why can’t you all just get along as you seek to perpetuate all manner of iniquities against them beggars belief.

This isn’t meant to persuade you. Happily, the anti-gay movement wanes in influence, so much so that you need not be engaged with argument, but marginalized and disposed of with contempt. In the same way as supporters of sexism, or apologists for apartheid, your views are now silly rather than discussable (and note how your apologia mirrors theirs: lots of people believe it, we used to all believe it in the past, etc.) The rearguard for this moral error will die away in time. The sooner the better.

My argument, sans expansive rhetoric, is something like this: that some attitudes or beliefs are simply beyond the pale – not only are they obviously false, but also profoundly damaging to a just an humane society. As such, an entirely appropriate response is to try and stamp these out by whatever means available. These awful beliefs should not be treated with any civility whatsoever.

The 200 or so comments afterwards unsurprisingly spiralled around a variety of issues (although note Francis Beckwith’s one-man crusade to undermine confidence in the American Professoriate with his brain-dead argumentation). I want to cover a two interesting points: what would make a belief ‘beyond the pale’, and how such beliefs should be dealt with.

Being beyond the pale

What makes a belief ‘beyond the pale’? It must satisfy two conditions.1

  1. That it cannot be held in a non-defective manner.
  2. That believing it, or acting upon it, causes grave harm.

Anti-homosexual activism passes both tests neatly. It simply isn’t tenable to hold that homosexuals couples are unfit to be parents in the face of vast swathes of medical literature showing that children raised by homosexuals do as well as those raised by heterosexuals, that homosexuality is a disorder when it was expunged from the list of illnesses by every body of experts in the western world more than three decades ago, that homosexual relationships are some second-rate knock off of the genuine article despite work and expert opinion showing no significant difference. There’s simply no need for an involved discussion of the merits of the case – it is a summary judgement to equality.

It is so obvious, indeed, that those who oppose gay rights or gay equality are not honestly mistaken. It is not the case, like with abortion, euthanasia etc. that we think those on the other side are fairly reasonable and it’s profitable to discuss the matter with them, either to persuade them to our side or to see if they understand something we’ve missed. Rather, those against gay rights are in the same epistemic camp as those against miscegenation, against emancipation, or in favour of apartheid: the very fact they hold these beliefs is indicative of them being blind to reason, and we have nothing to gain (at least about the moral matter at hand) from talking to them about it.

But people hold all sorts of barmy beliefs, and our censure would be poorly spent if we attacked them all. Rather, we should only worry about crazy beliefs that threaten a just an humane society. Again, anti-homosexual activism plainly passes this test – it is already responsible for all sorts of iniquities against homosexuals, and usually seeks to purchase even more. These things are outrages that must be stopped.

Attacking the indefensible

So anti-homosexual activism (represented by things like the Manhattan declaration) are beyond the pale. How should they be responded to?

What anti-homosexual activists want is to be treated with respect, like fellow thinkers on similar epistemic ground. This should not be done: we should treat the morally indefensible with contempt, not respect. Indeed, moral integrity demands we don’t, in the same way we shouldn’t sit down for tea with the KKK, or shake hands with a chauvinist.2 We treat far right ideologies now with the contempt and ridicule they so arrantly deserve – ideally, the same should happen for anti-homosexuality.

Yet this may not be wise. The abolitionists would have got little done if they treated their enslaving culture with disdain and contempt. So there are prudential reasons to flatter immorality with respect en route to destroying it. The aim should be to change the prevailing mood of the time, and, once this is accomplished, consolidate the ground by further demonstrating that the view does not warrant respect in civilized discussion.3

Increasingly we’ve probably moved into the second stage with respect to homosexuality. In Europe and the UK, anti-homosexual sentiment is verboten, especially among the upper classes: if you have a problem with homosexuality, liberal society has a problem with you. Observe in the UK how ministers are now taken to task on their fluffing a Gay Times interview, or having an anti-gay voting record, and driven to recant.

I suspect the same has happened in the upper classes of US society (and, by association, Apple). If so, then precisely the right thing to do is to persuade Apple to refuse to support anti-homosexual applications. In some senses, the anti-homosexuals are right to call this a rhetorical ‘power grab’. It is however power justly exercised for the common good, and to protect an afflicted minority in particular. May there be more like it.

1Note: This closely follows my argument about anti-homosexuality being stupid, vile and toxic. However, one should be clear that although holding these beliefs is a moral failing, it doesn’t necessarily make one an awful person. Hate the sin, love the sinner…

2In some sense we should respect these people as fellow human beings, but we shouldn’t act towards them that implies respect for their vile views. In my other response, I dissect out this difference: what Gilson is really after is for his views to be treated with respect. He deserves it, they do not:

What you really mean with all this talk about ‘treating you as a human’, or ‘human discourse’ is for people to discuss these matters with you in a manner that implies respect for your convictions. Yet they deserve nothing of the sort, and further it would offend my moral integrity to behave as if they did. This sort of respect is earned on merit, not on shrill protestations that not doing so isn’t very nice.

3This no doubt applies to evangelicals too. I suspect they think it completely beyond the pale that someone supports elective abortion – I doubt it is a view they feel should be treated with respect. I suspect they realise, however, their best tactic towards changing culture in their favour is to smother this in winsomeness.


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