A few days ago, around when the US Supreme Court made marriage equality constitutional, an old friend posted this on Facebook:
The quickest way to see the problem with this is to take the word straight each time it occurs in the image and replace it with white. Theres nothing wrong with being white any more than there is with being straight, but the phrase white pride is disturbing nonetheless, and for good reason. See, black pride and queer pride both have a history behind them: a history of disempowerment, marginalization, humiliation; a history of being lesser in the eyes of society. The pride movements are about defying that humiliation and that disempowerment, about refusing to be lesser. Theyre about raising oneself up to the level of the white or straight majority and demanding to be treated like a fellow human being. Now, the white people and the straight people are already on the higher level, being treated as human beings; if they raise themselves higher than they already are, the result is that we once again have a two-tier society, with white / straight people on top and everyone else a step down. Thats why straight pride is a bad thing, even though being straight isnt.
Its entirely possible that this simply didnt occur to my friend. It happens. If I had a dollar for every time Ive hurt people or crossed boundaries without meaning to, I would be cringing in retrospective shame in a much fancier house. But intention, as Ive been told a couple of those times, isnt magic. Harm done by mistake is still harm. If someone stands on your toe completely by accident, it hurts just as much as if it was on purpose. Youll still probably yell out in pain and ask them to move their foot. Its not that whether they intended to hurt you doesnt matter, but that it matters because of how it drives their response to your pain. Lets suppose someones trodden on you; youve yelled Ow! Youre on my toe!; and they make one of the following possible responses. I think youll agree with me that only one of these is acceptable.
- [hastily removes foot] Oh! Im so sorry! Are you badly hurt? I hope I havent broken anything. Can you walk? If its serious Ill take you to the emergency doctor. Im so sorry.
- [still standing on you] Well, I didnt do it with the intention of hurting you. Its not my fault your foot got in my way. How dare you accuse me of being the kind of person who stomps on peoples toes on purpose! Maybe you need stronger shoes.
- [silence, aims another stomp at your toes]
Now lets switch roles: youve stood on someone elses foot by mistake. Its natural to want them to be very clear that you are not in category C, so even people who are genuinely in category A usually mix in a lot of I didnt mean to!s with their apologies. But if thats your primary concern, and especially if you think that your innocent intentions excuse you from the effort of repairing the harm youve done, then sorry you are in category B.
Only Im not sure thats whats actually going on here. Look again at the wording on the Straight Pride image: the writer thinks the widespread rejection of straight pride shows our society to be upside-down and politically correct. In discussions of sexual diversity, these are red flags that someone is in category C: that is, they act harmfully towards non-conforming genders and sexualities, if only in terms of public expression. Well, there are highly specific situations in which an otherwise harmful act is an appropriate response, and its my bet that the writer thought the Supreme Court decision was one of them. Some examples might be
- smacking a toddler away from a hot stove
- performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on someone whos choking
- amputating a gangrenous foot
These acts all have something fairly obvious in common: a context of imminent, severe danger, which justifies drastic steps to counteract it. Imagine smacking a toddler away from a harmless cupboard, or doing the Heimlich on someone whos not choking, or amputating a healthy foot. It wouldnt be enough to plead that you sincerely believed there was danger; you have to have a compelling reason to believe there was danger. Precisely because youre trying to do the right thing and help somebody, its crucial to get the facts right. Granted, a straight pride meme doesnt do very serious harm compared to some other things people do to those who dont conform to gender norms; but those other things are motivated by the same attitude, which therefore needs to be confronted wherever it appears.
Only, when I say attitude, youre picturing someone nasty, right? My mental image is of the boys at my schools who called me poofter and fag and various other synonyms (pretty sure they werent detecting my actual bisexuality, which I was in ironclad denial about; I just fit their stereotype of what a gay person was like). But theres a reason why no-one admits to being one of the Nasty People, and its the paragraph above this one. Occasionally, harmful acts are genuinely justified by the context and the sincere belief that one of those occasions has arrived is the state of mind in which approximately 90% of violence is committed. Mostly, when people hurt other people, its through trying to do the right thing. Hatred, from the inside, feels like I am a good person and this has to stop.
Which is why I am not remotely impressed by this webcomic, which also crossed my Facebook feed in the day or two after the Supreme Court decision. A guy called Adam Ford is opposed to gay marriage, and whats more he thinks gay sex is evil, but he wants gay people to be very clear that he doesnt hate them, he loves them. What really gets me is when he insists that he is not trying to do this:
but rather this:
See whats wrong here? Ford, here represented by the guy on the left, believes certain things about God at minimum, that (s)he exists, that (s)he disapproves of gay sex and gay marriage, that her/his approval is a sound basis for moral judgement. The generic gay person represented by the guy on the right presumably disbelieves at least one of these things. Ford presents no argument whatever in favour of any of them. So the second cartoon still amounts to no more than My way (of thinking about God) is better than your way. As the comic proceeds Ford starts citing the Bible, but again with no explanation of why the Bible would be a better moral guide than, say, the works of Shakespeare. His claims still dont exceed My way (of assessing the value of the Bible) is better than your way.
For all his self-professed love of gay people, Ford offers no assurance that they will not be stigmatized, dehumanized, or made lesser if they stop having sex with the people theyre attracted to, like he wants. All he has to offer is a feeling. Heres the thing, though: I dont think love is the ultimate social value. I think trust is. I only need a dozen or so people in my life to love me; I need to be able to trust everyone I meet. I need to be sure they wont harm me. If their interests clash with mine, which is what happens when you put independent individuals in a space with finite resources, I need to be able to enter a rational conversation with them to resolve the clash. There might be a good reason why they should get their way and I shouldnt, but if so then both of us will be able to see that reason, because the truth is the truth for everybody. Whether its a selfish reason or a selfless one isnt the point.
We humans have evolved part of the way to understanding the importance of trust. Thats where our moral instincts come from in the first place. Unfortunately, were adapted for survival in the world of the first 90% of human existence, which was like The Walking Dead with animal predators instead of zombies. You live in a small group of close friends and family, and if you meet strangers you can never be certain they arent planning to kill you and take your stuff or on a hair-trigger in case you were planning to kill them and take their stuff.
We therefore have a flaw woven into our moral sense, which says that only people who do things our way deserve full respect as human beings. Except we dont think of it as our way, or wed see what an unjust attitude this is. We think of it as the proper way, like the three-year-old who, told to say Spasibo to a Russian visitor who was giving her an apple, haughtily replied No. I will say Thank you properly. And sometimes, we can become morally outraged when people do things improperly, and harm them all the while thinking were being especially upright. This is not conducive to mutual trust. Morality must be rational, or it is prejudice.