Wednesday, 23 November 2016

We won’t defeat bigotry by ignoring it

“We really should just be completely ignoring Tamaki,” said a friend of mine (whose name is Andy) on Facebook last week. “I’m thoroughly sick of giving time and space to nonentities. Sign of the times unfortunately – lazy, sensationalistic journalism, and all that.”

Tamaki who? Well, my little country made international news a couple of days previously when we had a gigantic earthquake, which fortunately hit a rural area in the early hours of Tuesday morning with very few people in harm’s way, and I think the death toll stands at 2. Now Brian Tamaki, self-anointed Bishop of Destiny Church, had preached on Sunday that major earthquakes (such as those that devastated Christchurch, our second-largest city, back in 2011) are Nature crying out to God in grief at human sin – sin being murder, gay marriage, and Lloyd Geering. After Monday night’s events he put up a blog post claiming that the sermon had been a prophecy.

Maybe Andy is right in the specific case of Brian Tamaki. He gets media space because his Destiny Party was the second-latest in the ongoing series of attempts to forge authoritarian Christianity here in New Zealand into the kind of political force that it is in the US. The pattern is: rebuke sin, claim endorsement from God, announce a nationwide revival, fail to cross the 5% vote threshold required to get your party into Parliament, fall off the radar, surface a year or two later in a sex scandal. Except in Tamaki’s case it was a money scandal, and it didn’t sully his standing within the small group of devout followers who are his season-pass on the gravy train.

I can’t fault Andy’s opinion of current standards of journalism either. Objectionable behaviour from public figures gets clicks, and clicks get advertising dollars. But in the light of the recent US election, it’s now clear that the Left has catching up to do; and one thing we need to catch up on is convincing people that we have answers worth listening to. During my time in student political activism there was a general practice – nothing ever so concrete as a policy – of avoiding engaging with our opponents’ arguments directly so as not to give the impression we thought them worth bothering with. In effect we assumed that our target audience’s default position was to agree with us as long as they didn’t encounter opposing views. I believe a similar assumption was a big part of Hillary Clinton’s failure.

So if certain people blame earthquakes on deviant sexual activity, does that mean we need to go out and hold educational community seminars on plate tectonics? Not what I have in mind. Apart from anything else, we don’t know why earthquakes strike at one point on a fault rather than another, and for people who think like Tamaki, that sort of gap in our knowledge means there’s still room for God (or aggrieved Nature) as an explanatory factor. Anyway, the earthquakes per se aren’t the point. The point is whether being LGBT, or tolerating LGBT partnerships, is the sort of thing that makes a country deserve earthquakes. We progressives say “No.” Many people still say “Yes.” We have not worked hard enough at convincing them otherwise.

That’s why I can’t quite applaud Chris Trotter’s sarcasm in his recent article on the American election:

Right now, the English-speaking Left reminds me of those Shi’ite devotees who ritually flog themselves until their backs bleed. “It’s all our fault!”, they cry into their craft beer. “Trump is all our fault!” Yes, that’s right, Trump is all their fault. Not the stinking, roiling mass of racists, sexists, nativists and xenophobes who, with terrifying speed, are crawling out of the rank American darkness and into the light. They are not the problem. The problem is the Left – who, apparently, should never have driven them there in the first place.

You know, harmful acts aren’t always just one person’s fault. A burglary can be both the burglar’s fault and the security guard’s fault at the same time. The Left could and should have worked harder to keep Trump out; but even more critically, we should have started working a lot longer ago to make Trump impossible by, among other things, dismantling the ideology that unites his voters. It’s not enough to point out that Tamaki is a blatant homophobe – we also need to explain why homophobia is a bad thing. We should be trying to convince people who don’t agree with us before we start virtue-signalling to those who do.

I include under “virtue-signalling” many of the arguments I do see over social justice questions – wherever the root issue is words rather than content. Most often the word in question is “privilege”. Many people who haven’t been immersed in social justice culture and vocabulary are probably nevertheless empathic enough to grasp the principle “Other people face challenges you don’t even see.” What they object to is being told that that makes them “privileged”, which in common parlance suggests wealth, power, and ease, rather than merely not enduring a specific set of problems on top of everything else. Yes, it’s perfectly legitimate to take a common word and use it in a technical sense. But if you want to change someone’s mind, you have to speak their language, not insist they speak yours.

No Left initiative in America will succeed without addressing the desolation of the rural working class. Trumpism is like radical Islam, which we leftists understand comes out of a toxic mix of poverty, powerlessness, and anger. Granted that deeply held religious beliefs are an ingredient in that mix, we know the belief that the West is the spawn of Satan becomes more plausible when the West is interfering in your country’s politics, siphoning off your resources, pointing guns at your children, and drone-strafing your neighbourhood. Well, Trump’s votes also came from a toxic mix of poverty, powerlessness, and anger. The belief that urban liberals are conspiring to destroy Christianity becomes more plausible when urban liberals mock you from the television, close the mine or factory that was your town’s livelihood, and send your sons off to be brought home in body bags for someone else’s human rights.

But women, people of colour, and the LGBT community cannot wait until the rural working class staggers back to its feet. They are being harmed, right now, by the Trumpists. Just as understanding where Islamism comes from doesn’t make it OK to blow people up, understanding where Trumpism comes from doesn’t make it OK to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. And we can no longer count on people concluding that some opinion, or some policy, is automatically wrong just because it’s racist, sexist, or homophobic. Actually, we couldn’t before either, but we’d just about reached the point where they were keeping those attitudes to themselves. Now it’s all blown open.

I don’t think we need to worry about the idea that sin causes earthquakes. I do think we need to worry about the idea that being gay or trans is sin. At least some of the people who believe that need to see why it’s wrong. And for that we need reasoned arguments. Mockery and indignation, excellent megaphones though they are for speaking truth to power, won’t do what needs to be done now. Yes, I know, reasoned argument very seldom convinces an opponent on the spot either. But people do sometimes go away and think about what you’ve said, and come back with a change of mind afterwards. If that had worked with only one in twenty Trumpists, it would have made the difference between President Trump and President Not Trump.

To pre-empt a couple of objections from my own side, very briefly:

  1. Why should we give the time of day to people who are either homophobes themselves or OK with enabling homophobes? Because there are so many of them that if we don’t, homophobia wins elections. That’s why.
  2. Isn’t it hurtful to LGBT people to have to debate whether they have the right to exist? It might be, for those who’ve been having a tough time as it is and are already stretched to the limit – but that’s what allies are for. But if you’re worried, then as a bisexual person I give you permission to have this debate in my presence. I wish there had been debates presenting the progressive side in my childhood environment; I might have been able to be honest with myself, and lose a faint but persistent cloud of self-repugnance, before the age of 33.

The first argument we have to deal with is the religious one. It says it right there in the Bible, and the Bible is God’s own Word, the same yesterday and today and forever:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

Now if an anti-gay Christian were to ask me how I, personally, reconcile these passages with my pro-gay position, I would have to be honest: I don’t think the Bible is God’s word at all; I don’t think it is wiser or more moral than other collections of cultural knowledge; and while the moral wisdom it does contain isn’t zero, I don’t think these passages come under that heading. But if they asked me why they should adopt my pro-gay position, I wouldn’t start by trying to prise them away from God and the Bible and hope they’d end up at LGBT acceptance. That’s taking far too long a way around. We haven’t got time for that. And it shouldn’t be necessary anyway, because (as Brian Tamaki fulminates) many Christians nowadays do accept LGBT people and LGBT relationships. They must have reconciled that with their beliefs somehow.

Contrary to what they’ll tell you, nobody actually tries to adhere to everything the Bible says. There’s always another interpretation if you need one. What, you might reasonably ask, does Tamaki make of this?

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Christians haven’t taken this passage at face value since Christianity first spread to people with money. The standard interpretation is that the young man in question loved his wealth more than God, and the instruction to give it all away was addressed to his specific personal situation – despite the fact that there is nothing along those lines in the text, and that Jesus himself draws an entirely different moral right there in front of you.

“But surely,” a Christian may reply, “just because we ignore one part of the Bible (forgive us, Lord) doesn’t make it a good idea to ignore another part of the Bible.” Well then, try and line up these two passages and see where they join:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.
And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife;
Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.

So which is it? Can a divorced woman marry another man or can’t she? Notice that word again, “abomination”, in the Deuteronomy passage. Apparently going back to one’s first husband after a second marriage is the same sort of sin as gay sex. Yet St Paul’s command to the Corinthians, for which he explicitly claims divine authority, would seem to call for exactly that!

Hence, if we take the Christian Bible to be authoritative, the category of “abomination” in the Torah is evidently not as set-in-stone as we might think. At the very least, you can see how we might question the application of the Leviticus verse above to modern society without stepping beyond the pale of Christianity. As for the Deuteronomy one about gender-swapped clothing, what if you’re wrong about who’s a woman and who’s a man? What if one’s gender in God’s eyes is not reducible to one’s genitals? What if, as I Samuel 16:7 has it, “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart”?

That leaves us with St Paul’s vague strictures to the Romans about “that which is against nature”. St Paul also says it’s against nature for men to wear their hair long (I Corinthians 11:14), which – besides the unrecognisable definition of “nature” it requires – is at odds with passages like Numbers 6:5 prescribing an order of long-haired holy men. Perhaps then “against nature” is not the same thing as “forbidden”?

Which leads us nicely to the second major argument against accepting LGBT practices, which is that they’re “unnatural”. Regardless of whether it was God or evolution that invented it, sex is for making babies, right? And two women can’t make a baby; nor can two men. So OK, maybe if people find it fun to do weird things behind closed doors we needn’t follow them in there, but why should we have to be reminded of it in public? Why celebrate such unnatural acts in Pride parades or solemnize them in marriage? As for trans people, they’re kidding themselves, right? Girls have a vagina and boys have a penis – shouldn’t you have figured that out by the time you got to kindergarten?

First up, “homosexual behaviour” (matings or courtship displays between individuals of the same sex) has been observed in over 200 mammals, 150 birds, and hundreds of others. At this point it’s looking as if animal species that don’t engage in homosexual behaviour, if there are any, are the exceptions that need to be explained. Obviously these animals are not doing it to make babies – although whiptail lizards, which are all female and reproduce by cloning, apparently do need to mate in order to kick off the cloning process. If something that nearly every kind of animal does is “unnatural”, you’re going to have to explain what you mean by “natural”.

How do you tell whether something’s natural or not? Place a natural object and an artificial one side by side and observe the differences. The natural object will be fuzzy, messy, unique, irregularly shaped, and if it’s alive it’ll interact unpredictably with its surroundings. The artificial object will be smooth, clean, reproducible, with simple geometry and sharp boundaries (unless it’s been damaged or decayed, i.e. subjected to nature). The kindergarten-level gender binary has all the characteristics of artificiality; the interplay of identity and performance that gender scholars write about has the characteristics of nature – which is why I agree with gender scholars that the binary is a “construct” but have to disagree when they add that everything else about gender is “constructed” as well.

Of course, it’s one thing for an animal to sometimes mate with its own gender, and another thing for it to prefer its own gender over the one it can make babies with. Any gene that coded for such a preference would disappear from the population in a few generations unless it also did something else which helped it to produce copies of itself after all. What that something else might be in humans is not yet known; there are several hypotheses, none of them easy to test. But this is strictly irrelevant to the question of whether it is ever acceptable to have sex with one’s own gender. If “nature” is the standard of what’s acceptable (as St Paul indicates), then the answer to that question is a clear yes.

Gay people can’t help being gay. There’s plenty we don’t know about human sexuality yet, but there are some solidly established facts, and that’s the solidest. All attempts to “cure” gayness have failed. Nor do cultural mores make any difference. The proportion of people in Western society today who form relationships with their own gender is about 5%. The proportion of people in Western society who formed relationships with their own gender before the gay rights movement began was about 5%. The proportion of people who form relationships with their own gender in the Papuan society (given the pseudonymous name of “Sambia” by the anthropologists who work with them) where adolescent boys are expected to perform oral sex on older boys as part of initiation into adulthood is about 5%.

The conservative response to the aforegoing is to deny it and claim that being gay is a choice. Well, if you find that that aligns with your experience – if you’ve ever knowingly chosen not to pursue an attraction to your own gender – then what that means, my friend, is that you, like me, are bisexual. Once again, this isn’t really relevant. If there were something wrong with consensual gay sex, then we’d be obliged to restrain people from doing it even if they couldn’t help themselves. But first you have to demonstrate that there’s something wrong with it; if there isn’t, then even if it were a choice it wouldn’t be wrong for people to choose it.

Where it does become relevant is when we turn to the final major objection to LGBT acceptance: that it will destroy the fabric of society. The fabric of society, as conservatives are quite correct to assert, is woven of families. Where they go wrong is in fearing that families are endangered by the LGBT rights movement or, for that matter, by anything at all. Families are strong because loyalty to kin is a basic human instinct. There have been a few radical feminists – it’s not a complete strawman – who have advocated universal lesbianism and an end to natural reproduction. That would genuinely disrupt society; but even if a worldwide movement did arise with that as its goal, it still couldn’t ever happen, because you can’t change a person’s sexuality and you can’t stop them caring about family.

I’ve seen it asserted as fact, and believed for most of my teenage, that all civilizations which accept same-gender partnerships collapse soon afterwards. This is false. In Graeco-Roman civilization, male-male sex is treated as normal from the very earliest writings we have. Achilles in the Iliad is canonically bisexual and homoromantic; Patroclus is his lover, not (as in the Brad Pitt movie) his cousin. And the Iliad dates to about 750 BCE, three hundred years before Thermopylae, four hundred years before Alexander the Great (also bisexual), and five hundred years before Greece was eclipsed by Rome, which continued to treat male-male sex as normal until Christianity became its majority religion around 300 CE. Rome fell to a Germanic invasion in 410 CE. Shall we conclude that rejecting same-gender partnerships causes civilizations to collapse?

Alexander the Great was a conquest-crazed warlord, not the kind of person I’d recommend as a role model. However, he was good at what he did – he conquered more territory than any other single leader in history except Genghis Khan. That should give the lie to society’s biggest myth about LGBT sexuality: that men who like men are weak, effete, cowardly, and narcissistic. Every time you call something “gay” to convey that it’s boring or trite or uncool, you’re helping perpetuate this stereotype. Combined with the myth that LGBT sexuality is infectious, I’d guess this is the strongest root of homophobia in secular New Zealand.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s my church had a sort of misguided tragic compassion for gay people; we earnestly prayed for a cure. My male schoolmates on the other hand were brutally, sometimes violently, contemptuous of those they suspected of being “poofters” and “faggots”, which periodically included me. Maybe they spotted my eyes going the wrong way in the gym changing-room at some point. I do vaguely recall getting caught lingering over male nude illustrations instead of female ones in some library book on “Prehistoric Man” (the standard vehicle for smuggling nudity to children, and well-thumbed accordingly). But mostly I think I just fit their stereotype of what a gay guy was because I was crap at sports and didn’t fight. At church, after all, being gay could only land you in Hell. At school it might cost you rugby matches.

Which leads me to my final point. Some people, often very nice and in many ways thoughtful people, believe we should keep LGBT issues out of children’s reach – they’re too young to be thinking about sex, we should respect their innocence and “just let them be kids”. Unfortunately, you can’t shelter children from the myths that will trickle down to them via slightly older children. The only protection against myths is truth. Arguably different levels of information are appropriate at different ages, but our culture’s conceptions of what’s age-appropriate consistently trail two or three years behind children’s actual experience of puberty. Some children are transgender. Some children find, when they start to feel the first stirrings of attraction, that it’s towards people of their own gender. We do them no service at all by not letting them know about themselves.

I’m under no illusions that I’ve covered half the arguments I’d need to actually convince someone who sincerely believes it’s wrong to be gay or transgender. This should be considered a starting-point for a debate that is long overdue. I don’t believe we should be granting homophobia, sexism, or racism any “respect” in the sense of letting them go unchallenged; I’m saying we need to challenge them with reasoned arguments that force their proponents to go away and think, rather than trying to shout over them so they can’t be heard. Because we now have empirical proof that shutting them up doesn’t work.

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