arguments with expiration dates
Background: I was first irritated by this clip several months ago, not just because a member of a house of government uttered it (though that makes it exceptionally irresponsible) but because i see a lot of this garbage being slung by both detractors and advocates of equal legal status for people of all sexual orientations and identities (hereafter “gay rights”). Behold the wisdom of Representative Steve Simon:
The first, fleeting 18 seconds are music to my ears. Listen to that quip, pause the video, and savor it. Feels like a retreat to this comforting excerpt (2006), in which Senator Obama politely and definitively reinforces the wall of separation, after a confrontation with the same politician’s awkward, apologetic dodge (2011) of a sincere appeal to plug one of its leaks.
(The discrepancy is substantial: Besides the glaring inconsistency between his continued funding of discriminatory religious institutions and his earlier repudiation of just such funding quoted by Ms. Knief, in his response Mr. Obama violates a central principle of his ‘Call To Renewal’ address — “that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values”. By differentiating among the services provided by an institution rather than among institutions, Obama advocates a compromise between the two languages — universal and religion-specific — he previously alluded to. To extend the metaphor, democracy is l’Académie françoise with respect to values. Democracy demands translation. into universal values. not borrowing, not mixing, not regional diversity.)
For the remainder of the clip, Rep. Simon, bless his heart, in one short spiel winds together several of the worst popular arguments for gay rights being churned continually into the popular discourse. This is my irritable attempt to untangle them and critique them individually.
“What Does God (Really) Want?” Possibly the most obnoxious position statements by religious progressives are those that draw upon their inexplicable inference of a loving, forgiving, and literally self-sacrificing deity from fables that depict a hateful, vengeful, paranoid schizophrenic. Yhwh laid out commandments and edicts in convenient scroll form, yet people insist upon learning about the true nature of God from the true nature of nature, as though the one were empirically testable by appeal to the other.
In fact, of course, this is true. Religions are as false as anything can be, and we can prove it. Closer to Saint Paul, though, the immediate problem for policy is that religion provides ambiguous and inconsistent guidance, and is more successful at exacerbating disagreements than in resolving them. People who agree that the privilege of marriage should be extended to all couples will fit scripture to their attitudes, and people who do not will do the same, both camps meanwhile attacking each other for their heresy. Appeals to scripture are likely to be ineffective at best and divisive at worst.
Homosexuality is natural. Now, to the extent that this argument can be “translated into universal values” (as opposed to being strictly a question of scripture or clergy, i.e. of faith), we are supposed to acknowledge that people are born gay, that this is no less natural than being born straight, and therefore that being gay (or engaging in gay sex) is no less moral than being straight (resp.). The key premise that what is natural is moral (like its inverse, that what is unnatural is amoral) is (a) absurd and (b) insulting.
(a) This (real projective) line of reasoning admits much better candidates. How many sociopaths does God have to create before we accept that he wants them around? How many rape pregnancies must accrue before we concede that these conceptions are sacred? How much famine must God levy before we ask ourselves whether malnutrition and starvation are the proper state of humankind? This is rubbish, but how does it hold any less sway? It certainly “translates” equally well into secular language: sociopaths are born, coercive sex occurs throughout animal species, and there have probably been starving people at every moment that there have been people. but the “morality” then being championed in place of acquiescence to the will of God has no more substance than the fabled deity itself. Are we so hung up on mythological guidance that we can’t be expected to comprehend secular reasoning as well?
(b) I am polyamorous, in that i (am willing and eager to) engage in simultaneous intimate relationships, and support my partners’ prerogative to the same, so long as everyone’s clear and cool about it. I do not care to submit my relationship status to the scrutiny of someone championing “naturality” as the end-all criterion for morality — nay, as any criterion for morality. Humans may be naturally promiscuous, but to my knowledge it remains doubtful that we habitually developed simultaneous pair-bonds during our formative millennia. and the extent to which this has implications for morality is negligible. To condemn the extension of marital benefits to consensual adults on numerical grounds requires something stronger, for instance, than a handwavy reference to a factoid about religious marriage institutions in overtly paternalistic societies couched in pseudoeconomics and social Darwinism.
“Nature versus Nurture”. I’ve long failed to understand how intrinsicity comes to be identified with divine bestowal. How are the qualities we derive from social networks and environments any less “God-given” than those we derived from our biological parents? Goddledygook aside, the most basic objection to framing a discussion of sexual orientation in “nature versus nurture” terms is that the coinage itself is a false dichotomy. (Seriously, read and learn — i sure did.) To identify either as the more worthy influence on self-identification and -realization is to misrepresent self.
In short, we are not talking about agency (unless we’re wasting time arguing with Catholicism).
The judgment of history. I can only fathom this appeal within one of two comparably contemptuous frameworks: (i) Morality is written by the victors. Victorious cultures and movements determine not only what is considered “moral” in the present but what we deem “immoral” of our ancestors. so, this framework implies, you should side with the clearest historical trends. That is, drop from Rep Simon’s appeal the unspoken premise that societies evolve along a welfare gradient and you’re left with barefaced cultural relativism. (ii) Nonconformity is shameful. You are wrong to act in accordance with your belief that society is headed in the wrong direction. I have nothing to say to this attitude except the trivial observation that it is evil.
A fundamentalist would be right to brush such judgmental appeals aside. Push either of them on me over my objections to marginalizing and sickening conformist behaviors and i’ll laugh in your face at the futility. Reciprocally, if you have no better motivation to save the world than the legacy associated with your signature and photo on Wikipedia then you’re not an ally — you’re an obstacle. For the next time some invisible demographic step up to have arbitrary infractions on their civil rights stuck down, you’ll be right there in the way again, waiting expectantly to be enticed out of your new heel-trench.
Conclusion: Now wait just a damn minute. Now, i recognize that Rep. Simon made his point in a specific regional and political context. I recognize that certain underlying assumptions, like that natural proclivities are distinguishable from those that are imposed, or that societies monotonically improve — false or not — narrow gaps between the interpretations i make above and much healthier versions. and i certainly recognize that he is a valuable ally.
The problem i have with this is that Simon should not have required gods, naturality, or historical judgment to make a case against bigotry. He need not have marginalized atheists and polyamorists in order to legitimize and celebrate gay and bi people. What he particularly needn’t’ve done was call upon lawmakers to keep their arguments secular right before launching into his own religious spiel.
To his credit, Rep. Simon interjects into one of his WDGW meanderings what is veritably the best, and the only necessary, consideration on this and countless (OK, countably many) other social issues: “the living of their lives the way they wish, as long as they don’t harm others”. As former Senator Rick Santorum correctly reasons, when real harm is not incurred there is no secular argument for the targeted denial of any right or privilege.
The above arguments, in contrast, can only last so long; they’ll erode into obsolescence with the popularity of specific species of bigotry within the popular religions. In the meantime, they encourage a timid “nudging of the envelope”, whereby one disenfranchised demograpic moves incrementally ahead without, or at the expense of, another. I think it behooves our elected officials, and certainly the religiously unencumbered ourselves, to make a conscious effort to avoid invoking arguments with asterisks and expiration dates.