Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Concluding Look at John Corvino's What's Wrong with Homosexuality?: The Fork in the Road to Social Transformation

I promised you all a final overview statement about John Corvino's outstanding book What's Wrong with Homosexuality? (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013) after I'd finished offering excerpts from it. And here it is--not a review per se, but something closer to a reaction, and a reaction to a very specific aspect of the book at that.

As he concludes the argument of his book, Corvino states,

In these pages, I've argued that there is no good reason to condemn same-sex relationships, and that, indeed, there's good reason to affirm them. Like their heterosexual counterparts, they can be an important avenue for human well-being. As someone who has been involved in this debate for two decades, I recognize that philosophical argument only takes us so far, and that this issue demands not merely a change of mind but also a change of heart. But nor should we dismiss the value of reasoned discourse in opening a space for a broader personal and social transformation. When moral arguments are twisted into weapons, as happens all too often, philosophical analysis becomes more than merely relevant: It becomes morally urgent. I hope that this book invites an ongoing dialogue that is thoughtful, rigorous, sensitive, and productive (p. 151).

As I read this final passage in the book, I see Corvino pointing to a certain fork in the road to social transformation: as he states, "I recognize that philosophical argument only takes us so far, and that this issue demands not merely a change of mind but also a change of heart. But nor should we dismiss the value of reasoned discourse in opening a space for a broader personal and social transformation."

One fork in the road to social transformation travels down a path that emphasizes change of heart and recognizes that philosophical argument can take us only so far towards the transformative cultural changes we seek. The other fork points to a path that relies on reasoned discourse to open a space for a broader personal and social transformation.

I think that John Corvino is right about this fork in the road to social transformation. It's clear to me that his book travels the second rather than the first path, and it does so for the persuasive reason that he emphasizes in his formulation of that second path: any society aiming at fruitful, longstanding transformation positively demands reasoned discourse about controverted issues to open a space within that society in which both personal and social transformation can take place.

Corvino's position represents what I think of as a "high" assessment of the value of reasoned discourse in the public square to effect positive change in a society. My own thinking about these issues adopts a "low" assessment of the role of reason that moves in a different direction, along the first of the two paths to which Corvino points in this summative statement of his book: as far as I can see, the kind of measured, carefully reasoned, philosophical discourse in which Corvino engages can take us only so far down the path of social transformation.

For the reason he notes: effective social transformation requires changing people's hearts, not merely their heads--though these are not, of course, polar opposites for Corvino, and as he suggests, the possibility to open space for personal and social transformation in a given society depends on the practice of reasoned discourse in the public square.

My hermeneutic of suspicion about these matters, which derives to a huge extent from my experiences growing up during the Civil Rights movement in the American South, leads me, however, to be much more skeptical than I think John Corvino is about the role that reason plays in the process of social transformation. In fact, I've concluded that rational debate in the public square can actually thwart the process of moral transformation on which social transformation depends to achieve its goals. 

Rational debate in the public square can lock up the energies for conversion on which any process of social transformation has to depend if it is to be effective and long-lasting. This is a point to which Martin Luther King, Jr., sought to direct our attention when he noted repeatedly that there can be a paralysis of analysis as a social change like integration is debated--and debated and debated over again, by seemingly "reasonable" people who may, in fact, be involved in ongoing rational debate precisely to hold a particular social change like integration at bay for as long as they possible can.

Let me make this point more concrete, and refer it back to Corvino's philosophical project. As he notes from the start of his book, and continues to mention throughout the book, he has repeatedly debated the question of homosexuality and where gay folks fit in American society with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family and Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage. He speaks generously of both Stanton and Gallagher as human beings who, while they adamantly oppose what he stands for (and what he lives in his same-sex marriage) are nonetheless, when all is said and done, fellow human beings. Who deserve respect as fellow human beings.

As I read what John Corvino has to say about Stanton and Gallagher, how can I not be moved--by his generosity, by his hope that, in hashing out the question of gay people and where we fit in the world in reasoned public debate with Stanton and Gallagher, he might (and we all might as a society) arrive at some understanding, some modus vivendi, that allows us room to differ while still living our individual lives with dignity? I am moved as I read about this hope and as I recognize the generosity towards Stanton and Gallagher that it reflects, and I bless John Corvino for engaging in dialogue with these and other opponents of gay rights.

I also recognize that I am not where Corvino is about these matters. For my part, I am simply no longer interested in seeking to reason with the Glenn Stantons and Maggie Gallaghers of the world. I have long since become convinced--by their behavior, by what they have demonstrated to me by their behavior over an extended of period of time that they intend for me and for other gay people--that reason is not the game of the Stantons and Gallaghers of the world.

Their game is to inflict damage on me and on other gay human beings. And as a result, rather than wishing to reason with them, I want to stop them--just as opponents of racial discrimination in the American South in the Civil Rights period sought not to reason with but to stop those who were inflicting damage on people of color because they were motivated by racist animus. Opening a space for conversion to occur in a society roiled by a culture-wide moral debate sometimes requires not merely the application of reason: it requires preventing the damage that those with power on their side are capable of inflicting on the powerless.

The process of conversion on which effective social transformation depends sometimes calls for unmasking those who, under the guise of engaging in "reasoned" discourse, actually promote eminently unreasonable and even entirely irrational goals, including the fostering of hatred towards targeted minority groups. And so where John Corvino trusts that reasoned discourse might eventually chip away at the hostility, animus, and baffling thick-headedness of the Glenn Stantons and Maggie Gallaghers of the U.S., I'm more interested in using rhetorical strategies to unmask their real goals, to expose what they and the groups for which they work are really all about, to invite them to admit that reason is not and has not ever been the name of their game, when it comes to their interaction with other human beings who happen to be gay.

Conversion of heart can't take place, it seems to me, when irrational bias and outright hatred of the stigmatized other are allowed to masquerade as one reasonable option among other reasonable options in a given society. Societies that permit toxic intentions towards targeted minority groups to posture as one reasonable option another other reasonable options have a way of becoming very sick societies (see: pre-Nazi Germany; see: antebellum South), precisely because they have allowed what is not in the least reasonable to claim social respectability by presenting itself as one rational option among other rational options for the future of that society.

There came a time in the Civil Rights struggle in the American South when those debating the question of integration eventually had to make definitive decisions about the right and wrong of segregation, and, having done so, to move down the path to social transformation to which those definitive decisions pointed. There came a time when the debate about whether segregation was feasible, desirable, and moral had to be given up, and the question of right or wrong--for the entire society--had to be adjudicated.

Certainly after society as a whole had ruled the option of open legal discrimination on grounds of pigmentation off-limits and had declared this a morally wrong option, there were many citizens of the U.S. who continued privately to cling to the notion that such discrimination was desirable and should be permitted. But the culture-wide debate itself was given up, and these naysayers were then left to their own devices to decide what to do with their toxic prejudice, as the rest of the world moved on and away from them and their understanding of morality (and, in many cases, of religion, since opponents of integration constantly appealed to religious warrants as they defended racial discrimination).

And so I think will soon have to happen with the question of whether gay people can be included as fully human, fully equal members of American society . . . . 

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