Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When Master and Slave Reverse: The Gay Struggle for Human Rights

I have never been entirely sure that I understand Nietzsche’s concept of the transvaluation of values. I know that he aims the idea at Christianity, which, in his view, perverts “natural values,” turning morality on its head in the process.

My primary entry point into Nietzsche’s concept of transvaluation in general has long been Hegel's master-slave analogy. What intrigues me there is how the slave, from her position of subordination and dehumanization, ends up claiming a humanity the slave system is designed to deny her—and which it ironically removes from the slaveowner himself, who imagines that his rules of subordination and dehumanization extend out into the entire cosmos.

In the folly of his belief that he can control the definition of morality, the slaveowner ends up being captivated by the very system of slavery he invents. The system subverts itself—it transvalues its moral basis—such that it is the slaveowner himself who ends up being enslaved. It is the slaveholder himself who is dehumanized, not the slave whom he seeks to dehumanize.

The slave system effects this because it forgets or glosses over a pivotal human reality, a moral reality, that the slave herself never forgets. This is the humanity of the one we seek to dehumanize. Try as we might, invent any rules we like to subordinate others and rob them of humanity, there is still something inside each human heart that affirms the humanity of the one treated as an inhuman object, something to which human beings cling desperately in the most dehumanizing circumstances imaginable.

What the slaveholder forgets—the humanity of the person he is treating as an object by buying, selling, controlling—the slave herself never forgets: that she is human, and not an object. So the slave system ends up dehumanizing—ironically!—the very one who sets it into place to dehumanize others. The slave ends up being master, insofar as she never forgets her humanity despite constant assaults on her humanity, while the slaveholder forfeits his humanity by holding a human being as chattel property.

This analysis of the transvaluation of values has been constantly in my mind lately, as I read some of the commentary on right-wing blogs and in the media about the response of the gay community nationwide to proposition 8. It is mind-boggling to read commentary suggesting that gay human beings who protest the removal of a fundamental human right are somehow debasing their humanity by protesting! Animals rampaging in the street, a right-wing maven informed readers of the Arkansas Times blog recently . . . .

It is amazing to see the same folks who have, for decades now, done all they can to assault the humanity of gay human beings and to remove human rights from gay human beings suddenly claiming that they are the object of attack, when the human beings they’ve been bashing cry out in protest. This process whereby the oppressor seeks to claim the status of the oppressed is fascinating to watch: and utterly grotesque. It is a transvaluation of values that tries to take the concept of oppression and apply it to the one being oppressed, as a reduplication of the initial oppression—a revictimization of the victim.

I began to understand these philosophical concepts existentially some years ago, when I received an unexplained one-year terminal contract at Belmont Abbey College. I had taught theology there two years. I had received outstanding evaluations from students, peers, and supervisors.

In fact, several days before receiving the terminal evaluation, I had my annual oral evaluation by the academic vice-president, who told me that I had published more than any other faculty member that year, that my teaching evaluations were outstanding, that I had given good service to the college—and that I would receive a one-year terminal contract. When I asked him why that would be the case, given his evaluation (which he never placed in writing), he told me he was not obliged to give me any reason for terminating me.

The story has many twists and turns, and it ended with my resigning when I met a total stone wall (and encountered one lie upon another) as I sought to be given a reason for the terminal contract. What I want to focus on here is the involvement of the abbot of the monastery that owns Belmont Abbey College.

That gentleman was, at the time, Abbot Oscar Burnett. When I was issued the terminal contract, I was still so naïve that I assumed the monks would be appalled to have their college treating any employee so inhumanely and dishonestly—violating core Christian moral principles in their treatment of an employee.

I naïvely asked to see Abbot Oscar to discuss the termination. I intended to tell him that my conscience was pointing me to leaving a college that was assaulting my faith in what the Catholic church stood for, and that I wanted to do him the courtesy of discussing that with him before I resigned.

Abbot Oscar ignored a series of phone calls from me, requesting an interview with him. When I finally placed the request in writing, he wrote me back a cold note informing me that he did not meddle in the affairs of the college (which his monastery owns and controls).

And here’s where the transvaluation of values bit comes in: down the road, Steve did manage to meet with Abbot Oscar for an interview—one in which he sat in front of Oscar for a good part of an hour as Oscar ranted, screamed, and threatened. I made a transcript of that “interview” afterwards, based on Steve’s oral report, which he told me through tears. It makes . . . interesting . . . reading.

One of the most hilarious things Oscar told Steve as he raved was that I had tried to assault him: yes, you read that right—I, the one fired, without a job, without health coverage, the one lied to and dehumanized, I had tried to assault Oscar, who had food, shelter, health coverage, social status, everything of which his Catholic college had robbed me.

Oscar told Steve, in fact, that I had caused his blood pressure to rise and that I was a malicious person akin to the man who had sought to assassinate Pope John Paul II. He said that for such persons, there can be no forgiveness, only prison, since they are evil and to be cut off from society and the body of Christ.

And—get this—Oscar informed Steve that I had caused all this suffering to him because I had not come to tell him that I was resigning! He refused to see me. He slammed the door in my face when I repeatedly asked him for an interview—to tell him I feared I had to leave a Catholic college that could violate core Catholic principles so egregiously.

And yet I had assaulted him by not coming to tell him that I was resigning—when he refused to see me. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

But not uncommon, I have since found. It is a typical response of oppressors to those they oppress. The body of literature dealing with the twisted relationship of sexually abusive priests to their victims reveals that, over and over, priests who abuse children blame the children for their abuse. The children who are molested are flirts; they draw the priest in and cause him to rape them. It is the child's fault and not the fault of the adult, the pastor, who assaults the humanity of the child to its very core.

Sick. And a sickness that lives right in the heart of the church. A sickness that inhabits the heart of all systems in which power is unequally distributed, so that a person can have power over others from which those others have little ability to escape. A sickness that thrives on turning the moral universe topsy-turvy, so that the oppressor genuinely believes he is the oppressed, when the “object” he has continuously assaulted finally speaks back, and proves him wrong, in his fundamental assumption that the objectified person is less than human.

That is what is happening now with gay people in this society. We are speaking back. We are refusing to live with the strictures placed on our humanity by those whose only concern is to read our humanity as less than their humanity.

And how amazingly angry the oppressor is when he has even the tiniest taste of the dehumanizing aggression he has doled out decade on decade. What a surprise for him to learn that dehumanization doesn’t taste very good after all—not when he is the taster and no longer the disher.