Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Rod Dreher Again: Gays as the Culmination of the Sexual Revolution

Andrew Sullivan continues to post updates about the recent exchanges between Rod Dreher and Damon Linker re: homosexuality (here). (For my take on Dreher’s position, see here).

I’m particularly struck by one of Dreher’s central claims in his exchanges with Linker. Dreher argues,

If homosexuality is legitimized -- as distinct from being tolerated, which I generally support -- then it represents the culmination of the sexual revolution, the goal of which was to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth. It is to lock in, and, on a legal front, to codify, a purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality (here; see also here).

This is a noteworthy argument not because it’s novel or especially profound, but because it is common: it is foundational to (though often not clearly articulated in) much centrist Catholic thinking about gay people and gay lives. Its damning fault is a damning moral fault. It does what is never ethical to do: it turns gay human beings and gay lives into objects, as it pursues political ends that ultimately have little do with those human beings and those lives. It objectifies gay people by proposing that we who are gay bear the weight of fallen creation in a unique way. And it does that without any reference to—any invitation for—the actual lives and actual stories of gay human beings, or to our own testimony about what our lives and stories mean.

As I say, Dreher’s argument that we who are gay are somehow “the culmination of the sexual revolution,” and are all about individual desire that is merely hedonistic and devoid of generativity, is not a new argument. This presupposition about what it means to be gay runs through the thought of a large number of centrist Catholic theologians who have written about the morality of homosexuality. I have engaged this argument in published academic essays that critique the proposal of some moral theologians that gay persons are most correctly viewed as unique signs of the brokenness of creation.

What is most important to note about this argument is that it entirely prescinds from—it completely glides over and elides—the testimony of actual gay human beings. By its very nature, it objectifies gay persons, because it does not invite gay persons to participate in defining ourselves. It defines us apart from our own lives, stories, and testimonies, and it does so in a way that not only objectifies, but demeans us.

This argument turns us into fetishized, demonized representatives of “the” sexual revolution, as the sexual revolution is imagined by heterosexist males who are threatened by that revolution’s suggestion that the sexual lives of women ought to be controlled by women, and may legitimately be divorced from heterosexist male definitions of the “natural” purpose of human sexuality.

Note what the argument implies about the sexual revolution: this revolution is about “individual desire” (as opposed to sex for procreation) that solipsistically turns in on itself in a masturbatory, self-gratifying way insofar as it ignores the judgment of legitimate (male, heterosexist) authority about the meaning of human sexuality, and makes itself the only legitimate arbiter of right and wrong. This breaks the “natural” link between sexuality and generativity, and turns the sexual life into “a purely contractual, nihilistic” thing abhorrent to people of genuine moral purpose.

(Interestingly enough, this argument is never advanced against the longstanding Christian practice of marrying people of the opposite gender who cannot bear children, either because they are beyond child-bearing age or because one or other spouse lacks the ability to conceive. The male heterosexist argument against same-sex relationships selectively targets only one group of human beings whose genital expression is non-procreative. It also completely ignores the decision of many opposite-sex couples capable of bearing children to limit their offspring. Which is to say, it completely ignores—and, one has to conclude, deliberately so—the ways in which heterosexist males attacking gays as the culmination of a threatening sexual revolution have themselves benefited from and taken advantage of the very revolution they are decrying.)

This is a slippery-slope argument, which premises everything in the social contract on “natural” sexuality, on sex-for-generativity, on male control, on female subordination, on heterosexual normativity and homosexual perversity. This argument assumes that to let gay human beings through the door of the social contract in a final and definitive way—as free agents of our destiny, as arbiters of what is good and moral on a par with heterosexist males—will dissolve the social contract.

It will lead to social anarchy and decay. It will turn society upside down. (It will place the final stamp of approval on what heterosexist males intend to resist at all costs—women’s unfettered control of their own reproductive lives, women’s claim to full personhood apart from heterosexist male definitions of women’s lives. It will call into question the right of heterosexist males to project their experience of the world onto nature itself as “the” clear and obvious definition of natural law. It will call into question the longstanding historic tendency of heterosexist males to equate their understanding of scripture and tradition with “the” meaning of scripture and tradition.)

I have no doubt at all that permitting gay human beings to walk through the door of the social contract as free agents of our destiny and as arbiters of what is good and moral on a par with heterosexist males will lead to the kind of revolution Rod Dreher so patently dreads. What I doubt is his interpretation of that revolution as the end of everything. It is a revolution that represents the end of his control of his world, the end of control of everything by the men with whom he has cast his lot, and by those women whose power is invested in allying themselves with such heterosexist male control.

Note how closely this apocalyptic demonizing argument about what will happen if we allow gay people to define their own lives parallels what the churches have done to and thought about various other groups who have also been asked to bear the weight of all fallen creation in the past, for reasons that had little to do with those being used in this way, but everything to do with consoldiating the control of the men on top of church and society. Jews were perfidious. They were provocative agents of corruption within Christian culture, masquerading as “normal” and like the rest of us while spreading contagion from within. They needed to be contained, driven out, and, if possible, eliminated.

Women were the daughters of Eve, the very embodiment of sin, who listened to the wily serpent in Eden because their rationality is less than that of men, and their propensity to sin is greater. Women corrupt everything unless they are firmly under male control. Women need to bear children in order to pay for the sin of Eve, and to redeem the world through their suffering in recompense for Eve’s infatuation with the serpent’s voice.

Women are misbegotten males who lack the full fange of male rationality, and who therefore positively demand male definition and male control to keep them from causing social decay. If women threaten to get out of control, they had better be harnessed again—if necessary, with violent technology such as ducking stools and scolds’ bridles, or, in ultimate cases, with the stake or the gallows, when their self assertion has turned them into witches. Keep the laws strong against female self-assertion, or who knows what might happen.

People of color were the cursed children of Ham, whose ancestor uncovered his father’s nakedness and who was, as a result, doomed to draw water and hew wood for his brothers throughout eternity. Keep them in subjugation, and you will be doing a noble and scripturally ordained thing. They are, after all, childlike in comparison to the rational men of the West. They are weak, lacking in intelligence, prone to emotion in the same way that women are.

People of color have not yet evolved to the state of rationality in which men of the West live, and they need the firm guiding hand of Western white men to keep them from making a mess of things. If their servitude happens to enrich Western men, then this is a felicitous reward to those who undertake the onerous task of assisting people of color to meet the mark of rationality and morality set by the white (heterosexist) men of the West.

These arguments no longer hold water for many Christians today (though they still hide inside the souls of a surprising number of believers, and would even now assert themselves again strongly, given half a chance to claim the light of day). Many Christians now recognize that what Christian people have done to and said about these scapegoat groups in the past, in the name of God and with the avowed purpose of defending Christian morality and combating the decay of Christian culture, is totally unjust. It is cruel. It is indefensible.

Unfortunately, many Christians have not yet come to the point of seeing that arguments like the one Dreher sets forth in the preceding quote are the contemporary version of the arguments that Christians once used against Jews, women, and people of color, and which they now rightly repudiate. To say that gay human beings uniquely represent fallen creation and portend the triumph of a cultural revolution noxious to authoritative morality is to say that perfidious Jews corrupt Christian culture from within, that unbridled women are the downfall of everything, and that people of color have been chosen by God to draw water and hew wood for their white brothers to atone for the sin of Ham.

It’s time for some new arguments in the cultural debates about homosexuality—some compelling ones that finally permit those of us who are gay to speak in our own voices, and to challenge ludicrous caricatures of our experience and our lives by those who create such caricatures in order to disguise and defend their claim to the unjust privilege of dominating others.