Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When Pragmatic Calculation Overrides Moral Imperatives: The Demise of Fierce Activism (and Fraying of the Moral Claims on Which It Rests)

Reports indicate that, in an attempt to address discontent among progressive supporters due to its inaction on its promises to address gay rights and its choice not only to defend DOMA but to do so vigorously (and with malice towards gay persons), the White House intends to make an announcement today. It will offer some—but strictly limited—benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. And these will be in place only as long as Mr. Obama is president.

According to Jeff Zeleny in the New York Times, the president will sign a “memorandum” today that provides things like relocation expenses for same-sex partners of gay federal employees, but not health insurance benefits. Not the health insurance benefits provided to heterosexual spouses. DOMA itself—the 1996 federal legislation that the president tells us he opposes and has promised to repeal, but which his administration is now defending—is apparently a stumbling block in that regard.

As I read this interesting news about shiny baubles dangled before a group of citizens experiencing discrimination in the apparent expectation that those citizens will be too dull to recognize that we're being offered bright trinkets in place of the respect and rights we keep demanding, I’m wondering if the administration even realizes how insulting this gesture is—how it compounds rather than addresses the core problem.

It’s about respect. It’s about recognizing that my human rights are equal to yours, that my humanity is on the same level as your humanity. It’s about realizing that what would wound you deeply also wounds me deeply, because my human nature feels pain as keenly as yours does.

If you would be outraged when I suggested that, because you are heterosexual, you do not deserve the same respect that I do as someone who is homosexual, then your expectation that I should be satisfied with the shiny bauble you offer me instead of respect and rights is curious, indeed. If you would find it insulting (and hurtful) when I decided not to offer your wife health benefits, while I offered those benefits to all same-sex partners, then on what grounds do you imagine I will be content with crumbs that would not be sufficient for you?

It’s about respect. And recognizing that my human rights are equal to yours. The gesture the administration is making today only drives the knife deeper, because under the guise of addressing my concerns as a gay citizen experiencing discrimination, the administration reminds me through its very gesture of concernthat it regards my humanity as less than that of all heterosexual citizens.

I’m trying to get my mind around this . . . ham-handed and morally obtuse . . . behavior on the part of this administration. I’ve been trying to get my mind around this behavior. How does one put together the claim that equality for gay human beings is a moral imperative, and the behavior of this administration towards gay citizens?

I find it impossible to justify the Obama administration’s behavior towards gay human beings because of my experience with moral imperatives during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve written previously on this blog about my experiences during those years. I've noted that my experiences in those years led me to break with the church of my family, because of that church's hesitancy about moving to welcome African-American members. I've also noted that what I experienced in those years led me to commitments that have run through my academic life, to teaching in historically black colleges and universities for fifteen years.

I’ve also reflected at length on those experiences in a published article in Religion in a Pluralistic Age: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Philosophical Theology (NY: Peter Lang, 2001). In that article, I apply insights from a religious-theological movement in 19th- and early 20th-century America to my experiences during the Civil Rights period. That movement was the social gospel movement.

The social gospel spoke (among other things) about what it called the “social mind” of societies. Social gospel thinkers and churches influenced by social gospel theology believed that, just as individuals can change their moral minds about social practices like slavery or the subordination of women to men, so can societies do so. And the process by which societies change their moral minds is akin to—it’s linked to—the process by which individuals change their moral minds.

Social gospel thinkers noted that individuals can live comfortably with pre-moral ideas about all kinds of social practices like racism or misogyny. We can tolerate and even endorse those practices because we take them for granted: we’re conditioned to do so, by formative experiences in our families, churches, schools, and so on. We may not even see some of the institutions and practices around us, which to others’ eyes demand probing moral analysis, as moral (and so our view of institutions and practices that clearly need moral examination is pre-moral).

We see them as taken-for-granted, handed-down, church-blessed and society-founding practices and institutions that have no moral meaning at all. They are just there, given to us by divine fiat and by nature.

Then, as social gospel thinkers noted, in some of our lives, something happens to provoke reflection and new insights. An ah-ha moment comes along that permits us to see these institutions and practices in an entirely new light, and we find, to our dismay, that what we have taken for granted as divinely ordained and naturally given is a social construct that serves the needs of one group of people while subjecting another to discrimination.

Developmental psychologists like Lawrence Kohlberg think that this process of distancing ourselves from our taken-for-granted childhood assumptions about the world around us is part and parcel of growing up, of developing into adulthood psychologically—if we do, indeed, develop an adult psychological awareness. And that’s a big if.

Kohlberg and other developmental psychologists think that not all adults, by any means, develop adult psychological frameworks for analyzing the world around them. Many adults remain stuck in pre-adult stages of psychological and moral development, insofar as we continue, in adulthood, to rely on the absolute authority of those groups and institutions that shaped our formative years—e.g., church, family, and so forth.*

The social gospel applied these insights about individual moral awareness to society at large. This movement argued that societies can experience breakthrough moments about taken-for-granted institutions and practices, every bit as much as individuals can. In fact, as more and more individuals experience such ah-ha moments regarding the moral dimensions of practices and institutions previously taken for granted—e.g., the “natural” and divinely stamped right of light-skinned people to dominate dark-skinned ones, or of men to dominate women—societies comprising such practices and institutions have no choice except to begin confronting their taken-for-granted assumptions.

They have no choice except to do so because a critical mass has grown in their midst with a critique of what is taken for granted and of the injustice enfolded in the handed-down practice or institution that has become persuasive for a significant number of citizens who had not previously thought of this practice or institution in a moral light. When such a critical mass has developed in a society, and when a society has begun to reframe how it sees what it has taken for granted, the moral mind of society shifts. And moral imperatives flow from that shift.

I am drawn to this social gospel analysis of how societies change their moral minds (following on changes in individual moral minds) because it so perfectly captures the process I myself went through, growing up in the segregated South of the 1950s, and then having to confront the claims of my African-American brothers and sisters on my life during the Civil Rights movement. What I saw and heard around me in those years forced me to begin reassessing what I took for granted about the “natural” and God-given social order in which I was growing up.

I had no choice. Once begin to see, and one cannot stop seeing. Once one’s eyes are open—once one begins to glimpse what one has taken for granted not as natural and ordained by God but as socially constructed instead—one has no choice except to keep on seeing. Eyes that have opened will not willingly shut themselves and willfully choose self-inflicted blindness again.

Once my eyes were opened to the moral claims of my African-American brothers and sisters—and that is to say, to the full humanity of my African-American brothers and sisters, on which those moral claims rested—there was no going back. If people are human as I am human, and if I see this clearly, moral imperatives naturally flow from that recognition.

Those moral imperatives demanded, for instance, that I turned a deaf ear to all those voices around me in the 1950s and 1960s which told me that changes in longstanding social institutions would not happen overnight, that it would be better if African Americans stopped pressing for changes, that “we” would do the right thing and accord rights to our brothers and sisters in a timely, mannerly, orderly way if only they would stop making a fuss. If only they'd give us time to study, to build a consensus, to move ahead with all deliberate speed.

Once my eyes were opened—once I saw that human beings with a humanity equal to mine were pressing for what I took for granted, for the same human rights I enjoyed by accident of birth because I had a white skin—I could not play pragmatic games with those demands for justice. Justice is either justice or it is not justice at all. There is no halfway justice, because there is no halfway humanity.

And that means that justice is justice now, not justice deferred to an indefinite future by specious arguments. Justice like that is not justice at all. It is the antithesis of justice. It is my intent to keep in place a social system that demeans your humanity and denies the moral (and legal and social) claims your humanity makes on me.

I could not go back, once I saw the moral issue clearly, and once I saw that it rested on the merest, simplest, and yet most foundational insights of our social order: that all human beings are made equal, and because they are made equal, each human being deserves the same human respect and same human rights as every other human being.

I could not go back. And so I wonder—intently, daily—how someone who has spoken of equality as a moral imperative, who once endorsed gay marriage and then retracted that morally-based insight about human rights for reasons of political expediency, manages to go back. Or so it seems to me, with my outsider’s perspective . . . .

It seems to me that Mr. Obama and many of his supporters, who appear to believe that one can build a platform of progressive change around silence about and denial of the fundamental rights and full humanity of a stigmatized group of citizens, have a selective and flawed understanding of what the phrase “equality is a moral imperative” means. It seems to me that Mr. Obama and many of his supporters are seeking to advance today arguments I heard, and recognized as fallacious and deceitful in the 1950s and 1960s, arguments that were about keeping moral insight at bay, not cultivating it.

And I don’t know how one does that. I don’t know how one becomes aware of the full humanity of a group whose humanity one has previously though of in demeaning terms, and then steps back from that moral insight and the moral imperatives that flow from it. I don't know how one speaks of the moral imperative of equality, and then offers the nation, as its leader, a document that seeks to undercut the moral claims of those whose equality you recognize as a moral imperative.

I could not step back once my eyes were opened in the 1950s and 1960s. How can Mr. Obama and those who support him do so today, I wonder?

* For a recent application of Kohlberg's developmental theory to discussions of churches divided today by moral questions like gay marriage, see Colleen Kochivar-Baker at Enlightened Catholicism.