Monday, December 7, 2009

Bearing Witness: On the Weakness of "Self-Evident" Arguments Against Full Social Inclusion of LGBT Citizens

To continue my discussion of the need for LGBT believers to bear witness, and of what the silence of opponents of same-sex marriage in the New York Senate last week portends for those who had hoped to see an opening to inclusion of gay citizens in our culture following last year’s election: it is crucial that gay and lesbian believers bear witness to the grace running through our lives, to counter the maliciously stupid stereotypes on which the dehumanization of gay people by law and custom continues to be based.

The silence of the majority of New York senators who refused to accord the right of civil marriage to gay citizens speaks not only of their implicit belief that those with might on their side can claim with impunity to have right on their side. It demonstrates, as well, that those who continue to promote the exclusion of gay human beings from the full range of human rights do not have any strong basis other than prejudice on which to ground their determination to discriminate.

The majority of New York senators who voted last week to continue dehumanizing gay citizens of their state did not offer any rational basis for their choice to promote discrimination, because they cannot offer a compelling rational basis for this choice. When one examines the primary arguments advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage in our society today, one finds that, in the final analysis, they are tautological, self-referential arguments that seek to confine marriage to the union of a man and a woman because marriage is by definition the union of a man and a woman.

Marriage should be marriage because marriage is marriage, goes the tautological argument for “traditional” marriage. And marriage always has been marriage. The burden of proof is on those who want to challenge the self-evident “argument” that marriage is and always has been the union of one man with one woman for life, just as the burden of proof is on those who wish to argue that biology does not dictate gender roles that, by their very nature, prohibit the acceptance of homosexuality.

I’ve been engaging these arguments recently on several Catholic blogging threads that have been discussing the Catholic church’s response to its gay and lesbian members. As I read and think about the arguments offered by opponents of same-sex marriage (and of tolerance and compassion for gay Catholics) on these threads, I’m struck by the malicious stupidity of the case that many Catholics opposed to same-sex marriage wish to make in support of their position.

I use the phrase “malicious stupidity” deliberately. It’s one thing to be ill-informed and to make bad ethical judgments because one lacks sufficient information to make a good judgment. It’s another thing to be deliberately ill-informed, and to make bad ethical judgments on the basis of limited information because one wants, ultimately, to harm others with those unsound ethical judgments. Much of the popular (and magisterial, as well) Catholic discourse about gay and lesbian human beings is maliciously stupid: it relies on ugly stereotypes long-since discarded in humane and enlightened sectors of society. It perpetuates those stereotypes deliberately, even as it purports to be all about pastoral outreach to the gay community.

The official Catholic position about gay marriage and homosexuality in general depends, then, on willfully limited knowledge about the lives, the experience, and the humanity of LGBT Catholics. Those who control the discourse at the center are unwilling to open a discourse space in which the authentic testimony of LGBT Catholics can be heard, because the leaders of the Catholic church have a vested interest in keeping such testimony at bay—in order to keep alive the ugly stereotypes on which homophobic prejudice is based.

Without those stereotypes firmly in place, people of good will both within and outside the Catholic church would immediately recognize that the Catholic church’s approach to LGBT persons is anything but what it claims to be: a pastoral approach centered on redemption and salvation. It is all about cruel exclusion, and it is designed to be all about such exclusion.

Here’s the kind of argument I keep encountering when the situation of gay Catholics is discussed on Catholic blogs these days: marriage is and always has been about the lifelong union of one man with one woman because that is what marriage is and always has been. Man was made for woman and woman was made for man. Nature confirms what God has revealed about marriage, and everything the church does and says at this point in history hinges on holding firm to this revealed truth.

(Actually, I’ve cleaned up the argument a bit and made it a bit more cogent than it normally is when some of my fellow Catholic bloggers promote this argument on Catholic blogs. As I’ve noted before, one blogger who persistently logs into these discussions on any and every Catholic blog discussing gay issues has a fondness for tautological “arguments” bedecked with capital letters that go something like this: God made Marriage Sacred, and Marriage is the Sacred Union of Man and Woman because God made this Union. The Truth has Taken Flesh in Christ and questioning the Enfleshed Truth of Christ is questioning God.)

Or something like that . . . .

Think for a moment about the preceding arguments, and it becomes immediately evident that they are not arguments at all. They are tautological statements designed to close off any rational discussion of what marriage is or means, by pointing to what advocates of traditional marriage believe marriage has to be. Because it has always been so. These are arguments designed to prevent argument, not to foster it. They are arguments whose tautology points to the weakness of the case of those offering the tautology as a valid argument.

The customary arguments that people of faith use to defend “traditional” marriage do not try to take into account the wide diversity that has existed in the institution of marriage over the course of history—in particular, the obvious and extremely significant fact that the Judaeo-Christian scriptures themselves accept a polygamous (one man, many women) model of marriage for generations of salvation history. The scriptures themselves undermine the tautological argument that marriage has always been about the union of one man and one woman for life.

Nor do those Catholics promoting the one-man, one-woman -for-life model of marriage want to deal with the obvious and easily discovered fact that a large majority of Catholics in the developed nations today practice artificial contraception. The biologistic natural-law norm used as an ultimate basis to condemn, marginalize, and exclude all gay and lesbian Catholics who accept their sexual orientation as a gift from God is the very same norm used to condemn the use of artificial contraceptives. (That norm is that all sexual acts that are not open to the possibility of conception are ipso facto intrinsically sinful.)

The focus of Catholics who wish to defend “traditional” marriage is exclusively on homosexuality, when issues of sexuality and marriage come up for discussion. It is not on the far more widespread practice of contraception, or on gender roles and how these have shifted, despite what the traditional argument wants to say about how God created things “naturally” to be, and despite the obvious intent of many Catholics opposed to homosexuality to reinstitute rigid gender roles that subordinate women to men.

In other words, what is clear is that the preoccupation of Catholics who wish to continue stigmatizing and condemning their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is all about homophobia. It’s not about defending traditional marriage. If it were, the critique used to exclude gay Catholics would be applied equally to the large numbers of married Catholics practicing contraception.

And a concerted effort would be made to return women to their “natural” roles as homemakers, child-bearers, supporters of their men. These “traditional” assumptions about the immorality of contraception and the need for women to be subservient to men are inherent in the “self-evident” argument that Catholics opposed to same-sex keep pushing. The fact that anti-gay Catholics don’t push those aspects of their “traditional” argument to the same degree that they push the anti-gay aspect of the argument suggests that what is driving many Catholics’ approach to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is, first and foremost, prejudice.

That’s the only leg that the traditional argument has to stand on, when all is said and done. As the real lives of gay and lesbian persons become more widely known—as the grace evident in the lives and relationships of many gay and lesbian persons becomes more widely apparent—we can expect a redoubled effort of those promoting the tautological argument (marriage must be about the union of a man and a woman because marriage has always been about the union of a man and a woman) to shove this argument to center stage in cultural discussions of homosexuality.

This is the last and best argument that opponents of same-sex marriage (and of social acceptance of gay persons) have to offer. It is an argument that, in its very tautology, exposes what is really at the heart of social opposition to the acceptance of gay persons as fully human: sheer prejudice. Sheer refusal to accord gay human beings the full range of human rights because of a preconceived notion that gay human beings are human to a lesser degree than others are human.

I am right because I say I am right. You are wrong because I say you are wrong. I have the power to make my definition of right stick. I would not have this power if I were not in the right.

This is precisely how those social groups with the power to enshrine prejudice in law succeeded in making the following arguments stick, long after rational examination had exposed the fatuity of the tautological “arguments” on which the following “self-evident” statements rested:

1. It is self-evident that God and nature have designed women to stay at home and engage in maternal tasks.

2. It is self-evident that God and nature have designed women as the weaker sex, and so women should not serve in the military.

3. It is self-evident that God and nature have made some people black and others white in order to divide those sets of people into distinct racial groups, living in separate area, who ought not to mix.

All of these powerful “self-evident” arguments were eventually overturned by careful rational examination, which permitted a social opening that allowed those affected by these arguments to demonstrate through their own lives that there is nothing self-evident (or divine or natural) at all in these arguments. To permit those hampered by the arguments to demonstrate, through their lived challenge to the stereotypes enshrined in the arguments, that these arguments are about nothing more and nothing less than sheer prejudice . . . .

The culture of nations around the world has been involved, since the latter half of the 20th century, in a slow, painful re-examination of similar “self-evident” arguments about homosexuality. Movement away from prejudice has occurred in many cultures, and has been accelerating in recent decades.

In response to this development, and, in particular, in response to what had appeared to be an opening to further forward movement in this area with the last election, a strong attempt is now underway in American culture to reestablish the prejudices on which the “self-evident” arguments against full inclusion of LGBT people in society rests. Some evangelical churches and the Catholic church (at an official level) have, to their shame, chosen to play a leading role in this re-establishment of prejudice.

Not only American culture but global culture itself is paying a high price for this choice on the part of many evangelical churches and the Catholic church (at an official level) to deepen rather than heal social wounds. The prejudice that these religious groups seek to reinforce in American culture is now being exported to developing nations such as Uganda, so that those with the power to reimpose homophobic stereotypes in the U.S. can point to developing nations as buttresses for the argument that homosexuality is “self-evidently” abhorrent to those who have not been brainwashed by secular modernity.

In this way, what had been a moment of promise is quickly being made a moment of peril for LGBT Americans and for our counterparts around the world. History is full of examples of what happens when powerful people consciously decide to promote noxious stereotypes, and when gullible people swallow those stereotypes because they have not given careful thought to destructive propaganda. History is full of examples of what happens when well-intentioned people stand by in silence as maliciously ignorant folks fan the flames of prejudice.

When careful, reasoned discussion of social-moral issues coupled with powerful personal testimony about these issues falls on deaf ears; when the best that those charged with defending the core values of a society have to offer to those calling for reasoned discussion of these issues is ominous silence and tautological “arguments” about how things always have been nd always should be, then people concerned about building a more humane world need to perk up their ears. These are the kind of conditions that produce not social progress but widespread persecution of despised minorities.