Friday, June 13, 2014

Steelmanning the homophobes

A few days ago the popular left blogger Atrios asked why in the world did opponents of gay marriage care about it so much? Opposition to abortion is understandable – the story about baby-killing is easy to get even if you disagree – but why should people get exercised to such an extent over granting some rights to others that don՚t affect them personally? The answers his commenters provided were not that impressive, they were all variations on: they are assholes, they are afraid of their own urges, they are worried that their social privileges are under attack. etc. An example:
Bearpaw01 • 2 days ago
They care because privilege.

Also, at least some of them care because they're so fucking deep in the closet that they furiously resent the happiness of anyone who isn't.
Those sort of explanations have a degree of validity – I have no particular objections to ad hominem – but they lack something: a sympathetic understanding of the other person՚s point of view. That is, they are descriptions from the outside, which may be quite accurate, but do not reflect the internal experience and thinking of the person in question. That is, they are not proper answers to the question of how homophobes justify their beliefs to themselves. If you find yourself sputtering that these people don՚t deserve to be understood because they or their opinions are awful, well, that is the problem I՚m talking about.

This attitude works fine if you have given up on actually communicating with these people, if you are willing to treat them as wholly other, as mere enemies. And pretty much we have, and by “we” I mean sane intelligent people generally. We are pretty much convinced that the right wing is comprised entirely of people who are insane, morons, corrupt, or some mixture of the three. There is plenty of evidence for this view, of course. But we still have to share a world with them. It feels naive (or more precisely – it violates my self-image as a cynic) but I do actually believe in dialog between enemies. If there is any value to politics at all, then it must be as the pragmatic art of figuring out how to live with people you consider awful, and if you aren't going to hold them at bay by force you have to talk with them.

One of the practices of the rationalist community that I like a lot (actually I figured it out as a principle for myself long ago, but never had a catchy name for it) is steelmanning, roughly, the opposite of employing straw-man tactics in an argument. Instead, you aim your attacks at the strongest arguments for an opponents position, and that way if and when you defeat him you know you have won a genuine intellectual victory, not a mere tactical skirmish.

What I՚m trying to talk myself into here is not exactly steelmanning, because I՚m not that much of a rationalist. I՚m not interested so much in comparing the strength of opponent՚s arguments with my own, because I don՚t really believe there is a common currency that would permit comparison. Both our worldviews are strong for us, but weak for each other. What I am advocating is something more like intellectual empathy, or the imaginative entry into the mind of someone whose values and background may be quite different from your own. This of course is challenging and possibly unpleasant.

Can this be applied to opponents of gay marriage? The standard Bay Area attitude, which I usually share, is that these people are simply jerks trying to interfere with other people՚s rights and happiness just because they are different. But I՚ve studied them a bit, and there are two arguments I have seen them make that seem worth taking a tiny bit seriously. One of them is actually a pretty good argument, although not nearly strong enough to sway the question in their favor. The other is a very bad argument, but it is bad in a way that interests me, since it bears on certain philosophical obsessions.

First, the good argument: Opponents of gay marriage complain that it attacks or “destroys” so-called “traditional marriage”. This mystifies people like Atrios, and me too when I՚m not in deliberate-empathy-for-the-enemy mode. I have quite a traditional marriage and I don՚t feel the slightest threat to it from letting gay people participate in the institution (why shouldn't they suffer along with the rest of us?). But the opponents are quite right, and I wrong, in one very specific sense: marriage is more than just an individual decision that has affects only the two participants. It՚s in part a public, social act, and as such it is an institution of society, and redefining what it means does in fact impact everyone in some way. It doesn՚t destroy the old institution, as opponents like to put it, but it does change it, and we should be honest and acknowledge the fact.

So if we are honest, and we should be, we are kidding ourselves by pretending that the question is merely one of individual rights, because that is a lie. And more specifically, it is a lie that works against the real interests of the left when we buy into it, because it denies the reality of the social.

Understanding the logic of this argument doesn՚t explain the passion that often lies behind it, which was what we were originally interested in. These people not only believe in society and its institutions, but they believe that they are fragile and in constant danger of collapse, or that they have indeed already collapsed. Nostalgia is a big thing on the right, for what are supposed to be simpler and more honest times (this lost golden age may be anything from the 1950s to the 15th century. Gay marriage is just another attack on the fundamental structures of society by its enemies. In short, they feel embattled and fearful. They sense quite rightly the slow but unstoppable shifts in the world, and change is scary, so they want to stop it. So much so that they think (consciously or not) that gay couples are getting married just to mess with them. This is absurdly self-centered of course, but that is how most human thought operates, most of the time. So rather than see gay people who just want to live their lives and be treated in the same way as anybody else, they seem them as primarily a threat to the order of society, and to the moral order of reality.

Well that was an interesting exercise (the second argument, the bad but philosophically resonant one, will have to wait for another time). I՚m trying to work up empathy for other people՚s lack of empathy. It may appear to be morally pretentious, but in my defense I can honestly claim to be largely motivated out of boredom with ossified ways of thinking, rather than some aspiration to sainthood.


Sid K said...

One of the foundations of the modern institution of marriage is the monopoly on sex. If you're married to someone, then by default you're expected to have sex with them and them alone. Sex, in turn, has always traditionally been a male-female thing. This may be because male-female sexual bonding is also biologically more fundamental. Thus, the bond of marriage is sealed by the biological-cultural bond of sex.

A hypothesis: gay marriage opponents, and perhaps homophobes too, probably feel uncomfortable with the idea of male-male or female-female sex being the foundation of a marriage. In fact, if you're heterosexual, it is probably hard for you to see how the same amount of love, attraction, desire you viscerally feel for someone of the opposite sex can be experienced for someone of the same sex. Basically, a failure in empathy.

Another hypothesis: marriage has been fundamental to another major institution: bloodlines. People are proud of their last-names, and proud of their history; especially, in the middle-class, which owns the "underdogs winning through hard-work" narrative. It is typically not expected that gay couples will have kids--or even if they do, they're expected to adopt. This is a major weakening of the marriage-bloodlines connection.

(A minor point: you seem to conflate gay marriage opponents and homophobes. I think this is unwarranted; one can be totally fine with gay people but still be opposed to allowing them to participate in marriage.)

Hal Morris said...

This is a good and thoughtful post, and I'd like to see more of this sort of thinking. I've been searching for something I wrote on empathy and how much harm a lack of it has done to U.S. foreign policy, and by the way, how empathy isn't necessarily just for wimps, as I found bloggers citing its importance in martial arts.

I've often felt like we share some kind of sensibility or attitude towards the world, e.g. the interest in and irritation with the Libertarian/LessWrong/CFAR.. sensibility -- and more of a sense that our minds work similarly than I have towards some other people whom I find very interesting such as Venkat and Kevin Simmler. Age probably has something to do with it. I'm 62 and guess you're not too far from that.

My writing has certainly been much more spasmodic and less polished than Omniorthogonal owing partly to a topsy turvy life.

Perhaps if you took a look at my "Desperately Seeking Radical Centeredness" at you'll see some grounds for agreement.

Returning to empathy (which does appear in that essay), American culture has been strongly turning away from it for several decades. We've mostly stopped thinking about the sorts of characters found in Taxi Driver, Camus' The Stranger or Malraux' Man's Fate, and our movie theatres and bookstore shelves are full of conflicts with a mostly mythical "pure evil". Serial killers are iconic.

If liberal/progressives say we need to understand and engage more with the cultures that seem to produce terrorists, or read "Khrushchev Remembers" and grasp what that guy was really about, I don't see how we can just treat the religious zealots, the Koch Bros, etc. as forces of pure malevalence. The extent to which we ("liberal/progressive"s) do this is probably a marvelous demonstration of how we, just like the members of the Great Liberal Hating and Baiting Cult (as I like to call it) are driven to find some "other" to face off with. The essay I suggested dwells on virtually all the same issues as this comment.

Hal Morris said...

Commenting more pertinently and bouncing off Sid K.:

"Movement Conservatism" that weird mix of Libertarian market fundamentalists and every sort of traditional conservatism seems to see "slippery slopes" everywhere. You would thing that after the collapse of the Soviet system people might have rethought the whole "you can never come back from socialism" theme that goes from Popper to Jean Kirkpatrick with varying degrees of reasonableness. If it's such a slippery slope how is it that so many countries have been skiing uphill now for several decades?

Although, if you view traditional marriage as such a cultural treasure, it has been taking a beating and it's probably nowhere near over.

One could make the case for "Render unto religion what is religion's" except that civil and religious marriage have been so entangled for so long, so it would be a delicate operation to disentangle them. At least some strains of Puritanism declared marriage one of the false sacraments to be jettisoned and favoured Civil marriages on principal. That probably didn't last very long -- about as long as Quakers actually Quaking.

Joshua said...

If people can't understand the other side on an issue as relatively clear as this one, it doesn't bode well for the challenges ahead.

Some additional thoughts:

1. Religious Freedom

Some of the early legislation opened the door for preachers to be sued for discrimination by refusing, on religious grounds, to marry gay couples. I think that was an understandable objection at the time.

2. Legislating Morality

Beyond religious freedom, there are people who feel that the state has a role in enforcing certain moral norms (whether religious or secular), and these people felt that homosexuality is immoral. You and I are odd birds, in the sense that we both prefer government to stay away from enforcement of morals. But surely we can empathize with the mainstream who feel that the state should be in the business of morality?

This one is so obvious, it's hard for me to believe that anyone is truly confused. Homosexuality is illegal or persecuted across much of the world, including atheist states like Russia. In 1987, 75% of Americans surveyed said that gay marriage was "always wrong". As recently as 2010, majority opinion in America was against gay marriage.

It's wonderful that moral attitudes in America have shifted so rapidly in the last 4 years, but it seems preposterous to claim that the mainstream of 4 years ago is incomprehensible.

If you're interested in seeing the world through the eyes of many in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, read some Hassan al Banna. We can agree that his moral heirs are wrong, dangerous, and backwards. But it's hard to say they're incomprehensible. And, since it's likely that their brand of thinking will spread further into the urban cores of Europe and America, it would be wise to understand the mindset.

3. Semantic Conservatism

Pretty much everyone who ever lived, grew up with the definition of "marriage" consisting of "a man and a woman". Suddenly society was being asked to change that definition in a fairly dramatic way, over what appeared to be a legal technicality. As if the bacon lobby wanted to change the law to classify bacon as a type of egg, in order to get some regulatory relief.

Such opponents misunderstood the true struggle of gay couples. But their lack of awareness was no more puzzling that the lack of awareness most men have about male privilege. Men don't learn about male privilege until we're taught, and we need to be constantly reminded. It's no surprise that people needed to be taught about institutionalized heteronormative privilege.

That's a perfectly understandable mindset.

4. Phobia

Especially for parents, I think that fear is a powerful motivator. Most parents have ideas about how they want their children to turn out, or at least have some definite things they want to avoid. They might think it's perfectly OK for other people to do drugs, but prevent their own child from associating with people who might encourage drug use. By the same token, they might have nothing against "teh gays", but would rather their son not be exposed to anything that might influence him to become gay.

These parents might tell you that they would be totally accepting if Jonny turned out to be gay, if he had no choice in the matter. But elevating gay marriage to normative status, and accepting it culturally as a valid lifestyle, raises the perceived risk that Jonny is enticed into gayness through some reason other than being genetically incapable of being straight.

Again, the phobia is largely based on a misunderstanding of homosexuality, but we can understand the mindset of parents who want to control the cultural influences that their kids are exposed to. One need only look at how racially segregated schools still are, to see how intolerant parents can be when it comes to "protecting" their kids.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Perhaps something can be learnt from examining the attitudes of traditional societies in which the prevalent religious system did not or does not censure homosexual behavior in the way that the Abrahamic religions historically have done.

"Homosexuality" as a purported state of being (rather than merely an habitual behavior) is, first and foremost, a concept of nineteenth-century German psychiatry. Whether it is at all possible to locate such a concept in pagan antiquity or in any other cultural milieu that is not modern and European is doubtful. The ancient Greeks understood that some men preferred men to women, and some women preferred women to men, as sexual partners (see Plato's Symposium, where an amusing explanation of this is put in the mouth of Aristophanes); but they did not have anything in their society that resembled the modern "gay" identity. The same is true of (say) mediaeval Japan, or of certain Amerind tribes, or other milieux in which homosexual behavior was treated with relative tolerance.

Marriage, nonetheless, was always understood in those societies, as being between a man and a woman, with the aim of perpetuating the human race, of reconciling the differing sexual motivations of men and of women, of creating ing an orderly environment for the upbringing of children, and, finally, a legal mechanism for inheritance that provided both for surviving spouse and the offspring of the union.

A same-sex union being by definition sterile, all of these traditional rationales for marriage never existed for such unions. Thus, though the liaison between erastes and eromenos had a socially-recognized status in ancient Greece, and later in the Roman empire as it became Hellenized, such unions were never solemnised as marriages. Aristogeiton did not marry Harmodius; Hadrian did not marry Antinous. The suggestion would have been considered absurd. When Nero caused a young freedman named Sporus to be castrated, and went through a parody of marriage with the boy, it was considered to be one more of the aberrant and exhibitionistic acts for which he was justly execrated.

The pressure for same-sex marriage today appears to me to arise mainly from the changes on the nature of the marital union that have been brought about by the advent of non-cash employment benefits and social-welfare programs. Now, spousal insurance coverage under an employer's group health plan, and survivorship benefits under Social Security are probably more important to many people than are dower and curtesy, etc. It seems unfair to homosexuals that their partners should not enjoy such benefits whereas male-female couples can obtain them merely by going through a marriage ceremony. Moreover, the onerousness of the duties that formerly accompanied the rights conferred by the marriage contract has been considerably lessened by the introduction of no-fault divorce. The result of these changes is, oddly enough, that marriage has become more desired by homosexuals even as it has become demonstrably less so by heterosexuals - amongst whom the rate of illegitimate birth has risen dramatically in the past fifty years.

Crawfurdmuir said...

(Continuing) - There is, also, a long-standing ideological antipathy to traditional marriage on the left. Marx and Engels railed in the "Communist Manifesto" against "the claptrap of the bourgeois marriage"; Engels quipped that the only difference between marriage and prostitution was the duration of the contract. He further developed this thinking in "The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State." It has, since then, been a staple of Marxist thought that in order to change the economic organization of society, it will be necessary to change the institution of the family.

Marcuse took this a step farther in "Eros and Civilization," in which he praises "a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality" that "protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality." He writes, "This change in the value and scope of libidinal relations would lead to a disintegration of the institutions in which the private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family."

To the extent that the pressure for same-sex marriage originates from such motivations, I am suspicious of it. I like the traditional "monogamic and patriarchal family." I grew up in one. I think it is a desirable form of social organization, and I don't wish to see it undermined. It should be the preferred if not the exclusive form. I am a wholehearted believer in private property and in the rights of inheritance, and in the economic as well as the social appropriateness of such families.

Further, to hold those views is not "homophobic," and does not equate to a desire to see homosexuals persecuted and punished. Having experienced a colonoscopy, I cannot quite see the charm in being buggered, which I imagine is a similar sensation - and that is, at bottom (!), the sum and substance of homosexuality. Even so, chacun à son goût.

Crawfurdmuir said...

A few further points -

Joshua wrote:

" ...elevating gay marriage to normative status, and accepting it culturally as a valid lifestyle, raises the perceived risk that Jonny is enticed into gayness through some reason other than being genetically incapable of being straight.

"Again, the phobia is largely based on a misunderstanding of homosexuality..."

The notion that there is a "gay gene," however elusive it has been so far to actual geneticists, seems to be rather popular amongst apologists for homosexuality. It is easy to see why, since the suggestion that homosexuals are "genetically incapable of being straight" absolves them of any free will in the matter. Thus, the politically-correct are careful to speak of "sexual orientation" rather than "preference," since preference implies choice, choice implies the exercise of free will, and hence, responsibility for its consequences.

We can all agree that such physical characteristics as eye color, hair color, right- or left-handedness, color-blindness, or type 1 diabetes appear to be genetically determined. At best these are innocuous; at worst, more to be pitied than despised.

Yet sexual proclivities and behaviors are not mere physical characteristics - they are psychological ones. Do not politically-correct leftists find themselves in a dilemma of their own making by virtue of suggesting that psychological characteristics are genetic or congenital? When Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (for example) argued that the psychological characteristic called IQ was largely genetic, did not politically-correct leftists vilify them? When James Watson expressed the thought that Africa's poverty and social disorder might be due to the genetically-determined behavioral characteristics of its natives, did not politically-correct leftists hound him from his employment? When Larry Summers suggested that the dearth of female professors of the physical sciences at Harvard might have to do with the different innate psychological differences between men and women, did they not, likewise, hound him from his employment?

In the notion that homosexual proclivities are genetically determined, is there not the seed of a heresy against the politically-correct left's orthodoxy that nurture is everything, and nature nothing, insofar as they affect the social and economic relations between people? How can genetic nature express itself to the exclusion of other influences in the variations of sexual psychology, yet not at all in the variations we observe in psychometrics?

Just this week Planned Parenthood expressed its opposition to some legislation in California that would forbid the use of abortion for purposes of selecting the sex of a child - i.e., the practice of determining the sex of a child in utero via amniocentesis, and aborting if (say) the parents want a son and the unborn child is a daughter, or vice-versa. Of course, this is consistent with the left-wing orthodoxy that abortion at any time for any reason should be licit.

Given this, what intellectual contortions do you suppose the politically-correct will go through if it turns out that there is indeed a "gay gene," and parents decide (as I expect many would) that they don't want to have homosexual children?

I have never met a parent that didn't want ultimately to be a grandparent. I suspect that many parents, even those who accept their homosexual children, are disappointed in their innermost thoughts. Given a chance not to have homosexual children in the first place would be to nip that problem in the bud, and I'd guess many would take it. How will that sit with the PC brigade?

Crawfurdmuir said...

And finally -

In his original post, mtraven wrote:

"Opponents of gay marriage complain that it attacks or “destroys” so-called “traditional marriage”. ... It doesn't destroy the old institution, as opponents like to put it, but it does change it."

We benighted reactionaries didn't just dream up the notion of an attack on traditional marriage. Left-wing philosophers and revolutionaries told us what their intentions were a long time ago. I've earlier quoted some passages from Herbert Marcuse's "Eros and Civilization" about his desire and effort to bring about "a disintegration of the institutions in which the private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family."

Marcuse said elsewhere:

"One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including the morality of existing society... What we must undertake is a type of diffuse and dispersed disintegration of the system."

So, the "cultural revolution... directed toward... the morality of existing society" has not just been conjured up out of the miasma of the paranoid right-wing imagination. Rather, we've given Marcuse the credit due to a serious, though utterly repellent, thinker - and have taken seriously what he proposed more than fifty years ago. Based on how much of it has been brought about since the 'sixties by the left's deliberate tare-sowing, that seems to be a reasonable decision.

If I could satisfy myself that the push for "gay marriage" were really more about devoted couples of florists or hairdressers wishing to settle down in neat little houses with gardens and picket-fences, rather than this kind of Frankfurt-school claptrap, I'd be much more at ease with it.