Wednesday, 26 November 2008
There are, no doubt, strong secular movements in American society that are opposed to these trends, and many of these movements appear to be gaining strength from year to year. However, while I personally hope that secularism and reason will win, their victory is not assured. That's a reality we ought to face. In fact, we ought to do more than that. We need to think about what could happen if we were to lose. There is no universal law that ensures that society is heading in the direction we would like it to. I don't think that it can be denied that we are, right now, seeing a resurgence of religion, fanaticism, and savagery. This resurgence is something that we have to take into account. We have to admit its reality and its vitality. We have to grant that it could well be a danger to us not just today, but tomorrow as well. There is a real possibility that this spreading, but still relatively confined fire could, in the future, with the right fuel, explode into into a terrible conflagration. No one can proclaim with absolute certainty where current societal trends are taking us, and, if we admit that we are not assured success by Providence, we will have to concede that our enemies might just beat us. If they do, things could get very bad, and that's a possibility of which we have to be aware. Instead of ascending into the light of an age of reason, freedom, and human dignity, we could find ourselves falling into the chasm of superstition, ignorance, and oppression. The people moving us towards a new dark age do, after all, have reasons for holding the beliefs they do. Extrapolating future situations from those we see today is not, therefore, impossible.
If current trends do not simply vanish into nothingness, if they continue, as is probable, it is likely that we will see in the US increasing cultural influences from certain foreign nations (such as the ever greater impact Japanese culture is currently having on the US), increasing threats posed by certain other foreign civilizations (like the dangers, real and imagined, that Islam now presents), increasing ethnic diversity in the US itself (which will, by the middle of this century, no longer have a white majority), and an increasing prevalence of scientific understandings of (and correspondingly controlled interactions with) the universe (which are, barring a collapse of global civilization, virtually inevitable). Such things are, however, likely to frighten and anger many people, and these people, trembling with dread and wrath, could retreat (even further than some already have, and, perhaps, in greater numbers than we have yet seen) into the comforting blindness of superstition. Surrounded by a mechanistic world governed by rational laws, yet filled with iniquitous enemies, they could close their eyes, cover their ears, and run back shrieking to the gloomy cavern of irrationalism, to a small, anthropocentric universe ruled by a dire, hoary, all-seeing father-deity who, being susceptible to human feelings of love, hatred, jealousy, and anger, will be ready to banish to fiery hells those who threaten his congregations and to take the faithful, those who flatter him, into the safety of his presence. Overwhelmed by scary foreigners and their weird beliefs, these people could look back at an imaginary past when their ancestors were protected by inflexible traditions that, like blinders, kept them ignorant of the outside world. Of course, these people won't turn to real traditions (those who desire to turn back the clock never do). Instead, if this scenario comes true, what we'll see are new, shallow, fanatical religious movements, like the evangelical churches of today. There will be no real connection to the past. The past the followers of such hypothetical establishments will embrace will be a make-believe one, though it'll seem real to them. More importantly, it'll give them a comforting, hedged in universe, where bad people with their odd beliefs, unpleasant skin colors, and noxious behaviors won't be able to disturb them. Regrettably, one reason these individuals won't be able to disturb such fanatics is because the fanatics will be busy destroying their foes. When people accept beliefs like those I've described, they invariably go on to take away the freedoms of those who disagree with them, to liquidate those who are different, and to impose their hellish heaven on as much of the world as they can. The possibility is something to think about.
That said, I'm not making a prediction here, but I do think what I've described could come to pass. It's especially possible since so many liberals seem so complacent about or so afraid of religion. Liberal movements are, by no means, guaranteed to succeed. If we allow irrationalism to gain ground, it could. There is no law of history promising us victory. If we don't fight, we might just lose. In fact, the last election has shown that losing is a real possibility. That election showed us the reality of certain trends in the US. We ought to be aware of those trends.
First of all, I was thrilled by Obama's success in areas of the Deep South. I had heard for some time that there was a chance that he could take both North Carolina and Virginia, but, honestly, I didn't believe it. It's amazing to think that Obama won both the home of Jesse Helms and the seat of the Confederacy (as well as of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University). I just wish Jesse and Jerry could have lived to see it. It's heartening that a moderate rather than an extreme reactionary won in such places.
Overall, this last election day was pretty impressive. Like I've mentioned before, I was very relieved that McCain was not elected. Had the man won, the consequences could have been catastrophic. McCain, undoubtedly, would have implemented extremely belligerent policies in the Middle East, policies that could have led to terrible levels of violence (both here and there). That's not the worst thing that could have happened, though. An even more troubling result of a McCain presidency would have been an almost certain shift in the balance of the Supreme Court. The courts have long been America's protection against dangerous populism (against the majority imposing itself upon any minority) and against ruthless politicians willing and able to create a powerful, intrusive government that doesn't need to heed the rights of its citizens. Considering how ready so many activist conservative judges are to efface substantial sections of the constitution if it suits their political agendas, the prospect of there being a majority of such persons on the nation's highest bench is horrifying. We could easily have seen large portions of the constitution explained away and effectively erased in an effort to build the authoritarian, paternalist state of which so many conservatives are enamored.
That said, I don't have high expectations of Obama (and have even lower expectations of Biden, who has, after all, served as one of the generals of the "War on Drugs," which is nothing but Prohibition reborn). I was hoping (I have to admit) that I would be wrong about Obama, that he'd surprise me, but so far my opinions of him have been universally confirmed. He already seems prepared to backtrack on some promises (like repealing Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy), and the way he's forming his cabinet is thoroughly discouraging. The extreme sort of vetting Obama appears to be engaging in is virtually guaranteed to weed out anyone who might risk doing something daring and to put in place a cabal of bland, ineffectual representatives of the establishment. It looks likely that all Obama and his lackeys are going to do is to give broken institutions facelifts, instead of tearing these down and replacing them with something that works. The system's going to get patched, so that it can hobble on; it's not going to be genuinely fixed. Ultimately, such an approach does more harm than it does good. Our nation's acting like a person with a thorn in his foot who decides to take an aspirin so that he can limp around instead of pulling the thing out and letting himself heal. Honestly, I want a Clement Attlee, not a Tony Blair. Sadly, Obama looks like he's going to be a Blair, a Clinton clone, not a real reformer. Still, he is better than was the alternative.
Obama's election, though it has saved us from the disaster of a McCain presidency, and though it could yet turn out to promote admirable policies, has, regrettably, been substantially undermined by other political events. The passage, in California and other states, of constitutional amendments that define marriage as being between one man and one woman is just shameful. Unfortunately, those people who were disappointed by the success of these measures and who hope to undo them are going to have to ready themselves for a long and difficult fight. They can certainly forget about any help from Obama. He's been clear in his support of keeping marriages restricted to traditional American models. The courts are unlikely to provide much help, either. If provisions in state constitutions could have allowed the extension of marriage to non-traditional couples (and potentially even to groups of more than two persons), then changes to those constitutions will, almost certainly, put an end to such rights. The religious institutions that have backed these amendments have been pretty clever in their tactics. Instead of pushing for laws that could have violated parts of state constitutions, and which would have been overturned as a result, they've changed the constitutions themselves. Now, these new amendments will be reflected in the laws. Discriminatory laws will not violate constitutional requirements. My suspicion is that we're going to see quite a few measures like these in years to come. I also suspect that a good many of them will be passed.
I hope I'm wrong, but I would be genuinely surprised if I were. America is still an extremely religious country, and moral injunctions contained in the Abrahamic scriptures are still taken seriously by many people. There can be little doubt that a substantial proportion of the American population understands marriage to be a sacred institution, to be some sort of magical bond created by a particularly irritable and narrow-minded deity. If gay activists in the US think that popular opinion supports their cause, they're mistaken. They have, as a result, a very difficult battle ahead of them. The best route before was, without a doubt, the courts, but Christian activists are cutting these off by changing the foundations of local laws through constitutional amendments.
All in all, the US is certainly heading in a better direction than it was before the elections of 2008, but these elections have shown that we still have a long way to go. Our society has quite a bit of growing up to do, and those of us who are interested in progress need to help it mature. Our freedoms, the quality of our lives, and so much more is dependent upon our actions, upon how we move our nation forward. We shouldn't settle for half measures. We should struggle for real progress, for actual change.
Monday, 10 November 2008
All of these measures were promoted and funded by religious groups, including the Catholic and Mormon churches, both of which were especially prominent in the effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. Honestly, I think that it is safe to say that not one of these measures would have passed were it not for the influence of religion. Once again, religion is holding us back, teaching people to judge and condemn others, to hate those who are different, and to demand that others live their lives according to the standards of someone else. Religion, once again, has shown itself to be the great enemy of human dignity, of self-determination, and of all things decent.
I have no idea why so few people whose liberties are being stolen, who are being told that they are second class citizens, unworthy of the same privileges as others, seem so afraid of denouncing their real foe, religion. For that matter, I have no idea why any person who treasures his freedom, whether it is being immediately threatened or not, does not take issue with something that inspires so many people to devote their lives to taking the liberties of others away.
In fact, when I look at virtually any issue being debated today, I am confronted with the same reality. It is religion that brings people to the wrong side. Over and over and over again, religion is the font from which bigotries, cruelties, and distortions of truth pour.
The fact is that the holy books of many religious traditions (and I am specifically talking about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam here) provide their believers with moral injunctions. Unfortunately, the morals taught in these scriptures belong to another age, a primitive and brutal age, one in which outsiders were enemies, women were property, and violence was honorable. These values do not belong to our time, or, at the least, they should not.
The adherents of these religions do, however, bring such outdated codes to our age.
Granted, many Christians, Muslims, and Jews realize (on some level) that their scriptures are nonsense and do not follow the injunctions included in them. Nonetheless, there are those who are motivated by these outdated grotesqueries masquerading as morality. Just look at what is done by certain members of these religions, by those who take their traditions seriously.
Certain Christians, acting because they are Christians (that is, because they take what is said in their scriptures seriously), oppose giving equal rights to homosexuals; some even advocate criminalizing homosexual acts. Certain Muslims, acting because they are Muslims, call for the judicial killing of any person who would leave their religion. Certain Jews, because they are Jews, steal land from other people because, they claim, that land is theirs by some sacred right; some even murder these people from a distance with rockets and artillery.
The story repeats itself over and over again. Some Christians oppose allowing those dying in agony to avoid their suffering and to end their lives with dignity. Some Jews and Muslims insist upon killing animals in the most vicious manner, letting these poor beasts suffer as their throats are cut open and they are exsanguinated, just so that the creatures' flesh will somehow be infused with a magical purity. Some Christians oppose allowing women control over their own bodies, their own reproductive organs; some even murder doctors who perform abortions for those who dare to make decisions for themselves. Some Muslims wrap their women in tent-like burqas to keep them subordinated and burdened with shame; some even mutilate their daughters' genitalia to destroy the girls' sexuality. Some Christians call for legal or de-facto censorship of artistic and scholarly works they oppose; at the same time, they not only insist that their own opinions be heard (though no one is trying to censor them), but even demand that their views be given governmental support, that these be taught in schools or enshrined in public places. Some Muslims call for the murder of those who criticize their religion, whether in films, books, or cartoons; some even commit murder to silence such blasphemers. Some Christians oppose the teaching of basic scientific ideas, like evolution, thinking it better that we accept the fanciful speculations found in their hoary fairy tales, like the idea that the world is a mere six thousand years old (though, oddly, most of these persons seem to have given up on the biblical assertions that the sun moves around the Earth (Joshua 10: 12–13) and that there are slats in the sky through which the rains fall from heaven (Genesis 7:11)). Some Muslims blow up and slaughter innocent people (as they did in New York in 2001, in Madrid in 2004, and in London in 2005) in order that they might do harm to nations they believe are opposed to their religion. Some Christians say that those who do not believe as they do will be cast by their loving, omnibenevolent deity into the fires of hell for all eternity, so that this god, in his infinite mercy, can, with his saints, savor their agony. Some Muslims say the same. Even the Jews claim to be the Chosen People, to have a sanctity, a superiority, no other people possess, making them, I suppose, into some kind of master race. The list can go on and on.
There are those who will say that many of these ideas are not in the Bible or the Koran, and I will admit that this is true. Sadly, that admission means nothing. The Koran might not contain an injunction demanding female circumcision (it does not), but those who mutilate their daughters' genitals are doing so for religious reasons. It hardly matters if injunctions mandating such actions are written in a text accepted as sacred or are handed down orally as sacred commandments (those secular persons making a distinction between these two are, I might add, falling victim to the fundamentalists' claim that there is a single authoritative text whence we can derive our values). In either case, the religious person is accepting some commandment that reflects values which are coming from another time and which are being accepted as sacred. If people did not turn to outdated values to decide how to behave, if, instead, they were rational, secular persons who were not contaminated with religion, who could formulate sensible ethical codes, if, in other words, they had a chance to learn to respect other people, including even women, then they would never perform such horrible deeds. The only reason they do so is because of their religion (or, at the least, because of their having tacitly accepted certain religious doctrines). It is, then, religion or its lingering stains that cause such people to turn to these ancient customs and to accept them as being valid.
What is more, many, many of these hideous doctrines are found advocated in the holy books of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. There can be no denying, for example, that the Bible condemns homosexual acts, both in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:22) and the New (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Any Christian who says that, according to the Bible, such acts are immoral and will lead those who perform them to hell, is accurately representing what is actually stated in that book. Any person who denies that this is the case, isn't reading the Bible.
Perhaps some might say that a person has to take into account when the Bible was written and understand that not all its moral injunctions can be applied to the world today. Such a person is not, however, getting his morals from the Bible. He's getting them from elsewhere. If he does admit that a moral injunction included in the Bible is proper, he's not saying it's proper because it's in the Bible; it just happens that the Bible got one thing right (something that, he will have to grant, does not occur very often). On some level, though it is probably an unconscious one, these individuals are conceding that their holy books are nonsense, that they need to get their values from other sources. I just wish that they would openly admit that.
There are, in fact, many people who say that they belong to a given religion, and who believe that they do, but who completely ignore what is actually stated in their scriptures. I have known numerous Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are decent, kind, compassionate people who would never think of imposing their values on others, of taking away the rights of others. They are, however, decent people because they don't take their values from their scriptures. Such individuals cannot, therefore, be cited as counter-examples to my claims. The fact remains that when the ancient values, the ancient immoralities, found in the Bible and the Koran are accepted, they lead people to commit horrible crimes.
Deriving our values from distant, superstitious, ignorant ages condemns us to behave like the savage primitives of those ages. I, for one, have no desire to burn heretics, trample women under my feet, and brutalize anyone who disagrees with me. There are those who do, however, and they are very numerous and very powerful.
That is why those of us who believe in freedom, who believe in human dignity and happiness, need to stop being afraid to denounce religion for what it is, the single most malevolent force in the world today. As long as its influence remains, it will be a weight dragging us down into primitivism, ignorance, and cruelty. It is such a shame that so many people avoid confronting their real enemy. They make excuses. They claim, for example, that the Bible doesn't say the horrible things that fundamentalist Christians say it does or that the Bible has to be interpreted in some special way so that when it says one and one make two what it means is one and one make five.
Let's be honest with ourselves. Religion is our enemy. We have to fight it. We have to educate people. We need to show them that the Bible and the Koran are not rational texts. These books are riddled with factual errors and internal consistencies, and they are offensive to any rational system of ethics. If we do not speak up, those of us who value our freedoms are going to find ourselves continuously struggling against those slavers who are themselves enslaved to the superstitions of the past.
Moreover, we need to fight the pestilential influence of religion in positive ways. I am not saying that we should keep religious people from speaking, from advocating or practicing their beliefs. They have as much right to do so as do we, but so do neo-nazis, parapsychologists, and people who believe they've been abducted by space aliens. What we need to do is to try to destroy the dangerous privileges religious institutions often have and to create an educated, secular society.
Just look at the things at which the rational person can take aim. Religious organizations, which are some of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the world, are also some of the least accountable and most legally privileged. They don't even pay taxes on their vast income. Why should they have such advantages? Frankly, they shouldn't. Muslim women are often forced to veil themselves, even to shroud themselves in shapeless burqas, as though their being female were itself a shameful thing. How can we allow women to be treated this way? We ought to be embarrassed that we do. We can't stop people from dressing as they desire in private, but we can pass laws prohibiting the wearing of religious garb in public institutions, and we can demand certain standards if a person appears in public; we can, for instance, insist that an individual not hide his face. Because of the taboos of Jewish and Muslim dietary laws, countless animals are slaughtered in the cruelest of ways. I am shocked that we allow this. Were someone to perform such a killing for any reason other than his religion, criminal charges would be brought against him. A person should be free to practice his religion, but that does not give him the right to inflict pain upon others. Halal and Kosher abattoirs should be regulated just as all others are. State schools are for everyone, whatever the opinions of any given parent or child, and should be places where objective facts, not personal opinions, are taught. We have to keep real science in schools. If someone wants to think some deity cobbled the universe together six thousand years ago, he's free to do so, but his beliefs should not be inserted into a fact based curriculum. This list could go on and on and on. There are countless goals for which we have to strive if we are to live in a free and rational world, one in which the baleful influence of religion is given as little scope to harm others as is possible.
I will admit that those of us who value freedom and rationality have a difficult position to maintain. We insist that our enemy has a right to speak. We'll even fight or die to make sure he has that right. He, however, has no qualms about taking away our freedom to express our opinions. All he needs is one great victory, and we can lose in a terrible way. So let's fight. Let's make sure that when our enemies spew nonsense, people will recognize that they are spewing nonsense. Few pay attention to those who say the Earth is flat, because we recognize that that opinion is absurd (though we don't prevent anyone from holding it). Let's see if we can't show people how absurd religion is. Let's wage war against history's greatest source of cruelty, ignorance, and prejudice. Let's add Christianity and its sister religions to the world's list of nonsensical opinions along with Nazism, geocentrism, racism, and other such beliefs.
By Keith Allen
Thursday, 30 October 2008
The woman is belligerent, hectoring, and self-righteous. What's worse than that, she's given to making screeching tirades defending various liberal positions. Now, I don't disapprove of her politics. Actually, in broad terms, I agree with her expressed opinions, but this very agreement, together with a disapproval of her behavior, has aroused in me a real dislike of the woman. Not only is O'Donnell a consistently unpleasant harridan, which is reason enough to dislike her, but, what is more, when she acts as a spokesperson for liberal positions, she can elicit a devastatingly negative reaction to those positions. She is about as bad an ambassador as liberals could have. Oddly, however, many people seem to admire her, though, by valorizing her behavior, they set up for themselves a despicable ideal.
I don't have a problem with conservatives making foolish or mean comments. When Ron Paul declares that he doesn't believe in evolution (and reveals that he doesn't know what a theory is in science), he just exposes himself to be so uneducated that his opinions can be dismissed. By doing so, he, of course, harms his own position. Conservatism comes across as the ideology of individuals who are either stupid or woefully ignorant.
Similarly, when Jerry Falwell blames the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on homosexuals, feminists, supporters of abortion rights, the ACLU, and the like, he just reveals himself to be a hateful, loathsome individual whose opinions can also be dismissed. Again, he harms his own cause, weakening its appeal for anyone with an iota of compassion or reason.
If the conservative movement in America is hurt by its leaders, by their ignorance or viciousness, that's fine with me. I do not, however, desire to see liberalism harmed by being espoused by a nasty, selfish, badgering virago. Regrettably, Rosie O'Donnell is just such a person.
Of course, I do uphold her right to speak her mind, and while I wish to express my disapproval of her behavior, my anger at the damage she does to so many liberal causes, and my horror at the way some people admire and emulate her, such denunciations do not mean that I am advocating her removal from the public sphere or that I am championing a boycott of her products or protests against her person. I simply urge people to be aware of her disreputable actions so that they will neither follow such a person nor behave in similar ways. We cannot stop unpleasant individuals from harming causes we believe in, but we can avoid both helping them and following in their footsteps. If we do not take such persons as models, and if we do not hand over positions of leadership to them so that they can act as our spokespersons, we can, at the least, diminish the damage they will do to causes we ourselves hold dear.
Unfortunately, O'Donnell is popular and prominent in the public sphere. She is, consequently, able to project an unflattering image of what kind of individuals liberals are while, simultaneously, convincing many liberals to emulate her behaviors (as a result of her being something of a role model). The end result of O'Donnell's influence is, of course, the very opposite of what I would desire. Liberals are made to appear to be self-righteous, strident, narrow-minded, and rude, even as many such persons actually are motivated to adopt these traits.
I do not think that I am exaggerating in my characterization of O'Donnell, either. Just look at her behavior. Instead of engaging in level headed, fact based debates, O'Donnell screams at and badgers her opponents. She never listens. She never genuinely interacts. She never grants that an opponent might have a legitimate perspective. The notorious verbal assaults conducted on the television program The View, which she hosted, against co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck provide wonderful examples of just what I'm talking about. I have hardly seen all of O'Donnell's tirades from that show (and have no desire to do so), but I can say that, of all those I have seen, I agreed, at least in general terms, with O'Donnell and disagreed with Hasselbeck. Nevertheless, because of O'Donnell's vicious, snide, manipulative manner and apparent lack of reason or empathy, I was horrified and offended by her while feeling sorry for her opponent (who, I might add, is a pretty shrill and unsavory person herself). Her behaviors, instead of helping to make her point, made Hasselbeck's. O'Donnell's not doing any good for liberalism by making people feel so chagrined that they turn to a marginally more sympathetic conservative.
O'Donnell's comments are, moreover, not her only way of doing harm to liberalism. Over and over again, she seemingly demonstrates herself to be intent on revealing herself to be a malicious, thoughtless, and utterly self-righteous shrew. I am genuinely distressed that such an individual is misrepresenting people like myself and associating our views with particularly despicable personality traits. It would be difficult even to list all of the ways O'Donnell has shown herself to be unpleasant. I have been repeatedly mortified by how judgemental, strident, and even cruel she can be. For instance, her comments about the winner of the Miss USA pageant, also made on The View, are monstrous. She mocks and parodies the winner, describes the woman as a moron, and implies that she's a drug addict (or, at the least, the kind of person who might become one, whatever sort of individual that might be). O'Donnell's ugly malevolence is breathtaking.
Regrettably, O'Donnell's vileness is not confined to her diatribes. It seems to pervade her nature. There are certainly a sufficient number of public examples of her coldheartedness, arrogance, and bigotry.
Much of O'Donnell's relationship with the magazine McCall's, which was renamed Rosie's McCall's after she came to be associated with it, puts the woman in a negative light. I will concede that I do not know the details of O'Donnell's relationship with the magazine. It is even possible that she was right to be angry with the magazine's editors. I certainly cannot commend the editors of the magazine for their wisdom in forming a business association with O'Donnell. Nonetheless, it is apparent that O'Donnell was both unwilling to compromise with the editors and completely unconcerned about the welfare of the magazine's employees, who would be thrown out of work by her actions. When she affiliated herself with McCall's, O'Donnell might have viewed doing so merely as a chance to express her opinions while pocketing millions of her admirers' dollars, but she also took on some responsibilities. Her decision did mean that her actions would affect the magazine's employees, and by callously disregarding them - when she didn't get her way in every matter - she revealed how unworried she is about the welfare of others.
Moreover, whatever faults the magazine's editors might have had, I cannot imagine that they would have behaved as badly as O'Donnell did. During the trial for breach of contract that followed O'Donnell's departure from McCall's, one of her former employees, who happened to be a breast cancer survivor, testified that when she remained silent in a board meeting, O'Donnell informed her that doing so was tantamount to lying and that, "You know what happens to people who lie? They get sick and they get cancer. If they keep lying, they get it again." Just to make things worse, O'Donnell's apology for her comment was qualified by the claim, "I'm sorry I hurt her the way I did. That was not my intention." It is a real indictment of O'Donnell's character that she refused to apologize for being cruel. Instead, her 'apology' implicitly blamed her employee for failing to understand her. I am genuinely shocked by O'Donnell's viciousness and by her lack of repentance. Apparently, she sees nothing wrong with such behavior, as long as she's the one behaving that way.
I am not, however, surprised by her treatment of her employee. O'Donnell has proven herself, over and over again, to be ready to attack and bully any person who dares contradict her wishes or opinions.
Inevitably, because of O'Donnell's nasty verbal assaults, I feel sympathy for the people she is abusing, even though these people are frequently expressing opinions that are opposed to my own. Instead of nodding my head along with O'Donnell when she speaks, I despise her during such moments. It is such a shame that she makes liberals look like self-righteous verbal thugs and their opponents like innocent victims. The woman is a great help to conservatives everywhere.
Not only are O'Donnell's attacks mean-spirited, but they are also frequently indicative of her narrow-mindedness. I am a liberal, but I am not the sort of liberal who believes that those who disagree with me are wicked or that they should be censored.
Many progressive liberals go on and on about how narrow-minded conservatives are. They talk of themselves as people open to other opinions, other ways of life, and other visions of the world. However, when any such person refuses to listen to another viewpoint, when he even sometimes demands that another viewpoint be censored, then he exposes his true feelings. What such a person means by the term "open-minded" is having his own views rather than being willing to listen to others. What he means by "freedom of speech" is his freedom to speak rather than another's. This individual should, however, remember that if he seeks to censor the opinions of others because he finds their opinions offensive, then he is doing the same thing they are, and he is no more justified, and no better, than they are.
Sadly, O'Donnell has often shown herself to have a remarkably closed mind and to be very ready to silence those whose opinions, by differing from hers, offend her sensibilities. In one particularly weird incident, when the cast of the musical Annie Get Your Gun was scheduled to appear on her television talk show, O'Donnell, a supporter of stricter gun control laws (unless these happen to affect the rights of her bodyguards to carry such weapons), demanded that they remove the line "I can shoot a partridge with a single cartridge" from the song "Anything You Can Do," which was to have been performed on the program. Apparently, the woman can't stand hearing anyone sing about shooting firearms around her. I too am opposed to private gun ownership, and to killing partridges for sport, for that matter, but anyone can sing a song about either around me if he would like to.
This sort of narrow-mindedness, this angry bigotry, is hardly admirable. Whatever O'Donnell's opinions are, and however much I might agree with them, if they are mingled with a lack of respect for the rights of others to express their opinions, then they are tainted. I admire workers' movements and socialism, but I don't admire totalitarian communism. Intolerance can transform even the most noble of beliefs into the stuff of nightmares. Refusing to hear (and hoping to stifle) differing opinions is a very dangerous path to tread, and anyone following after someone walking that way should be grabbed and warned of of the evils ahead. O'Donnell and those like her are truly leading many liberals astray. We ought to be wary of her kind.
In fact, any liberal who holds his opinions with a closed mind, or even one who will silence opinions that are so utterly stupid that they are unworthy of consideration, is no better than the conservatives he or she claims to oppose. I might oppose private gun ownership, but I am far more opposed to anyone who would restrict the rights of another wanting to argue in favor of such ownership. I might oppose the death penalty, but I am far more opposed to anyone who would restrict the rights of another wanting to argue for that punishment. I might oppose discrimination based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, but I am far more opposed to anyone who would restrict the rights of another wanting to express disapproval of individuals based on these factors. As ignoble and potentially harmful as some of the beliefs here mentioned are, allowing them to be expressed is far less dangerous than is censoring them. Without freedom of speech, no freedom is safe. It is the single most important freedom we have, the one essential freedom that safeguards all the rest, and to try to silence an opponent is the single greatest offense any liberal can commit.
I am not, of course, claiming that O'Donnell is advocating censorship. I am not aware of any occasion when she has done so. Her lack of tolerance of others' opinions does, however, trouble me. When we cannot stand hearing someone else expressing his beliefs, when we try to silence him, if only by shouting him down, we are putting ourselves in the mood to restrict his rights. Censorship is born from narrow-mindednesss, from the hatred of other views that leads a person to enjoy seeing his opponents gagged. Open-mindedness, obviously, protects us from this danger. Admittedly, there are times when a view is not worthy of consideration, but we still have no right to keep anyone from expressing it. We need to be accepting of the rights of others, even when we find their opinions to be malignant or offensive. Although one person may say the arts should be censored, and another may say expressions of homosexuality should be banned, and a third may say that racist sentiments should be prohibited, not one of these persons has any right to take away the freedom from another, as much as he disapproves of that other. We should, therefore, not turn for inspiration to those who cannot abide other opinions. They are a dangerous lot.
Lastly, I should say that there are two core elements of liberalism, a valuation of individual freedom and a desire to help others. While I am willing to admit that O'Donnell could be a liberal in the sense that she fights for the first of these, I cannot believe, in spite of her ostentatious donations to charity, that she attaches great importance to the second. To be blunt, it is absurd to think that any currently wealthy person is particularly concerned about other human beings (if a rich individual did find himself troubled by the sufferings of others, he would surely be prompted to make such use of his money that he would soon cease to be wealthy). Given that O'Donnell is a rich woman, I have to question how much she really cares about the welfare of others, even though she presents herself as being both compassionate and giving. Whatever charitable acts she does perform are invariably self-aggrandizing (like writing an autobiography for charity), self-congratulatory (like naming a charitable organization after herself), or even a little vain and spiteful (like when she responded to Scope's naming her one of America's least kissable celebrities by getting Listerine to give money to charity each time she was kissed on her television show by another celebrity). Despite such criticisms, I am sure that the charities to which O'Donnell has contributed do real good (for which she and they should be applauded). Nonetheless, it is a shame that her philanthropic activities are, at the same time, lavish spectacles which call attention to O'Donnell's showy generosity and, in a real way, weird potlatches which enhance her prestige in the world of celebrity. They evince none of the self-sacrifice and the desire for anonymity that are the hallmarks of a truly generous person. Of course, they are typical of the sort of charitable acts that the rich prefer. That, however, does not so much exonerate O'Donnell as it demonstrates the ulterior motives of those of her class.
In fact, there simply is no way that I can consider O'Donnell to be a liberal in the sense of someone who works for the well-being of her fellows, any more than I can consider any other wealthy person to be. If she were genuinely concerned about others, she could use the excessive bulk of her substantial wealth to fight for them, without promoting herself by doing so. She wouldn't even have to do anything herself. She could just give the heaps of her hoarded money to groups that would fight the battles for her. After all, she has more money than any person requires for living a physically comfortable life. Now, I'm well aware that O'Donnell does give a substantial amount of money to charity (and I do praise her for that), but I'm sure she makes certain that any giving she does will not affect her own lifestyle, which, I'm equally sure, is far more important to her than are the living conditions of any other person. I suppose that there are those who will accuse me of being unduly harsh in this judgment, but I don't believe I am being unfair. Perhaps an example would help to illustrate my point. A man who makes twelve-thousand dollars a year (whose basic needs will be hard to cover with his income) and who gives away a hundred dollars will actually be making a sacrifice by doing so; he could well find himself enduring hardships for the sake of his generosity. The person who makes fifty million dollars a year and gives away forty-five million will still be living in luxury. He will still be making over four-hundred times what my poor man will be. There's really no comparison between the two. I am impressed with the former's generosity, by his obvious concern for others, but I am not so impressed with the latter's. It's a sop for his conscience at best.
In spite of all of what I have said, I am glad that wealthy people do donate to charity. They can so do a great deal of good, and I wholeheartedly encourage them to give. Though I am not particularly impressed with their generosity, I would certainly say that it is better for them to donate some portion of their riches than to keep the whole of their fortunes for themselves. I do, therefore, commend O'Donnell for her philanthropy. I just want people to think about how generous she actually is before they bestow lavish praise upon her. As is the case with any other rich individual who engages in such charitable activities (like Bill Gates, Jean-Claude Duvalier, and the CEO of McDonald's), her giving does not entail her enduring any hardship, but it does mislead people into believing that she is a self-sacrificing individual.
What is more, though the wealthy, such as O'Donnell, do sometimes show symptoms of having a conscience, and do sometimes toss pennies to the crowds of the less fortunate, they still can't be said to be unduly worried about those others. In fact, their lack of concern is made obvious by their actions, by the way they live their lives. These people are part of a system that gives some individuals huge advantages while imposing equally huge disadvantages upon others. Instead of fighting against inequity, they enjoy the benefits of playing carnivores to the ordinary man's herbivore. They employ maids, pool cleaners, bodyguards, nannies, and all the other sorts of servants that those who think other people exist only to satisfy their own needs employ. Let's be honest. Rosie O'Donnell is just such a person. I'll grant that she might be genuinely concerned about others taking away her freedoms or imposing their beliefs on her (and might so fight for things in which she believes, which she does), but I am doubtful about the depth of her concern for other people. I'm sure she helps others when it's amusing to her do so or when she doesn't have to make any effort, but such actions are hardly admirable. The woman's wealth reveals the dishonesty of her ideological harangues, just as the wealth of every other rich person who calls himself a liberal reveals the dishonesty of that person's words. I have no idea why we so often insist that our leaders come from the monied classes. These people are not on our side. We're like zebras who think a lion is going to help us.
Though I disapprove of O'Donnell's unpleasant, selfish behavior, it does not baffle me. She is just a sharp-tongued, narrow-minded person who thinks primarily of her own welfare. What does baffle me is the way that so many people, and so many decent people, apparently admire her. I cannot understand why anyone would respect O'Donnell's behavior. If someone treated me like O'Donnell treats others, I would be angry and offended. I suspect most people would feel similarly. Nonetheless, there are those who seem not to have a problem when bile and malevolence are directed at others. I would implore anyone who enjoys O'Donnell's misbehavior and who respects her for it to think of how those she assaults feel, to have a little empathy. There are a sufficient number of nasty people in this world. We do not need to try to valorize such behavior and increase their number.
As I said before, though I am denouncing Rosie O'Donnell's behavior, I am not opposed to her expressing her opinions. I am horrified by her actions, and I am horrified by the damage those actions may do to the cause of liberalism as a result of her advocacy of several liberal positions. I sincerely hope that anyone who reads this will be as disgusted by O'Donnell's actions as I am and will neither behave as she does nor admire those who do. Instead of acting like petty totalitarians, like irate bigots enamored of our own obnoxiousness, let's behave considerately and show that our opinions are wedded to genuine decency, real intelligence, and actual open-mindedness. Let's also choose leaders who, though not perfect, are courteous, compassionate, reasonable, ordinary people. We don't need to run yelping behind the heels of rich, harsh masters.
Monday, 2 June 2008
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Is it possible to classify the varieties of human sexuality, to come up with a schematic of that sexuality? No doubt, we try to do so by saying that certain aspects of our sexuality are important and that others are not. But are such claims justified? Instead of grounding our opinions about the nature of our sexuality on evidence, could we be privileging particular aspects of that sexuality based on prejudices, on cultural norms and inherited ideas? Could we then be misguiding ourselves? Could we even be limiting ourselves, and our chances to relish life, by accepting such judgments? Might we actually be letting ourselves drift into making moral judgments based on these possibly artificial norms? All of these, because they potentially raise real issues, are legitimate questions. In fact, they are more than simply legitimate; they are questions that need to be asked (given the consequences of not asking them). I will, therefore, try, to the best of my limited ability, to provide some kind of answer. This answer, obviously, is that we are limiting ourselves, that we are failing to recognize the diversity of human sexuality by accepting and reifying any simplistic scheme.
In order to get to this answer, let me begin by looking at the currently popular system used to describe human sexuality. In this, each and every person is placed within one of three categories based on how that person's sexual proclivities accord with a particular criterion, specifically, the gender of those persons an individual is sexually attracted to relative to that individual's own gender. Every person is then identified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. An individual is said to be homosexual if he prefers individuals of the same gender, heterosexual if he prefers individuals of the opposite gender, and bisexual if he is attracted to both genders.
I do concede that this system of classification did, with its formulation and subsequent popular acceptance, introduce nuances into people's understanding of human sexuality that were absent before, and that it has validated sexual behaviors that were previously understood to be eccentricities at best and abominations at worst. Nonetheless, the system is far from being the prefect description of who we are as sexual beings that it is often taken as being. It is not, in fact, rare for a person's sexuality to fail to match up neatly with the categories of this system. It ignores countless behaviors and preferences that can be every bit as important as are those it does recognize. Despite this, it is very common now to hear people talk about this system of classification as though it were describing really existent entities, as though its categories (heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality) were empirically verifiable and universally applicable entities.
As a consequence of such attitudes, this system is now limiting us more than it is freeing us, and it is doing so in numerous ways. For all the system's former utility, and for all the good that has come from our adopting it, because it does set up arbitrary groupings (which are held to be real, while all other criteria for creating categories are declared to be false), it is woefully inadequate. It is, therefore, perhaps time for us to move past this system, to toss it into the rubbish heap of history, and to leave it behind us. Let's grant that it has served us well as a stepping stone, but let's not chain ourselves to that stone and so hobble ourselves so that we are left unable to dance at the sight of the wonders available to the spirit willing to go to new places.
Let's accept, instead, that human sexuality is infinitely complex, that it often even denies categorization. Let's go so far as to say that categories are generally arbitrary constructions and are virtually inevitably limiting. Whenever we are expected, whether by others or even by our selves, to conform to expectations that are associated with particular categories, pleasures that we might have experienced, that we might desire to experience, are closed off to us simply because we feel that since we belong to some particular category those behaviors are inappropriate.
I am not claiming, I should say, that the current system of classification is entirely erroneous, that it completely fails to describe human sexuality. I am not, and anyone who reads this and says I am has misunderstood me. What I am claiming is that it provides an inadequate description.
I have three reasons for making such a claim. First, this classificatory system is only one possible model of human sexuality; it identifies a particular continuum of sexual behaviors (and I include here both external activities, such as engaging in a sexual act with a particular person, as well as internal behaviors, such as brain activities (thoughts, in particular) and the activities and responses of hormones and bodily organs). Second, an acceptance of this model as an accurate description of what lies at the basis of human sexuality implies a devaluation of all other behaviors, even though these may be of equal or greater relevance to a person than are those behaviors that have been validated. Third, the model does not invariably provide for accurate classifications, that is classifications reflecting actual identities or groupings of persons according to their behaviors, even when only those behaviors recognized as significant in this system are being considered.
Before addressing these issues, I should note a fourth problem I see with our classification of human sexuality (though this is a problem with its limiting tendencies and with the sloppy thought processes of many of those who accept it rather than, like the preceding three, with its inadequacies), namely, that it actually consists of two distinct layers which are (it seems to me) almost inevitably confused, such confusion leading to countless real problems. One of these layers is simply the descriptive division of human beings into three categories based on particular sexual behaviors, as has already been discussed. The second layer, which is usually presented as being dependent upon the first, but which, in practice, is the more important of the two, consists of various social roles; that is to say, it provides a framework into which a person can take on a particular identity together with particular behaviors associated with persons who have that identity. Though based on putative innate characteristics, these categories are, primarily, groupings that provide social identities for the individuals belonging to them. Innumerable confusions and limitations result from such a conflation.
Of course, none of the three popularly accepted categories is homogenous, but this does not affect my point. The subcategories of each group are just that. Each falls nicely, like the subspecies of a species, into a particular wider category. Most obviously, each category is subdivided in two by the biological sexes of the members of that category. There are, thus, heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women, bisexual men, and bisexual women. Within each of these, there are further subcategories, although I do not think that I need to go into a detailed discussion of such. I need merely acknowledge that each of these subcategories is itself further divided into multiple sub-subcategories, and each of the latter will be associated with particular behaviors. Among homosexual men, for instance, there are those who adopt deliberately feminine behaviors and those who adopt behaviors associated with heterosexual men. There is a plethora of identities, each with its own set of behaviors, that can be ranged between these extremes. The same can, in essence, be said of any of the other categories. If I have simplified things in my discussion, it has only been for the sake of convenience. I ask the reader to bear this mind. It would be tiresome, irrelevant, and, in fact, impossible to provide details about every possible identity. It is enough to point out that each of subcategories belongs to one of the three wider categories and each conflates (and confuses) social and sexual behaviors.
Incidentally, although I reject the claim that these identities are somehow innate, I do not mean to diminish the value that many people place upon them. There are countless individuals who place great importance upon such identities, and any decision to do so (even if not consciously made) is completely valid. After all, simply recognizing that there are multiple possible schemes according to which we can classify human behaviors, and that a person's own behaviors may have more to do with societal expectations than with some putative biological necessity, does not diminish the worth of that person's behaviors. I generally do not believe that a person is correct if he understands that his identity, or that of most anyone else, reflects some innate nature. Nor do I believe that he is correct if he thinks that these identities, these roles, are the only roles possible. Nonetheless, I respect the dignity of the role a person chooses. I just hope that other people will do the same, even if the roles they find being played do not fit into their own system of classification.
What is important to remember here is that, although a person's sexual behaviors are relevant in determining the category in which he is placed, and are not generally ignored (though they sometimes are), our application of the terms of our system of classification to a person is usually meant to identify that person as belonging to a certain social grouping. A given category, in fact, often provides a person with a large part of his social identity in the modern West.
A man who identifies as heterosexual, for example, will generally adopt behaviors, here particular traits and mannerisms, that are associated with that category. By possessing these behaviors, such a person displays that he is a member of a given social grouping. The heterosexual man can act 'macho' to let everyone know he's a heterosexual. The homosexual woman can be 'butch' if she wants people to know she's a lesbian. The homosexual man can adopt 'flamboyant' mannerisms if he wants to be identified as a 'gay,' and the heterosexual woman can be dainty and feminine if she wants people to know she's a heterosexual woman. I am obviously grossly simplifying the categories here, but my point should be clear.
Not surprisingly, these behaviors rarely have any biological basis. There seems to be some belief in our society that 'straight' men will display 'male' behaviors, that 'straight' women will display 'female' behaviors, and that homosexual individuals, whether male or female, will display behaviors that mingle those belonging to males and those belonging to females. Unfortunately for the people who believe this, while there are clearly behaviors that are associated with real genders as a result of members of that gender possessing actual physical traits (such as brain structures and levels of particular hormones), there does not seem to be any exclusive association of these particular behaviors with persons of a given category (i.e., homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual) within that gender. These behaviors, aggressiveness among men, to give an example, seem to be possessed as much by members of one category of men as by another. In other words, 'gay' men and 'straight' men are probably equally likely to be aggressive. I, at least, have never noticed any difference. To put my point simply, the behaviors associated with each of the categories have no biological basis, even though many people seem to believe that they do.
The behaviors that we can see being adopted by persons of any given category are, instead, almost invariably determined as being appropriate to persons of that category by our culture. There are, for instance, beliefs that 'straight' men will like particular competitive sports, will be fascinated by cars, will be disdainful of showing emotions, and so on. There are also beliefs that 'gay' men will enjoy Broadway musicals, will be interested in fashion, and will be concerned with their health and appearance. Obviously, the association of every one of these things with being 'straight' or being 'gay' is determined solely by our culture and has no biological basis. 'Straight' men can enjoy music and fashion as much as 'gay' men do. They have in the past and do so today. 'Gay' men can enjoy sports and cars. In fact, most of the associations don't hold true outside of the particular time and place of our current culture, and even in this the association is often tenuous and arbitrarily or inconsistently applied. Broadway musicals didn't exist a hundred years ago, but opera, one of the styles of musical performance of that day, was not, to my knowledge, thought to be unfit entertainment for 'manly,' pudenda-craving men. There were even some risqué types of musical performance that were meant only for men. Eighteenth century French noblemen, lecherous skirt chasers that they were, were, nonetheless, keenly interested in fashion. For that matter, the members of that most heterosexual of modern institutions, the military, are frequently obsessed with grooming, fancy clothes, gold braids, shiny trinkets, polished shoes, pretty medals, and dainty ribbons. What are we to say of body builders and athletes? Are they, being interested in their bodies, 'gay'? Are 'gay' men who love their cars really 'straight'?
Clearly, the behaviors associated with being 'gay' or being 'straight,' or being of some other orientation, are arbitrarily, that is to say, culturally assigned. In fact, as I already noted, those behaviors that do seem to have some biological basis are not exclusively associated with one or another class of individuals. A desire for sexual experimentation, expressed both in a desire for multiple sexual partners and for engaging in a variety of sexual acts, is associated with both 'gay' and 'straight' males. In other words, it is associated with a biological gender rather than with a particular social category into which members of that gender are divided. No such behaviors, so far as I am able to discern, can be clearly associated with one category of persons of a particular sex and not associated with members of another category of that same sex. Although this claim is based only on my own experience, I still have to say that 'straight' behaviors like bragging, territoriality, and aggression are just as commonly found among 'gay' men. I've never noticed the least difference in their prevalence.
Social Behaviors as Determinants of Inclusion in Sexual Categories and Sexual Categories as Things Innate in a Person's Nature
I do not think that it can be denied that we assume that a person who belongs to a given category will behave in certain ways. People will often identify particular mannerisms as 'gay' or 'manly' (meaning heterosexual), and will go so far as to allow social behaviors to trump sexual behaviors in classifying a person. If a man who has sex exclusively with women has 'homosexual' mannerisms, it is likely that people will say that he is 'really gay,' even if he doesn't know it. His mannerisms are more important than his sexual behavior, and if his sexual behavior does not accord with his mannerisms, then it is because he is denying his inner nature.
Two things underlie such assertions. First, people who make these claims are confusing social identities with the categories determined by sexual behaviors that are putatively behind these identities. The two, the social and descriptive categories, are not, however, necessarily related. Of course, these individuals, whether they would articulate it or not, do seem to believe that the categories are necessarily related. This belief is based on a second assumption, that the categories are real, that they comprehensively describe human sexuality and that they reflect something innate in a person. For such individuals, a person is naturally 'heterosexual,' naturally 'homosexual,' or naturally 'bisexual,' and his behaviors are what they are as a result of his expressing or not expressing this nature.
The strength of our conviction that a person's 'true' sexuality is perceptible through his non-sexual behaviors can be seen over and over again. In fact, when we do concede that a person's sexuality does not match up with his social persona, we often feel the need to come up with a new classification. The term 'metrosexual' seems to have been coined for just this reason. Certain men who clearly prefer women as sexual partners have, nonetheless, adopted behaviors associated in the modern West with homosexual men. Obviously, they aren't straight as we understand the term, so we've invented a new classification for them, one that allows us to preserve the concept of 'heterosexuality' as a social category. I might add that members of this new category are frequently described as being less 'manly' than are 'regular' straight men. They are, somehow, slightly outside the system of classification, fitting only very uncomfortably into the 'heterosexual' grouping, if at all. Actually, it would seem that that, socially, they are more properly 'bisexual,' even if the behaviors of the members of the 'metrosexual' grouping fail to match up with those within the 'bisexual' grouping. The odd, uncomfortably intermediate place these individuals hold, their not being quite bisexuals or quite heterosexuals, says a great deal about how important social identities are in our scheme of classification.
Someone might now object to my claims by noting that although categories determined by social behaviors and categories determined by sexual behaviors are popularly conflated, the two can still be distinguished. He might then concede that, socially, 'metrosexual' men hold an ambiguous place within the popular scheme. Even while admitting this, he can, however, still point out that, in the system of categories determined by sexual behavior, it is these men's sexual behaviors that determine them to be heterosexual. This person might go on to note that even though heterosexuality is a social category, its being so is still clearly subordinate to its being a category of sexual behavior. It is, ultimately, the sexual behaviors of an individual that demand that this person be classified as 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' or 'bisexual,' not his social behaviors. The social identities, whatever their importance to those accepting them, are ultimately derived from sexual behaviors and, insofar as these classifications differ from sexual behaviors, they are based on mistakes. The categories of sexual behaviors, when used correctly, do, this objector can at this point claim, accurately describe human sexuality.
To reemphasize a point made earlier, I am not here denying that we are actually talking about two systems, one describing sexual behaviors and one describing social behaviors. The fundamental problems with the claim just made by my hypothetical opponent, that these two can and should be distinguished from one another in a truly clear way, are the facts that the system of describing sexual behaviors that is popular today is taken as accurately representing some external reality and that it is, as a result, easily, perhaps inevitably, conflated with the system of describing social identities.
It is hard to imagine how the clear cut and putatively real divisions of the descriptive classification of human sexuality would not be important factors in determining human behaviors if this model is fundamentally accurate. If the categories are real, then these divisions form an important part of who a person is, of what an individual is like. Inevitably, this will express itself socially, if only in a person's sexual interactions with others. More than likely, however, it will express itself in that person's wider identity. After all, the system purportedly describes a person's innate nature. I certainly do not think that it can be denied that there are many people who believe that we can observe an individual's mannerisms and determine that he belongs to a particular social category, 'gay,' for example. Nor do I think that such a belief would be unreasonable, if the categories do reflect our innate nature. In fact, it is hard to believe that such an innate nature would not be visibly expressed.
Any reification of the categories used in our current classificatory system will inevitably lead us to think that we can make determinations of who a person 'really' is. Such determinations, in turn, consistently lead us to limit both our own and others' behaviors, to think that a person should act in accordance with his supposed true nature. What is more, and this is an important point for me, when I talk about such limitations, I am talking about things that have arisen as a result of the nature of the system, specifically, its purportedly accurate description of each and every person's innate nature. Noting the way that one group of heterosexual men, 'metrosexuals,' are devalued as members of that group both by other groups and by other subgroups of heterosexuals, in the form of these others refusing to recognize them as being heterosexual, can, consequently, be given as a criticism of the system. Even if a 'metrosexual' male has never had sex with another man, we can use his mannerisms to infer that his 'real' sexual preference must be for other men. I personally have heard individuals express the belief that 'metrosexual' men are 'really' gay. Although sexual behaviors are, generally speaking, conceded as being behind the categories popularly used (because these sexual behaviors supposedly provide the basis for particular social identities), the sexual behaviors are not more important than are social behaviors in determining the category to which a person belongs. On the contrary, the social behaviors are clearly, for some, more important than are any actual sexual behaviors.
I am not, however, claiming that social behaviors automatically trump sexual behaviors in determinations of what category a person should be placed in. There are, for instance, times when a person, having witnessed particular social behaviors in another that do not accord with that individual's sexual behaviors, will feel unsure of the other's 'real' nature. If a person is somehow intrinsically 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' or bisexual,' then it does follow that both a person's social behaviors and his sexual behaviors should reflect his innate nature. When these do not match up, this tension must exist as a result of the person's expressing his innate nature with certain behaviors while denying it with others.
There are even occasions when people, for reasons I am not entirely able to fathom, believe that another's innate sexuality has been entirely concealed. Although we do generally think that a person's sexual nature will be expressed though his mannerisms, interests, and the like, we still concede that there are times when a person's inner nature will be denied or suppressed. I suppose the belief that there are such cases is reasonable in the context of the popular classificatory system, but its actual absurdity reveals the absurdity of the system. If the categories 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' and 'bisexual' are real, if they do represent something innate within us, it follows that they do not depend on being expressed (however likely it is that they will be). A person can have a particular nature even when this nature is concealed, which it could be for any number of reasons (e.g. prejudice, the expectations of others, a false sense of identity, etc.). In other words, an individual's sexual behaviors do not need to correlate with those of persons of a particular category for him to fall into that category. Thus, a man can be 'intrinsically' homosexual even if he thinks he is heterosexual and has never had sexual relations with another man. His behaviors are then irrelevant. Even his mental or internal physiological behaviors might be irrelevant. This person might never have even had a thought of finding another man attractive, and he might never have felt any physical attraction to a man. Such things are not important, however. His putative innate nature is.
I, for reasons that will, I hope, soon be obvious, do not accept as correct any assertion that a person's innate nature is 'homosexual,' 'heterosexual,' or 'bisexual.' For me, there is not necessarily some 'real' homosexual trying to get out of a man who is sexually attracted to women but who has 'feminine' mannerisms or interests. Nor, for that matter, is there a 'straight' man trying to get out of a man who is sexually attracted to men but who has 'masculine' mannerisms or interests. The belief that there is such an 'innate' nature trying to express itself in these or any of the countless other possible instances I could cite is, more often than not, just untrue.
Homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are simply three ways to describe human sexual behaviors. At best, these terms provide a convenient scheme by which specific human behaviors can be described. At worst, they reject the great bulk of human sexual interests as irrelevant, misrepresent many interests that are accepted as relevant, and give rise to various identities (together with the expectations that come along with these identities) that so restrict many human beings as to greatly diminish the pleasures such individuals could have found in life.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, in claiming that our currently popular system of classifying human sexuality is inadequate, I am not denying that its categories have some basis. Nor am I saying that we do not respond to stimuli that are generally associated with persons of a particular sex. I am, however, claiming the following: 1) Such stimuli are not invariably associated with persons of a particular sex, and 2) responses to such stimuli are not the only factors relevant to human sexual behaviors. This is all that I am claiming in the whole of this essay. The ramifications of such claims are considerable, but my point is nothing more radical than this.
I have no doubt that a great many of the stimuli to which we are biologically programmed to respond are more commonly associated with persons of one or another gender. In fact, I do not have any doubt that, generally, a person responds to characteristics most often associated with individuals of one particular sex. This sex can, of course, be either the same as or other than an individual's own. Whether this sensitivity to such stimuli is a result of brain structures, exposure to certain hormones while developing in the womb, or occurs because of some other reason, it does seem apparent that we are programmed to respond to particular things while not responding to other things.
Anyone reading this and disagreeing with my wider claims might, at this point, ask, "Isn't this enough to accept that certain people are heterosexual, others homosexual, and yet others bisexual?"
No. It is not, for at least two reasons. First, just because some trait is commonly associated with persons of one gender, it does not follow that it is always so associated. Second, admitting that responses to such traits are real does not equal admitting that they are the only stimuli to which a person can respond.
"Surely," an opponent might claim, "some traits can be characterized as being 'female' while other can be characterized as being 'male.' You yourself have just granted that this is generally the case.'"
Like I said, there are certain traits that act as stimuli and that are generally associated with persons of a given sex. Some of these are almost invariably so associated. Nonetheless, many traits that are taken as being either 'female' or 'male' can actually be found in persons of both sexes. There are, for example, particular hip to waist ratios that are usually associated with the female body which most men are 'programmed' to find attractive. However, these hip to waist ratios can also be found among persons who are biologically male. Let's imagine that there is a male who takes female hormones, adopts a female persona, and looks essentially like a female, even having the hip to waist ratios most often found attractive by men. Now, a man who finds persons with such proportions attractive sees this individual and is attracted to him. Is he therefore homosexual? He cannot be according to the measure just given, since he is responding to traits associated with females. For the same reason, he cannot even be bisexual. To be so, he would have to be responding to stimuli associated with males, which he is not. Perhaps it could then be averred that this man has simply been deceived. Maybe he has been tricked, but what if that doesn't matter? What if he learns that this person to whom he is attracted is male and is still attracted to that individual? What if he already knew that? Such a person simply does not fall neatly into any of the three categories we have. I am not, I might add, going to accept any claim that he's 'really' gay even though he doesn't know it. You have to establish that such a category describes something real before you can make this claim. Besides, if someone makes such a claim, he does so only by ignoring the actual stimuli to which the man is responding. The empirical evidence simply does not support the real existence of the popularly accepted categories.
There are, moreover, things to which a person can respond sexually other than traits associated with a particular sex. The failure to adequately describe biologically determined responses to stimuli associated with a given sex is, therefore, hardly the only problem our current system of categories has. In fact, though it fails miserably in this regard, it fails even more completely in other ways.
To begin with, there are biological factors other than those associated with sex, such as age and, perhaps, race, that can be important. It is, in fact, extremely likely that a given person will be impelled by biological factors to respond to certain stimuli that have nothing to do with the sex of another individual he encounters. If this is the case, then gender related factors are not the only biological factors relevant to a person's sexuality.
It is, for example, quite possible that there is some biological drive within each of us to find persons who have physical characteristics relatively similar to our own attractive. Conversely, it is possible that we will find persons whose physical traits are substantially different from our own unappealing. I hardly need to point out that children are often afraid of persons of different racial backgrounds when not often exposed to such persons. Anyone who has traveled will have encountered such reactions. There would seem to be reasons for this. In primitive societies, being fearful of outsiders could increase one's likelihood of not being killed by outsiders, who could well be enemies. It is not hard to imagine how such an impulse could, if it has a biological basis, affect our sexuality. To support this, let me point out that features found to be attractive in the West are frequently specifically Caucasian features. The 'ideal' Western woman is, after all, a tall, large breasted blonde. How many women of Asian or African descent would fit that ideal? Conversely, features rarely found among Caucasian women, but frequently encountered among the women of some other group, steatopygy among certain African peoples, for example, while considered attractive by the men of that other group, are often seen as bizarre or grotesque by Caucasians. Of course, I am not saying that cultural factors cannot outweigh these biological imperatives (which might not exist - I am hypothesizing here). They can and sometimes do. I'm Caucasian and yet my own wife is a short, black haired Asian woman, and I find her far more attractive than I do any tall blonde.
While there are those who might argue with me that a person's race can be a biologically determined sexual stimulus, I cannot believe that many would deny that another person's age relative to one's own can be, at least for men. The fact is, males, of whatever putative sexual category, are extremely unlikely to be attracted to persons who are not of the same age or a younger age.
Mind you, I realize that learned responses can outweigh biological imperatives, even with regard to age. Nonetheless, though a person can learn to find older persons attractive, we clearly are biologically driven to find youth appealing. We are not slaves to our biology, but if that is granted, then this whole tripartite division will have to be forsaken as its most important basis will have been abandoned.
Even granting that some individuals do find their elders attractive, because of associations made while young or for some other reason, I have no doubt that, for the overwhelming majority of men (and probably for a significant number of women), a person's age is an even more important factor in deciding whether that person is a potential sexual partner or not than is that person's sex. Even people who are usually accepting of others' differing sexual attractions are likely to react with disgust if they hear of someone engaging in sexual activities with an individual who is significantly older. It is quite possible that they will actually decide that this person must be mentally ill. The biological reaction against such behaviors is very strong. In fact, I cannot begin to mention the number of times I have heard men, both 'gay' and 'straight,' who have expressed how sick or disgusting it is that a man would have sex with a person significantly older than he is. For them, the best way to explain such behaviors is to assume that the younger man is, in some way, mentally ill. If he's not ill, then he must be engaging in such 'disgusting' behavior to get something out of it, usually monetary reward. That's how extreme the reaction often is.
Here's an illustration of my point. If two men in their mid-twenties, both of whom identify as heterosexual, and a woman in her nineties were all stranded on a deserted island, I have no doubt that the men would turn to one another for sexual satisfaction before they turned to the woman. In other words, my guess is that age would be more important than gender in deciding who is a potential sexual partner.
It should, at this point, be obvious that not all of the things to which we are programmed to respond sexually are associated with a particular gender. There are other traits, such as age, that can be just as important sources of stimulation, and that are such as a result of what we are as biological organisms. Even this complexity is not, however, enough to explain humanity sexuality. Not everything to which we respond sexually has been determined by by our hormones, brain structures, and the like.
In fact, many of the things that we find attractive are determined by the culture in which we live, and the things to which we respond because of acculturation are even less consistently correlated with physical sex than are biologically determined traits. Although we may associate a given characteristic held to be attractive with a particular sex, another culture may associate it with the opposite sex, or with both sexes. In the past, for example, athleticism was held to be a desirable characteristic in men, but not in women. It was, therefore, expected that women would be attracted to a person who was athletic, but that a man would not be. Today, athleticism is held to be desirable in both genders. There is, clearly, no correlation between the characteristic and a particular gender. If there were a correlation between this characteristic and some intrinsic sexual orientation, then we would be forced to say that all those men who are attracted to healthy, athletic women are actually homosexuals.
The things a person learns to find sexually appealing are not, I might add, limited to traits, behaviors, and the like widely accepted in the culture in which he lives. There are a great many other factors that, though specific to a given individual, can be relevant for that person. Each individual's unique history causes him to form tastes specific to himself, and these tastes are, very often, as important as are any of the others already noted. Let's suppose, for example, that a particular man commonly classified as 'heterosexual' likes black hair, that he likes black hair so much that he is not attracted to anyone who does not have black hair. This characteristic, then, is as important as the other person's sex, insofar as not having black hair and not being female both disqualify another from being a potential sexual partner for him. Why then is hair color not as valid a means of constructing categories of sexual orientation? We could say that there are 'black-hair lovers,' 'blond lovers,' 'brunette lovers,' 'redhead lovers,' and 'multicolor lovers' (the last would be something like bisexuals).
I might add that this system of categorization is not hypothetical. Not only am I aware of many 'blonde lovers,' who are only interested in persons with yellow hair, but, moreover, I personally am not attracted to persons who do not have have black hair. Categorizing me as a 'black hair lover' is entirely accurate (though certainly not adequate). Having this particular characteristic is more important than having many others. It is a characteristic that transcends sex, race, religion, or any other trait a person might have. Moreover, a person's hair color has had relevance to my attraction to that person since the time I was a child. Even when I hadn't even the vaguest notions about our categories of sexual orientation, I knew that black hair was sexy and that piss yellow, shit brown, and pimple red hair weren't. I suppose this affection for black hair was learned (even if I can't say where I learned it), but that doesn't make it less real for me. It's been part of who I have been as a sexual person from my childhood. Irrespective of what others may say of this preference, it is integral to what I find attractive. If someone were to urge me to find blondes attractive, it would be like the Christian evangelist urging a 'gay' man to find women attractive. I'll even go so far as to say that I find it a little offensive if a person claims that this is just a 'fetish.' If this individual is a 'straight' man, I might say that his infatuation with the vagina is a fetish, or, if he is 'gay,' that his love of the penis is a fetish. What I find attractive is every bit as legitimate an object of desire as is the thing another finds attractive. What is more, the characteristic to which I am attracted is not one that I consciously chose (though it wouldn't matter if it had been). It is, rather, something that I respond to on some basic level. It doesn't matter if this attraction is 'learned' or 'innate.' I fail to see any categorical difference between my demand that a person has black hair and, for example, a 'gay' man's demand that a person be male. If someone distinguishes between these demands, claiming one is valid and the other is not, then I would challenge that person to justify his claim. For a 'gay' man, a person's possession of a penis is necessary for him to be attracted to that person. For me, a person's possession of black hair is necessary for me to be attracted to that person. Why is a persons's hair color not as legitimate a factor in determining his or her desirability as are that individual's genitals? Based on my personal experience, I would have to say that a person's hair color is a far more relevant to finding that person attractive than is the is shape of the meat in his or her underwear. What is more, it has to be admitted that, looking at the world as a whole, I am, with my demands, excluding far fewer persons than is either the 'gay' or the 'straight' man. Either one of these is excluding at least one half of humanity. I am excluding only a relatively small percentage of Caucasians (though I concede that hair color is not the only thing that is relevant to me, any more than a person's having a penis is the only thing relevant to a 'gay' man). At any rate, other learned categories (whatever they may be) could be constructed, and they are. People do exclude potential partners who are not of the correct religion, the right political affiliation, the appropriate economic group, the proper social background, and so on. All of these can be just as important as is the person's physical sex.
Maybe someone will say that my affection for hair color is, by my own admission, learned, and that it is biologically derived attractions that determine sexual orientation. These, my opponent might claim, are what allow us to fix the categories we have.
Unfortunately for this individual, I would point out that he is, apparently, forgetting that we have already discussed how characteristics we are biologically driven to find attractive frequently have nothing to do with a person's sex at all. Even those traits that are associated with a particular gender are not always exclusively found with members of that gender .
Moreover, there is not some rule arrived at by observation of the world that grants greater importance to biologically determined responses to stimuli than to learned responses. On the contrary, we can empirically verify that things we learn to be attractive can be every bit as important as are things we are biologically driven to be attracted to.
"But," an opponent might here say, "when we do learn to find something attractive, we generally learn that it is attractive because we have come to associate it with things we are biologically driven to find attractive."
This could be the case, but it need not be. If a person responds with sexual excitement to a characteristic he has learned to find attractive, then there is a fair chance that this characteristic will be found in persons of both genders (though he might have to look at other cultures to find actual instances).
Perhaps someone might object to my claims here and say that this only proves that all persons are basically bisexual. That's fine with me. I'll concede that. Of course, if we say that everyone is bisexual, then we're not saying anything. Being bisexual being coterminous with being human, we have no classification of human sexuality at all. I have no problem with that. We'll accept the current system, classify everyone as bisexual, and then completely ignore the system.
By Keith Allen
Applying our Categories to Other Cultures, Another Culture's System of Classification, and Conclusion
There are clearly problems with the claim that human sexuality can be adequately described with a linear model in which there are two poles, heterosexuality and homosexuality, somewhere between which extremes every person can be placed based on the assumption that each person has an innate sexual orientation. Nonetheless, I should again emphasize that I do not deny that this model can provide a partial explanation of human sexuality. However, it fails to take into account so many other factors that it is woefully inadequate. In fact, it is often misleading and confining. We respond to particular characteristics we find attractive, whether a given response is biologically produced or learned. These characteristics do not, as I have already shown, allow for a neat tripartite division of human sexuality.
What is more, thinking that this division is the only one possible devalues other possible divisions.
To put it simply, a person's sex is not the only thing another will find attractive. A man who identifies as 'heterosexual' does not find all women attractive. Obviously, just being female isn't enough for a person to be a desired sexual partner to most 'heterosexual' men. The same is the case with the other accepted categories.
I suppose that it's possible that my reader is still not convinced, that he's so invested in his sexual identity that he cannot concede that it is anything other than real. He might say that I keep talking about attractions that are learned or that are unusual exceptions. If we look at human society as it actually exists, my opponent might continue, then the categories do apply.
Regrettably, he would be mistaken. Even in our own society, in which the categories are generally accepted as being real, they frequently fail to describe human sexuality adequately. When applied to other societies, they fail even more miserably.
How would my hypothetical opponent explain the institutionalized same-sex relationships of ancient Greece, pre-modern Japan, and parts of the Islamic world? If the sexual orientations accepted today have a biological basis, then the percentage of persons from one culture belonging to a given category should be approximately the same as the percentage of persons from another culture. Granted, societal taboos can prevent individuals from acting on their inclinations. We can, consequently, in societies rejecting male-male interactions, expect to find lower percentages of persons engaged in such activities than we would find in societies where such activities are accepted. However, it is hard to imagine that any society would actually institutionalize as normative a particular behavior, namely male-male sexual activity, if only a small minority of persons were naturally inclined to such activities. Regrettably, this is precisely what is claimed by those who think that the categories accepted today are true. It would seem, therefore, that the categories we use today are just useless in describing the sexual behaviors of most other cultures.
On top of this, many of these cultures developed system of classification of their own. In ancient India, for example, human sexuality was understood differently than it is in the West today. What is more, I believe that pre-modern India's most commonly accepted description is more accurate than is our own. At the very least, it is more useful as a starting point for describing human sexuality than is our own.
According to this system, there are two poles, male and female, but between these is an infinitely divisible spectrum, much of which is comprised of a 'third gender.' A person's place within this spectrum is determined by two factors: his biological sex and his social/psychological sex. When these two factors coincide, then a person's gender is easy to identify. When, for instance, a person who is biologically male and displays personality traits associated with being male, he will be classified as male. However, a person who is biologically male, but who displays personality traits associated with the female, will fall into the third gender. Others, who are biologically intermediate between male and female, such as hermaphrodites, will automatically fall into the third gender category.
In this scheme, the gender preferred by a person when he is looking for a sexual partner plays little role. The factors that are relevant are: 1) a person's physical sex, 2) a person's mental traits, some of which traits are associated with one particular physical sex, and 3) the relation of the two preceding factors to one another.
The utility of this system is fairly obvious. While not all men are the same, and not all women are the same, it is clear that there are particular mental traits (and consequent behaviors) that are associated more with persons of one sex than with the other. We can, therefore, speak of 'male sexuality' and 'female sexuality,' though we need to recognize that our claims will not be universally applicable, that there is a spectrum of behaviors between these extremes. Frankly, the behaviors and attitudes of 'gay' and 'straight' men are more similar to one another than they (the behaviors of the members of either of these groups) are to the behaviors and attitudes of women. Though a 'gay' man will respond to a sexual stimulus that a 'straight' man will not, and a 'straight' woman will, his attitudes and behaviors are more likely to resemble those of the 'straight' man. For example, I cannot imagine that anyone will deny that most men, whatever their sexual orientation, prefer promiscuity to fidelity while most women, whatever their sexual orientation, prefer the reverse. I am not saying that men are incapable of fidelity, and I'm not saying that no man desires to be monogamous, many, a great many do. I am simply saying that there are observable trends in male sexual behavior. I am not saying that a trend applies to all men. Actually, by using the word 'trend' I am saying that there are some men unaffected by it. Male, female, and third gender are not, then, absolutely differentiated categories.
I should additionally say that when I refer to particular behavioral trends or tendencies, I am not speaking of any norms specific to a given culture. What I am talking about are those behaviors that are associated with the physical make up of persons of a particular gender. Whether these behaviors result from the structure of a person's brain, the hormones present in his body, or the hormones to which he was exposed in the womb, they are things that are associated with a particular gender. It cannot be denied that the male and female bodies are different, including the male and female brains, and that persons of one gender behave differently because of these biological differences.
The Indian system of classification recognizes this fact. It also recognizes that not all the traits associated with a particular gender will be present in a particular individual. It admits of a scale. Some people will be physically male and have only those traits associated with being male. Others, though physically male, will have only some or even none of those traits. It can, as a consequence, be possible for a person to have the external physical traits of one sex but internal traits (brain structures, hormones, etc.) that are associated with the other.
Now, I am not entirely pleased with the Indian system. It does not provide any comprehensive understanding of human sexuality, and many of its specifics are embedded within a particular culture. Nonetheless, it is a better system than is our own. At least it recognizes a real difference, the division of humanity into sexes, and simultaneously recognizes that there is a range of ambiguous individuals between these poles. By making these recognitions, the Indian system does not, like our system, exclude other possible classifications of human sexuality. It still permits them, while, at the same time, providing some classificatory basis that can be used as a starting point for discussions of human sexuality.
This brings me to the main point of this essay. I grant that it is useful to have categories from which we can elaborate particulars. Simple biological gender can provide this basis. Of course, when I say this, I am including all a person's gender related characteristics, including his or her hormones and brain structures. I am not restricting myself to that individual's primary or secondary sexual characteristics. I am certainly not restricting myself to his or her genitals. We can, then, talk about male sexuality and female sexuality while acknowledging that these are merely poles with a great range of possibilities between them, and perhaps unrelated to them. Having accepted this scale of physical sexuality (that is to say, a sexuality based on gender inclined characteristics, including brain structures (and thus personality and thoughts), hormones, primary sexual characteristics, secondary sexual characteristics, and so on), we can go on to look at the complexity of human sexual preferences.
We can, thus, discuss human sexuality in terms of these two things. First, we can discuss sexuality in terms of a person's physical being (including his brain and its activities), which being is, without a doubt, related to his gender. Second, we can discuss it in terms of the objects to which a person is attracted. Since the number of such objects is theoretically infinite, I propose that it is simply not possible to create an arrangement, a schema of these, other than a simple list, an unorganized, potentially infinite enumeration of one preference after another. We should, in fact, abandon trying to arrange categories according to any arrangement of preferences, since, these preferences being of infinite variety, any system of classification will be based on an arbitrary determination that one set of criteria is of greater importance than another.
Let's admit, instead, that human sexuality is infinitely variable. For one person to be attracted to another, that other's hair color might be important while his biological gender might be irrelevant. Someone else might only be interested in a wealthy partner, and yet another person might demand a male partner between the ages of twenty and thirty who is Catholic. At most, we can discuss gender based inclinations (i.e., the inclinations of a person who is male or female), but these often have nothing to do with the objects to which an individual is attracted. Actually, even when we talk about a male-female scale of sexuality, we must do so while recognizing that most everyone will fall somewhere between rather than at the two poles. We should not delude ourselves into believing that the infinite varieties of possible sexual objects can be organized into any coherent scheme.
Not only does our current system ignore the fact that there are those who do not feel that their sexuality fits into any of the three categories, but it also fails to describe the diversity of human sexuality. It says certain behaviors are important and others are not. Even with regard to those behaviors it accepts, it imposes a rigid classification that is often at variance with actual behaviors.
At one time, this system of classification was useful. By presenting human sexuality as consisting of a range of behaviors, it helped to validate behaviors that had once been thought abnormal. Now, however, it constrains us. Interests and behaviors that are not validated by the system are denigrated as perversions, fetishes, or sublimated yearnings towards some accepted behavior. We've learned from this system, but we've outgrown it. Just as an infant, with the help of training pants, outgrows the need for diapers, so we, with this system, are outgrowing the need for our older understandings of human sexuality. However, now that we're a little more mature, let's not keep on wearing our training pants until we die. Let's become adults instead.
By Keith Allen