Friday, August 10, 2007

Dems last night: it shouldn't matter how people are "born"

Last night, six of the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates gave a rousing debate (“Invisible Vote 08: A Presidential Forum”) on the Logo network from Los Angeles. Some observers were not that pleased when Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, seemed to waffle when asked to comment on whether sexual orientation is “chosen.” He indicated that it is not the right or relevant question, and I agree. The blogger link is here.

There’s not much question that biological elements (and “brain wiring”), whether genetic or congenital, have something to do with eventual adult erotic and emotional attachments.

Now here is where it gets tough, close to offensive. Many behaviors or conditions with adverse medical or social consequences are likely to have a biological basis. Some of them (obesity) occur more often in some groups than others for historical reasons (such as in native Americans who suddenly start eating a “western” diet). Today (August 10, 2007) ABC “Good Morning America” had a controversial report on employers’ “fining” employees for not maintaining physical fitness or body mass index (something like it actually happens in a scene in the film “Oceans 13” where a casino cocktail waitress is fired). I suppose people could be charged more premiums for being pregnant, or for testing HIV positive (that was a real threat in the 80s) or all kinds of other things. That is a very slippery slope, as Tori Johnson and Chris Cuomo acknowledged. A couple years ago Weyco and a few other companies started firing people for off-duty cigarette smoking. There are various questions about how much of this is lawful.

In the workplace, as pointed out, some employees “pay” for the “problems” of others. That’s a fact of life. Risks are shared. That’s why we have insurance. Some risks are related to personal “choices” and others are not. It is very hard to draw the line. In health insurance the concept is called “moral hazard,” an idea that seems offensive to some. All of this is an important background for our notion of moral values.

I’m not defending this practice of some employers here. I’m recognizing but not advocating the desire of insurance companies to minimize risk – but it sets up troubling questions in many areas (auto insurance companies often charge single men more). In health insurance, the public is entitled to good information (which it really still does not have) as to how well a single payer system really works in other countries like Canada or Britain. All of this can be on the table. And no one can object to making accommodations to those with needs, especially when the accommodations make people productive.

All that said, the main point with all of these issues that, in a free society, individuals still have to own ultimate personal responsibility for their own “issues.” It’s their own personal karma. Sometimes it is shared in a filial manner. It’s still important to resolve things that are harmful, even if they have a genetic or biological explanation. With sexual orientation, it seems that focusing on "biology" almost acquiesces to a presumption of harm or at least emotional evasiveness, by trying to define another class of people, when instead we can focus on rights and responsibilities.

So that’s what Bill Richardson must have meant by evading the question of “choice”. He knows how easy it is go down the wrong path and make a Dr. Laura gaffe. (He admitted to making another one in Spanish himself.) What matters is the individual rights of the person for his own adult intimate life, and the responsibility that goes with the rights. That’s where the moral debate still is. It also needs to be noted that what some people mean by claiming some things to be immutable is (beyond claiming that people should become another suspect class) that they should not become the subject of social disapproval, discrimination, or even personal emotional distancing at all.

What strikes me is, whatever the explanation, I did not perform one function that is obviously indispensable for continuing civilization: procreation. That’s an objective fact. I did not develop an emotional openness necessary for it. I disdained the pampering and the gratuitous intimacy and deference to gender norms and “complementarity”. Perhaps there was not enough capacity in my brain, or just too many circuit logic conflicts, to accommodate musical talent, intellect, make competitiveness, and the emotions that go along with courting the opposite sex all at in the same region; and this gets to take on a “moral dimension” inasmuch as others supply things that I depend on. As far as not having children to feel proud of, I take full responsibility. But the difficult thing is that I realize that it is much easier to share family responsibility for others if you do have children. And it's much easier to take responsibility for others (even protectively) in our culture (especially given our legal system) if you can fall in love with an adult member of the opposite sex first. That's just the reality of it, and relates to the attempt to own up and "do something about it." And I see how some of my personality characteristics affect my ability to function in situations of forced intimacy, where one may, even though not fully one’s own terms, have to participate in defending the freedom of others. (All that said, I actually served in the Army 1968-1970 without incident). My demeanor may affect my ability to serve as a role model for other people’s children if that were to be expected. How much of this “it takes a village” responsibility is mine to share? How much is to be expected? It seems like a relevant moral question. I hardly think that a Victorian or feudal system where marriage is expected or nearly required for full citizenship and moral equality is good for society now; people really should marry for love first, right? There seems to be a bit of an impasse.

I can say it would be much easier for me to “pay my dues” if the law gave me full equality – the right to serve in the military (a theoretical but moot point given my age), fully equal rights for marriage and adoption (a responsibility that in practice I would hardly be prepared for given thirty years of “urban exile.”) But I do understand the psychological basis of many people for the objection. Many people, committed to lifelong monogamous marriage with children, feel that the demands of fidelity and intimacy are too much unless they own a public monopoly on sexuality and are somewhat privileged by it. Gay children, they feel, do not given them the emotional payback (grandchildren) that they had counted on, and public gay culture disrupts their focus and seems to be playing umpire with them rather than participating. The outside media-saturated culture just provides too many distractions from "real life". Yet, this is a question of personal responsibility, too. Ultimately, people “choose” to get married and have children. The trouble is, too many people believe that they have to.

There is, perhaps, an even more subtle meaning to "immutability." Since gay men tend not to experience the interpersonal emotions that married couples develop in the procreation and parenting process but "benefit" from being raised, they may seem ungrateful for not being more respectful for their parents' perception of intimacy, something that they themselves do not experience but can know only intellectually, because of biological wiring or the way they are "born." This leads to profound ethical questions. (Is that why John Edwards had at one time said he was not comfortable around "these people"? Because of how "we" can make him question himself? He seems on board now.)

But, well, political candidates are not willing to say these things, at least not in public. Only bloggers do.

Important story on NBC Today on "reputation defense", blogger here.

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