Monday, January 18, 2010
Uganda reminds us of what anti-gay bias used to be like here; individualism should never be taken for granted
I remember when reading Crane Brinton’s world history textbook (“A History of Civilization”) while taking mandatory European history in college, that the authors would always prefix each chapter with questions as to why people or states or groups behaved and develop in manners that befuddle a modern mind today.
Recently (Jan. 7) the Washington Post ran an editorial about a barbaric proposal in Uganda to track down gay people. I covered it on the LGBT blog. Yet, a half century ago (particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s) homosexuals in this country faced witch-hunts and firings, and, as in my experience in 1961, college expulsions. Justifications for these persecutions were usually stated in religious or sometimes “collectivist” terms (as they were in Uganda, according to the Post editorial). We seemed to have an area of moral thinking that was obsessed with enforcing conformity, as if this were a more important priority that preventing crimes that had actual concrete victims. (Remember the horrific pronouncements and rants of "psychologist" Paul Cameron and author Gene Antonio back in the 1980s?) Over the decades, things changed, as gay rights moved from the area of “privacy” to “equality”, as with the gay marriage debate (particularly in the United States). Today, the term “witch-hunt” usually refers to purges in the United States military associated with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Because we have become a more open, individualistic, and technological society, we have changed our minds and perceptions of this issue. But it is still important to understand where these attitudes came from. Ultimately the issue is not homosexuality itself, but a weighing of the rights of the individual against the commonly perceived survival interests of the group.
The mindset that produces legislation like that proposed in Uganda sees the family unit as a basic unit of survival, and life itself as a “gift” (maybe not for many people). Therefore, anything that detracts from passing on one’s genes or partiality toward one’s own blood becomes unthinkable; it seems synonymous with suicide. Back in 1961 I dealt with a similar mindset: as an only male child, announcing even “latent homosexuality” was seen as a “death sentence” for a family lineage.
But gradually any group of people has to deal with individual differences among its members, and it also has to deal with the “unfairness” that an unfettered tribal, patriarchal society inevitably produces. Most of the history we study deals with struggles between nationalities, religious groups, races, and the like, and have to do with reallocation of resources to deal with perceived wrongs. But some of history deals with the development of laws as they relate to individuals, often acting in behalf of “families”, as the compete with or deal with one another. Gradually, religious or tribalistic and “knee-jerk” moral notions based on emotion come under the scrutiny of reason -- and in democratic societies, ultimately constitutional law.
To its credit, the “family values” system, or “natural family” paradigm posed by Carlson and others, accomplishes two big things. First, it gets people (especially men) to care about others in ways that transcend competitive self-interest as they first learn it in youth, and (most important) to transcend introspective or reactive fantasy. (Perhaps the focus on "virtue" in some very conservative religions is a ruse to avoid unwanted intimacy!) Second, besides raising the next generation of children in a stable environment (“the obvious”), its takes care of “less competitive” people (especially the elderly) with less intervention from the state, and provides a local context to make all human life inherently valuable. This second factor, extended intergenerational responsibility, becomes all the more critical today as lifespans increase and families are smaller.
These “accomplishment” get reflected in our legal system. Much of what our legal system does with this is try to enforce monogamy: tie individual men, who might feel incentivized to spread their genes among as many nubile women as possible, to specific spouses with specific responsibilities for the children that they father. No one sees this as controversial. Men are supposed to enter traditional (heterosexual) marriage partially socialized, but be tamed by their spouses (the "women tame men" thing of George Gilder) into transcending their competitiveness and self-focus with new modes of emotion and intimacy.
But it’s another area where the cultural and legal system becomes difficult. Men are more than reproductive or conjugal beings: we have individualized expressions which (especially now in the Internet age) we broadcast with pride. Some of us (like me) would rather stay in our own worlds and not even negotiate the competitive world of dating, marriage and babies. And my experience is that “we’re” a “problem” too for some people. The world sometimes demands that we develop the skills to provide for other people (especially blood family members) even though we have not made the “choice” to have procreative sexual intercourse and create new responsibilities in the form of children. The model is more like this: some of this responsibility is communal, and having children (in legally recognized marriage) earns recognition and support for carrying out communal responsibilities as well as creating new ones. It’s like a double journal entry. The demands for “involuntary family responsibility” can demand deferral or sacrifice of one’s own chosen goals. When I was a teenager in the 50s and early 60s, I thought I had a good shot at becoing a classical pianist and composer, and I would have worked hard enough. But the outside world would not leave me alone from its demands of "manhood" from me!
On the other hand, there is a separate world where adults focus on the value of relationships for their own creative potential, outside the world of social approbation. But communities of adults with this kind of focus tended to do better when they were closed and somewhat secluded. That's tougher in the Internet age.
In a sense, “sodomy laws” used to have the purpose of enforcing or imposing familial connectedness and family responsibility on everyone, whatever one's own separate talents. Married couples monopolized sexuality and those who did not form their own families were expected to subordinate themselves to the family. Sometimes certain provisions were provided: unmarried women could be encourage to become teachers and “enjoyed” a certain amount of prestige and authority (remember “Good Morning Miss Dove”). Unmarried men were worse off, except in the Catholic Church, where they could become priests (sometimes with dangerous results). This way, those who were “different” could not threaten the system by standing at a distance from it and kibitzing. The family model was indeed a collective one, which tended to live off of fears and it never followed the idea of individual personal responsibility that is so accepted in individualistic society today.
Laws regarding "public decency" and now the military "don't tell" law have the effect of preventing "distraction" from family intimacy when it is needed -- at least that's what a lot of people perceive.
The old system had some explaining to do, to be sure. It chided young men (like me) who were not physically competitive (making us feel like mooches), but then it seemed to turn about-face (with a self-serving double standard) and expect us to be interested in marriage and family (even in "acting" as fatherly role models ourselves) even after we had been told we had been competitive “failures” as boys. Some of the “explaining” may have come from the fact that a lot of young male competition occurred in groups (especially team sports, like football, leading to a social structure well suited to the military). The competition was supposed to occur in a context that emphasized that young men owed their “community” something: the ability to protect women and children (hence the era of conscription or the draft, and the morally tenuous student deferments of the Vietnam era -- and a neo-authoritarian mentality that decried physical "cowardice" and said, "If you don't go, someone else has to sacrifice in your place"). In time, technology would help the less “physical” people (the nerds) invent new ways to “compete” (Facebook provides an extreme example), eventually developing and reinforcing a moral value system much more centered on individual responsibility for self than for family per se.
By the 1990s, we had evolved an informal "social contract" that regarded marriage and having children as a purely personal decision whose moral significance rested with the person. That notion has been reverting back in the past few years, as we begin to realize that not only child rearing but longevity in many areas requires a lot more familial and community commitment. "Personal responsibility" now incorporates a sense of understanding one's dependencies on the unseen sacrifices of others, as well as some "existential" responsibilty for sustainability, especially one has spoken out. Curiously, this deeper notion of "responsibility" seems to meld with earlier notions of "biological" loyalty and makes some familial intimacy almost compulsory. The problems of "fairness" in how family responsibility is met, particularly in a world of longer lifetimes with disability, become quite profound. That's really the importance of the gay marriage debate.
Update: Jan 19
The comment source below maintains this blog, "Gay Uganda", here.