Saturday, April 03, 2010

Heterosexism, Homophobia and Crucifixion:
Musings on Black Saturday

Yesterday in the philosophy of law class the problem of how to describe understandings of LBGT people which are antagonistic to their interests arose. Given that I am working on a project to examine the deceitful campaign practices surrounding Proposition 8 in California largely funded by religious sources which took away marriage rights then being exercised by same sex couples, perhaps a little discussion of terms is in order.

The easier of the two terms used to discuss this phenomenon is heterosexism. While a number of the online dictionary sites including Meriam Webster provide a rather enigmatic definition which equates heterosexism with “discrimination or prejudice by heterosexuals against homosexuals,“ such definitions focus on behavior and attitudes in a completely acontextual manner which is not terribly surprising given the general pattern of American discourse.

A better definition is offered in Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men (Herek, Berrill, Berrill, 1992), where the authors describe heterosexism as

an ideological system that denies, denigrates and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship or community. Like racism, sexism and other ideologies of oppression, heterosexism is manifest in societal custom and institutions, such as religion and the legal system (referred to here as cultural heterosexism), and in individual attitudes and behaviors (referred to here as psychological heterosexism…). [Herek, 89]

A second useful definition is offered by Elizabeth P. Cramer in her work Addressing Homophobia and Heterosexism on College Campuses [2002]:

The expectation that all people should be or are heterosexual. The belief that heterosexual relations are normal and are the norm. These expectations and beliefs occur on individual, institutional and cultural levels. The behavioral manifestations of heterosexist belief include denying marriage licenses for same-sex couples and restricting health and retirement benefits to those in heterosexual marriages.

What these definitions provide is an understanding that heterosexism, much like my black seminary classmate noted about racism years ago, is in the very air we breathe in western culture. Much of the time, we are simply unaware of it. Heterosexism pervades every aspect of our culture and only becomes jarringly noticeable when someone dares to break the surface of our unconsciousness to point out the obvious: this is a socially constructed understanding with little basis in reason and with generally destructive results when put into practice.

But with the deconstruction of heterosexism which has occurred as a result of the LGBT liberation movements beginning in the 1950s, the luxury of naiveté (a phrase borrowed from the 12 Steps movement) which uncritically sees heterosexism as “normal and the norm” has been lost as the socially constructed and destructive nature of heterosexism has been named. In the process, while heterosexism has been exposed as a social construction, the former understandings of tradition, nature and divine purpose have correspondingly been revealed for their roles in legitimization – rather than as origins - of this social construct.

At the point that such deconstruction, demythololgizing and delegitimation has been completed and published and/or broadcast to the public, the luxury of naiveté is no longer available to those who become aware of it. Such awareness is increasingly difficult to avoid with the disconfirming evidence from science and the experience of LBGT people widely disseminated on worldwide media.

While many people engage in denial of the truth of their own prejudices once exposed while others seek to avoid the disconfirming evidence of their prejudice –sometimes by engaging in classic kill the messenger responses - those behaviors alone suggest a profound – if less than totally conscious - awareness of the prejudice. Indeed, cognitive dissonance theory suggests that the more their rhetoric reflects demonization of LBGT people, the more elaborate their systems of legitimization become, the more dismissive of disconfirming evidence and those who would purvey it their responses become, the more evident that at a very basic level these are people who know better. [Tavris, Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), 2007].

All of these behaviors are evidence of desperate attempts to deal with cognitive dissonance resulting from knowing better – whether such awareness is conscious and thus capable of articulation or simply the gnawing awareness in one’s gut of that dissonance - but speaking and acting in conflict with such “knowledge. “ French philosophy Jean-Paul Sartre referred to the ploy of first deceiving oneself prior to engaging to deceive others with assertions one either knows to be false or for which one has consciously avoided any disconfirming evidence as the practice of “bad faith.”

The site regarding civil liberties notes that “Heterosexism is distinct from homophobia, though homophobia is in all likelihood the driving force behind heterosexism.” This an important observation. The unconscious, prejudicial aspects of heterosexism are perhaps expectable in a heterosexist culture, particularly a consumerist culture which readily utilizes appeals to heterosexual potential for mating as a means of conditioning its desired customers into buying products and services without regard to need. But can an ongoing uncritical default to socially constructed understandings be seen as rational in light of its exposure as a social construct?

Homophobia as a psychiatric diagnosis is problematic on a good day. Definitions of phobia range in intensity and extremity from life threatening attitudes and behaviors to mere avoidance behaviors. Psychopathologizing homophobia in most cases is unwarranted and unhelpful in any reasoned discussion of heterosexism and its attendant oppressive social structures and culturally based attitudes. This is not to say that homophobia cannot become pathological, only that such is not the beginning place in talking about it.

At the same time, the persistent question of rationality (or the lack thereof) in many responses to the deconstructive revelations of the prejudicial and ultimately destructive nature of responses to any non-heterosexual feelings and behaviors suggests that something deeper and perhaps darker is at work than a mere socially constructed misanthropic pattern. Indeed, one definition of phobia points toward that connection:

"The nature of phobia is a persistent avoidance behavior and is secondary to irrational fears of a specific object, activity, or situation. -- -- -- phobia are unreasonable and unwarranted fears given the actual dangerousness of the object, activity, or situation avoided." (Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, Kaplan, 1985).

While Kaplan’s definition continues to use fear as a basis for his definition, it perhaps offers a helpful criteria for distinguishing the pervasive, largely unconscious heterosexism native to our culture (though less and less unconscious) with the rejection of reasoned argument once such naiveté is lost through exposure to disconfirming evidence. A useful distinction of homophobia from heterosexism would thus turn on the role of reason in responding to evidence that heteronormative attitudes, behaviors and resulting institutional structures are by definition socially constructed and ultimately based in prejudice, to whatever degree realized.

I am generally slow to use the term homophobic in my classes or in my writing because of its incendiary nature. But I am willing to use it under the conditions I lay out here because it is ultimately more accurately descriptive than mere designations of heterosexism permit. I am also resistant to self-serving arguments from those who hold prejudicial attitudes, legitimating them with one or more of the usual media, that the use of homophobia somehow is reducible to little more than name calling and serves to becloud rather than enlighten discussions on this subject.

Holders of prejudice never want to own up to their misanthropy. That's the nature of prejudices. Moreover, it is a human tendency to seek to construct one’s own self-understanding in the brightest aspects of the persona while repressing into the shadow all less than acceptable aspects, something Carl Jung observed over a century ago. This would be increasingly true of the label of homophobia as such attitudes are increasingly seen as socially unacceptable. It is perhaps revealing that prior to the vote on Proposition 8 in California, not one single poll predicted its passage. Clearly the halo effect is alive and well.

Having grown up in a late Jim Crow period in the South during which schools were desegregated, I am more than aware of the resistance we Southerners had to being called racists even as our attitudes and behaviors spoke volumes about the repressed and thus very powerful role our racism played in our lives. We used many of the same arguments regarding the term racist that one hears today in legal and religious circles around the use of the descriptor homophobia: this word shuts down discourse, this word is not accurate enough to describe anything in particular, this word pathologizes mere holders of social prejudices. We also heard the arguments that fail to distinguish the attitudes themselves from the classic legitimizations of those attitudes frequently utilized by their holders: requiring me to reconsider my prejudices here would cause me to go against God (the Pope, the church, the faith, et al), the law, nature or centuries of tradition.

Clearly it is possible for Roman Catholics to reject the current Papal position on homosexuality (as with any number of other pronouncements, many of them dealing with sexuality) and polls of the faithful repeatedly indicate a majority do. Nature provides a textbook case for the regular occurrence of homosexual behaviors in the animal kingdom. Tradition provides a textbook case for the tendency in human history to engage in destructive socially constructed relationships among human beings and then legitimize them with appeals to supernatural, natural and traditional authorities. (see slave trade) only to later admit their wrongfulness though some were able to recognize and willing to risk their own well being to declaim such practices long before that time.

Of course, all of these defense mechanisms ultimately evidence the very reality my definition of homophobia would assert: homophobia is evidenced by a rejection of reasoned argument in the consideration of this phenomenon. The former arguments above seek to avoid confrontation with the disconfirming evidence that reasoned discussion of homosexuality inevitably reveals. The latter arguments above attempt to justify prejudicial arguments by unquestioning deference to authority in response to or avoidance of disconfirming evidence. In neither approach is reasoned argument enjoined. But in either case, it is at the point that the arguer is confronted with the evidence of the untenable nature of their position, rejects the evidence and continues to hold to understandings in contravention of that reason that the description of their responses could be considered actively homophobic rather than mere passive bearers of culturally driven heterosexism.

While it is clearly understandable why holders of prejudice might construct elaborate defense systems for their prejudices, such suggests an ultimate – if not totally reflected upon - awareness of their wrongful nature, not the innocence of character and rightness of attitude the arguments would suggest. People who truly believe their attitudes are correct if not righteous do not need to construct elaborate defense systems. The rectitude of their arguments speak for themselves.

I find it odd that this is the subject I am addressing on this Black (or Holy) Saturday, the day after Good Friday (good for whom? certainly not Jesus) when one of history’s most famous executions is remembered. I almost asked my world religions students yesterday to do a three minute writing assignment on this question: Clearly Jesus is the most famous example of crucifixion though it was a common practice in the Roman Empire. Who gets crucified today? Why? Time did not permit but it would have been interesting to hear their answers.

If we are being honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that all misanthropic social prejudices crucify their targets to some degree. Perhaps this is an appropriate subject to ponder this day on which Jesus sleeps in his tomb while we, his grief-stricken followers, ask ourselves, “How could this have happened?”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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