Monday, July 01, 2013

On Crudeness, Denial and Intellectual Honesty

An Empty Intellectual Arsenal?

In the euphoria of the two decisions from SCOTUS last Wednesday that struck down DOMA and upheld the lower court’s striking down of Prop 8, I shared a poster on my Facebook account that I now have second thoughts about.

It was a tweet attributed to actor Morgan Freeman. Supposedly this lion of the screen said the following:

I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.

Generally speaking, I think people who resort to name calling indicate that they have exhausted their intellectual arsenal. Worse yet, as reported, there is no substantive evidence to connect this to Freeman. It does sound like his laconic wit, at least of the persona we see on film, but that doesn’t make him the author of this blunt ad hominem.

But There is a Reason…..

I would plead temporary insanity in this case. My relief over the court’s decision (even with the disappointment in the final vote) certainly contributed to this lapse of judgment. But there is actually a reason that I ultimately chose to place it into the Facebook cyberspace.  

When I clicked on the tweet, I found an extended Facebook discussion of the tweet. That’s not surprising given how incendiary the comment was and how it was attributed to a fairly well known and loved actor. But this comment really hit me between the eyes:

Courtney Brull - Why does someone HAVE to be an asshole jist (sic) because they don't agree with you on your view?? No one can say they're an asshole. They simply have their opinion just as you have yours. Everyone should respect each other ESPECIALLY WHEN WE DISAGREE

In all fairness, the author of this comment appears from her photo to be fairly young. So, the superficiality of the comment is somehow expectable if not excusable. Truth be told, most of us tended to think fairly superficially when we were young. Indeed, some of us have never developed much depth despite the years of opportunity and experience to provide them.

Everyone Thinks Like Me....

The problem is, she reflects the response of many people called upon to confront their own demons. Just down the Facebook feed from this posted tweet was another tweet from a source identified as “Tea Party Cat.” It supposedly quotes Justice Antonin Scalia as saying

"We don't need the Voting Rights Act. That was for when there was racism. Nowadays the South is no more racist than I am."

As with the Freeman piece, I can find no independent verification of this comment. But, sadly, it is fairly consistent with the kinds of comments Scalia has made on this subject and a number of others involving civil rights and discrimination. And it raises a crucial point here.

The epitome of unrecognized narcissism is the tendency to think that one’s own perspective somehow forms the norm by which all other thinking must be judged. The comment attributed to Scalia operates out of the presumption that everyone is like me or ought to be. And, of course, that presumption is based on a second presumption that one’s own perspective is not only valuable but somehow the best position, indeed, the only possible understanding, that human beings can hold.

Why would that be so?

The Brighter the Persona….

What is even more problematic is the way such presumptions prevent the holders of the perspectives they would see as normative for everyone else from ever critically reflecting on those perspectives, how they arrived at the same and whether their basis for arriving at that perspective is sound and thus defensible. In the Scalia tweet, the presumption operates like this: “Since the behaviors of the officials in the jurisdictions we are considering reflect my own views and values, and I don’t see myself as racist, therefore they can’t possibly be racist.”

Again, why would that be?

What’s avoided here is the distinct possibility that an adult human being who has been raised in an overtly racist society might actually harbor racist views, unconsciously if not consciously, perhaps by means of repressed consciousness. Any time I hear such special pleading, I hear the voice of my seminar classmate, a black school administrator originally from New Orleans, who reminds me, “In America we breathe racist air.” Indeed, I have had my own unrecognized racism brought to my attention more times than I would like to admit.

Denial can take many forms. The “I can’t possibly be bigoted because it’s inconsistent with the persona I wish others to see” variety is common. Herein lies a major reason that purity-driven constructions of religion have such a hard time coming to grips with their homophobia. To admit that a deeply held understanding such as homophobia is not only not righteous but actually sinful would require a major self-examination and critique of one’s persona. As Jung observed, “The brighter the persona, the darker the shadow.” Little wonder so few are willing to engage in the painful self-confrontation that repentance will require here.

It’s Just Your Opinion…..

The comments of Courtney Brull reflects another variety of denial – disingenuity. Brull would have us believe that this is simply a matter of opinion, that anyone’s views on same sex marriage are somehow sacrosanct from any kind of critique because everyone is entitled to their opinion. Unarticulated here but clearly implied is the relativist corollary of that assertion: Everyone is entitled to their opinion and no one’s opinion is any more valuable than anyone else’s.

Of course, the corollary is not true and anyone with the capacity and the willingness to think critically recognizes the problem with it. The evil nature of the 9-11 attacks is not simply a matter of opinion. And the fact that some danced with glee upon seeing America poked in the eye with a stick after all the suffering America has caused around the world makes those events no less evil.

The right to hold opinions is sacrosanct in a democratic society. It is the guarantee of any value system which includes freedom of expression. But that does not mean that all opinions are born equal nor should they automatically be seen as equally valid once articulated. In fact, they rarely are. And an opinion based in faulty reasoning and disowned prejudice, which advocates or affirms outcomes harmful to others must – out of intellectual honesty if nothing else – be called what it is: evil.

Contrary to Courtney Brull’s assertions, homophobia is not merely a matter of opinion. Like any common prejudice, it is a socially corrosive force that has the potential to poison and debilitate community. Worse yet, it serves to dehumanize both the target of the prejudice as well as the holder. It makes us less than we can be as human beings. As such, intellectual honesty requires it be called what is: evil.

Sins of Misanthropy Compounded by Disingenuity

Common social prejudices are never a mere matter of opinion. No matter how we dress them up or how we would seek to legitimize them, they remain at heart what they are – species of misanthropy. Intellectually honest human beings don’t get to simultaneously construct their fellow human beings through negative stereotypes in irrational and harmful ways and at the same time hold themselves free of any accountability. To do so is to compound the sin of misanthropy with the sin of disingenuity.  

Morgan Freeman may not have actually said that homophobic attitudes are the marks of an asshole but it should hardly be a matter of contention that such is true. And attempts to avoid that judgment by dishonest appeals to free speech and sophistry suggest at a fairly basic level that the avoider recognizes the truth of that assessment. In such cases, it may well be that the crude assessment is all that really fits.

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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