Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Contextual Sound-bites

I've had a rather odd response to a piece I wrote for the National Catholic Register. A large proportion of the comments seem to be based on a basic misunderstanding of what I'm trying to say -- which is in a lot of ways neither here nor there, except that it points towards a larger problem with the ways in which we contextualize, or fail to contextualize, things that we hear or read.
To put things in context: I'm the sort of person who despises sound-bites. I rarely read anything as short as a magazine article, or a single blog entry for that matter, because I'm always very much aware of the fact that in any brief piece of writing -- particularly one that has been edited down to fit a publication's word-count limits -- you're looking at a truncated snap-shot of the author's thought. Anything that can be said in less than 1200 words is an oversimplification.
Anything that can be said in a single book is also an oversimplification. Even Marx's Kapital is probably an oversimplification, though I'll admit that I never had the scholastic fortitude to tackle it. I'm generally pretty uncomfortable saying "so and so says such and such" if I've only read one of their works -- I like the maximum possible range of contextual information in order to make coherent sense out of a writer's words.
Yet, you can't get away from it. A lot of readers read and think in single sentences or phrases that are taken literally, for their surface value.
Probably it's a matter of different neurologies: brains that are designed to process information in different ways. A form of legitimate human diversity -- but one that makes communication fraught with frustration. To me, it is simply impossible to write or communicate at all unless you can assume a certain amount of context: if you're writing a Catholic article, for a Catholic audience, you don't need to go over the obvious (i.e. "same sex marriage is not the same as opposite sex marriage" or "scripture is inerrant.") These are axiomatic-type statements, givens, things that are generally assumed as part of the discourse. Obviously, if you were writing the same article for Secular Humanist Monthly, you couldn't assume those things. You probably couldn't even argue in their favour, but that's beside the point.
Having the givens given means that you don't have to write yet another version of that tedious "The Natural Law Argument against Gay Sex" article that we've all read seven thousand times. It means that you can go a little further afield. It saves our publications from all becoming like Women's World (I have conducted an informal study and have come to the conclusion that only seven articles have ever appeared in Women's World. Ever. The only thing that changes is the superficial hook -- e.g. the same "how to lose weight by eating less food, less sugar, less fat, but still having a small desert on Sunday" article might be called "The University of Texas Miracle Diet" or "Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight" or "Joli-Rhian's Super Diet Secret." Also, the models' hairdos wax and wane with the fashion seasons.) It means that you can assume a common foundation and build from there.
But it only works if you can assume the common foundation. This is my problem with the Catholic sound-bite folks. They seem to be like heresy sharks swimming about the internet, looking for isolated statements that aren't sufficiently complete in their orthodoxy. "Hey! This writer seems to have said, earlier in the article, that she believes in the Catholic position on homosexuality. But here she is quoting a gay source without using scare quotes or words like "putatively" or "allegedly" or referring to the sinister "gay agenda." Surely it means that she is actually arguing in favour of homosexual "marriages." Better correct the error before someone is scandalized."
The problem becomes worse -- exponentially worse -- if you use literary devices. Humour. Sarcasm. Irony. Tongue-in-cheek pseudo-quotation. Storytelling. Example. Parable...
Sigh. Where's Derrida when you need him?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Boys Not Wanted on the Voyage

Does a child need to have two parents, male and female, or suffer dire psychological consequences? This is the question at the heart of the same-sex parenting debate, and as usual the studies go both ways, largely depending on who funds them.
The big difficulty, though, is with the diagnostic tools available: how do you go about measuring psychological development? What do you count as important? What is a good trait in an adult child, and what is a fault that suggests a lack in the parenting style?
For example, a study by Stacey and Biblarz compared different studies of lesbian parents and found that there was no significant difference in development, achievement, happiness, success, etc. however, there was a difference in the sexual development of children raised by lesbian parents. Girls were more likely to pursue same-sex experimentation, and to have a more promiscuous lifestyle, whereas boys raised by two mommies were more likely to be sexually reserved than their opposite-sex parented peers.
Other studies have come to different conclusions. Most notably, Gartrell and Bos's recent study which suggested that lesbian parents actually raised children who were more psychologically well adjusted than opposite-sex parents. The methodological problems with the study are significant, but one of the difficulties that doesn't get noticed is with the highly reputable diagnostic tool used in the study. According to this particular diagnostic standard, not only lesbian parents, but also single mothers, raise more adjusted children than traditional families. What this strongly suggests is that the diagnostic criterion for psychological health, at least according to this standard, are basically a measure of feminine influence. In other words, the more feminized a child is, the more "healthy" they will appear to be, whereas masculine traits are seen as a form of dysfunction.
This is not surprising. Ours is a culture that essentially values docility, even-temper, sensitivity, and obedience. This is particularly true when you consider that any psychological evaluation of adolescents will tend to rely on the school as an "objective" reporting vector. Yet what is it that a school environment demands of its pupils? Certainly not the masculine virtues: courage, honour, strength of resolve, justified resistance, and the impulse to protect the things that one cares for, are likely to appear in a school setting as "risky behaviour" "rebelliousness" "sullenness" and so forth. It is no surprise that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioural problems and put on drugs by the school system: masculinity is not wanted here.
Anyways, the point is that "scientific" studies of parenting styles are anything but. They are necessarily political. They depend on someone's ideas of what an ideal parenting outcome is -- of what a "well adjusted" human being looks like.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner?

One of the commenters on a post below mentioned the "hate the sin, love the sinner" approach. I'm not sure if I've addressed this directly before, so here we go:
I don't think that this is a good way to look at gay/Catholic relations, for the following reason. The word sinner has two meanings:
1. Any human being who is not the Blessed Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ.
2. A person who commits some conspicuous sin, and who is definitely more sinful than me.
The problem is that in the "hate the sin, love the sinner," distinction, the second meaning is almost invariably meant, or at least implied. Most Catholics don't go around saying "Hate the sin, love the sinner" about any other group -- and it leads to a kind of behaviour that singles out homosexuals. There's also the fact that the emphasis is generally on "hate the sin."
I think that there was a point when this was an important development in gay/Christian relations -- when it represented a sort of awakening of the Christian conscience, and was a positive move away from the "turn or burn" approach, but at this point it's largely receded into right-wing waters, where it's used to justify a pretty chilly attitude towards actual gay and lesbian people. The sort of "Oh yes, of course I love the sinner. But it's because I love the sinner that I hate the sin so much..." preamble to a diatribe against the evils of gay sex.
So I would say that "hate the sin, love the sinner" is probably not a great formula. Something more like, "Love your (homosexual) neighbour as yourself." Of course this includes the fact that self love, at least for a Catholic, includes trying to avoid sin and grow and in virtue -- but it also includes the fact that a gentle, realistic and understanding approach is usually the most helpful in overcoming sin, whether in ourselves or in others.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mixed Media Emotions

I've just finished watching an episode of Cold Case. I don't like Cold Case -- I was watching it because the crime/detective dramas that I actually like weren't on, and I'm a total mystery junkie. Anyways, this particular episode featured an autistic child whose parents were murdered, and it ends with a particularly sappy, over-blown scene of the autistic boy getting to move in with his big sister to a room decorated with the kind of fish that he likes, and this kid (who can't act very well -- but then, the general poor quality of the acting on the show leads me to suspect that the director may be partially responsible, or that hamming is a deliberate marketing choice) is trying to do an imitation of that wide, blissful, smile that autistic children have when something in their inaccessible world is going just right for them. (Usually, you have no idea what this something might be. Sometimes you can tell -- he just really, really likes the pigs that live in the elephant grass in Planet Earth, or finds Women's Olympic Hockey hilarious.) Overlaying this beautiful cathartic moment is some sort of dreadful rock music in the alternative-goes-easy-listening genre. And I'm angry. I actually went and got a drink of water in the other room to escape this situation, because there's this complicated and absurd set of emotional reactions that I have, and I don't know quite what to do with them, or how to interpret them.
(What does this have to do with homosexuality? Not much -- But with evangelism in this particular culture...we'll get to that.)
The emotional feedback loop generated by a bad, kitschy piece of television:
1. A real emotion is evoked. A positive, personal, beautiful emotion -- the way that I feel about my son.
2. A fake positive emotion is thickly laid overtop. A sappy, clappy, emo-porn sentimentality: a programmed emotional reaction designed to create a certain kind of pseudo-experience in people who haven't had the actual experience.
3. I'm having a Baudrillard moment. I have an emotional reaction, but I can't tell how much of it is my real emotional reaction and how much is the simulacrum. The map is consuming the kingdom. The simulation is effacing the real. (If this doesn't make much sense, and probably it doesn't, read Simulation and Simulacra. That won't make much sense either, but the reference will be clarified.)
4. An intellectual reaction: I recognize that what I'm reacting to is the kitschification of something that is important to me.
5. I want to rebel. I don't want to have the feeling now. The original feeling is mine and it doesn't belong to the realm of kitsch, or to televisual manipulation. This is a usurpation, and I want to be impassive as a form of interior resistance.
6. Although I am capable of suppressing the real feeling if I want to, the combination of visual effects, swelling music, and other media tricks is now forcing me to have the fake feeling.
7. I'm really, really angry. Angry with myself for being manipulable in this way, angry at the show for manipulating me. Just mad.

Now, the thing is that I don't think everyone is familiar with this kind of internal conflict when faced with the cultural artefacts of the media age. Conservative Christians, (if TV programming is anything to go by) generally seem to be willing to put up with unbelievable quantities of sap without feeling that their existential guts are being dredged through razor-sharp saccharine. Liberals, too, seem to be able to handle this -- provided that the sap is properly liberal.
But there are a lot of people of my generation who just won't put up with it at all. Who have been cheated by the emotional pop-corn machine too many times, and who are constantly on guard. Who will react negatively to the portrayal of any strong positive emotion, for something resembling the reasons that I give above. (Oh, here's a glbt tie in: there are a lot of these people in the gay and lesbian sub-culture -- cf. the difference between something campy, like Queen's "It's a Miracle", and something bubble-gummy like John's Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance.")
The point is that the Christian message in its honey-sweet form is repulsive to people who have this sort of ironic defence system. It produces a very short-lived interior glow that is almost immediately replaced with a creeped-out feeling, rejection, and anger. Worth keeping in mind when you go evangelizing in the information age.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gay Wedding Receptions

Okay, first of all, news-reel:
In about 6 weeks I will have a house. At the moment, I'm living in my mom's house/cottage, going back and forth between the two, and I only have internet access at the house (hence my recent lack of blog-posts). My new house is the most beautiful place in the world; a century farmhouse near Tweed Ontario that used to be run as a Bed and Breakfast/Alpaca farm. In any case, come September I should be back on-line and blogging again properly.
My book, A Crisis of Passion should be coming out soon from Circle Books, I'll keep people posted on that. It's technically about the relationship between art, postmodernism and the Catholic Church, but it tends to slide in all directions, covering a lot of issues that have to do with the way that culture is shaped in the postmodern world, and how Christians/Catholics can bring the gospel to people in this crazy, media-saturated, Culture of Death/Threshold of Hope period in history.
I've had an interesting response to an article that appeared in a recent issue of Faith and Family magazine . I suggested that one way of negotiating the tricky issue of what to do if you're invited to a homosexual marriage ceremony/celebration of a homosexual union. I pointed out that you shouldn't actually go to the ceremony, because being at a marriage means standing witness for it and so that would contradict Church teaching, but that you might ask if your friend/relative would still like you to attend the reception, as a way of showing your desire to continue to be involved in their life and support them. It sparked a certain amount of debate, mostly based on the idea that by attending the reception you are celebrating a sin, implying your support therefore, and potentially causing scandal.
Here's the trouble: there are two potential ways of scandalizing people, i.e. leading them into sin/confirming them in their sins. The first is by setting a bad example -- and this is what those who disagreed with me argued a Catholic would be doing by going to a gay wedding reception. The second is by making a good example in such a disagreeable way that people are repulsed. To me, when you respectfully explain why you can't attend the marriage ceremony, you've made your point. You've stood up for truth. There's no ambiguity here. (Obviously if you did something absurd, like skip the ceremony but show up for the reception without discussing it in advance, that would be different, but it would also be socially awkward and rude.) What you're trying to do, however, is find a way of negotiating that situation so that the truth is tempered by love; so that your doctrinal position does not come across either as a contemptuous snub, or as raw homophobia, or as personal rejection. One commenter actually brought up the objection that there would probably be multiple gay/lesbian couples at the reception, and that you might see them being physically intimate with one another. At risk of offending the squeamish, I'm inclined to suggest that when Christ went into the den of the prostitutes and tax collectors, it probably wasn't a real nice clean discreet joint. In fact, the Pharisee's main objection is that reputable types didn't go into places like that. This was in an outpost of Ancient Rome, shortly before the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. The brothels would certainly have serviced the Roman soldiers posted to the Judean backwaters, and most of the prostitutes were probably on drugs. Yet Christ went. Why?
He went to show that our God is not the kind of stand-offish, snobbish, reputable God who is not willing to go into places like that. He was not afraid of the rumours that might circulate -- and which did circulate. (St. Thomas has a lovely little argument about how the Pharisees, in such circumstances, were not scandalized by the actions of Christ, but that they scandalized themselves.)
Now, I'm not saying that if you don't go to a gay reception, it means that you're a Pharisee. But I do think that if you're in a relationship with a homosexual such that it would be appropriate, supportive, and charitable for you to do so, that it can certainly be an expression of Christian love and not a cause of scandal.

p.s. I've been taken to task for using "marriage" and "wedding" without scare quotes to refer to homosexual ceremonies. The reason for this is simple: everyone knows what I mean. It's pretty obvious that I'm an orthodox Catholic, and that I don't think that homosexuals can be validly married. Scare quotes, to me, are just childish.