Thursday, February 7, 2013
Nobody's on Nobody's Side
Scene: A Roman style dining room in South-Eastern Ontario where a debate about homosexuality is taking place.
Juvenal Kirkman: A darwinian social constructivist, more or less.
Germanicus: His brother, a stoic.
Catullus: A flaming but closeted homosexual who is arguing in favour of Catholic sexual morality.
Sheila: The arbiter. Not Germanicus' girlfriend.
Ali: A postmodern feminist, allegedly Catullus' girlfriend.
The Story So Far: The opening speeches have been made, and Sheila has just recommended throwing coconuts at Juvenal. Ali is arming herself with almonds, the closest available substitute.
Juvenal: I'd like to say a few words in my own defense. I'm not saying that gay people are evil, or that God is going to cast Bolt3 on The Castro. I'm saying that homosexuality is unnatural.
Ali: I don't see how something can be unnatural if you admit yourself that it has a clear purpose in nature.
Juvenal: The word “nature” is kind of the Afghanistan of moral discourse. I'm trying to reclaim it in its full classical glory. When Socrates talks about gay sex being unnatural, he doesn't mean “Icky! Gross. Bad.” He means something more like “unhealthy” or “not recommended.” Plato turns this on its head in the Laws, but he's pretty explicit about what he's doing, and why he's doing it. He specifically says that he wants to make people feel a sense of gut-level revulsion towards all unproductive sex, the same as they feel about incest, and he explicitly spells out that he wants to use a religious framework in order to achieve this. It's commonly thought that he never managed to find a polis that was willing to go along with this strategy...I won't comment on how that relates to the development of Christian doctrine.
Catullus: You just did. And your implication is utterly spurious. I'm not denying Plato's influence on the early Christian thinkers, but to suggest that the adoption of a neo-Platonist sexual ethic in late antiquity was a deliberate attempt to control people's sexuality through a system of religious lies is preposterous.
Juvenal: Sure. You can't deliberately concoct a false religion and foist it on people, 'cause people are ultimately not nearly as stupid as Plato thought. What his ideas needed was a real religion that could credibly support his contentions, which was exactly what Christianity provided.
Germanicus: Actually, the most neo-Platonistic sects of Christianity were condemned by the time of the Council of Nicea because they denied the incarnation. Realistically, Manicheaism would have been a better fit for Plato's philosophy.
Sheila: Time out. You guys are supposed to be arguing about homosexuality, not showing off your knowledge of classical trivia. I think that we should have the discussion framed in such a way that Ali can potentially participate.
Ali: Actually, I was going to point out that Aristotle, Socrates et alia understood that their philosophy was for men of a particular social class in a particular political setting. They knew that they weren't philosophizing for the sake of the barbaroi, or of women, or of the populus; that they were proposing a techne of the self which would be appropriate for those men responsible for the government of a Hellenic polis. I would however like to bemoan the fact that my contribution is given more weight if I invoke certain linguistic status symbols and refer back to a privileged set of Western heteropatriarchal texts.
Juvenal: Okay, sister comrade, you show me how you're going to arrive at a notion of gay rights without referring to the “privileged heteronormative texts” of the Western canon.
Ali: There are a lot of non-Western societies that actually celebrate homosexual and transgendered persons. It's only because we have a long tradition of homophobia that this is even an issue. If you look at other civilizations, many of them recognize that gay people tend to spiritually sensitive, artistically talented –
Juvenal: Sure. So your position is that some societies value homosexuals, and that's really great for those societies, and some societies tie them up and throw things at them, and that's fine for them. I've got it now, yeah?
Juvenal: Okay. So how do you deal with a society that publicly castrates its gay people or burns them down? Are you going to go in there with your gynocentric homonormative Western privilege and stomp on their heads until they agree to be nice?
Ali: I agree it's a tough question, because you're dealing with a situation where the basic rights of individuals are in conflict with the right to self-determination of sovereign societies. But I think that in those cases, the individuals in question have the right to ask for help from other societies. It's just a matter of extending that help in a way that isn't paternalistic and condescending.
Juvenal: It's a total pipe dream. Power is the reality. You have the right to talk about individual rights and about offering help only because you have the power to enforce a notion of individual rights which is the direct result of that heteropatriarchal Western tradition that you were whining about earlier. The idea that a person has the right to receive protection from violence inflicted against her by the society in which she lives is an idea which developed out of Aristotle, and Plato, the Gracchi, and Marcus Aurelius, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsis, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, and John Locke. The entire notion of human rights is a Western social construct. The entire notion of self-determining sovereign societies is a Western social construct. You can't get away from it.
Germanicus: Look, Juvenal, the point is that none of this suggests, even remotely, that homosexuality is immoral. If contemporary Western culture, as a result of the notion of individual human rights, has arrived at a position of social consensus with regards to homosexual relations which is essentially pro, then I don't see how you can claim that it is valid to enforce a Darwinian notion of heteronormativity based on the psychology of monkeys. So far as I can see, you're very cleverly shooting yourself in the foot.
Juvenal: My point is that what makes people successful and happy is having the power to control their situation. There can be no such thing as universal human dignity, because dignity – dignitas – is conditional on a person's station. Dignity is a measure of the respect that people accord to one another in relation to the degree to which a person has succeeded in securing for himself those goods which are conducive to her happiness. Any practice which helps a person to have that kind of control is virtuous, because that's what virtue is. It's a word derived from vir, from the word for a male citizen. Virtue is that which allows a person to procure the privileges which were accorded to citizens and to men in ancient Rome. The homosexual is not virtuous because he cannot dignify himself, he can only become dignified if the rest of society decides to tolerate and affirm him. The actual power continues to reside with those who have the right to grant or withhold tolerance and affirmation. By accepting homosexuality, what we're really doing is establishing power and control over those whom we have designated by the term “homosexual.” We place them in the position of having to come to us as supplicants, of having to beg for their dignity as a manifestation of our virtue.
Catullus: That is total bullshit. Treating other people with love and respect is not a way of exercising power over them, and needing to be loved and respected is not a manifestation of weakness. This is precisely what's wrong with the entire classical worldview, it's the reason why Christianity spread through the ancient world like wildfire, because someone finally stood up and told the women, and the slaves, and the Jews, that they didn't need to wait for someone to come along and grant them their dignity. They didn't need a Judas Maccabeus, or a Spartacus, or a Simone de Beauvoir to come along and graciously bestow dignity upon them, because their dignity was vouchsafed by the God who had created them.
Juvenal: Sure. If you reconstrue happiness to mean “being eaten by lions for Jesus” anyone can achieve happiness. But I think it's pretty valid to say that most people, given a free choice between being happy by being eaten by lions and being happy by having good food and hot sex, will take the latter. The power of Christianity really derived from the fact that it told people who had never tried to exercise power, people who were at the bottom of the social heap, that they could achieve dignity by being virtuous. The promise that God was on their side allowed them to get over the hump of being scared shitless of defying the existing social order. But it's not really an overturning of classical thought, it's just the application of the insights of classical philosophy to those populations that had been traditionally excluded. Of course all it did was redistribute power throughout social space and redefine “virtue” and “dignity” in such a way that it created new categories of exclusion, like heretics, infidels and sodomites.
Ali: That's why its important to challenge those categories of exclusion. Because people's identities literally depend on their relationships and on their right to full inclusion within social discourses.
Juvenal: Wife beaters? Rapists? Homophobes? Your philosophy has its categories of exclusion too. All philosophies do, because human beings are fundamentally unable to function in a classless society.
Germanicus: What if we just return to the idea that being virtuous is an interior thing, that it has nothing whatever to do with your social status, that it's about your relationship with yourself and with God. I think that solves the problem fairly neatly.
Juvenal: No way. Your entire conception of what is constituted by the “will of God” is a consequence of your society. Your conception of what a self is is a consequence of your society. It doesn't solve any problem at all, it just creates a little narcissistic bubble in which you can pretend that you're free.
Catullus: May I interrupt to point out that no one has even made an attempt yet to answer any of my initial arguments? We seem to be caught in a discussion that assumes that the question of the morality of homosexuality is fundamentally a social question. I proposed it as an archetypal question, a question of beauty and of truth. I agree completely that it ought to be tolerated socially, but that really doesn't address, in any way, the problem of whether it is, or is not, good.
[End of Part X]