Monday, October 12, 2009

Scapegoating, Moral Clarity, Anthropological Commonsense

Notwithstanding the naive pieties of the relativists, no sane society has ever tried to live without moral and social norms, that is: a socially sanctioned recognition of what that society regards as normal and therefore morally licit. However subject to criticism those norms might be, any society that allows itself to think that norms as such can be set aside as insufferable constraints on individual liberty is a society that will soon plunge into social chaos, brutality, and violence.

SO . . . the question about norms is which norms are valid, and by valid I mean which conduce to human flourishing understood in its fullest sense -- that is, not as momentary satisfaction of some desire, impulse, or compulsion, but as something that truly conforms to who we are, how we are made, and why we exist. If that seems highfalutin, it is at the heart of each and every assertion of normality. We can and no doubt will argue over these questions forever, but there can hardly be any argument over the inevitability of norms of one kind or another.

When the academics most steeped in political correctness begin to regard with alarm the social construction of what they call "heteronormativity," they are simply arguing for new normless norms, which would rule out of order in our social and political life such things as heteronormativity. Those who have retained enough commonsense to regard such things as laughable should not underestimate the capacity of those who have lost that sense to regard it with dead-seriousness.

Now, as I said, norms presuppose that one thing is normal and its alternative abnormal. Any attempt to wish this dualism away by declaring that all the mutually incompatible norms are equally valid is philosophically vacuous and socially nonsensical. It would simply mean that normless relativism has become the new norm, and that any and all other norms are forthwith declared abnormal and therefore odious. Which is more or less what is now being taught -- implicitly at least and explicitly in many cases -- in our government schools today. Again, it is a recipe for cultural disaster, or rather it is a symptom of the early-to-middle stages of such a disaster.

So the question of what is normal and what perforce is abnormal is unavoidable. But, as those who tar me with the brush of scapegoating every time I champion the moral norms that our civilization has regarded as incontestable for millennia seem to think, any invocation of norms is, per se, a scapegoating act. Well, perhaps not just any, for my critics casually and easily invoke politically correct norms precisely to accuse me of scapegoating, in other words of behaving outside the legitimate bounds of the prevailing social and moral norm as they see it.

Those who argue, as I do, that heterosexuality is normal do not thereby scapegoat homosexuals any more than we scapegoat quadriplegics by observing that healthy arms and legs are the normal condition for human beings. That quadriplegics and homosexuals deserve both our respect as brothers and sisters as well as our compassion for the very real difficulties that they face should go without question. To quote for the umpteenth time paragraph 2358 of the Catholic Catechism:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.
But neither our respect for the human dignity of quadriplegics or homosexuals, nor our sympathy regarding the burden of their condition, is enhanced by the pretense that their condition is normal.

And so, again, it ultimately comes down to the question of whether what is regarded as normal actually conforms to how we are made, to anthropological reality, or not.

I'm perfectly aware that I will not convince my friends who vehemently disagree with me on this issue. I simply post this entry as a matter of clarification. I welcome your comments, whether you agree with me or not. I may occasionally become just as exasperated by those who disagree with me on this and other issues as they are with me, but we are, after all, children of the same God, and in due course we will all come face-to-face with the Truth, which we now see through a glass darkly, but which some of us feel we see a little bit clearer because we peer through the lens polished by centuries of careful reflection by those greater and wiser than ourselves.

11 comments:

Doughlas Remy said...

(Part one)
Gil, I’ve been interested for many years in problems of violence in the public schools. It just came with the territory, you could say, because I was an educator myself for most of my career (I still teach part-time in a community college), and I have a son who went through the public school system here in Washington State and is now in his senior year at WSU.

One of my most deeply-held convictions over the years has been that children and youth must be protected from physical abuse, sexual exploitation, and assaults on their self-esteem. The responsibility of the schools is to provide a safe and secure environment in which the young can devote their energies to learning. To that end, we must teach children from an early age about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When we detect signs of bullying, shaming, or shunning, we must try to bring the perpetrators back to that basic principle, and if we cannot do so, then we resort to stronger measures.

The last thing we want to do as educators and parents is to give any child a pretext to bully or ostracize another child. That would be contributing to the problem, not remedying it. Nor do we want to model prejudice for the children under our protection. This means that we must be acutely aware of the ways that we ourselves exhibit prejudice.

In fact, one of the most vexing complications in all this is that many of the attitudes that drive bullying behavior are handed down to young people through their culture, often through their parents and, most sadly, even through their churches. To deal effectively with school violence, we have to identify and address its root causes, and these usually originate in the adult sphere. But teachers have enough on their plates already, without having to deal with the cultural underpinnings of prejudice and hate.

The kind of language that you have used to describe gay and lesbian youth (“abnormal,” “objectively disordered,” “feral, lifeless, and loveless,” etc.) should never under any circumstances reach the ears of any young person. When you use such language, you must try to imagine that you are speaking directly to a child, because children will eventually absorb the impact of that kind of speech through their parents and others who have listened to you. You are putting memes out into the culture, and they will eventually infect the children.

Could you say such things to a child or youth? Could you tell her directly, to her face, that she is “objectively disordered” and “abnormal”? I sincerely hope not. The rhetoric in which you couch these toxic phrases is particularly insidious because it appears to be coming from a well-educated person. Yes, in your own words, it does seem “highfalutin,” and that is precisely the danger of it.

I’ve observed hatred and prejudice for a long time, and I know that they are drawn like a magnet to any high-sounding principle that will give them cover. The language of the catechism on this subject is particularly revealing. Notice the use of the words “objectively disordered” to describe homosexuality. What does this mean? Why can’t the Church simply rely on its own authority—the authority of scripture and tradition—without having to claim scientific legitimacy for its description? In fact, there is no scientific authority to support this description, and so the words “objectively disordered” are nothing more than a feint, a bluff, similar to your own claim that “a mountain of undeniable social science” has shown homosexuality to lead to depression and suicide. Dorothy has finally met the Wizard of Oz. The only mountain in view is the mountain of prejudice seeking to disguise itself as science.

Doughlas Remy said...

(Part Two)
Because you are quite literate in some areas, Gil,your words have a certain polished veneer that may mislead the gullible. When you use terms like “anthropological common sense,” one may easily imagine that there is some deep thinking and research behind these words and that your views are supported by a major branch of the human sciences. But, again, they are not. What you call “anthropology” may only be theology masquerading as a science, and what may seem like “common sense” to you may only be a very entrenched and unexamined way of thinking.

My common sense tells me that no child should ever be told she is anything less than beautiful. My common sense tells me that such strongly pejorative words as “abnormal” should never, never be used to describe children, even if only in the presence of adults. (While it is true that the word “abnormal” has a non-pejorative sense, most people do not know this, and so the word should for all practical purposes be considered radioactive in discussions about sexual orientation.) Fortunately, few young people will understand your word “feral” (describing homosexuality). If they did, you could claim credit for equipping them with one more insulting and demeaning epithet to hurl at each other.

You are quite correct in saying that “no sane society has ever tried to live without moral and social norms.” Unfortunately, many societies have preserved their “sanity” (i.e., their order) by enforcing moral and social norms that are based on prejudice and scapegoating. We Girardians know that. A society’s so-called “sanity” is often nothing more than a collective neurosis for which someone will be called to pay the price.

One assumption I’ve made in all my remarks about shaming is that we all understand the difference between behavior and identity. But perhaps this understanding is limited only those who, like myself, have taken the “Prejudice 101” course somewhere along the way. When we say that it is wrong to “shame” children, we mean that they should not be shamed for what they are. They should not be shamed for left-handedness, for height, for race or ethnicity, for gender, for disability, for sexual orientation, or for the religious affiliation that they have either freely chosen or inherited. However, I believe shame may legitimately be used, when tempered with love, to deter children (as well as adults) from ostracizing others because of their identities.

The norms that I hope to see established in our society include respect, truthfulness, empathy, integrity, and a vibrant appreciation of how wonderfully diverse and variously gifted we are. If there is any “fool’s errand” afoot, it is the misguided attempt to force everyone into a very narrow band of what is deemed “normal.” I like my position on the bell curve, thank you very much, and I hope you will enjoy yours as well. We all have our gifts and our contributions to make, and that is the message we need to communicate to our youth.

Adam said...

Gil, I agree with Doughlas on this one. Labeling something or someone "abnormal" can only lead to defining ourselves as normal, good, and blessed by God against their abnormality (otherness). Please listen to those who are calling your attention to the risks of scapegoating in your rhetoric. Don't dismiss it all out of hand with a glib accusation of "political correctness". PC often gets carried away, but it's excesses and silliness are on behalf of victims, and I'd much rather err on the side of compassion than on the side of the morality police. -- Suzanne

Gil Bailie said...

To rule out the word "abnormal" is to simply dispense with the word "normal," and, with it, any hope of a non-subjective understanding of human nature. The word, abnormal, is -- I readily agree -- one that is perilous. I used it in passing only. The much more appropriate word is the one the Catechism uses: disordered, as in "objectively disordered."

Doughlas Remy said...

So, Gil, I take from your “clarification” that you have no issue with a phrase (“objectively disordered”) that is functionally equivalent to “abnormal?” And you could look a sweet 15-year-old lesbian girl in the face and tell her that she is “objectively disordered?” Or even say such a thing to her parents? This confirms my belief that there are two categories of people who must be absolutely kept away from gay and lesbian youth. One of them is pedophiles.

I heard from Lorna Blumen, the author and educational consultant I mentioned earlier (author of “Bystanders to Children’s Bullying”). Like me, she was amazed at what she read on your site. I’ll only quote one word, which sums up her reaction very concisely: “Yikes!”

I honestly think that we can dispense with both “abnormal” and “normal” in referring to school children, and our understanding of human nature will not suffer one bit.

Dean said...

Every kind of sexual activity has been ridiculed and embraced, vindicated and condemned, treated as normal or abnormal throughout time. We're apparently never as comfortable with what we are as in telling others what they should be. There are no one directional normative arrows. They fly in both directions, ceaselessly. Because they are bound up in the creative energy and the life of our humanity. They can be repressed but they can't be tamed or eliminated. There is little incontestability in terms of sexuality. Unless by incontestable you mean to say that anyone who doesn't agree gets to spend their time in prison or ostracized from society.

As for homosexuality, you have it exactly backwards. Homosexuals are not under trial because they are objectively disordered. They are under trial because you and others impose on them, under the disingenuous rubric of compassion, a subtle form of scapegoating which in spite of your protestations of innocence, they quite rightly regard with complete contempt and suspicion, and reject outright. When you say that heterosexuality is "normative" what you're really saying in contradistinction to quadriplegia or anything else, is, "I will dismiss you in the same way as I have named you, which is by calling you disordered. I have seen what you do, and I don't like it. If you were ordered, like I am, you would be okay because you wouldn't do those things. But you're not okay. Therefore, my discrimination will be subtle, but it will be real." And all the quotes from paragraph 2358, book 241, subsection 3, index 9, codex II of the Catholic Catechism will do nothing to repair it. We are all fallen creatures together. And we will all rise together or we will all fall apart.

As for those others? They are not abnormal because you're normal. You're normal only because you've found something against which your normality can be weighed, which engenders, consciously or not, a sense of exclusivity. Of a shared sense of focus and denial. Of otherness. They are abnormal solely upon distinctions which our own society has declared false and overthrown because of its willingness to extend its awareness beyond itself and embrace difference. To do otherwise is to avoid sensitivity, not to embrace it; to deny compassion not to own it; and to dismiss respect not to grant it. If respect for others is not enhanced by treating them as equals, it will also not be enhanced by suggesting you'd lose respect for yourself if you pretended something you apparently can't feel at all no matter what the circumstances.

You said once that the worst crimes are committed by men who feel unforgiven. How can anyone who feels ostracized or marginalized by all the artful little mechanisms and sobriquets of the Church, feel loved? Can someone who feels contaminated by the disapproval of others, seek forgiveness from those whom they feel scorn them? The best way to treat homosexuality is to not treat it at all. To stop letting it exist as something outside of human experience, and treating it once and for all as part of the creative energy of God's creation.

John said...

As I read Gil's post, I found myself in full agreement with the point he was making. I felt the urge to merely post an "Amen" in response. Then I read the predictable responses from Mr Remy and the other posters and felt compelled to add my two cents.

Naturally, labels like good/bad, true/false, right/wrong, beautiful/ugly, etc. can make us uncomfortable. Probably because we were taught by Jesus to avoid judging others and to take the beam out of our own eye before seeing the splinter in another's eye. And, to attempt to accentuate our discomfort, chilren, and other “victims”, are often held up as visual aids (See Remy posts: "...children and youth must be protected..."; "...And you could look a sweet 15-year-old lesbian girl in the face and tell her that she is “objectively disordered?”) so that we can see how, well, really mean such labels are. However, it seems clear to me that Gil’s post must be read from a much larger, historical/anthropological perspective in order to understand his point.

Social and moral norms are required by a healthy culture. As Gil noted, “…any society that allows itself to think that norms as such can be set aside as insufferable constraints on individual liberty is a society that will soon plunge into social chaos, brutality, and violence.” That being true, the essential question is which conduct and behaviors are accepted as normative and which are rejected. That is, which norms are more likely to lead to fulfilment of our ultimate vocation to become “truly human” and which are not (“…which conduce to human flourishing understood in its fullest sense -- that is, not as momentary satisfaction of some desire, impulse, or compulsion, but as something that truly conforms to who we are, how we are made, and why we exist.”)

It is simply not tenable to merely declare all labels (“distinctions”) out of order and thereafter dispense with all labeling. In the first place, this declaration involves the making of a distinction, i.e.: “labeling is bad”. More important, some things are objectively true while other things are false-or wrong, bad,ugly, etc. To demonize and reject the naming of falsehood under the guise of avoiding hurt feelings or low self-esteem is just silly.

In sum, Gil Bailie is not advocating meanness to children or anyone else. He is merely noting that a culture that rejects any notion of normative behavior in favor of an anything goes, “I have rights”, no one can tell me what to do, non serviam ethic is staring into the abyss.

Doughlas Remy said...

The question, “Should there be norms?” is simply the wrong question. Of course, I would agree with you (and did, in part two of my earlier post) that social and moral norms are required by a healthy culture. I could not have been a teacher for so long, or raised a son, without a strong belief in adherence to certain social norms.

A more important question is the second one that you came to: “Which conduct and behaviors are to be accepted as normative and which are to be rejected?”

Let’s note right away that your question is about “conduct and behaviors,” not “identities.” Race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are identities, not behaviors, so we do not ask this question about them. We may, however, ask this question about the conduct and behavior of Caucasians, Irishmen, or heterosexuals, exercising caution, however, not to suggest that their conduct or behavior is caused by their identity. (A man beats his wife not because he is heterosexual but because he has anger management issues. A woman drinks heavily not because she is Irish but because she can’t face reality. A man insults and demeans gays not because he is Caucasian but because he lacks understanding and empathy.)

Anyone familiar with the history of Western civilization knows that social norms have changed considerably over time. The Victorians raised children very differently than we do now and they had sumptuary laws prohibiting gameskeepers from dressing like lords. Laws and customs regarding marriage are now very different than they were in ancient Greece, wives are no longer considered property, and barely pubescent girls are not promised in marriage to men four times their age.

Many customs that were once considered “normative” (e.g., polygamy, wife-beating) are now prohibited by law, while some customs that were once prohibited by law (e.g., keeping shops open on Sundays) are now considered normative.

In our modern era, there is widespread acceptance of the idea that different groups and sub-cultures (religions, political entities, communities, etc.) may have their own sets of norms as long as these do not violate the more fundamental norms that are enshrined in national and international laws and conventions. For example, a fundamentalist Christian congregation may prohibit women from speaking in church, but they may not stone these women for violating that prohibition.

After stating that really important question (“Which conduct and behaviors?”) you got to the one that really counts the most: “Which norms are more likely to lead to fulfillment of our ultimate vocation to become ‘truly human’?” I liked what you said about “human flourishing,” and I couldn’t agree more.

But then I think you slipped a little. Your phrase about “momentary satisfaction of some desire, impulse, or compulsion” was certainly true, but were you suggesting that homosexuality (an identity) amounts to a momentary satisfaction or compulsion (a behavior)? Of course, it does not. Homosexuality is not an act or a behavior, it is an essential affectional and sexual orientation that exists in nature. (You know about penguins, I presume...) At the most basic level, homosexual women simply seek the same emotional and sexual satisfactions as heterosexual women, but their affections and desires are directed toward each other. That is all. If a heterosexual man decides to engage in sado-masochistic behavior or child molestation, then we do not say that his problem is that he is a heterosexual, do we? Why then, would Gil and others on this blog site repeatedly conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, as if they just went together like blacks and crime or Muslims and terrorism?

As for the “larger, historical/anthropological” reading of Gil’s post, let me just say that I will not sacrifice the sweet 15-year-old lesbian girl to such a reading. She exists. I know her. She is not the little match girl. She is a real, living human being, as are all gay and lesbian youth everywhere. And she is the reason we are having this discussion.

Mike said...

"I honestly think that we can dispense with both “abnormal” and “normal” in referring to school children, and our understanding of human nature will not suffer one bit..."

What gives "relativism" so much momentum is that it begins with the best of intentions. It even seems compassionate until you realize that it comes at the cost of truth.

Doughlas Remy said...

Gil, I am not sure whom you are addressing with some of these remarks. I read your post once again carefully and pulled out some assumptions you made about views expressed by bloggers who are concerned about your scapegoating rhetoric.

I didn’t find anyone expressing the following views:

1. Society can live without moral and social norms. (para. 1)

2. Norms can be set aside as insufferable constraints on individual liberty. (para. 1)

3. Heterosexuality should be declared abnormal and therefore odious. (para 4) [But can a person who doesn’t believe in norms declare anything abnormal?]

4. Any invocation of norms is, per se, a scapegoating act. [para. 5]

Your follow-up to this last one was significant. You wrote, “Well, perhaps not just any [invocation of norms], for my critics casually and easily invoke politically correct norms precisely to accuse me of scapegoating.”

So you apparently see yourself under attack by those who reject the whole notion of social norms. But none of the bloggers rejects norms.

Or, ...you’re under attack by those who would like to invert social norms to declare heterosexuality abnormal. But no one has expressed that wish.

Or, ... you’re under attack by those for whom scapegoating is outside acceptable norms.

But wait. That last group, you say, is just being “politically correct” and what they claim is scapegoating really isn’t scapegoating at all. It just millennially incontestable truth. They must be the academics. But are the academics the same as the moral relativists, all those folks who reject norms? There seem to be several groups of attackers, some of whom have norms and some of whom reject norms.

I think what this all boils down to is that some of the bloggers, including myself, believe that your scapegoating language is unacceptable and that it violates certain norms that we consider essential for a civilized society. One of those norms prohibits the use of demeaning and stigmatizing language directed against people on the basis of their identity (religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). So we protest the use of phrases like “feral, lifeless, and loveless” and “objectively disordered” to describe homosexuality. Another of our norms holds that linkages like “homosexual/pedophile” foster divisiveness and hatred in our society, just the same as other linkages that even you can recognize as divisive (e.g., black/criminal, Muslim/terrorist, priest/pedophile, woman/hysterics, etc.).

And finally, our social and moral norms declare comparisons of homosexuals to quadriplegics to be way out of bounds. You wrote, “That quadriplegics and homosexuals deserve both our respect as brothers and sisters as well as our compassion for the very real difficulties [emphasis mine] that they face should go without question.” My response to this odious bit of Tartuffian piety cannot be more effective than what Dean wrote earlier:

“...you and others impose on [homosexuals], under the disingenuous rubric of compassion, a subtle form of scapegoating which, in spite of your protestations of innocence, they quite rightly regard with complete contempt and suspicion, and reject outright. When you say that heterosexuality is ‘normative,’ what you're really saying in contradistinction to quadriplegia or anything else, is, 'I will dismiss you in the same way as I have named you, which is by calling you disordered.'"

As I’ve said so many other times and in so many discussions, the only “very real difficulties” that I face as a homosexual result from discrimination and stigmatization. I don’t need your phony and unctuous “compassion.” If you want to help homosexuals, you can begin with a careful examination of your own bigoted attitudes toward us. To that end, I would suggest you re-read Dean’s eloquent and incisive comments in response to this post.

normabruns said...

I’m impressed with the amount of close and cogent textual analysis that has gone on here. It just shows how much marrow one can extract from a bone if one gnaws on it long enough. I think it also demonstrates how careful we need to be with our words, especially if we wish to be seen as exemplars of Christian virtue.

I cannot add much to what Dean and Doughlas have said about norms, but I wanted to focus on what Gil considers to be reliable sources for acceptable norms. (Some of what I will say was implicit in Doughlas’s remarks.)

If I am reading Gil’s post correctly, these sources are three: (1) common sense, (2) tradition, and (3) the authority of the church as expressed in the Catechism.

My question about the first of these is, “Whose common sense?” What seems like common sense to Gil looks like bigotry to Doughlas, and what looks like common sense to Doughlas looks egregiously immoral to Gil. So maybe we should just discard common sense as a criterion, or at least clarify what we mean by it.

I also have problems with authority and tradition. Again, whose authority? Whose tradition? It is clear that Gil looks to the authority of the Church and believes that its traditions are as good as gold. But how is he to persuade anyone who is not Catholic that the Church’s teachings and traditions have merit in cases where they are so plainly at variance with reason and evidence?

A non-Catholic’s predictable response to a citation from the Catechism is, “So what?” The church’s teaching about homosexuality flies in the face of scientific understanding about it. Can Gil be unaware that his invocations of church teaching and tradition are unpersuasive to many of his readers? Why should they accept the authority of the Church?

I believe there is a lot of value in Christian teaching, and Girard has introduced me to a Bible that I had not known before. But I also recognize that there are other sources of knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and moral clarity, and that some of them deserve a higher ranking than either the Bible or the Catechism.

Tradition is an infamously unreliable guide to moral behavior. It has been invoked to justify every kind of injustice over the centuries. I am always astonished when anyone claims we should do something because it has always been done that way. Where would we be if we followed such a precept?

No one is advocating moral relativism (at least not in these discussions), and Gil is very mistaken to claim that they are. On the contrary, the concerns that Doughlas, Dean, and Suzanne have expressed about Gil’s scapegoating rhetoric rest on a solid framework of values, many of which are based in the teachings of Jesus. This, to me, is one of the supreme ironies of this discussion.