Thursday, October 02, 2008

To Thine Own Self

Attempting to take all emotion out of this, using logic and only logic: is there a logical argument by which one person's sexual orientation—in and of itself, behavior nonwithstanding—could cause genuine harm to another person?

Racking my brains, I don't think it could. But when I was visiting Memphis about six months ago, my writing partner and I, in another one of our strange debates about sex and sexual orientation in which neither of us has any real illusion of bringing the other about to his or her side, discussed the Protestant notion of good works, the evangelical idea that you really do have to do your best work to bring the world to God.

Oddly enough, this jives with Hannah Arendt. In a way that freaks me out a little, so I want to think it through.

Contemporary American society is incredibly contradictory on the topic of individualism and self-determination (as evidenced by the bailout controversy, among other things). On the one hand we're encouraged to be the freewheelin', frontier-blazin' capitalist that any red-blooded American or American wannabe should, you know, wanna be, but on the other hand we're held in thrall to a moral system that remains, in spite of everything, a culture of sexy Puritanism. And on the other other hand, a constant social mantra that has run through the last ten years of my life, taking over from its predecessor "no offense," is, "No judgment." We can blaze our own trails, and we can do what we want, as long as we're absolutely sure God thinks it's the right thing, but if someone else is doing what they want and we know God doesn't think it's the right thing, well, it's for God to judge, just make sure those people know that God thinks it's wrong and they'll get their comeuppance in the afterlife. But no judgment.

Makes one's head spin, no?

I recognize that the Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps crowds are not exactly preaching "no judgment," but I have learned from my self-declared no-longer-gay-never-really-gay-just-damaged writing partner that the movement against homosexuality in the Christian community has much deeper and more complex roots than such rabble-rousers, most of which roots are, indeed, based on this principle of "no judgment," that what they consider love through God is the only solution to such problems as homosexuality. Noteworthy, too, is that the contradiction is present for everyone, on all sides. Liberalism is pretty much based on this "no judgment" principle, and in that light the right wing has a leg to stand on about "the liberal media": twenty-four-hour news networks are for the most part, and almost have to be, networks of "no judgment," of heads talking at each other and sharing their polarized views until everything is neutralized.

Enter Hannah Arendt (okay, she entered sixty years ago, but still), who says, "FUCK YEAH judgment!" By avoiding judgment, she argues persuasively in Eichmann in Jerusalem, we end up condoning Nazism. "Judge not lest ye be judged," biblically or in day-to-day life, itself neutralizes, assumes that none of us is, in reality, better than another. And I am comfortable saying I am a better person than, say, Adolf Eichmann. It doesn't mean that I shouldn't endeavor to understand Adolf Eichmann, to know what brought him to that point, and that I shouldn't know what Arendt calls the "banality of evil," that we're not just talking about Hitler but the thousands upon thousands who brought him to power and supported him thereafter, that *those* people, rather than the one crazy demagogical dictator, are what's required to make evil work, but it does mean that I can, acceptably, judge him, if I have assessed him honestly and myself equally honestly and have a clear notion of what separates me from him.

The real problems I have, then, are problems of hypocrisy. Not simply the dramatic and typical Mark Foley genre of hypocrisy, but the sort of everyday hypocrisy that "judge not lest ye be judged" intends (I believe) to counter. The problems are people who speak against divorce while on their third marriage, those who speak against gay adoption without addressing social ills that lead to abandoned children or what makes people good or bad parents (less the classist or heterosexist definitions often forced upon those ideas), those who preach "judge not lest ye be judged" in the manner that a seventh-grader might hastily add "no judgment" after asking a classmate if she needed a hairbrush or some dental floss. That means that if James Dobson wants to hate gays, James Dobson can fuckin' well go ahead and hate gays. His call. Some people do. You can't please everyone. But James Dobson fuckin' well better be paying the rest of the Bible attention as intricate as he pays Leviticus 18:22, and he better be willing to offer his virgin daughters to every gay man he meets. (Objection sustained. The jury will disregard that statement.) He better be putting "adulterers" on an exact par with "homosexual offenders." He better be following everything else to the letter (and decontextualizing every other Bible verse he encounters). If he could possibly be doing all of that, which of course he couldn't, I would not have a problem with his judgment.

I guess my problems are also problems of origination. Which is to say, I am perfectly comfortable hating Nazis or their contemporary equivalent, but I feel better considering my hatred reactionary. Then again, I suppose if Dobson and his cohorts genuinely believe queers are trying to convert the entire world to homosexuality (which obviously makes perfect sense in every way), they might think they have a similar leg to stand on.

But they don't. Why? Where does being queer fit into all of this, then? If you really, genuinely believe that all homosexuals are out to convert the entire world, then the sin, as you call it, is your business. But there is a lot of concrete evidence to argue against that notion, whatever else you believe about homosexuality; even if you're basing yourself on Sodom & Gomorrah it's shaky. Next question: do the sins of everyone else reflect upon you? Even if the sins are not about to be inflicted on every person in the world, even if homosexuals are not on a conversion mission, if "homosexual behavior" (as distinct from "homosexuality" in the New Christian Ethic school) is indeed sinful, are you a worse person if you don't do your damnedest to stop other people from committing this sin?

In general, I am startled to find that I believe the answer is yes, though obviously I believe different things to be "sins" than the Dobson crowd does. I therefore to a certain degree believe that "if you're not with us, you're against us." How the hell can one believe that "to a certain degree"? Well, because it depends on what your definition of "with us" is. I am, for example, against terrorism. Which ought to satisfy the Bush definition of "with us," and yet does not. Curious.

So back to queer people and James Dobson. *If* you are the non-hypocrite I posited above, and *if* you genuinely believe that homosexuality is a sin rather than just something you're uncomfortable with in yourself, *if* you believe it is your duty to do all you can towards creating a sin-free world, and *if* you are not committing other sins (like, say, murder) in your desire to purge one sin, I think I would really be okay with your behavior.

I'd judge it, and I'd hate it, but I'd be okay with its existence.

I've seen nothing in my experience of anti-gay rhetoric or organizations so far that truly fit with the above criteria, but hey. It's probably not impossible.

Also, at the bottom, judgment and hatred are not equivalent. Judgment can be made on a practical level—which is to say, I can, indeed, judge someone's actions without hating the person. And honestly, I think I can hate a person without judging her, though that one's a little more complicated. Hatred is much more difficult to control, and also, unfortunately, much more destructive. I hate very rarely. I judge —well, not "constantly," but often enough. And I don't mind that either.


At 12:48 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

hmm... you know, reading this post, it seems to me like the political issue it's addressing the most isn't actually gay rights -- it's the war in Iraq.

like... basically, for "homosexuals", substitute "Saddam Hussain". there's an extra force (sort of like a moral version of the cosmological constant, i suppose) that, after all, caused people to oppose the Iraq war when S. Hussain was still in power -- even, or even i suppose quite often especially, among the type of activists who feel it's their duty to do all they can towards creating an oppression-free world. i don't know if i can put a finger on exactly what this force is -- but if we really believe that the war in Iraq was a terrible idea from the beginning (as i believe we both do) then i think we have another argument against anti-homosexual activism that could possibly trump the conclusion of this post...

... well, that is to say, unless this force is just isolationism, which i suppose is pretty much the political philosophy based on this "no judgment" principle, and which i guess at its extreme becomes arguments like "what right do we have imposing our own standard of what 'oppression' is on other cultures" (i sure hope that's not what it is, because if you want to play that game, i'm sure there are an unbelievable number of cultures out there that (who?) continually and, perhaps, deliberately just get zero recognition as cultures from those people). or, unless the original opposition to the Iraq war was all just opposition to it in practice but not in principle, although that doesn't seem historically accurate at all.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

on a rather completely other note, also... i think i'd also like to talk about judgment. i mean... i suppose i've even been living nearly forever with the paradox of severely believing that judging other people is both a sad mistake and, as in the famous case that we know as MIT, essential. the second case is, of course, the one you're arguing for here -- the first, though, i'd say, can also be justified, in particular by claiming that, in your sentence "I can, acceptably, judge him, if I have assessed him honestly and myself equally honestly and have a clear notion of what separates me from him", this kind of assessment is in fact impossible.

the translation into politics of the problem i see here is that, basically, you're going to have people of all levels of assessment (and that'd be true, by the bye, i'm sure, no matter how you assess "level of assessment") who claim that *their* level of assessment is pointed and perceptive enough to judge others, including, i'm sure, many of these anti-gay activists. and including myself at 15 when i decided that smoking was evil and kicked R.D.T. in the stomach between classes, and including John Allen Paulos, recent author of "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up", responding to the Times review of his book that criticized him for being ignorant of theology by saying that if he *knows* it's a house of cards, why does he have to actually go hunting around in it for the jokers? the original philosophical ring of the problem, on the other hand, is more like: all people are infinitely complex, or at least complex enough that the new complexities they develop as time goes on will forever outstrip our growing understanding of them -- and that therefore there isn't, and never could be, an assessment of someone that's good enough for all conceivable purposes; a collapse of which idea (i.e. that of "all conceivable purposes") seems to be to be what judgment essentially *is*.

now, that said -- probably judgment is quite unavoidable, too, at least for certain mental constitutions. and probably judgment is even unavoidable on a practical level -- if you want to change things, you need to judge (groups of) people in order to figure out which ones need to be changed; and even on a smaller scale, judgment has got to be an essential component of conversation, in that it colors the world to the point where a conversation about it is emotionally worth having. but, in that case, judgment is really a form of romanticization, something that brings people out of the state of aporia (this is pretty close to something i just read about in Nietzsche, actually... how the "Dionysian" that leads to aporia needs the "Apollinian" of illusion and dream-image just to keep people going). what i want to know is, is the fact that you don't mind that you "judge... often enough" an acknowledgment of this kind of tendency... or is it, in fact, something more pointed than that? (and is this kind of acknowledgment what the difference between judging and hating something, and not being okay with its existence, would be? come to think of it... what does not being okay with the existence of something, if, that is to say, it's just this big lump that really, really *does* exist, even really mean...?)

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

The assessment is, indeed, impossible. We live in contradiction. We do have to live with romantic ideas as well as reality.

I like the notion of judgment as romantic, but I'm not sure I can think in more detail than that. The hatred, to me, would mean that I think the world would be better off if the thing was not there, rather than thinking the thing needs to be changed …


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