Monday, December 1, 2008

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom, Part III

In Part I, we saw that there were reasons to question the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is innate, but that funding for research for an alternative explanation is not likely to flood the academies soon. In Part II, we saw that homosexuality, innate or not, can still be classified a sexual dysfunction because it channels the reproductive urge into a non-reproductive channel; if it isn’t innate, then it can (and should) be treated like any other dysfunction.

The foundation of my argument—that sex exists solely for procreation—was deliberately cast as a Darwinian argument; Catholicism doesn’t teach such a strict position. Indeed, the Church insists on the combination of both the unitive and procreative aspects of married love. I note with some amusement that the celibate St. Paul, that old puritan, counseled married couples to give in to one another, allowing for short breaks of mutually-consented restraint (1 Cor 7:5).

My point in taking this position was that, if you want to be strictly scientific, then in the perspective of Darwinian biology the unitive takes second place to the procreative. Likewise, the erotic pleasure of sex isn’t a purpose in and for itself; rather, it’s in the nature of a “premium”, like the cheap gadget you get when you order the slightly-more-expensive gadget (for only $29.95! plus shipping and handling) advertised on TV. The reproductive drive doesn’t give a hoot whether your ideology preaches that motherhood is slavery or what your state has declared as the age of consent; it only wants you to start making copies of yourself, preferably with someone who’ll hang around to help the copies get to adulthood.

However, much of feminist and gay sexual theory is separate from—and almost uninformed by—the physical sciences. The best it can be described is as “wishing makes it so”; it treats these disciplines, as physicist and self-described “Old Leftist” Alan Sokal demonstrated with his satirical paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, as if they were purely subjective and their conclusions irrelevant to the study of sex and gender. GLBT studies are almost exclusively confined to the social sciences, which are far more susceptible to bias and political subversion, and to literary criticism … which I decline to identify as a science.

This is important to remember because, as sociologist Mary Bernstein notes, “For the lesbian and gay movement, then, cultural goals include (but are not limited to) challenging dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity, homophobia, and the primacy of the gendered heterosexual nuclear family (heteronormativity) [italics mine]. Political goals include changing laws and policies in order to gain new rights, benefits, and protections from harm.” While the movement isn’t of a piece, it has to be understood that heteronormativity is an authentic target of the movement considered as a whole.

What has been termed the “culture wars” has really been a series of battles between interest groups reflecting different cleavages in the body politic. While the New Left is often portrayed as a solid bloc of coordinated, co-sympathetic interests, in fact even groups looking to benefit from specific policy initiatives have factions within themselves. For instance, the gay-rights movement can be said to have two main branches, one that’s content to work within the framework of identity politics, while the other (the self-styled “queer movement”) seeks to abolish categories and labels as inherently marginalizing. And the feminist movement comprises dozens of different sub-species of theories within four or five different major categories.

These two movements intersect in separatist feminism, also called lesbian feminism, which in its more extreme modes calls for a complete separation of women from men, but in its more mainstream manifestation is little more than a conscious decision to have activities and institutions populated and led by women for women; lesbianism within this framework is a conscious rejection of men even as sex tools (“queer by choice”). In fact, lesbian feminism can be seen as a critique of both mainstream feminism and queer theory, which argues the socially-constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. However, mainstream gay-rights advocates avoid separatist feminism because it surrenders the central argument that homosexuality is innate.

I should note that the gay-rights movement was present, in some form or another, prior to the 1960s, although it benefitted from the intellectual and social ferment of the times. However, it’s hard to overstate the devastating impact that the rise of Communist- and Maoist-influenced student movements, with their heavy reliance on Marxist dialectics and intellectual thuggery, had on both liberal politics and leftist academics. It has been especially felt in the universities, where civil critique of the developing social theories has been met with scathing personal attacks, and opponents to individual policy initiatives have been run out of their chairs by student demonstrations and the equivalent of mock trials. While these phenomena haven’t been witnessed at even a majority of campuses, it’s fair to say that the leftist social theorists have taken over most of the “prestige universities” by a combination of hijack and voluminous publication. While the term “political correctness” had been a self-mocking term within the New Left as a critique of its own orthodoxy as late as the end of the Seventies, it does well describe the intolerant attitude many leftist academics have for criticism from outside the camp.

Leftist social theory, as broad and cross-pollinated as it is, can be roughly divided into three main streams: assimilationist, transformationalist, and separatist. Assimilationist theory has been the most successful, as a combination of market forces, policy initiatives and legal triumphs have opened more economic and political opportunities for women and minorities, particularly African-Americans. In turn, having been “co-opted by the system”, enough women and minorities have become vested in the existing institutions that transformationalist and separatist theories no longer have much appeal outside academia.

But at the same time, this co-option has also meant that leftists can no longer claim automatic or unqualified allegiance from the groups it claims to represent politically, as more women and minorities become represented in conservative political and professional organizations and among the “values voters” swing bloc. Moreover, as political and social equality become more perceived facts,[*] leftist political organizations have been made less relevant except insofar as they defend existing policy initiatives and legal measures. For instance, as more working mothers appear at the highest levels of the corporate world or voluntarily give up their careers for home care, abortion as a necessity for gender equality becomes less defensible, and more women appear at the forefront of the pro-life movement to challenge pro-abortion feminists head-on.

The gay-liberation movement’s struggle for same-sex marriage, then, is one of a small handful of areas where progress, as defined by assimilationist theory, is possible; in other areas, liberals are either in defensive mode or looking to “tweak” the current system in small ways, to secure earlier victories and improve their performance.

* * *

If homosexuality is not an innate orientation, present at conception, we must still realize that—for the most part—it’s also not precisely a matter of conscious choice, born of a desire to be different. Rather, if—as the reparative therapists inform us—homosexuality is one of many symptoms of certain childhood traumas, then it is a seeking-out of reconnection with the world of the gender that they were pushed out of. To indulge ourselves in a language that treats them as inferior or intentionally evil is to exacerbate the trauma and separation.

In challenging the conventional wisdom on homosexuality, we must remember that this is part of a general challenge to the conventional wisdom on human sexual relationships and the sexual revolution. We aren’t seeking to push women back out of the boardrooms or government, nor are we looking to re-criminalize homosexuality; we reject the labels “homophobia” and “sexism” as critically irrelevant ad hominem attacks. We must stress, rather, that much of what liberalism has accomplished so far in racial and sexual equality is good and valuable, and merits furthering.

Instead, we are seeking to mend a general viewpoint of sex, marriage, family and child-rearing that has separated itself from biological and social reality and which has damaged Western civilization far more than it has helped. Moreover, we seek to show that Christian sexual morality, which puts reproduction back into its proper place in human life, is better at building stable communities and cherishing sexuality for the gift it is.

With this, I think I can bring this series of posts to an end. It almost seems as though I’ve been trying to make up for the sparseness of my earlier output in one weekend. I can’t promise to start posting more frequently, but I hope to do so.

[*] Watching post-election commentary on CNN in the break room at work, I heard one black talking-head grumble, “Having a black president doesn’t wipe away high dropout rates among black students from college.” I said out loud, “But it does give a basis for hope.” Whereupon a couple of black co-workers sitting with me in the room burst out in cheers. (I didn’t vote for Barack Obama, but I can see why they would—he is their John F. Kennedy.)