Tuesday, 31 January 2012

On gay rights and biological determinism

I guess I missed the memo but it seems that it's now verboten to suggest that humans have any sort of choice at all in terms of the gender of the person(s) with whom they like to have sex. I say this because apparently Cynthia Nixon got into hot water for saying that she had chosen to take up an intimate relationship with a woman. (link). I think I understand the reasoning for it -- some might worry that the notion that gender preference might not be strictly biological will invite suggestions that "pray the gay away" therapy might work and/or that instead of society making room for gay people we can instead just get homosexuals to choose a different orientation. Also, if it's strictly biological, the story seems to go, it's more obviously unfair to deny them the rights and means to live the same sort of life that straight people have.

I think the obvious problem here, that both sides seem happy to ignore, is that almost all preferences we have involve a complicated mixture of biological and environmental factors. I recall learning or reading that sexual preference may well be more of a spectrum than a simple on/off switch, i.e., while some people may be heavily inclined to be straight or gay, there are lots of people in between that might be more or less interested in having sex with person of the same or different genders. But this is obvious, isn't it? Don't lots of people who eventually settle into a gay or straight lifestyle experiment in their youth w/ differing preferences? Are we saying that all those people were simply violating their biological destiny? We believe, I assume, that there's a strong biological component that influences other features that we find attractive, but we wouldn't be surprised to learn that a person who had previously preferred buxom blondes or tall women was now choosing to spend more time with short slender brunettes.

That aside, I also think it's worth thinking about why the extent to which homosexuality is fully biologically determined matters so much with respect to the civil rights issues. Consider that there's probably a strong biological component in whatever the makeup is of a person who becomes a psychopathic killer. But if we were to firmly establish that that were the case, it wouldn't follow that society had some sort of duty to accommodate them in this compulsion. OTOH, many of our civil rights have no biological basis. We believe that people should be free to say what they want, believe what they want, and worship as they wish. The basis for this isn't the belief that beliefs and utterances and religious practice are all biologically determined. I think the civil rights story is a pretty simple one. We don't have the right to do whatever our biology compels or inclines us to do, we base civil rights on considerations of the fact that there's much inherent utility in maximizing liberty especially on matters that have little or no effect on the rest of society. Why does the fight for gay rights have to be depend on any more, or something other, than that? It's ironic that the civil rights movement which spent so many years arguing, implicitly or explicitly, that biology is not destiny, now finds itself vehemently insisting that is.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

On the SOPA protests

There was something heartening and encouraging about the SOPA/PIPA protests yesterday. It's good to see that grass roots political action is possible, the extent to which the internet facilitates it and the fact that it might actually even have an effect. And I agree that both bills are troubling, an attempt to kill a gnat w/ a hammer and possibly missing the gnat. That said, it's also a bit troubling to compare the outpouring of response when people are threatened with the possibility of harsh action on copyright infringement to people reactions idly to the desecration or dismissal of so many other civil liberties. Illegal wiretapping? shrug.  Wars? yawn Give companies ability to sue to shut down websites that infringe on copyright?  HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, MISTER!!! Frustratingly, this action may say less about our eagerness to participate in democracy and a lot more about our desire for short term gratification.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

On downplaying corpse desecration

Regarding, the four marines videotaped urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters, I don't disagree with those who point out it that it seems to actually rank relatively low on the list of transgressions that US troops have committed in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Furthermore, I agree with those noting that it's odd to strain at corpse desecration while swallowing the camel of torture. What I don't agree with is the implied conclusion that we should be making less of a big deal about this. Why not conclude instead that  we should have been making a bigger deal of the heretofore downplayed atrocities?

But there's another argument making the rounds that bothers me even more. Bill Maher and others are making an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the offense on the grounds that it's being committed against bad people. According to the likes of Maher and Loesch, it's not really such a terrible thing to urinate on the corpses of Taliban fighters because the Taliban are such odious people and/or have committed such odious offenses. This argument is one of the popular arguments that have been used for all sorts of egregious violations of civil liberties and international law since the "war on terror" (and, of course, most wars throughout history) has commenced. It's the argument that some people are so despicable and so unlike us that we can drop the ordinary rules and laws that distinguish civilized societies from beasts in the forest or the characters in Lord of the Flies. In fact, the argument when applied to corpse desecration is even more brutish as there's no further utilitarian appeal to justify the actions, as is often the case with attempts to justify torture, just plain vengeance and blood lust. Just as free speech means little unless it protects the most objectionable speech, these laws and protections mean something only if they actually do protect respect for those we're ordinarily least inclined to protect.

Update: I tweeted this post and Bill Maher responded and clarified that he didn't claim it was acceptable, just that the US has done far worse things that bothered him more. Fair enough, and in this post I didn't say he claimed it was perfectly acceptable, that was only in my tweet. Nonetheless, while Maher didn't exactly say it was perfectly okay, he was very dismissive of the incident w/ a "shit happens" (when agreeing with Rob Reimer), noted that it's "like a TD dance" and pointed out that they may have been honor rapists so he didn't care much, which is all pretty much indistinguishable from saying it was acceptable from where I'm sitting.