Freedom’s just another word for “not allowed to choose”

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

Stronger evidence makes for stronger arguments. We all know this, and also know that it’s often difficult to discard our belief in some supposed facts that aren’t as well justified as we might think. Where this becomes an acute problem is with regard to moral claims, notably those that involve human equality and are aimed at eliminating discrimination.

Consider two examples. First, I’d imagine that most of us believe there is no scientific basis for discriminating on the grounds of race. Some of us might say that is too weak a claim, and that there is no scientific basis for even the idea of race. Second, it appears to be a widely-held notion that rape is about power, and not about sex.

For both of these examples, consensus serves a powerful rhetorical and political function. If we agree on the substance of these claims, we are able to construct arguments against racial discrimination and against victim-blaming (for instance, that  what a victim of rape was wearing or doing can be disregarded as irrelevant to the perpetrator’s crime). But what if we’re wrong?

It’s not good enough to simply assert that we cannot be wrong, or to hurl some academic paper or book in the direction of someone who dares to question an orthodox view. In the case of these two examples, dissenting voices exist, and you can often tell that they’d really prefer to not be dissenting. Treating propositions like these as axiomatic serves a useful function, whether or not they are true.

On both of these topics, there is ongoing research activity – lacking any obvious bad faith – which brings the consensus view into question. While we might prefer for both research projects to fail, we should also be prepared for their success. And if they do reveal that our common wisdom is faulty, my concern is that we’ll be ill-prepared to continue being able to mount robust defences against these forms of discrimination.

In other words, perhaps our most strident campaign against the wrongness of generalised discrimination should not be premised on facts (insofar as we know them), but rather on other aspects of the wrongness of discrimination. For race, we could say that even if racial differences exist, they are immaterial to the wrongness of generalising when it comes to individuals. For rape, we can say that regardless of the balance between the competing causes of sexual desire and asserting power, violation of consent is always the worst sin.

This is not to say that the evidence we have isn’t important, or worth emphasising. Instead, I’m arguing against exclusive reliance on it, carried by a form of evangelical zeal that assumes the facts to be fixed, and assumes those facts to be sufficient to carry the argument. Not only because our zeal could be misguided, but also because it can come with independent costs.

A recent example demonstrating this is provided by Cynthia Nixon, who you might know from all those Sex and the City episodes you didn’t watch. In Slate, she’s quoted as saying “I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice.”

It’s true that the scientific consensus is that homosexuality has a biological basis. But the other relevant fact is that the fight for social and legal equality for homosexuals has been premised on the “fact” that your sexual orientation is not a choice. It’s the latter detail that means Cynthia Nixon, in revealing her preference for women as sexual partners, can somehow be construed as an enemy of the gay-rights cause. And this is because a genuine scientific fact is not treated as merely that, but rather also, and arguably mostly, as an ideology or statement of evangelical faith.

In Brian Earp’s superb analysis of the Nixon issue, he points out that various factors influence sexual attraction, and that we can usefully separate the question of who or what you’re programmed to find attractive, in general, from who you happen to find attractive in reality. For many people, attraction operates on a continuum in any case, making labels such as ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ unhelpfully crude.

For Nixon to point out that in her case she’s decided to tend towards one end of that continuum says nothing about the extent to which others can make similar choices. If LGBT activists choose to make a dogma out of lacking choice they’ve picked a short-sighted strategy, and Nixon can hardly be blamed for not toeing the orthodox line.

There is a significant emotive context to this, not to mention a reality in which people are assaulted – whether physically or emotionally – as a result of a sexual orientation they have no control over. So it’s an important message that we send by saying that for most people, sexual orientation seems to involve little to no choice. But we also send a message when we say something like “you’re not allowed to call yourself gay, because we’ve decided that it can only mean one thing”.

The root of our concerns regarding discrimination in all of its forms could arguably be described as a conviction that people should be free to express themselves and pursue their good in whatever way they please, without society imposing any limiting generalisations on them. How sadly ironic it is, then, that a gay woman finds herself criticised by defenders of equality and freedom for daring to have an independent opinion.

What is the point of feminism?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

I used to consider myself a feminist. Then I read Andrea Dworkin, and realised that a concern for credibility made it prudent to not identify with any of the summary terms she did, at least insofar as this was possible (terms like ‘human’ being a somewhat insurmountable problem). And now that we’re in the seventh (I think) wave of feminism, it’s perhaps time to consider this the terminal wave, and to consign this particular version of identity politics to the dustbin of history. Continue reading “What is the point of feminism?”

So what if prejudice is ‘natural’?

As published in Daily Maverick

Only a very brave or a very foolish person would be prepared to claim that they had no prejudices. I’m not talking about the conscious decisions we make to discriminate, for these are often justified, but the relatively thoughtless, perhaps instinctive, preference for one sort of thing over another, whether that thing be a type of animal, a football team or a variety of insect. Continue reading “So what if prejudice is ‘natural’?”

The vuvuzela discriminates against smokers

More on the vuvuzela, as submitted to The Daily Maverick.

Any claim made repeatedly does not become increasingly true in proportion to the number of repetitions. Yet, according to much of what you read on websites where the vuvuzela is discussed, it is now taken for granted that this musical instrument is “part of our culture”. Furthermore, one gets the impression that many believe it to be a long-standing part of our culture, such that its existence and continued use is beyond criticism. Attempts to raise questions about its cultural status – or more prosaically, about its value – are frequently deflected by accusations of “lacking gees” (on the civilised end of the debate), and of simple racism at the less civilised end.

Something being part of any given culture is, however, not a reason to regard that thing as being good. Instead, we should remember that things become part of cultures because people value them – whether we’d prefer they did so or not. Our culture has come to value democracy, because we regard democracy as having properties that are valuable to us. We don’t simply value democracy because we see it defended in the media every day (or at least, we shouldn’t). To value something simply through habit or programming is a prejudice, which puts it on the same epistemic level as sexism or racism. Continue reading “The vuvuzela discriminates against smokers”

Playing the authenticity card

As published in The Daily Maverick

The nation’s favourite teddy-bear impersonator, Barry Ronge, recently wrote that “although Breyten Breytenbach has a point when he calls South Africa a ‘kleptocracy’, can we take someone seriously who doesn’t even live here?”

In response, we could perhaps ask whether we should take someone seriously if they think that the validity of someone’s point of view has anything to do with where they live. Continue reading “Playing the authenticity card”