The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Measure of our Madness

Ahhh, election season is upon us. We have the usual empty promises, politicians pandering to special interest groups (and, unlike most people, I am not so delusional as to think that I myself am not a representative of one or more special interest groups – we all are), and, here in California, the usual raft of ballot initiatives which run the usual gamut from sensible (useful discussion about whether or not we should accrue more public debt with the goal of improving infrastructure, education, public transportation, etc.) to the mind-numbingly stupid to the disturbing.

Chief of the disturbing is Measure 8. It is deeply disturbing due to the fact that so many of its adherents are blinded by emotion, cultural training, and bigotry as to the true nature of the measure.

Measure 8, for the uninitiated, is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. Support for this measure follows from one of the most disgusting forms of conclusion-based reasoning – people have decided that homosexuals are bad, and are therefore A) opposed to recognizing them as fully human (and a lot of people will say that this is false – but if you are denying them a right that you willfully give everyone else, then you are failing to recognize them as fully human, no matter how much you try to delude yourself into believing otherwise), and B) will find all manner of rationalizations for this course of action, denying all the way that they are rationalizing.

There are two particular lines of rationalization that I see time and again:

1) Homosexuals choose to be sinful homosexual, and
2) Homosexuality is a mental illness.

Let’s start with the second point first. The claim that homosexuality is a mental illness comes from work done in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Up to that point, and really through relatively recently, homosexuality was, for no apparent reason other than religious prohibitions (themselves owing more to ancient Hebrew prohibitions against sexual rituals for the simple reason that such a prohibition set the Hebrews apart from the surrounding tribes, not because there was a problem with the rituals per-se), treated as little more than a criminal offense (talk about your bizarre victimless crimes).

The notion that it was a mental illness developed when psychiatrists began to interview and study homosexual men who came to them worried about their sexual orientation and bothered by other aspects of their lives. Psychiatrists soon believed that they had found a few patterns in the upbringings of these people including parental neglect and early childhood abuse* (considering what was found later, I am skeptical that these patterns were not illusory).

Things started to change in the 1950’s. The most obvious change came in the form of the work of Alfred Kinsey, who began studying human sexuality in the late 1940’s and whose work exploded onto the scene in the 1950’s**. Among his findings were the fact that sex was more widespread than had been thought (or in other words, it wasn’t limited to heterosexual couples and moral reprobates with prostitutes), and that human sexuality wasn’t strictly “heterosexual” or “homosexual” except in a few rare cases, but rather was best represented by a spectrum with hetero- and homo-sexuality at the ends and most people falling somewhere in between (though typically near one of the ends). While Kinsey’s work has been critiqued and re-worked, the basic models have remained more or less intact. So, the traditional models of sexuality were left in ruin.

The other thing that happened is that a small group of psychiatrists recognized a basic methodological flaw in the reasoning behind the “homosexuality as mental illness” model – it was based entirely on work with homosexuals who were suffering from more general psychological problems. When these psychiatrists began to study homosexuals who lacked any such problems, who were perfectly happy and normal people by and large, they found no pattern of abuse or neglect. And as these new results were brought into the broader studies, the rates of abuse and neglect amongst the homosexual population began to normalize and look pretty much like the rest of the population.

In other words, evidence that homosexuality was mental illness began to erode, and by the 1970’s had been chucked on the trash heap of history.

Since then, research into human sexuality has found that human sexuality is a remarkably complex and multi-faceted thing, and our usual labels are probably insufficient to truly describe it. However, one thing that has come out is that homosexuality is simply a normal part of the human sexual spectrum, and not an illness. All of the data has borne this out, and those who believe otherwise routinely show their total ignorance of all research into the subject.

Which brings us to the first objection that people often give to treating homosexuality as normal – they claim that homosexuals choose to be that way.

The usual formulation that I hear on this is one of two things: “Well, I could have chosen to be gay, so they must have chosen to!” or “it’s too complicated to be genetic, therefore it’s not biological!”

To the first one, research in human sexuality has found that it is common for the vast majority of people to have occasional interest in other members of their sex. In our culture, and in fact in many cultures, the usual practice is to suppress these urges, and as for most people they are not long-lived, they tend to go away (except under a few specific types of situations – consider the history of Sparta, for example). For this reason, it is common for people to look at these occasional flashes of interest and conclude that they could have “chosen to be gay.” But that’s not what this actually means – give in to them or not, these interests go away. For someone who trends towards homosexuality, on the other hand, they do not. So, no you cannot “choose to be gay” or to be straight – it has to do with desires that you have no real control over. You can control your actions – whether or not you act on your desires – but not your desires.

To the second one, people constantly conflate the terms “genetic” and “biological”. All things that are genetic are, by definition, biological, but not everything that is biological is genetic. Everything from differences in nutrition to exposure to diseases to some types of variances in immune systems are biological without being genetic.

What’s more, study of human sexuality has found a wide range of things that appear to feed into formation of sexual orientation. Genes do seem to play a role, but only one role of many. Other factors ranging from pre-natal to neo-natal environment, variations in hormones, etc. etc. all appear to play a role. In truth, sexual orientation probably owes to a lot of different factors. The one factor that seems to play little role is individual choice. The nature of one of the elements that is core for most of us is out of our control.

So, then, if homosexuality is not a choice and not a mental illness, then why are people so convinced that it is? Simple. The only real argument against it comes from religion, where it is treated as a sin. If it is a sin, then it must be a choice, otherwise you would simply be as God made you and the Bible would be wrong (of course, the notion of sin with an omnipotent and omniscient and benevolent being having set everything into motion doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny anyway, but that’s another matter). Some people are able to dodge the mater by treating it as an illness, so that a person can be “set right” and it becomes permissible to oppose them “for their own good.”

Both positions are simply examples of conclusion-based reasoning, wherein the conclusion is reached first and the “evidence” found later, ignoring all evidence that goes against the chosen conclusion (it is no coincidence that many, though not all, of these folks are also creationists, and engage in the same tactics of “evidence” gathering).

Some folks will go a bit farther and claim that homosexuality is bad for society. There is a wide range of arguments that people make for this, but I have yet to see one that stands up to scrutiny. Some will claim that homosexuals are more likely to be child molesters (not true, the belief gets carried because it reinforces existing bigotries, but it doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny), the homosexuals are more likely to be promiscuous (in some communities there is some truth to this, but consider that this is likely in large part due to the fact that the people making these anti-gay arguments also try to use the force of law to destroy monogamous relationships, and, well, it looks like this promiscuity is at least in part due to the success of anti-homosexual activists – also consider that there are plenty of promiscuous heterosexuals, who do you think keeps the Nevada brothels in business?), that homosexuals are more likely to suffer diseases such as AIDS (while AIDS hit the gay community hard early on, it currently is ravaging heterosexual minority communities at an alarming rate), and so on. Even in those cases where there is some truth to the claim, promoting marriage between people would reduce the problems by recognizing the relationships, promoting monogamy (and therefore reducing the spread of disease), and establishing stronger bonds of responsibility between individuals.

In other words, same-sex marriage would solve many of the problems that its opponents point to.

So, then, Measure 8 would be preventing the marriages of people who are of sound mind, and who are following a desire with another legal adult*** that they have no more control over than a heterosexual person does, and would also be reinforcing the legitimate problems that exist within some portions of the homosexual community. So, from that standpoint, opposition to same-sex marriage makes no fucking sense.

And then we get to the part that will make my Libertarian sisters very happy with me.

Ask yourself a question – do you really want the government having much say over your personal life? So long as you are doing nobody any harm, how is it any of the government’s business what you do in your marriage?

I find it both fascinating and frustrating that the same people who support the gay marriage ban also tend to shout slogans such as “the government that governs least governs best!”

Apparently this only applies to large corporations and people in positions of power. When it comes to you or me, these same nominal “conservatives” are in favor of all manner of government interference in the most intimate elements of our personal lives.

There is no good public policy reason to ban same-sex marriages. To claim otherwise is to simply feed one’s own bigotries. And a truly politically conservative position would embrace the removal of yet another needless law and pointless government interference. So, by supporting this, those who would call themselves “conservatives” show their true colors – they are authoritarians, wanting our personal lives rules by laws from on high rather than our own consciences except where we harm others. This is not a conservative position, it is an authoritarian theocratic position. We have outgrown these as a species, and we need to realize that.

So, to put a long story short, with Measure 8, we have the option of taking yet another step on our road to growth and improvement as a species, or we can chuck logic, reason, evidence, and reality, and continue to marginalize people for no reason other than to reinforce old bigotries. What is it going to be, do we give in to the better nature of humans, or do we continue to wallow in our ancient an bestial nature?

*Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it has become extremely common in recent years to see many Christians claim that atheism is caused not be someone actually thinking the matter through and realizing the rather obvious fact that there is no evidence to support god-belief, but rather due to abuse and neglect. I guess some people will always try to throw bigotry against those unlike them, rather than simply face that those people might be something other than victims or monsters.

**Not surprisingly, Kinsey’s work got a lot of reaction from people who weren’t interested in how he reached his conclusions, only in the fact that they disliked his conclusions. Amongst these were the authors of a book called “None of These Diseases” which claimed to systematically and scientifically prove Kinsey’s work wrong. How did they do this? Well, by systematically chucking science out the window and quoting the Bible. Go figure.

***Usually, someone will try to claim that if we allow homosexual marriage, then we also will soon have to allow pedophilia. Well, since homosexuality doesn’t actually cause anyone trouble, and pedophilia does, everyone other than the scum at NAMBLA would be opposed to pedophilia. If worries about pedophilia are your first reaction, then, I hate to break it to you, you are a bigot, and you need to find a way to deal with your bigotries,


mnsc said...

Oh dear, such a muddle of illogic and misstatement that I hardly know where to begin. But kudos to you, anthro, for a highly entertaining read. You never fail to amuse!

Anthroslug said...

Forgive me if I misunderstand the nature of your comment, but if you are stating that what I wrote is "a muddle of illogic and misstatement" would you care to be a bit more specific?

Two further thoughts:

1) this is one issue on which I have rather strong opinions, and therefore will often be unnecessarilly insulting to those who disagree. I need to watch that.

2) Another person read this before I posted it and thought it seemed rather clear, but apparently it is not (looking back over it, I think I failed to succesfully work the body of what I wrote back into the point I was trying to make). I wonder why it seemed clear to both of us yesterday, and today I see more holes in it - hindsight, or perhaps I should spend more time between my initial writing and my posting.

I still think that the point is a valid one, but this really wasn't very well written.

Also, I use the word "scrutiny" way too much here.

JayRod said...

Honestly, I think you made some very good points and anyone who still isn't sure how they are voting on Prop 8 should consider reading this.

The claim of the above person seems like the kind of thing that is said by those who do not really read all of, but read the short words and decide they don't like the big ones so you are an "elitist" and as such they shouldn't bother doing anything other than ridiculing you.

Kudos to you.

Kay said...

Being the person who read this before it got posted (and only making the one suggestion that I did).. and now reading it again in light of the above comment, I have to wonder…

Mnsc, I would be interested to know how and why you think the piece was ill written. Are there specifics that you disagree with? Are there factual flaws?

I ask this because I am only too aware of my own confirmation bias. Like Anthroslug, I feel very strongly about Prop 8. I also know that when reading (or watching, or discussing) a subject matter that I am emotionally involved in, I don’t always use my “skeptic-goggles” and will occasionally curtail critical thinking in lieu of “Yeah! Exactly! YAY someone else agrees with me!” type of responses.

I think that it is not only important but necessary for people to discuss issues outside of their comfort zone… their echo chamber… which I think is what Anthroslug is doing. However, it only works if the people who disagree with you or who never bothered to take off their “skeptic-goggles” actually discusses things instead of simply stating that it is silly and moving on.

Anthroslug said...

Thanks to all for both the criticisms and the kind words.

Jayrod - while I get where you're coming from, and I might normally agree, I believe that I know who Mnsc is outside of the internet, and if I am correct as to his identity, he is actually a very bright guy and I would assume not generally given to the sort of "skimming" that alot of folks tend to do when they disagree with someone.

Which, Mnsc, again makes me ask, what, specifically, you disagree with.