I recently asked a group of writers how I could write a convincing homophobic character who is himself a closeted gay. Since I’m a novelist asking this question to a group advertising itself as a resource for writers, it seemed to me a pretty reasonable question. I didn’t get anything useful for character development, but I did get some great examples of why I think we need to overhaul ethics.
The answers I got were, I think, excellent for killing thought, killing discourse and making it much harder to accomplish anything. They were perfidious and reprehensible and only possible because the writers believed in sacred moral values that were not continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality.
I found it so frustrating because there was basically no attempt to understand why a person would be homophobic, in spite of the fact that around half of all known cultures are homophobic. Instead I got a morality lesson on why homophobia is bad.
“Homophobia isn’t about hate, it’s about power (control over resources). Like racism, homophobia is a structural system of disadvantages that benefits heterosexual people (whether they like it or not, agree with it or not). These disadvantages are political, economic, cultural, and even linguistic. Like racism, homophobia can inform (Eurocentric) scientific consensus. Because scientists and philosophers and the like are people, they can be biased and (Eurocentric) scientific consensus is therefore subject to the same bias.When someone says something homophobic, they’re using their power against you, reminding you that you are inferior, that you hold less power (and violence is a resource); or they’re relegating you to an inferior position in their own minds (calling you the f-word even if you’re straight, for example).”
The analysis here comes down to, basically, this formulation:
Homophobia is European. European is power. Power is bad.
The sheer scale of problems with this “analysis” are staggering. I mean I agree that homophobia is undesirable in modern society but come on, at least try to make sense.
First, there’s the fact that contemporary homophobia is most prevalent in Africa and Jamaica, neither of which are commonly confused for being European or powerful. But imperialism, you say? Well yes, this is an excellent argument if you believe the “primitive” locals are so stupid they are incapable of formulating or even changing their own values decades after the last imperialist went home.
Then there’s the wildly counter-intuitive and completely unsupported argument that power is bad. Power is the ability to do things. Obviously people who can do more things have a larger amplitude to the the good and bad things they do. That said, as someone who has lived in the ghetto and read history, I can assure you there’s no reason to assume someone is good simply because they come from a disadvantaged background.
Then there’s the implied belief that victims are inevitably helpless, which I think is a wildly dis-empowering belief for a poor person, an oppressed minority or a victim of attacks to have. It’s dripping with pity and condescension. It absolutely reeks with fake empathy and smugly smiling as you think “how deliciously low are they.” The single most humiliating part of my time in the ghetto was the way people like the writer above assumed helplessness. It was and is my sincerest desire to vigorously backhand the people who thought me inevitably lowly and pitiable.
And even if this analysis made sense, so what? How the hell are you supposed to overcome an enemy or oppressor if your analysis of their thinking boils down to “they are bad?” How are you to discover and take advantage of the homophobe’s motives if you think he’s a cartoon villain? How are you to understand the history of homophobia if it’s just something bad people do?
Another writer added this:
“If there existed rational reasons to oppose things like gay marriage, or even just the existence of gay people on general, you’d probably have heard them by now … Now, if you want to put some historical analysis into what structural factors might have perhaps been relevant to the prevalence (or lack thereof) of homophobia in your setting, that’s perfectly fine and I support that 100%. The attempt shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of the beliefs of the author or as some implicit endorsement of homophobic opinions.”
In other words, it’s okay to pretend to understand homophobes so long as we all agree to never question our predetermined conclusions and agree that the homophobe is always irrational. I have a hard time understanding how an opinion not subject to revision could be taken seriously, but maybe that’s just me. Being even a little bit intellectually honest, to me, means that you put your beliefs at jeopardy, even if it is scary.
What is this infatuation with sacred, unassailable conclusions? Why must the homophobes be evil? Why must the imperialists be evil? Why must we assign a good or evil tag to these things at all?
I ask because I’ve never met an evil person. I’ve never met anyone committed to pain or suffering. I’ve never met an omnicidal maniac. I’ve never come across anyone who even vaguely reminded me of Snidely Whiplash or Sauron.
I’ve met at least two child molesters, one of whom was my PE teacher in elementary school. Looking for “evil” in this guy offered exactly zero predictive power about his actions. He did not twirl his mustache, but he did charm parents with his strict belief in discipline. He never let out any evil laughter, but he did push students to overcome their fears. He never expressed admiration for Satan, but he did preach self-sufficiency. It was precisely because he wasn’t evil that he had such easy access to that little girl when I was in the fifth grade.
I’ve been on friendly terms with white supremacists, pimps, a woman who took child abuse to unspeakable heights, methamphetamine dealers and a guy who would later take out a family of four during a murder suicide. My overriding, overwhelming impression of these people was a deep and pervasive normalcy. They were people who wanted love and money and to be recognized. Their hatreds did not spring from pacts with the devil or midnight orgies or smearing themselves with the blood of virgins – they came almost exclusively from relatable, understandable environmental factors.
And this is why I want to strip the absolutist values of morality to the minimum. Because every time I decide the homophobes are evil, I cease to understand them. Every time I expect the pedophile to cackle maniacally I open my community to victimization. Every time I denounce Osama bin Laden for his evil, freedom-hating ways I am walking into a situation (or War on Terror) that I don’t understand.
So, when I think back to those writers giving me unhelpful advice, I wonder if they might not do a better job opposing homophobia if they stopped condemning it and took the time to understand it.
Continued existence and meaning are the only two logical necessities for a moral system. If you think there is value in knowing your enemy or knowing yourself, I really recommend against taking the rest of the moral stuff too seriously.