Beyond Christianity, Part 3

selfrighteous people

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.

(By the way, my white liberal friends, the paragraph above might go some distance toward explaining why black voters don’t like your guy Sanders.)  

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.

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19 comments

  1. It sounds like you inadvertently gave the folks in the writing forum an opportunity to advertise their own moral virtue on a currently controversial topic, something people often feel a strong impulse to do, possibly because, evolutionarily, it may increase their individual prospects for continued existence. Of course, this caused them to prioritize their prospects for continued existence over yours (which you might enhance by telling a story with a compelling character) which is understandably frustrating from your point of view.

    I do agree that good or evil people, as they are usually presented in fiction, generally don’t exist. The vast majority of people are a mix of good and evil. That doesn’t mean that some people’s evil tendencies don’t make them dangerous.

    To me, the best villains in fiction are the ones whose motivations we understand, who come from a place that makes us uneasy, because we have a feeling that with the right background, that could be us.

    1. Absolutely!

      The best antagonists are almost always the ones who have a good point. The bent cops from Gone Baby, Gone really got me.

      You have any good examples?

      As for evolutionary advantage, that sort of lazy thinking mostly just makes me embarrassed to be on the same “team.” Maybe frustrating me is the best way to find a mate. 😉

      1. Examples that initially occur to me: Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, and Jacob’s brother on Lost. In comics, Doctor Octopus in Spider Man and Magneto in the X-Men come to mind. Darth Vader, once we know his story, fits the type (although the prequel execution of showing it could have been better).

        On lazy thinking, yeah. I read something the other day about how easy it is for people to get into internet arguments, or jump on outrage bandwagons: someone says something clueless on Twitter, and gets thousands of people denouncing them, or asks something the wrong way, and gets inundated with moral indignation. It’s an environment where charitable interpretation is often in lamentably short supply.

      2. You should write your own book.

        I think you’d be good at it. I love it when you aren’t entirely sure who is “bad” in a story. One of the things I’m really proud of with The Blackguard is that readers have been almost exactly evenly split on the question of whether Marcus (pov character), the activists or the villagers are the villain/good guy.

        The indignation bandwagons- have you read Nietzsche? I ask because his notions of Christian resentment really encapsulate this idea nicely.

      3. “You should write your own book. I think you’d be good at it.”
        Thanks. Hope to do it someday, although I have a lot of respect for people like you who’ve managed to do it already. So far, I’ve only written one Nanowrimo novel that I regard as stillborn and a few scattered short stories.

        “The indignation bandwagons- have you read Nietzsche? ”
        Can’t say I have, although I’ve read about his views. Not sure I ever read about Christian resentment though.

      4. You can enjoy his work purely for the prose. Guy is an excellent writer. Thus Spake Zarathustra is good, but my favorites are On the Genealogy of Morals and Twilight of the Idols.

      5. I’ve heard his writing is powerful, but often ambiguous and subject to a lot of interpretation. When it comes to philosophy, I can’t say I’m much of a fan of that type of writing. (Which leaves me largely out of the continental tradition.) That said, I realize I might feel differently if I ever actually read it.

      6. It’s definitely open to interpretation.

        Do you prefer the Lockes and Mills?

      7. I do prefer the analytical tradition. I’d say my favorite is David Hume, although I have to admit that I rarely read any historical philosopher directly. Most of my knowledge of their views comes from reading general philosophy books.

  2. Fascinating post as usual Ben.
    Why Evil? Most people don’t think of themselves as evil. Therefore when they meet someone who is completely contrary, an automatic reflex would be to tag and label the other as evil.

    I have to disagree with “homophobia is European.” Islamic society has taken that one to the Nth degree.

    I know you didn’t say the following, but it really blew me away. “If there existed rational reasons…”
    The so-called Gay marriage debate/issue had to be completely manufactured by liberal think tanks. Notice that the argument was framed as either “For or Against.”

    If a person takes all of their basic knowledge from other disciplines and applies them to gay marriage, they may be prompted to say “against,” However, the real reason is, they don’t believe in it’s possibility. Of course the against answer is then lambasted and the person is made into a pariah, with negative names like homophobe and bigot.

    I do not oppose nor am I against gay marriage. I simply do not believe in its possibility for the following reasons.

    From a Scientific perspective: Any biology textbook will tell you that the reproductive and digestive systems are completely different, and serve different biological purposes. In fact, the word “sex” means requiring two genders to reproduce.

    From a Libertarian perspective: The government should not be performing marriages for anyone. It is a Sacrament of the Church. I do not want any government to start performing Baptisms or Bar Mitzvahs either. Governments should only issue certificates for civil unions for solely legal purposes. In such a case I’d expect and wouldn’t give a damn about who, how, or what combination of individuals get the civil union certificate.

    ***Just a thought: Where are all of the anti-Christian separation of Church and State ACLU liberals? Shouldn’t the above aggravate them into action?***

    I consider the gay marriage movement to be an utter flop and failure. It was a golden opportunity to strip government of a power that it doesn’t and shouldn’t deserve. Instead, they have given the government more power.

    From a Religious perspective: I mentioned before that marriage is a Church Sacrament. However, it does not require the action of a Priest. Therefore, when lame-brained politicians perform ceremonies on the steps of City Hall, they have no idea how their actions disturb their religious constituents.

    O.K. I could go on forever on this one so I’ll just leave you with the God’s command to the human race concerning marriage. “Be fruitful and multiply.”

    Do I sound like a homophobe or a bigot? Or do I sound like someone who culled data from various disciplines, applied it to a question, and kept on coming back with the same answer?

    P.S. I’ll answer your opening paragraph in a bit. Perhaps I can give you a hand with the homophobic character.

    1. Hey Ernesto,

      Thanks for the comment. I actually don’t have super strong feelings one way or the other on marriage, but I really have a problem with the moralizing.

      The entire conceptual framework of morally condemning things, to me, results in thought termination, piss poor understanding and an almost complete inability to plan.

      That’s the motivation behind this series. I’d don’t want total relativism because that ceases to function but I do want to make it really, really hard to condemn things as evil.

      I’d appreciate the help, btw. My homophobic character is a steppe barbarian type, btw.

      1. First, what are you going to write about the homophobic character that will make a reader recognize that aspect of his personality?

      2. Haha, deceptively complicated question there. The character is going to assert the importance of manly virtues.

        Activity, courage, exploration, great feats – etc. He’s going to contrast that with his enemy’s (a Puritan expy) feminine virtues – pity, mildness, justice – in a successful attempt to rally his people.

        Part of this assertion is feminizing the enemy culture. He even calls the men “bearded maidens” and the women “grotesque hermaphrodites.”

        That he himself is, by nature, a bit of a bearded maiden will cause him no small discomfort.

      3. Good Freudian foundation, the thing that he despises most about himself is what he criticizes in others.
        I was wondering if you were going into other latency issues. Like, jumping from woman to woman and bragging about his “conquests,” and portraying him as very uncomfortable and unnerved whenever around homosexuals or the subject itself.

  3. Another home run, Ben. You have your problem with moralizing, I have mine with definition creep. “Decimate” being used to mean “total destruction.” “Gay” to describe sexual orientation rather than “Light-hearted” or “happy.” And in the context of this post, “phobia” to denote, not fear but antipathy.” I realize that language is a living thing but for heaven’s sake, create new words as did Shakespeare rather than co-opting those tried and true, thereby muddying the linguistic waters.

    1. Thanks for the comments. I see your point about definition creep, particularly on “decimate.” However, sometimes I think there’s a common ground between the definition creep and the desire to moralize. Homophobe now covers people who feel antipathy towards gays because … it’s all morally more comfortable if antipathy and foaming-at-the-mouth psychosis are conflated.

      Which kind of gets back to my point. As soon as you characterize your opponent as a foaming-at-the-mouth psycho, you are pretty much guaranteed to stop understanding him or her.

      BTW, I’m going to order your book next time I get a spare 20 minutes. 🙂

  4. In a recent Houston Chronicle article concerning a home burglary the reporter wrote, “the homeowner returned from work to find that thieves had broken in and decimated his apartment.” As to homophobia, or any other irrational antipathy, my opinion is that such feelings are the last bastion of the ill-informed or intellectually lazy. Also, in this complicated subject lurks at least some modicum of jealousy. “My life sucks, why should you be happy?”

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