Women and babies

I’ve been working through a body of feminist work in ethics for my dissertation that goes by the label of “care ethics”. It’s a subfield of study that got jumpstarted in the early 1980s, when the American psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote a damning critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on human moral development in her book In a Different Voice. Work on “care” in subsequent decades took the notion in two very different ways. According to Gilligan, and to philosophers like Nel Noddings, “care” is primarily a psychological orientation. It’s a disposition to be responsive to others, to care about them, to think about social life relationally, etc. And, very importantly, it’s allegedly something women are better at than men. According to other philosophers (Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, Margaret Walker, and many other feminists), care should be thought of as work, as something people (of whatever gender) do. Whether you frame things in terms of psychological care or in terms of practical care makes a big difference, it turns out.

One of the reasons feminists prefer the practical conception of care over the psychological conception of care, as far as I can tell, is that the psychological conception of care seems like a recycled version of the claim that women are more “naturally” suited for tasks like childcare and so forth. They’ve been wary of that claim at least since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 (which documented the dissatisfaction of white, middle-class housewives with their dull, mind-numbing and “care”-filled lives).

One of the (many) things I do in my dissertation is look at the debate in care ethics over how to think about care. And so I’ve tried to reconstruct the argument for focusing on practical care (how care as work is distributed in our societies) rather than psychological care by assuming that women are more caring than men, and seeing what follows from that.

The argument runs as follows.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

Therefore,

(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

(2) here justifies the femininity of care work in our world. But clearly, the argument as it stands is invalid. We seem to be missing at least one premise. Something like:

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

By “work” I mean simply to include the work entailed by a practical conception of care. The argument thus becomes:

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

Therefore,

(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

This new iteration of the argument from a psychological conception of care to a justification of the femininity of care work is still incomplete however. It assumes a straightforward connection between a person’s psychological orientation and that person’s ability to perform a task (well). We must consequently interpose yet another intermediate premise.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1a) Psychological care consistently drives effective practical care.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

Therefore,

(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

On this iteration, the argument is valid, as best I can see. Is it sound?

Given that I have granted the truth of (1) for the sake of the argument, the soundness of the argument hangs on the truth of (1a) and (1b). Very briefly, I am skeptical that psychological care consistently drives effective practical care. Psychological care may well be a factor in driving effective practical care. It might move a person to try harder to care practically than someone less so motivated, for example. But other factors might be equally or more important in the effectiveness of practical care (effort, or experience, for example). Be that as it may, (1b) is more problematic than (1a), and its dependence on (1a) makes it more problematic still. Even if we grant that women are more “caring” than men, and that this psychological disposition makes them more effective practical carers, there may be a variety of reasons for distributing care work more widely. For instance, the presumption of women’s sole or primary responsibility for care work might prevent the achievement of other goods (as Friedan argued). The lives of men might be enriched by a greater responsibility for care work (as social workers and social theorists have long argued). The lives of women might be enriched by less responsibility for care work. There is no reason to suppose that men are incapable of caring in the practical sense (such a claim would be plainly false [full disclosure: I’m a stay-at-home dad]). And many women express a desire for greater male involvement in care work. These are all good reasons, on my view, for resisting the inference from (1) to (2).

Whether women are “naturally” more caring or not, they are certainly more than just that. And men are not “naturally” uncaring. Feminists have concluded that the distribution of care work is something to be discussed, to be negotiated, to be adjusted, according to the needs and desires of both women and men. Logically speaking then, the psychological conception of care functions to bolster patriarchal distributions of care work only in conjunction with further, problematic, premises.

Of course, the psychological conception of care, in its association with women, is problematic to say the least. Complex human behaviors cannot generally be traced straight back to biology without reference to culture (perhaps with some exceptions). I’m an evolutionist, so of course I think it’s possible that human males and females have certain characteristic cognitive differences. But I also know that one of our evolved traits is an amazing cognitive flexibility, which accounts for the possibility of wide cultural divergences. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no precisely formulated and cross-culturally replicated analysis of care that conclusively shows that human females are more caring than human males by biological nature; although I grant as a matter of course that women in Western culture (and many other contemporary cultures, no doubt) are taught to be more “caring” than men. But then I also see feminism as a movement to rectify the gender imbalance in that cultural lesson.

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Homophobia and the oppression of men

Men sometimes resent feminism for being primarily about women. And feminists (mostly women but also some men) are quick to point out the ways in which the emphasis on women fits the facts: masculinity continues to carry with it social privilege; femininity, not so much. But feminists also insist that rigid gender norms (e.g. the assumption that certain behaviors and forms of dress are “for” men and others “for” women) hurt women and men. So I thought I’d say a little something about the oppression of men.

Many straight men despise homosexuality or even the hint of homosexuality. This is why the label “homophobia” gets at an important truth: rejection of the social acceptability of same-sex attraction is often (not always) rooted at a deep, nonrational, visceral level (see my discussion here). In the small town where my in-laws live, my long hair invites odd comments, even though my gender performance is mostly, boringly even, masculine. If I wore heels, had a more “feminine” figure, spoke with a higher-pitched voice, didn’t have facial hair, and so on… I would honestly feel unsafe. I would feel unsafe in my in-laws’ town. I would feel unsafe outside certain bars. At night. Out running. And probably in a variety of other situations too. I would feel as unsafe as many women feel, every day of their lives (perhaps more so?–I don’t know).

Let’s be clear, it is one thing to be non-conforming–to be goth, punk, or whatever, even to walk around barefoot–and it is quite another to be gender-non-conforming. Walk around barefoot or dressed in black, and you will probably get strange looks and funny or rude comments. Some businesses might even kick you out. This is especially true in non-urban settings, but city dwellers have their prejudices too. But cross-dressing takes it to a whole new level. So rigid conceptions of masculinity are enforced to a greater degree than other social conventions. Of course, being a gay man is not the same thing as being a man dressed like a woman. But being a man dressed like a woman nevertheless invites (in our culture) homophobic violence. And gay men who aren’t “visibly” gay in virtue of their gender performance are still only safe in such contexts to the extent that they refrain from “acting” gay (flirting with that cute guy at the coffee shop, say, or holding hands with their partner).

And so the conception of masculinity that prevails in American culture is rigid. Stifling. And, as far as I can tell, what keeps the box so narrow and confining is homophobia. I don’t think it’s misogyny, at least not in any clear way, because straight men have their ways of appreciating women (provided they act straight enough, I suppose). But if a man acts or talks or dresses like a woman, all homophobic hell breaks loose.

Well, as a humanist, I find narrow conceptions of masculinity oppressive, stifling, and wholly unnecessary. And I’m a straight, cisgendered dude. The oppressiveness of this box is all the more evident, I suppose, to men who are less conventional than I am.

So let’s all do humanity a favor. Let’s chill out about gender norms. Deal?

Legislating morality

A country or state’s laws serve to coordinate human life. Make everybody drive on the same side of the road, and you’ve made good headway on getting people not to crash into each other.

But laws do more than coordinate people. They bestow status on certain activities and practices, and not others. They show what citizens (or at least the legislators who supposedly legislate on the citizens’ behalf) value. Donations to charity are tax-exempt because donations to charity are a good use of private money–one it makes sense to subsidize in a way (unlike the purchase of a television, say).

This is what this whole marriage law controversy is about. Marriage, whatever else it might mean to religious folk, is a civil institution. It is a legal construct. It is used to coordinate and simplify certain aspects of life (inheritance, visitation rights, child custody, etc.). But it also and especially codifies a value judgment: marriage is a societal good.

There’s no way around it. Almost all legislation expresses a moral vision. The question is thus not whether we will “legislate morality” but rather which “morality” we will legislate.

This means we have to get on the same page about what it makes sense for us as a society to value.

And the only thing I can think of that it makes sense for a society to value is the well-being of its citizens. The vulnerable should be protected. Freely made contracts should be enforced. Our streets should be safe. The environment that sustains us should be kept clean. Meaningful lives should be readily possible to everyone who wishes to live such a life. Meaningful work should be relatively easy to come by. Government should be transparent. Information should be as free as is reasonably possible. Etc.

If a law does not contribute to the well-being of citizens, or if it contributes to the well-being of some citizens by arbitrarily harming other citizens, it is therefore not a good law.

Whose well-being, I ask you, is served by North Carolina’s Amendment One?

Heroic aspirations

I don’t know if this is universal or not, but I have heroic aspirations. I think many of us do. We want to be part of a story of overcoming. We want to fight for a cause. At least, I do. Maybe you do too.

Leave it to the evolutionary psychologists to hypothesize why that might be. We’re story-telling animals, and we seem to like it best when the stories are epic. This is part of how we find meaning. How we make meaning for ourselves. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I wish I had something more profound to say about this, but I don’t think I do.

What I have is causes that I think are worth fighting for. Formally speaking, they’re all tokens of the type “stand up for the defenseless”. They’re all about using power for the sake of the powerless. They’re about standing to bullies, to cruel people and practices. They’re about dreaming of a future with less suffering and more joy than the present. They’re my contributions to the project of diminishing misery, wherever I find it, and to the project of magnifying happiness, or at least the possibility of happiness.

My causes? Here are the top five.

(1) Fighting misogyny. Standing against the assholes who would belittle and beat women. Striving to stand against and correct my own inner douchebag.

(2) Fighting homophobia. Resisting the policing of stupid gender norms according to which men can’t cry, feel, or empathize, and according to which women can’t think, can’t be strong, can’t contribute more to the world than their sexual appeal to heterosexual men. Celebrating the beauty of nonviolent love, whatever its object.

(3) Fighting cruelty to animals. Making visible the unnecessary suffering of our fellow sentient creatures. Breaking through artificial limits to empathetic concern for non-human others. Appreciating the awesome complexity and beauty of sentient life.

(4) Fighting superstitious sanctifications of tradition for tradition’s sake. Revealing the errors of religious and magical thinking. Empowering individuals to make their own decisions responsibly.

(5) Fighting the economic magnification of human productive differences. Rejecting the supposed necessity and ineliminability of poverty. Critiquing acquisitiveness, greed, materialism, and, yes, rich people–at least tho ones who refuse solidarity with the poor.

These are my causes.

What are yours?

What I believe

I wrote what follows (minus a few edits) shortly after my ‘deconversion’ (which happened in 2009, if I’m remembering right). Having reread it, I think it still captures my basic outlook. The fact that I felt the need to comment on the person of Jesus reflects where I was coming from, but since I don’t think humanists should shy away from appropriating what’s of value in the world’s religious traditions, I think those reflections are still valuable.

THE UNIVERSE

The universe as we know it began some 15 billion years ago in a ‘big bang’. As far as I can tell, we have no way of knowing what or who (if anything) came ‘before’. Nevertheless, the fabric of reality (in our corner of the cosmos at least) is dynamic. While big rocks and monstrous suns collide and spin, that peculiar phenomenon we identify as biological life is possible under certain conditions because of the effervescence of all things at the quantum level. Fortuitous conditions (from our perspective) have obtained on the planet we call Earth for some time, and biological life has evolved here as a result. Quantum indeterminacy makes possible genetic mutation, which drives massive biological multiplication, which runs into ecological limits, which results in the ‘natural selection’ of organisms optimally suited to their local environments. This push and pull of life, which has been both beautiful and bloody from the get-go, has produced the world we know today and human life. If there is some god(dess?) behind it all, she, he or it is indiscernible apart from these dynamic processes that have brought us into existence. We can be struck by the fact that there is something rather than nothing, and that the something that there is is what it is, but I don’t think we can say much more than that. In a sense, there is a creative force which has brought everything into being, but since that creative force is woven into the fabric of the universe, it seems overeager to separate ‘Creator’ from ‘Creation’. Life is a gift, to be sure. It is a good gift to some, a very bad gift to others. I’m not sure if there’s any value in trying to average those out and make a judgment about whether the cosmos as a whole is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think the most we can say is that it is good for some of us and bad for others (or maybe partially good and partially bad for everyone whose is aware enough to look around).

HUMAN BEINGS

As biologically evolved beings, we have inherited the neural complexity and structure of our species’ long history. It has made us into social beings who get along better when we treat each other well. To the extent that we are ‘made for’ life together, we do our best to live in relative harmony. Human beings who violate societal harmony by harming others or living selfishly are rightly judged to be ‘bad’ human beings–they make life together more difficult. That being said, all of us have drives and desires that are at least sometimes difficult to reconcile with life together. These selfish desires can pull us apart and cause us to harm others. Call it ‘original sin’ or what you will, there seems to be an unavoidable struggle that comes with being the kinds of beings we are. Good human lives are those that find ways of harmonizing selfish drives with the conditions of common life (which is what the Golden Rule seems to be getting at). We do not have non-material ‘souls’, and we do not in any way survive the deaths of our bodies–we are fundamentally mortal. There is no ‘salvation’ from this condition, though there are certainly better and worse ways of being what we are, and it is certainly appropriate to talk about being saved from our more harmful desires and harmful existential outlooks. (Although we should resist the self-aggrandizing attribution of that salvation to God. Good luck and other people typically deserve the credit.)

MEANINGS OF LIFE

There is no predetermined or given ‘meaning’ to human life. Our biological nature and cultural conditioning of course means that some things will be good for us and others bad, but a large part of a responsible human life involves choosing a calling for ourselves–finding a niche for ourselves in the world. This is not given to us from on high, but is rather something we choose in light of our skills and strengths, and in light of our socio-cultural and economic environments. The world is what we make it (so let’s be creative!!). Because human beings have limited foresight, and because we tend to be selfish, we have created economic and cultural systems that have been devastatingly harmful to fellow human beings and other animals. As we become aware of these harms, we realize that we are responsible for rectifying them as much as is possible. We cannot consistently devalue the lives of others and yet claim to value our own lives and the lives of the ones we love. Therefore we seek to be consistent valuers of life, and of human and sentient life in particular.

HAPPINESS

We find life to be worth living only under certain conditions. Not having to constantly struggle for food, shelter and security is of course one of the most basic conditions. Others include being surrounded by beauty, seeking (and finding!) truth, having friends, having meaningful work and so on. Most of what we do aims at making us happy, and this is all well and good, so long as we remember that we’re all in this together, and that we therefore have a stake in each other’s flourishing. One of the most important dimensions of happiness is contentment. Particularly in the consumeristic culture we’ve created, we sometimes believe that stuff buys us happiness, but this is often untrue. Both because things only have relative and relational value and because we value what we create more than what we buy, contentment can’t be bought. If we want to flourish, be happy, be content then, we need to stop clinging to things. In fact, the best kind of ‘wealth’ is actually found in fulfilling relationships of all kinds (rather than things). Solid friendships are essential to a good human life, as is a properly functioning and dependable social order (it can be difficult or impossible to flourish under excessively oppressive political regimes). Sex is deeply intimate and pleasurable and as such should be seen as an important ingredient in a good human life (though it isn’t strictly necessary of course, and other things might be judged more important). Because of the strength of human sexual energies, we of course have to be careful with how we handle sex. Monogamous marriage (or partnerships more broadly) are one (but not the only) way in which this can be done responsibly. Contemporary advances in biological knowledge (especially as embedded in birth control technologies) should be seen as massively helpful in limiting the possible harmful side effects of sex. Sexual taboos impede self-knowledge and responsible decision making. Having children is always a gamble, but many find it deeply rewarding. It can also cause a lot of harm and suffering. The most fundamental point to be made about human happiness is that happiness doesn’t just ‘happen’. We must become certain kinds of people in order to enjoy life. Happiness takes work and self-discipline. Being open-minded, slow to anger, quick to apologize, eager for knowledge, willing to laugh… all of these are skills that make us both enjoyable to be around and happier (which is part of why it is important to be educated about these things and to educate others about them).

JESUS

On some accounts of his life (and there are many conflicting accounts, both ancient and contemporary), Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary human being. He was profoundly Jewish and believed the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations. He also was convinced that the Jewish nation as a whole was, in his time, being unfaithful to its calling. He therefore prophesied, in a spirit similar to that of John the Baptizer, that Israel was on a broad path to destruction. If Israelites continued to be unfaithful, the pagan oppressors they decried would trample their holy city and destroy their temple. Israel’s unfaithfulness, on Jesus’ view, consisted in mistreatment of the poor, monopoly of the means of divine grace, and a refusal to take seriously the radicalness of YHWH’s commands. He therefore taught compassion, advocated and practiced confrontational non-violence, and commanded his disciples to love their enemies. He was first and foremost a political resistor and was murdered by the state and by Jewish leaders as such. He also predicted his vindication using heavily charged and ambiguous language drawn from the prophets (Daniel in particular), speaking about a ‘coming of the son of man’. It seems likely that he associated the destruction of the temple with this apocalyptic vision, since it would entail the end of Jewish life as they all knew it. He may also have believed in a final resurrection and made claims about his own resurrection, but the narrative cultural and mythological overlay makes it hard to get at the ‘historical’ Jesus, especially in this regard. In any case, Jesus became an iconic and inspirational figure for many (much like Socrates, who likewise never wrote a single word and who was likewise unjustly murdered by the state for confronting the political powers), and his disciples, on top of spreading some of his teachings, also told increasingly metaphysical stories about his significance. The metaphysical stories (about his being ‘God’, his Spirit recreating the world and defeating ‘Death’, and his so-called ‘Second Coming’) are false, as best we can tell. His political example remains compelling, primarily insofar as he refused to cling to life itself in his devotion to a greater good.

RELIGION

I believe the best of all cultural and religious (or non-religious) traditions get at these basic human truths. Otherwise, claims about God or gods, or about the ‘ultimate nature of reality’ overreach our cognitive limitations. There is much that we cannot now (and probably ever) know–or at least, that’s what the evidence strongly suggests, as far as I can tell. An important part of life is coming to terms with all that we’ll never know. One of the central problems of religious claims is that they are dogmatic–there is no room for reasoned disagreement. While various scientific projects and theories are often flawed, incomplete and imperfect, they have the virtue of being, at least in principle, open and revisable. And this is by far the best way of developing an outlook on the world. Claims about what has been ‘revealed’ generally create a canon of ‘Truth’ handed down ‘once and for all’. Revealingly, much of what religious believers have claimed is true seems, from our present perspective, to be false (e.g. the age of the Earth and the universe, the position of the Earth, the existence of souls, spirits, demons, the ‘wrongness’ and ‘perversion’ of homosexuality, etc.). This is a strong reason to mistrust any and all claims about purportedly ‘revealed’ truth. Though there is much to be valued in religious practice (e.g. meditative exercises, the social cohesion it fosters, the altruistic behavior it sometimes commends), in a lot of ways it can be a distraction from present life, especially insofar as it posits an eternal ‘heaven’ or a future ‘kingdom of God’ where every tear will be wiped from our eyes. We have no good positive reason to entertain these hopes, and many good reasons not to. There’s no heaven, no hell–it’s just us. So let’s make the best of this finite, imperfect, sometimes painful, sometimes blissful human existence, and be content with that.

Sex and gender: a useful distinction

I think one of the most powerful distinctions one can be armed with (for the sake of building a better society), in our present societal situation, is the distinction between sex and gender. Many people don’t understand the distinction, so it’s well worth expounding on.

SEX is a biological reality, which, for convenience’s sake, we can equate with certain physiological facts (as in, what’s between your legs). This is simplifying far too much, of course, because human biology doesn’t limit itself to two binary categories, as we sometimes assume (Google “intersex”). But for the sake of a first pass at the sex/gender distinction, we can say that one’s biological sex is either female or male.

GENDER is a social reality, which, for convenience’s sake, we can equate with a kind of performance (e.g. how do you dress? how long is your hair? etc.). Again, this is simplifying a bit. It is often useful, for instance, to distinguish between sexual identity (what one is “in one’s head”) and sexual expression (how one presents oneself to the world). But for the sake of a first pass at this important distinction, we can simply say that one’s gender is somewhere on the feminine (to androgynous) to masculine spectrum.

It goes without saying that one can be a feminine male or a masculine female. This is because, whereas SEX is mostly a ‘given’ of biology, GENDER is a performance. To call gender a performance is not to say it doesn’t have biological (e.g. hormonal) antecedents, and it is not to say that it is a self-consciously intentional performance. I don’t choose to shop on the men’s side of the store, I just do (and there are social consequences to pay if I don’t). The important point here is that, in our context, sex and gender are both subject to social policing–they are normative concepts. The policing of sex happens primarily in hospitals where (presumably well-meaning) doctors offer ‘corrective’ surgeries to intersexed babies and children (!), whereas the policing of gender happens all around us every day. We are expected to dress, act, and speak in certain ways appropriate to our gender. And if we fail to perform our (assumed) gender properly, there are social consequences to pay (scorn, obnoxious comments, and too often, violence).

For whatever cultural and cognitive reasons, many of us feel the need to police how others present themselves along gender lines. But we don’t have to!! And in fact, that policing is harmful. In a truly humanist culture, one’s gender performance is morally irrelevant. It might be aesthetically delightful, dreadful, or whatever. But the point is that it isn’t moralized. There’s nothing wrong with being a girly man. There’s nothing wrong with being a manly woman. There’s nothing wrong with wearing pants, a dress, eyeliner, no makeup, short hair, long hair, no hair, or whatever. Transgressions of what is assumed to be “normal” are harmless. They should be left alone. A guy in a dress might make you feel uncomfortable, but as long as he’s not assaulting anyone, leave him alone. You should be more morally worried about the dudebro making fun of him than about him.

We’ve come a long way. Not too long ago, what was judged “appropriate” for men and women was far more rigid than what passes as at least “good enough” today. But as long as people continue to be shamed and assaulted simply for how they choose to present themselves to the world, the world is not yet what it could and should be.

Live and let live.

Gay marriage, polygamy, and God

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has recently gotten a lot of flak (according to the L.A. Times) for saying what most social conservatives actually think, namely, that there’s no principled difference between accepting gay marriage and accepting polygamy and a whole host of alternative sexual arrangements. Comparisons with bestiality and incest (at least of a coercive kind) are, to my mind, entirely unwarranted. But I think progressives are being a bit simple-minded when they decry the connection between non-hetero marriage and non-pair marriage. If marriage isn’t the union of a man and a woman, after all, why shouldn’t it be the union of two women and one man? Of three, four, or five men? And so on.

The simplest argument for gay marriage is that (1) people want it, and (2) it harms no one. By the same logic, if domestic arrangements beyond the traditional pair are desired and can be made to last long enough to warrant legal recognition, they should be recognized by law too. Consenting adults should be able to enter into whatever domestic arrangement they see fit, and the law should keep up as best it can.

The debate over gay marriage is actually a great way to see how religion can be harmful. If one believes hetero marriage really is a divine ordained institution, anything else will be quite uncountenanceable. But if, as a good humanist and naturalist, one sees prevailing norms concerning relationships and marriage as products of a particular culture at a particular time and place, there will be no reason not to change those norms in accordance with changes in the culture. Marriage is and always has been a human creation. But belief in God, at least the way such belief works in North American culture, keeps one from realizing this. And the belief in God also justifies, baptizes, whatever prejudices happen to be codified in the tradition. Yes, gay marriage is “changing the definition of marriage”. So what? There is no God. Therefore changing the definition of marriage is permitted. And amply justified under present circumstances, I would add.

When I was still a Christian, I considered myself somewhat progressive on the question of gay marriage–I didn’t think it was necessarily ‘sinful’. But it wasn’t until I left the faith that I realized how entirely irrelevant sex and gender are to the value of a relationship. Of course, many Christians support the gay rights movement. More power to them. But to the extent that a theistic worldview provides a welcoming home to beliefs of the form “X is God-ordained”, there will always be the risk of (allegedly) divinely sanctioned social conservativism (that is, conservation of the tradition because, well, God approves of it, and not of alternatives).

From a humanist perspective, what matters is not what God supposedly thinks, but human beings and their welfare. (All sentient creatures, actually, but that’s a post for another day.) Social arrangements are thus to be evaluated on the basis of their conduciveness to human happiness, freedom, and flourishing. No more, no less.

So atheism commends itself to us by clearing the path, so to speak, between humanity and happiness. God has a tendency to get in the way.

Why I use the word “homophobia”

Opponents of gay rights and gay marriage (and all things gay or queer) sometimes resent being seen as defenders of homophobia. We are not afraid of gays, they say. We think homosexuality is bad for society. (Or something like that.)

Likewise, kinists resent being called racists. (If you don’t know what kinism is, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinism; or, you know, Google.) I’m not aware of many misogynists, racists, and homophobes who like being called what they are. But those labels (“misogynist”, “racist”, “homophobe”) are part and parcel of the worldview and moral outlook I want to commend to you. We ought to call white people who don’t want to associate with Blacks (for whatever reason) “racist”. It doesn’t matter that they have fancy justification for their (im)moral beliefs. The humanist vision for a better world and a better society is incompatible with calling people who oppose ‘racial mingling’ (or whatever they call it) anything but racists.

So also, those who oppose gay rights do so for a wide variety of reasons. For many of them however, those reasons exist in tandem with (some would say as justifications of) feelings of disgust (or mild disgust, or whatever) at the idea of sex between same sex partners. This is the “eww” of a man having sex with another man (which straight men who are also homophobes like to express) or the “gross” of a woman having sex with another woman (which straight women who are also homophobes like to express) that is so common in heteronormative discourse. Heteronormative gender norms, according to which ‘manly’ men are (by nature?) attracted to women and according to which ‘womanly’ women are (by nature?) attracted to men, are a social construct–a product of culture, and harmful at that (witness the bullying of non-gender-conforming individuals and especially young people). A humanist world is a world in which one’s gender performance is irrelevant to how one is treated. Whether I’m a total ‘dude’ or a ‘girly man’ shouldn’t matter. It certainly shouldn’t be policed. And so the vocabulary that is appropriate for humanist commitments includes words like “homophobia” and “homophobe” to identify the harm done to gay folk by a limited sexual imagination enacted in social norms.

Of course, I recognize that for the sake of civility in conversation, it might be better not to call a homophobe a homophobe. When people perceive that they are being insulted, this tends to shut down their (most) rational neural circuitry. And so there are times when it’s appropriate to talk about opposition to gay rights without using the word “homophobia”. But in many contexts, it will be the right word to use. And by adopting the lens it invites us to see through, we take one step closer to a humane world.