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30 July 2014 10:54 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Of burning closets and closed minds

  • Jacques Rousseau
A burnt-out symbol leaves eloquent ashes to testify that not even the halls of academia are free from prejudice and bigotry. The ashes of UCT’s “Pink Closet” further represent the distance our species has to travel on its long walk to civilisation.

The recent demonstration of homophobic intolerance at the University of Cape Town showed us, once again, that education is no obstacle to ignorance and bigotry. For those who are unfamiliar with the details, the story is this: Last week, the student organisation RainbowUCT (in association with UCT management) convened Pink Week, intended to celebrate and promote sexual diversity.

One of the features of Pink Week was the installation of “The Closet”, a bright pink closet on Jameson Hall plaza, which displayed messages related to instances of discrimination in South Africa and abroad. Students and staff were invited to graffiti the outside of this closet with their own examples, or to express their views on homophobia and discrimination more generally.

For some, it seems that peaceable expression of their views was insufficient to convey their Neanderthal message. At around 11pm on the first day of Pink Week, less than 12 hours after it  was put on display, someone chose instead to set The Closet ablaze, leaving us in no doubt as to the extent of their commitment to ideas such as tolerance, diversity and the rights of all to exercise their sexual freedom.

Gay rights activists on campus are understandably angry and disappointed. The real question, however, is perhaps why isn’t everybody else? Instead, many of the comments appearing alongside this story in our online newspapers say things like “Gay people, get over yourselves!!! Be gay, but stop forcing it down on society. Be gay in silence like the rest of the world is straight in silence”. Or, they channel Fred Phelps and utter sentiments such as “if GOD won't accept GAYS why should we? Stop the Filth STOP the GAYS!”

Besides their apparent predilection for multiple exclamation marks and shouty capitalised words, commenters such as these share the feature of being ignorant and offensive. In contrast to the sorts of commenters discussed last week, I do, however, suspect that this crop might be prepared to express these sentiments to gay people directly, in that they seem to imagine their stance is a principled one.

For the first comment quoted above, “MC” might well believe what he or she is saying, but this belief does little to dispel the appearance of prejudice. It is only through the lens of prejudice that this sort of comment can appear sensible, in that it ignores the significant bias towards heterosexuality that is evident in advertising, cinema and all other forms of popular culture.

This point can be made clear through the analogous case of racial prejudice, where MC would probably not think it appropriate to ask blacks to be black in silence, just like whites are white in silence. Some of us are silent out of choice – for we have the power to do so – and others are silent because they are aware their views (or beliefs) attract antagonism.

As for the second commenter, named “Anonymous”, it would probably be of little use to ask that he or she reconsider the appropriateness of basing 21st century moral judgements on the intuitions of largely uneducated folk from centuries in the past. But we can ask for consistency, and, therefore, ask him or her to account for the fact that many who believe in the same God do not think gay people are “filth[y]” or unacceptable to God.

One doubts that an anonymous commenter with such a simplistic approach to linguistic emphasis (capitals seem to be their only trick) would have the theological sophistication to defend their homophobia coherently and consistently. After all, the strongest Biblical injunctions typically used to denounce homosexuality are found in Leviticus, alongside prohibitions on eating “abominations” such as rabbits, pigs and shellfish, and it’s quite likely that the commenter does not adhere to these rules as enthusiastically. If he does, then he is hopefully also aware that on a literal reading of the book in question, he would be allowed to keep slaves and have sex with his daughter.

Despite the prejudiced nature of the quoted comments, as well as the hate speech that the burning of The Closet might constitute, RainbowUCT’s statement in response displayed a tolerance that the homophobes would do well to emulate. The response, pasted on the burnt Closet, read: “This Closet was supposed to highlight the homoprejudice that still burns through the fabric of our society. Apparently, it also burns through our own campus”.

The university has opened case of destruction of property, and also says it is treating the matter as a “serious crime”. This is good, but not enough. Students, staff and management of this and other universities – as well as South Africans outside of the academy – should not think that these and other prejudices will diminish and eventually disappear, simply because we have an enlightened Constitution and/or because of the limping progress our species seems to be making toward becoming civilised.

For as long as we allow moral sentiment to be dictated by dogma – whether in the form of religious belief, cultural norms or any other form of privileged discourse – we can never count on being able to shake off these prejudices. From amoeba to zebra, there are optimum ways of functioning. It is our task to begin the job of treating moral principles as seriously as we take other disputed forms of knowledge, so that we can establish which norms are optimal for both our species, as well as for those other species whose welfare we influence.

This involves paying attention to the evidence, and establishing whether our moral principles correspond to that evidence. It involves identifying and understanding the motivation for the principles to which we subscribe, and ensuring that those motivations are consistent with others we believe to be proper. And whether they seem to stand the best chance of conducing to human welfare – regardless of the race, gender or sexual orientation of the humans in question.

Of course, it involves a whole lot more too, and more will be said in due course.  But on the issue of RainbowUCT and the burning of The Closet, one thing is clear: Being a student at a top university in South Africa seems to offer no guarantee of enlightened attitudes, or an ability to see outside the closet of one’s own prejudices. And then, of course, it’s not enough to simply leave the closet in any case – you also have to get out of the house. DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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