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21 October 2014 21:44 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

The tyranny of labels

  • Jacques Rousseau
Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame says she's gay "by choice". But according to some LGBT activists, normally concerned with freedom to express yourself, she's not allowed to be. That’s against the rules.

Stronger evidence makes for stronger arguments. We all know this, and also that it’s often difficult to discard our belief in some supposed facts that aren’t as well justified as we might think.

Where this becomes an acute problem is with regard to moral claims, notably those that involve human equality and are aimed at eliminating discrimination.

Consider two examples. First, I’d imagine that most of us believe there is no scientific basis for discriminating on the grounds of race. Some of us might say that is too weak a claim, and that there is no scientific basis for even the idea of race. Second, it appears to be a widely-held notion that rape is about power and not about sex.

For both of these examples, consensus serves a powerful rhetorical and political function. If we agree on the substance of these claims, we are able to construct arguments against racial discrimination and against victim-blaming (for instance, that  what a victim of rape was wearing or doing can be disregarded as irrelevant to the perpetrator’s crime). But what if we’re wrong?

It’s not good enough to simply assert that we cannot be wrong, or to hurl some academic paper or book in the direction of someone who dares to question an orthodox view. In the case of these two examples, dissenting voices exist, and you can often tell that they’d really prefer to not be dissenting. Treating propositions like these as axiomatic serves a useful function, whether or not they are true.

On both of these topics, there is ongoing research – lacking any obvious bad faith – which brings the consensus view into question. While we might prefer for both research projects to fail, we should also be prepared for their success. And if they do reveal that our common wisdom is faulty, my concern is that we’ll be ill-prepared to continue being able to mount robust defences against these forms of discrimination.

In other words, perhaps our most strident campaign against the wrongness of generalised discrimination should not be premised on facts (insofar as we know them), but rather on other aspects of the wrongness of discrimination. For race, we could say that even if racial differences exist, they are immaterial to the wrongness of generalising when it comes to individuals. For rape, we can say that regardless of the balance between the competing causes of sexual desire and asserting power, violation of consent is always the worst sin.

This is not to say that the evidence we have isn’t important, or worth emphasising. Instead, I’m arguing against exclusive reliance on it, carried by a form of evangelical zeal that assumes the facts to be fixed, and assumes those facts to be sufficient to carry the argument. Not only because our zeal could be misguided, but also because it can come with independent costs.

A recent example demonstrating this is provided by Cynthia Nixon, who you might know from all those Sex and the City episodes you didn’t watch. In Slate, she’s quoted as saying, “I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice.”

It’s true that the scientific consensus is that homosexuality has a biological basis. But the other relevant fact is that the fight for social and legal equality for homosexuals has been premised on the 'fact' that your sexual orientation is not a choice. It’s the latter detail that means Cynthia Nixon, in revealing her preference for women as sexual partners, can somehow be construed as an enemy of the gay-rights cause. And this is because a genuine scientific fact is not treated as merely that, but rather also, and arguably mostly, as an ideology or statement of evangelical faith.

In Brian Earp’s superb analysis of the Nixon issue, he points out that various factors influence sexual attraction, and that we can usefully separate the question of who or what you’re programmed to find attractive, in general, from who you happen to find attractive in reality. For many people, attraction operates on a continuum in any case, making labels such as 'gay' and 'straight' unhelpfully crude.

For Nixon to point out that she’s decided to tend towards one end of that continuum says nothing about the extent to which others can make similar choices. If LGBT activists choose to make a dogma out of lacking choice they’ve picked a short-sighted strategy, and Nixon can hardly be blamed for not toeing the orthodox line.

There is a significant emotive context to this, not to mention a reality in which people are assaulted – whether physically or emotionally – as a result of a sexual orientation over which they have no control. So it’s an important message we send by saying that for most people, sexual orientation seems to involve little to no choice. But we also send a message when we say something like “you’re not allowed to call yourself gay, because we’ve decided that it can only mean one thing”.

The root of our concerns regarding discrimination in all its forms could arguably be described as a conviction that people should be free to express themselves and pursue their good in whatever way they please, without society imposing any limiting generalisations on them. How sadly ironic it is, then, that a gay woman finds herself criticised by defenders of equality and freedom for daring to have an independent opinion. DM


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  • Jacques Rousseau
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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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