Independence you can trust
1 November 2014 09:21 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Mulholland column: Ignorance squared is still ignorance

  • Pierre de Vos
“Common sense” can be a dangerous thing. People often invoke “common sense” to justify the commonly shared prejudices of those they happen to encounter in their small circle made up of family, friends and acquaintances. The danger of this kind of validation – where shared bigotries are accepted, simply, as self-evident – is starkly illustrated by a column on homosexuality published on Sunday in the Sunday Times Business Times by one Stephen Mulholland (who, apparently, used to be quite a big shot in the media industry before the internet era).

Most of Mulholland’s column is given over to patronising remarks of the “some-of-my-best-friends-are-black” variety. Goodness, isn’t it nice to know that Mulholland believes homosexuals are by and large not such bad people after all and that we now even have the legal right to get married. Some of us are, apparently, even quite clever and “creative”, which one gathers is something of which Mulholland approves.

Once, confesses Mulholland, he even knew a gay man who never gave the slightest hint of “coming on” to him – as if this “restraint” on the part of the unnamed gay man says something profound about the moral character of gay men in general. Mulholland apparently never considered the possibility that the man did not “come on” to him because of Mulholland’s obvious lack of charm and sexual appeal. Oh, how vain some heterosexuals can be sometimes. 

Such is the blissful world of common-sense bigotry in which Mulholland lives; a world in which it is assumed, without having to provide any argument, that one is praising a group of people because one of the group never made a pass at you. He is too steeped in his own world of common sense prejudice to realise that by mentioning this he is not being kind and open-minded. Moreover, he seems blissfully unaware that he is inadvertently displaying his own anxieties about his heterosexuality while signalling his fear and prejudice of same-sex sexuality. 

One assumes Mulholland believes (but he is not self-aware or clever enough to realise this) that the gay man’s discretion saved him from the “embarrassment” of being thought of by his fellow homophobes as being open to advances by another man. This ensured that he retained his image as a firmly heterosexual man – albeit not one sexy enough to be “hit on” by a sensible gay man.

The absurdity of this view (in the absence of deep-seated homophobia) is nicely illustrated if we imagine a role-reversal. If Mulholland had written a column on, say, the way women are rather jolly workmates and how modern men should normally treat them as more or less their equals, it is unthinkable that he would have added a paragraph about knowing a woman once who never “came on” to him in order to illustrate how harmless women really are and how they are not such bad people after all. In a world in which heterosexuality is never embarrassing, in which heterosexual men are not hated and despised and raped and killed because they are heterosexuals, such an “argument” does not make any sense.

Mulholland concludes his rather queer column (if you excuse the pun) in the following manner:

“Thus, as same-sex relationships are increasingly, and appropriately, accepted in society, it is also fair to expect same-sex parents to be frank with their children that such arrangements are neither the norm nor ultimately desirable — even if they are loving relationships.”

Maybe Mulholland failed to provide reasons for this boldly stated – but highly obnoxious and controversial – view because it is his first column of the new year, knocked off next to the pool with a glass of chardonnay in hand. But judging from his inability on Eusebius McKaiser’s radio show this morning to provide any logical argument to back up this view, I suspect something else is at play here. I almost felt embarrassed on Mulholland’s behalf because under sustained questioning from Eusebius he, shall we say, did not sound like the sharpest tool in the shed. 

Giving Mulholland the benefit of the doubt and assuming for the moment that he is not a complete fool, one can only assume that Mulholland believes his view that same-sex relationships are undesirable is so obvious, so commonsensical, that no argument is needed to justify it. When one is so blissfully unaware that one’s own common sense views are steeped in prejudice and bigotry, one has truly lived a sheltered and impoverished life, a life devoid of the joys of mingling with and making an effort to learn from diverse groups of people from different cultures, races, sexual orientations and class backgrounds. 

On the radio show Mulholland tried to justify his view (as far as I can tell) by arguing that being gay or lesbian can be traumatic for one’s parents. Even if one agreed with Mulholland that it would be better to spare parents the trauma created by their own bigotry by warning children about the undesirability of same-sex relationships, this argument makes no sense in the context of his column. After all, one assumes that one of the benefits of having same-sex parents would be that they would not be homophobic and would not be traumatised if their son or daughter told them that they were gay or lesbian.

The larger problem here is, of course, that the bigotry and prejudice of others are used to justify one’s own bigotry and prejudice and the perpetuation of bigotry and prejudice in one’s children. And it is done on the basis that the bigotry in question is shared by all and is no more than common sense. 

What Mulholland does not understand is that if any parent is traumatised because he or she has a gay or lesbian child, then the problem is with the parent – not the child. Making an argument in defence of the parents is like making an argument in defence of the racial views of Eugene Terreblanche – it rather taints one by association. What is obviously undesirable is to have a homophobic parent – just as it is undesirable to have a racist or sexist parent – and we should work on changing the hurtful and destructive attitudes of these parents by challenging their prejudices and fears and, if necessary, by ostracising them from society. 

What we should not do is to encourage other parents who are not bigoted to instil prejudices in their children by telling them that same-sex relationships (or relationships between people of different races for that matter) are undesirable merely because some people have not overcome their irrational fear and hatred of those who do not have the same skin colour or do not share the same sexual orientation as them. 

In my world, prejudice is undesirable. Racism is undesirable. Physically or sexually abusing one’s partner or a child is undesirable. Allowing a person like Mulholland to publish such a lazy, un-argued, thoughtless and bigoted column in the Sunday Times is undesirable. 

What is never undesirable is when two consenting adults love and support one another. I have never understood how anyone can believe that it is harmful for two consenting adults to love one another. I can only think that what is meant is that when one treats same-sex relationships as desirable, one challenges the fears and the prejudices of others and by upsetting them, one harms their sense of oblivious, unearned, spoilt well-being; a sense of well-being based on bizarre idea that one deserves only to be confronted by those who look like you and love like you and behave like you and think (I am using the term very loosely here) like you.. 

Personally I do not think anyone has the right not to have their prejudices challenged and ridiculed. So, unlike Mulholland I believe every parent – whether in a same-sex relationship or otherwise – has the ethical duty to tell their children that loving and caring relationships (whether between members of the same or of opposite sexes) are desirable but that bigotry never is. 

Come to think of it, one should start by telling the editors of the Sunday Times. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
Pierre de vos

Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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