Wow, some great responses to yesterday’s post, I’m impressed. If you’ll bear with me for one more post, I’d like to respond to some of the common themes I’m hearing people express.
First of all, I want to emphasize that my point is self-control and civilization: homophobia, whatever its source, is a destructive and irrational prejudice, and we as free moral agents have both the ability and the responsibility to refuse to let it guide our actions. Even if the impulse comes to us “naturally,” without conscious choice, it still must fall in the class of baser impulses that civilized and moral persons ought to deny.
That’s my main point, and I don’t want subsequent discussion to dilute it. I’m an incurably curious person, though, and there’s a lot of intriguing material in the comments. I can’t resist probing the matter to see what else I can learn. I think the discussion might be a facilitated if I proceed from the provisional assumption that I’m right, and then you guys can take my points and either agree with them or rip them up as you see fit. Don’t be shy, I cut my Internet teeth on talk.origins and alt.atheism, I can take it. I’ve learned a lot from getting beat up in the past. 🙂
“Homophobia is not natural, it’s learned.” Well, maybe. Bear in mind that I’m saying homophobia—as in, an aversion to homosexual intercourse—is a natural feeling, not necessarily a universal feeling. Counterexamples will abound, and indeed there may be much homophobia that is learned or otherwise absorbed from one’s social context. Nor do I think it’s necessarily true that “natural vs. learned” is a clear-cut dichotomy. Genetics only plays a partial role in who we are and how we turn out, and environmental factors aren’t really a separate process. It’s possible there could be an interaction between the two, with an instinctive affinity for learning some notions more easily than others.
In any case, from the homophobe’s point of view, it feels the same whether it’s instinctive or conditioned, and the homophobe’s responsibility to manage such feelings is the same regardless of whether nature or nurture takes the greater part of the blame. If I suddenly get the urge to pee, that’s a thoroughly natural impulse, but as a civilized adult I have a certain responsibility not to just wet all over your sofa or whatever. Make the strongest case you can for homophobia, make it as natural and instinctive as you want, it doesn’t matter, we’re still responsible for controlling ourselves.
Now, that said, I have to admit that Martha raised a point I hadn’t considered, and while other people have had good things to say, this may be the point that would change my mind.
I remember learning, by accident through a women’s magazine, what it actually meant that my parents were having sex. I was 12, massively naive, and very disturbed by the idea.
That’s right—kids are often completely grossed out by the thought of sexual intercourse when they first find out how it works. I hadn’t connected this with the “ooo, ick” reaction of homophobia, but the case could be made that the two are analogous at least. On the other hand, I might adapt my position and say that the kids’ reaction is also perfectly natural, though neither permanent nor mature. Maybe homophobia is a similarly under-developed state? Maybe it’s just a phase that people can grow through, and outgrow? That sounds both reasonable and promising, I like it.
“What are your sources?” Purely anecdotal, with all of the liabilities that implies. I’m not defending homophobia, or trying to polish it up or make excuses for it. I’m taking a position that a lot of anti-gay people might take, and I’m saying “Look, even if it is natural, it excuses nothing. Be a homophobe if you like, but you still have a moral responsibility not to let your baser, selfish instincts overrule other people’s right to respect and individual liberty.”
“Homophobe = aversion to gay sex” vs “homophobe = hates & oppresses gays” Good point, the word can be used in both senses, and I’m speaking strictly in the sense of the first definition of course. Nor, again, am I in any sense defending or excusing homophobia. I’m not saying “homophobes of the world unite” or “stand up for your right to be a homophobe.” Cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are natural too; that doesn’t make them good. Even if everybody in the world were naturally homophobic, that would not justify discrimination against gays, nor would it diminish their right to full expression of their sexuality just like everyone else.
“You’re happy being repulsed by homosexuality, and you don’t intend for that to ever change.” That’s an understandable reaction, and I don’t blame anyone for saying so. As far as I can tell I have no particular commitment to staying homophobic, and if my feelings do change some day I won’t miss being prejudiced. But on the other hand I will declare and defend the principle that I do not need to change who I am or what I feel, just as I declare and defend the principle that gays and lesbians do not need to change who they are or what they feel. We need to change what we do, if our actions oppress others, but it’s ok to be what we are.
Tolerance means putting up with the rough edges of others even when you don’t approve of the rough edges. If someone can’t ever imagine themselves losing their aversion to homosexuality, I’m going to say, “that’s ok with me, as long as you give others the same respect and tolerance as I give you.” And that’s why I’m telling my story, so that we can say, “Look, you know how to do this already, this is basic civility and self-control and morality.” Not everyone can give up their prejudice all at once, but perhaps some of them might at least learn to rein it it, if we leave them an opening. That’s what I’m shooting for here.