PUBLIC EMOTIONS and JUST DEBATE (1)

Nurturing Justice 2 2006 25 October

In this and the next issue, I want to discuss why recent calls for “gay marriage” from the Greens and Judge Michael Kirby miss the point. But first, in introducing the topic, I want to draw attention to the emotional aspect of this debate. We need to think about this if we are going to make a positive and constructive Christian contribution to discussing marriage law and whether justice might require civil union legislation of some kind.
On a global scale we are weathering the storms of terrorism and, closer to home, political talk in the media and with our neighbours is often peppered with references to how some public official has been afraid to act in some way because of “political correctness”. Then there are also our own emotions when we suspect that our political views on some or other topic will not be well received in some quarters.

As much as public life is now filled with fear, we might also discern an increased reticence on the part of many to express their fears in public. So let’s spend some time thinking about this seemingly paradoxical situation. We need to develop a better understanding of the social and psychological aspects of political debate as we rethink our political theories and preferred policies.

When we confront “gay politics” we regularly hear accusations of ‘homophobia’. The term is often used by activists seeking to pin-point a mindset that has the potential of generating, or re-generating, fear (hence phobia) about homosexuals and homosexuality. But it is highly ambiguous.

In other debates the term ‘Islamophobia’ is used in a similar way with respect to Muslims. If you follow the debates you may see some similarities in how the label is used to pre-empt some or other, presumed negative, viewpoint. Often the suffix “phobia” is consonant with a view that the homophobe or the Islamophobe is really afraid of some inner desire that they are trying to suppress by externalising the ‘threat’. An examination of this psychological viewpoint can keep for another occasion.

Any open and public announcement by any group that homosexuality is wrong these days seems likely to run into the accusation that they want to exclude homosexuals from public life. Such an announcement will be viewed as an attack on the identity, the self-definition, of homosexuals. As a result, those organisations which do not accept homosexuality as a life-style option among their members, are sometimes pressured to keep such views out of the public realm. But then a deeper problem emerges – if the view that homosexuality is wrong is privatised, then it cannot be adequately debated. The debate about homosexuality is then malformed. But the debate needs to be open and it needs to be public.

The shift that has occurred with respect to public standards (polite behaviour) is pronounced. Homosexuals are no longer prevented from identifying themselves in the public domain if they wish to do so. They are no longer required by “polite society” to keep their homosexuality private. But what is the grounds upon which this public shift has taken place?

These days it would seem that an open democratic society will attempt to avoid “exclusion” – no sector of the population need be excluded from public life – there are however unresolved ambiguities in how this “inclusion” is implemented. “Inclusion” means a willingness to accept “inclusive” values, and that is close to the nub of the problem with respect to the ‘homophobia’ label. The label in the arsenal of the political activists not only becomes an endorsement of “gay rights”, an announcement of victory, but it assumes that those who do not accept homosexuality as a moral life-style should keep their views private. No further debate is necessary. The legalizing of “gay marriage” is then viewed as the logical and historical endorsement of this enlightened majority acceptance of inclusive values.

But the “gay rights” argument, with the homophobia label, consistently runs things together too quickly. There are important questions that need teasing out. For instance, should any group of people be excluded from public life because they are afraid? This is the point where we can identify perhaps a public justice moment in the “gay rights” agenda. Public policy these days recognises the possibility that fear about the exposure of one’s way of life (or private life) may prevent some citizens from full participation. “Inclusion” policies seek to overcome the fears that many minorities (including homosexuals and the so-called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community) experience. The inclusive rationale when applied to “gay rights” goes likes this: those who have felt compelled to keep their sexual identity private have often been inhibited from making the kind of public contribution they could have made if they were not afraid of being “outed.” Hence a special effort is to be made to ensure that the public domain welcomes diversity. All are welcome.

There is a problem here. If it is ‘homophobia’ that now should be kept private, policies which require the inclusion of the “LGBTI community” may succeed only in implementing a new style of emotional exclusion. Let me get at this problem by putting this question: why should fear about the fear of homosexuality be given priority over a fear of homosexuality? Why is it that some fears can be given a special privilege in public policy (i.e. the fear about homophobia) while other fears (i.e. fear of homosexual proclivities) are to be excluded or repressed? How can some fears be viewed on the side of justice while other fears are excluded? What kind of slope are we on if our public life now is geared to ensure that only the right kind of fears are allowed to be expressed? Is there no public place left for the honest (and fear-less) statement about one’s fears, whatever those fears may be?

Yes, previously a homosexual person was expected to fear exposure and thus induced to avoid making the relationship public. Now, however, the label homophobia seems to indicate that it is those who oppose homosexuality – for whatever reason – who are expected to be afraid and thus should keep their fears private or else they will be “outed” as homophobes. The implication is that anyone who is afraid of homosexuality should see themselves as deviant and thus “exclude” themselves from full public participation – homophobes are expected now to do what homosexuals were expected to do previously – keep their status private.

That I suggest is part of the flawed logic that very often accompanies the use of the homophobia label. The problem is that the label is a blocking device, a tactical label which prevents debate. To challenge the label we need only to ask: Why should it be disrespectful to give honest expression to fear about homosexuality? Why should people who have a way of life that teaches them to steer clear of homosexuality have to fear explaining themselves?

Perhaps the wise way is to spend more time developing public policies about human sexuality that comprehensively explains sexuality as God’s gift to marriage should have an impact on the entirety public policy. Christians need to spend time developing a comprehensive political world-view that takes account of marriage and family, household and friendship. We need to avoid a political voice that only reacts when “gay rights” advocacy gets moving. We need to be wise and avoid giving extra stick to the homophobic label. As Christians, we should not be afraid of homosexuals, or of anyone, as we seek to find a way to express our understanding of the gospel for political life. But as Christians we should be aware of the way that fear can prevent fellow citizens from living the lives and contributing publicly to our political debates. We should also expose the unhealthy manipulation of fear or of the fear of fear. And we should examine ourselves and our rhetoric in this regard.

Politics is about open debate. We citizens may disagree with each other, but the point is to find a way by which we can keep discussing as we disagree. We need to avoid treating fellow citizens as of no account because they disagree with us, and certainly should not exclude their voice from our attention because they have different fears to us. We should certainly keep an eye and ear open for those who are afraid, for whatever reason, of expressing their views.

BCW Republished with slight editing 31.3.17

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