Friday, February 22, 2013

THE HOMOPHOBIC MIND;  Part One: Religious and Philosophical Aspects

A1.  Homosexuality is unnatural.

A.  The Charge. Being heterosexual means doing “what comes naturally.”  As Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George opined early in 2013 that is the “way that nature operates.”  In a Christmas message a few weeks before, Pope Benedict XVI decried gay marriage, saying that it destroyed the “essence of the human creature.”  He stressed that a person’s gender identity is God-given and unchangeable.  Those seeking to institute gay marriage are engaging in a “manipulation of human nature.” 

"People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being," the pontiff declared.  "They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves." The pope singled out a precept of feminist author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir — “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” — stigmatizing it as "the foundation for what is put forward today under the term 'gender' as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious." 

Through long-standing practice the law has added its authoritative voice to this discussion.  The “crime against nature” is an expression documented in published cases in the United States since 1814.  Historically, the scope of this designation is broad, embracing a series of behaviors, including same-sex acts, anal sex, bestiality, incest, miscegenation, and necrophilia. 

The expression "crime against nature" has also served as a synonym for sodomy or buggery.   These last acts are prime instances of departure from Nature’s ordinances.

B.  Historical Background.  As Raymond Williams observed in Keywords (New York, 1976), the term "nature" is one of the most complex in the language; it is also one of the most dangerous.

Here we must attend also to the force of the emotionally charged antonym: the "unnatural," which needs to be distinguished from the supernatural and the praetematural, from second nature, and from the peculiarly Thomistic concept of the "connatural" (which, as the personal and habitual, stands in a kind of intermediate zone between the natural and the unnatural).

The ancient Greek word for nature, physis, was unique to that language and to Hellenic thought; no equivalent can be found in the Semitic and Oriental languages, or in other intellectual traditions. The term physis derives from a verb meaning "to grow," and hence retains strong connotations of organic completeness and development toward a goal. The primary notion of physis is a magical, autonomous life force manifesting itself not only in the creation and preservation of the universe, but even in the properties and character traits of species and individuals. Thus in medical usage it even leads into the sphere of the pharmacopoeia and of constitutional biology.

Its use among the Greeks can be best understood in the light of three contrasting pairs of terms: physis/nomos (law or custom); physis/techne (art); kata physin/para physin (against nature). The last of these antinomies, which is of particular significance for our enquiry, received a decisively influential formulation from the aged Plato (ca. 427-347 B.C.) in his Laws. In this book the philosopher condemns same-sex relations because, unlike those in which animals naturally engage, they cannot lead to procreation (“[W[hen the male sex unites with the female for the purpose of procreation the pleasure so experienced is held to be according to nature, but when males unite with males or females with females, to be contrary to nature.”  The Laws I 636B-C; cf. also 836 B-839 A).

During the Hellenistic period this Greek idea found its way into the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (a set of documents of evolving Judaism) and into the apologetic writings of Philo Judaeus, who equated the Mosaic Law with the "law of nature." These texts served to transmit the idea into the New Testament with the fateful formulation of Romans 1:26-27, which speaks of changing "the natural use to that which is unnatural." In due course, this language - which in the Pauline text cited sets the stage for a condemnation of male homosexuality - made its way into other contexts, including that of jurisprudence.

The path for this development was smoothed by the earlier Roman acceptance of the concept of "natural law," defined by Cicero as "right reason in agreement with nature." Cicero ascribed this law to God, hence giving legal standing to Biblical injunctions in the eyes of Christian interpreters, and went on to insist that "it is a sin to try to alter this law. "On the other hand, the Christians tended to overlook Cicero's statement that in practice God is also the enforcing judge of natural law; that role they took on themselves. The twelfth-century groundswell of interpretation of Roman law and canon law had a major emphasis on natural law perspectives, both classical and Christian. Natural law underpinned arguments justifying anti-homosexual legislation through­out the Middle Ages and into early modern times, when its legacy passed from church to secular penology, retaining much of its influence. This secularization notwithstanding, natural-law arguments play a major role today in the continuing Roman Catholic condemnation of homosexual behavior.

It is curious that the notion of "crime against nature," familiar to us from the penal codes of the American states, did not figure in Henry VIII's English statute of 1533 or its successors.  Yet Sir Edward Coke did include the expression in his seventeenth-century Institutes and Reports, whence it passed into the Anglo-American legal tradition.

In medieval Europe the semantically iridescent concept of natura was perpetuated and even given some new variations and imagery by moralists (Peter Damian), literary figures (Bernard Silvestre, Alan of Lille, and Jean de Meun), and philosophers (Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas). Later French usage coined the adjective antiphysique (taken into English in the rare "antiphysical") for unnatural sexual behavior.

Eighteenth-century aesthetics saw a broad shift from a view of nature as rule-obeying and rule-enforcing to one in which the awesome complexity and sovereign fecundity of nature was emphasized.  This new orientation fostered the admiration which naturalists of today profess for the unspoiled wilderness, untrodden by man and unaltered by human hands. This shift is part of the change from neo-Classicism to Romanticism. By providing a more flexible definition of nature the new approach gave the idea new life as a normative (though more diffuse) principle.

The nineteenth and twentieth century witnessed a curious paradox.  Conservative thinkers were generally unwavering in denouncing homosexuality as "unnatural" (Ezra Pound), while for their part some homophile apologists revived the ancient Hippocratic definition to claim that homosexuality is inborn and thus "natural" (K. H. Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld).  Today progressive thought favors natural foods and the environmental protection of nature, causes that would seem clearly to be valuable.  But a latent conflict persists, for the sexual freedom and tolerance that the progressive sector cherishes have been historically denounced as "unnatural."

Recent years have seen the rise of the New Natural Law theorists in the academic world. The best known figures in this trend are Robert P. George of Princeton and John Finnis of Oxford.  While these writers tend to accept the precepts of revealed religion (Christianity), they believe that many of the same results - though probably not all of them - can be achieved by the pure processes of reasoning.  They thus leave some wiggle room for a more nuanced approach to same-sex orientation, though it is clear that they are not friendly to it. 

C.  Response.  If nature is truly all-embracing, it is impossible to depart from it. Only things that do not exist at all, such as centaurs and phlogiston, would be unnatural. In this perspective, the supposed criterion of naturalness provides no means for separating existing acts that are judged licit from those regarded as illicit; some yardstick other than "naturalness" - since all acts possess that attribute - must be supplied.

Another approach classifies some things within the world as natural, while other are not. In practice, though, this binarism runs the risk of being culture-bound and subjective. Thus clothing, cosmetics, and airplanes have been some­times stigmatized as unnatural. Perhaps they are. But then it is hard to see how, say, life-saving heart surgery can be regarded as anything other than an unnatural intervention in an otherwise inevitable process. How many proponents of "naturalness" would be willing to revert to a Stone Age economy and Stone Age medicine?

In order to buttress their position, opponents of "unnatural" sex need to demonstrate that they have at their disposal a comprehensive and even-handed theory of the natural and its opposite. What usually happens in practice is that some other assumption, or assumptions, are imported to provide a basis of decision. Thus the natural-unnatural contrast becomes essentially a rhetorical device that supplies a pseudo-confirmation of moral presuppositions reached on quite other grounds.

Another critique reflects the fact that the image of Natura is a survival of the mother goddess figures of pagan antiquity, in which God is the male principle of creation and "Nature" the female counterpart. Discarding such relics of polytheism, modern scientific thought does not concern itself with the supposed "purposes" or "aims" of nature, and in general rejects teleological concepts as empirically undemonstrable. The standard claim is that nature has intended sexuality solely for the purpose of procreation and that any sexual pleasure obtained from non-procreative activity is therefore "unnatural" and wrongful. To this assertion it can be rejoined that only a tiny fraction of all human sexual activity has reproductive consequences, and that to restrict it to such a narrow goal would doom most of the population to virtually lifelong abstinence - though the ascetic ideal would regard such a state of affairs as a desirable end.

From a scientific perspective, the debate over the "naturalness" of homosexuality was joined by the eminent sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey.  Maintaining that norms of naturalness are in the last analysis historically contingent and arbitrary, Kinsey concluded that anything sexual that can be done is natural. The older arguments deployed by theologians and moralists were, in his view, accompanied by a considerable charge of emotionality. "This has been effected, in part, by synonymizing the terms clean, natural, normal, moral, and right, and the terms un­clean, unnatural, abnormal, immoral, and wrong."

A key feature of traditional efforts to affirm the nature standard in human sexuality has been gender dimorphism:  the idea that male and female are completely distinct, each in its own way devoted to the pursuit of the opposite sex. Ostensibly, this binarism is an absolute norm.  Thus has it always been and thus it always will be. Yet more recent biological studies have indicated that there are intermediate types.  In this light some researchers have concluded there are more than two genders - as many as five.  Others, who would not go that far, acknowledge that the traditional categories are too rigid, and provide an incomplete picture of the full range of human variation.  Even focusing on the male and female poles of the spectrum, we find considerable variations within each category.  This new concept of fluidity of gender leads inexorably to a recognition of the complexities of sexual orientation.  That too may be fluid.  It seems increasingly clear then that there are no fixed roles assigned to the genders.

Other perspectives have been disclosed by Queer Theory, though these remain controversial. The term “gender performativity” was advanced by the post-structuralist theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble.  She characterizes gender as the effect of reiterated acting, a pattern that produces the impression of a stable or normal gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender posture.  According to Butler, this gambit flourishes within a much larger sphere of performativity. Earlier exponents of a similar approach had written of the dramaturgic model of social relations.  In this view we are always enacting roles rather than following any fixed imperatives of behavior.

Anthropologists have reported homosexuality in many tribal societies (presumably "close to nature"); a wide range of ethologists have described homosexuality among other species (presumed more "natural"); and theorists in sociobiology have sought to provide an evolutionary rationale for human homosexuality. Perhaps as a reflection of these efforts as well as of other scientific embarrassments involving earlier cultural assumptions about "naturalness," it is no longer scientifically respectable to maintain the argument against homosexuality as "unnatural." This development has not yet had a major impact on Judeo-Christian homophobia,  popular demagogic rhetoric, and public opinion among the less educated.   Over time, though, this improved understanding may be expected to undermine the credibility of the position that "homosexuality is unnatural."

As regards the law, the 2003 US Supreme Court decision in the Lawrence case invalided the remaining provisions in the law of some states sanctioning the so-called “crime against nature.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY. A. P. d'Entrèves, Natural Law, London: Longmans, 1951; Alfred C. Kinsey, et al., "Concepts of Normality and Abnormality in Sexual Behavior," in P. H. Hoch and J. Zubin, eds., Psychological Development in Health and Disease, New York: Grune and Stratton, 1949, pp. 11-32; C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960, pp. 24-74; Arthur O. Lovejoy, " 'Nature' as Aesthetic Norm," in his Essays in the History of Ideas, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1948, pp. 69-77; Clément Rosset, L'Anti-nature, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1973: Pim Pronk, Against Nature: Types of Moral Argumentation Regarding Homosexuality, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.


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