Thursday, July 11, 2013

On the Third Hand ...

I just finished reading Mad Science (Transaction Publishers, 2013), and something in the concluding chapter reminded me of this meme, which amused the hell out of me when I first saw it on Facebook.  Here's what Stuart A.Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen wrote:
Why do so many people need assistance? The economy is stalled or spiraling down, fewer unskilled jobs are available and unemployment has increased, inflation-adjusted wages for the average middle-class family have not increased in two generations, record numbers of families have lost their homes, and services from nonprofits and local and state governments have been sharply cut in the Great Recession. Millions of adults and children, normally living in precarious circumstances, are now under enormous social stress. his stress does not result from the increasing incidence of brain defects, but from economic and policy defects. These people need opportunities and assistance, and social workers and mental health clinicians would like to help them with some of their problems so that they might seize opportunities or bear discomfort more constructively until circumstances improve. But to help an increasing number of these individuals today can only be done after fulfilling one enormously silly requirement: diagnose them with some form of mental disability or mental disorder [319].
I found the Poverty meme so funny because, going by prevailing ideas about stigma, if poverty isn't freely chosen, then by the process of elimination it must be involuntary, probably genetic.  But the idea that poverty is congenital has also been used to stigmatize the poor, and to justify doing nothing about them, since they are naturally, inescapably That Way.  (If you've ever heard someone "defend" gay people by asking rhetorically, "Would someone choose a 'lifestyle' that makes everybody hate them?", you've heard this line before.)  It's the basic argument of scientific racism, famously found in works like The Bell Curve, and in the remarks of academic psychologist Daniel Koshland. When asked whether the money being spent on the Human Genome Project wouldn't better be spent on the homeless, he replied, "What these people don't realize is that the homeless are impaired ... Indeed, no group will benefit more from the application of genetics" (quoted in Richard Lewontin, It Ain't Necessarily So [New York Review Books, 2001], 165). There was, and is, no evidence that the homeless are biologically "impaired," let alone that "the application of genetics" would have any effect on homelessness.  (On the other hand, the question Koshland was asked annoys me; it's like "Think of the starving children in Appalachia who'd love to have that old genetic material you're throwing away!"  Still, it elicited a revealingly stupid answer from him, so it's all good.)  And let's not forget Richard Dawkins, who believes that there's a gene "for having too many children" (The Selfish Gene, Oxford UP, 1976, p. 125), which leads to poverty or at least to abusive demands for public assistance.

I doubt that the people who made and shared the Poverty meme believe that poverty is the result of genetic impairment.  But most liberals I know buy into carefully selected offshoots of scientific racism, like biological causes for homosexuality, alcoholism and a proliferating lists of other addictions, and mental illness, for which there's no good evidence either. 

So what's the solution?  There probably isn't one, but biological determinism and lifestyle choice don't exhaust the possibilities.  In the case of poverty, there are certainly structural social factors: if the economy -- a vast abstraction -- crashes, many competent hard-working people will be dragged along with it.  Social programs can and have helped diminish poverty; "too many children" is not a fixed, absolute quantity but is relative to the current state of the economy, so that the number of children a family could support can, and has, become "too many" virtually overnight.  Social policy and programs, whether governmental or corporate, can and have created poverty and made it harder to escape, even when a crippled economy begins to recover.  We'll probably never eliminate poverty altogether, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Just as an aside, there are other answers to "Why homosexuality?" than choice/born that way.  They're not necessarily correct -- seduction theories, neo-Freudian close-binding-and-intimate-mother theories, theories about damaged gender identity, any theory that pathologizes same-sex desire and expression. Probably the basic flaw in genetic and biological theories, aside from unresolved incoherence, is their tacit assumption that homosexuality must be a specific adaptation, which leads to trying to figure out how a non-reproductive mutation could have spread and survived.  I think that homosexuality, in human and in non-human species, arises from the unspecificity of erotic pleasure and forming bonds between individuals.  Think of autoeroticism: is there a gene for it?  Almost certainly not.  We have erotically sensitive body parts, and we learn early, long before we're reproductively mature, that touching them will give us pleasure.  It also gives us pleasure if someone else touches them.  So it's not surprising that we aren't limited to heterosexual copulation to get pleasure.  We also form emotional bonds with people other than potential copulatory partners; it has often been argued that romantic love has its roots in the mother-child bond rather than anything specific to heterosexuality.  Since bonding generalizes, as does genital pleasure, it's not surprising that some individuals will form partnerships, including erotic ones with persons of their own sex, or that many individuals will seek out same-sex partners as well as other-sex partners for pleasure.

In using the word "pleasure" here I don't mean to imply that no emotion is involved -- on the contrary, as Paul Goodman observed, it's natural to befriend what gives us pleasure.  The onetime Kinsey associate C. A. Tripp argued that promiscuous people tend to be very romantic: they simply plug their sexual partners, so to speak, into their romantic fantasies.  For other people, though not all, sharing pleasure is likely to promote affection.  And for human beings, these physiological realities are combined with our symbol-using facility, which causes us to invest everything about our bodies -- sex, birth, death, excretion -- with meaning.  I don't pretend to have given a full explanation here, partly because I don't think it's important to have one.  It shouldn't be surprising, given obvious facts about human beings and our bodies -- to say nothing of the bodies of non-human species, which often couple homoerotically; or of human history, in which homosexuality is a persistent theme -- that some individuals turn out to be lovers of their own sex, whether exclusively or not.  I don't think any more than this sketch is needed.  Biology is not destiny; but we do work with the bodies we have, and it's hard for me to understand why people are so surprised that human beings, of all species, have been creative and various in our quests for pleasure and friendship.