Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Demons Also Believe, and Tremble

I've gotten bogged down in a post that's turning out to be longer and more complicated than I expected, so let me interrupt myself and talk about something that I hope is simpler and more manageable.

Recently I was one of a GLB panel speaking to a university class on human sexuality, and the perennial "Do you think you were born that way?" question was asked.  The other speakers said that they aren't much concerned with why they are gay, and I've noticed that increasing numbers of our volunteers seem to be taking that position of late.  (Without pressure from me, I should mention: none of the speakers that day had spoken with me before, and we disagree on some other points.)  I spoke critically of the scientific research that has been adduced in support of the "born that way" position, and the instructor (a graduate student, and one of our volunteers) said something wryly about Simon LeVay having been "demonized" for arguing that homosexuality is innate and inborn.  I don't remember now whether he said this directly or reported LeVay's own complaint of having been demonized, but it doesn't make much difference: what matters here is the accusation that LeVay has been demonized for his work.

I disagreed, first of all because while LeVay has certainly been criticized, most gay people as far as I know, and many if not most of his scientific colleagues have lionized him.  His work is still widely cited as evidence that homosexuality is biologically determined, despite its known flaws and the fact that it hasn't been replicated.  (I mentioned this in class, and the instructor didn't disagree.)   Biological determinism is still trendy, and its adherents love to cast themselves as modern-day Galileos, persecuted for fearlessly following the truth wherever it leads -- even though none have been shown the instruments of torture that will be used on them if they don't recant, and most seem to be enjoying unimpeded scientific and academic careers.

It may be that LeVay has been demonized by antigay bigots who reject efforts to establish homosexuality as an involuntary condition like, say, spina bifida rather than a rebellion against Yahweh.  This religious writer declares what I suspect is a false equivalence, urging that "People on both sides of the debate need to make strenuous efforts to defuse their hostility and to demythologize their understanding of each other as 'hate-filled bigots.'"  ("Demythologize"?)  If so, LeVay shouldn't take it personally; I don't.  Religious reactionaries demonize everybody; it's part of their toolkit.

But I doubt that the instructor, or LeVay, had such people primarily in mind.  Standard operating procedure in the Science Wars is for biological determinists to evade scientific criticism of their work by accusing their critics of being anti-science, blank-slate, hysterical Marxists and/or feminists.  Critics of born-gay theories are accused of believing that homosexuality is a choice, which is presumably meant to smear the critics by association with religious bigots; social constructionism is also routinely assumed to declare homosexuality a choice.  Whatever the motivation, the accusation is false.  It's interesting, when you consider scientific apologists stress science's supposed sensitivity to falsification and correction, that it nevertheless continues to be used so often.  It's not a fringe tactic either, but quite mainstream.

I agree, of course, that demonizing people whose positions one disagrees with is bad form.  And while it's generally a good idea to moderate one's rhetoric as much as possible in debate, I don't agree that calling someone a bigot is necessarily demonizing them, especially when they set the tone with immoderate language themselves.  It's perfectly legitimate to call someone a bigot after you've refuted their arguments and established that whatever motivates them, it isn't reason or evidence.  But if we're going to use immoderate rhetoric, we'd better be able to take it as well as dish it out.  We expect our opponents to do the same, after all.

Understand, I'm not accusing the instructor of being mean.  Quite the contrary: he let me and the other panelists have our say, and none of us took the born-gay position.  I'm just a bit perplexed by his remark: it wasn't mean, it just seemed irrelevant.