Sunday, July 13, 2014

Not My Definitive Post on Assimilation

... Nor was this. But I'm getting there.  I'm having trouble with Suzanna Danuta Walters's The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).  As readers of this blog will know, I'm sympathetic to her position, having written critically on the same topic many times.  But already, just a few pages in, I'm hitting some stumbling blocks.  For example:
No civil rights movement worthy of the name has banked its future on being tolerated or accepted.  Women didn't demurely request tolerance; they demanded voting rights and pay equity.  African Americans continue to struggle not for some bizarre "acceptance" of their skin tone but instead for an end to discrimination in work, in schools, in housing, in the judicial system.  They want, as do all these groups, full and deep integration and inclusion in the American dream.  Disabled Americans don't want to be tolerated; they want streets made accessible to them and laws strong enough to protect them from discrimination [12-13].
Walters has already indulged in an analysis of what "tolerance" and "acceptance" mean, but all the key terms in this passage are just as loaded and ambiguous: "integration" and "inclusion," for example, to say nothing of "discrimination" and "rights."  I've criticized this kind of linguistic determinism before, whether it's espoused by academics or by laypeople: the etymology of a word tells you its history, not its meaning, let alone its use.  Most people, including academics, aren't very clear as to the meanings of the slogans they brandish.  They adopt them because they're timely, in the air, and sound good to them.

Aside from that, it's not obvious to me that the current gay movement puts "tolerance" and "acceptance" ahead of demands for rights and equality and an end to discrimination.  "Rights," "equality," and "discrimination" are frequently invoked in the drive for marriage, entry to the military, and calls for the passage of ENDA, as well as in areas such as religion where they aren't especially relevant.  "Acceptance" and "tolerance" wouldn't have been particularly relevant to the women's movement because women were already part of everyone's everyday life, whereas gays were largely invisible and presumed to have no connection to straights.  "Tolerance" was part of the rhetoric of the movement for African-American equality, though like everything else it was contested.  Martin Luther King Jr. said to an interviewer, for example, "How could there be anti-semitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice?" (quoted in A Testament of Hope [HarperOne, 2003], 370).  He also described how "a situation that many had predicted would be the end of the [Montgomery Improvement Association] left it more united than ever in the spirit of tolerance" (ibid., 454).  It wasn't a central theme of his, but he did use it as a term of approval.

 "Civil rights" has come to be understood as referring to the rights of black people only, which supports what I just said about people not understanding what their buzzwords mean.  It's no wonder that many hostile people have come to think that "gay rights" refers to some supposed "special rights" for gay people, when it's at best shorthand for "the civil rights of gay people," and that's still misleading because civil rights laws cover majorities as well as minorities: whites as well as blacks, straights as well as gays.  Many gay people have been surprised when they found out that, when "sexual orientation" was added to civil rights ordinances, they couldn't discriminate against straight people, or even against bisexuals.  And civil rights are only a subset of what any movement for social justice must concern itself with.

Walters must also know that movements for social justice have always been divided internally, not just about tactics but about goals.  Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Dubois represented different conceptions about the struggle for black equality, as did Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.  Feminists have always been divided between radicals, liberals, and conservatives, as have advocates for homosexuals.  Walters mentions Magnus Hirschfeld (once), but I haven't gotten far enough yet to know whether she realizes how different the post-1945 European homosexual movement and organizations have been from her ideal of a "civil rights movement worthy of the name."  It seems that her political analysis is less than fully informed historically.  (So, it appears, is her account of what "how it went" to come out in a major American city in the 1970s, which is reminiscent of skewed accounts I've addressed before.)  I'm sympathetic to her complaints, but already she evinces conceptual muddling that forebodes hard reading ahead.  I will try to finish the book, though.