Thursday, March 14, 2019

Born Free

I stumbled on a video clip from the Jimmy Fallon Show, featuring a couple of comedy characters invented and played by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon.  It took me a few minutes to figure out exactly what was going on, but eventually I did.  (Here's an explanation for those who, like me, are not up to the minute on pop culture.)

At one point Ferrell's character announces emphatically that he's "single by choice," though he respects "a woman's choice not to want to go out with me."  Of course what he meant was that he's not single because no one wants him, it's his decision.  But what immediately occurred to me was that he, and I, and everybody except for conjoined twins, is born single.  Being in a couple is a lifestyle choice, being single is in our DNA.

Yes, I know, this was comedy, but I'm not analyzing Ferrell's character's claim as a philosophical position.  I'm interested in it as it refers to a popular motif.  One of many reasons why the whole "born this way" shtick annoys me is that it blurs distinctions that matter.  What, for example, does it mean to be "born gay"?  What proponents generally mean is "conceived gay," which is why they are still hunting the ever-elusive Gay Gene.  Or the Gay Epigene.

It's seldom stated baldly, but in many cultures, including the US until fairly recently, marriage has been not so much a choice as a duty.  Some might shirk it, and the call to celibacy could be a useful lever in doing so, but you had to have a damn good excuse: if not divine appointment then having lost one's testicles in the war or having had a hysterectomy.  Matrimony was just natural, you know? (Some of today's Christians are trying to claim that having a homosexual temperament constitutes a call to celibacy, much as Roman Catholics might find that an inconveniently unruly woman had such a call and so could be forced into a convent.)  Remember, the whole point of social construction theory is that what is called "natural," built into the structure of humanity if not of the universe, is in fact the result of human will and decisions.

Back in the old days, dating to the early days of the Modern Homosexual but still when I was scouring libraries for information about homosexuality in the 60s and 70s, the medical profession often distinguished between "situational" homosexuality and "obligatory" (I think that was the term) homosexuality.  "Situational" meant prison and other homosocial environments, where the other sex was unavailable by policy or stereotype.  The assumption was that once the inmates had access, they would revert to heterosexuality (though this was not always true).  "Obligatory" meant that because of inborn temperament or perverted upbringing, a person was uninterested in the other sex even when it was available, and so had to be an invert.  But this, it seems to me, is what "choice" actually means: I have access to members of the other sex, but I choose members of my own.  I could put it in Christian terms: like those who are "called" to celibacy, I am called to be queer, and single.  But that also means that I choose them.  People make all kinds of choices for all kinds of reason, and we are usually not required to explain why unless someone wants us to make others.  Rather than justify ourselves, we should make them justify themselves.

People who are bent on splitting themselves in half will continue to insist that their sexual desires and behavior are imposed on them, externally by Nature or internally by Gay Gene.  The reasoning resembles the endless regress of some of the the traditional arguments for the existence of God: everything has to have a cause, and when you get to the first cause it's either God or if you're a scientist, the genes.  (The biologist Susan Oyama has shown how genetic determinists have largely secularized the First Cause by assigning it to biology. That doesn't make it a valid argument.)  Maybe everything does have a cause, but we don't always know what it is, and maybe we never will.  Maybe the craving to assign causes is one of those limits of the human brain/mind, an itch that some people feel compelled to scratch unceasingly.  But not everyone does, and there's no reason why we should have to.