Wednesday, August 15, 2007

William Richardson on Logo/HRC Presidential Debate

I usually try not to get my politics from the Daily Show, not because I think there's something wrong with their politics, really, but because I try to be a little more responsible than that.

(Also, I hate crowd noises and yelling, and the soundscape of the show really bugs me, despite my enjoyment of its humor. Furthermore, one of their Moments of Zen so scarred me that I would not turn on Comedy Central for literally about two years, for fear of seeing it again.)

However, the hubs is an addict so it generally provides an irritable-making backdrop for my getting ready for work in the morning. I should be listening to windchimes and falling water, with the way work's been. But no. Crowds and yelling.

Anyway... this morning's repeat of yesterday's show, featuring a real boner by William Richardson from the Logo/HRC debate in one of its segments, got me thinking. First the quote:

Melissa Etheridge (WTF? But pretty speaking voice, OMG): "Do you think homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?"

William Richardson (bluntly and decisively): "It's a choice."
Now... obviously that was a dumb answer, at least politically unsavvy to an extreme. If nothing else, know your surroundings, and know your audience. I would have admired his brass balls, if he had any, but a later press release claimed that jet lag made it impossible for him to understand the question. Not too ballsy, no.

However, biological homosexuality is one of those irritant concepts for me, one that makes me secrete the intellectual nacre that hopefully will form pearls of wisdom, or at least something interesting and not too noxious. I think it's poorly proven, I think it's insulting to the community (although the community may not agree with me), and I think it's absurdly "nature vs. culture."

The obvious starting point for a more savvy answer to that question, at least for me, would be, "That's a false dichotomy."

So, without further ado...

That's a false dichotomy. You cannot place nature and culture into tension in this day and age... that debate has been exploded for many decades.

The notion of homosexuality is a cultural one. Cultural ideas have their times and places of context. For instance, the people of some cultures switch what we Americans would think of as their sexual preference with their life cycles... in some places in Melanesia, boys traditionally, ritually fellate adult men to develop their own adulthood, for instance. Also, definitions are fraught with lots of cultural spin. For instance, in present-day Brazil, the person doing the penetrating is conceptually "straight" and the receiver is "gay." What we think of in the U. S. as an absolute (and one that hypertrophically defines the sense of self... "gay" becomes the very first adjective selected to self-describe someone who is "out") is actually a collection of related notions artificially constrained by cultural expectation.

The same is true of the notion of biology. We think of "science" as a great force in defining what we "know." Frankly, we don't "know" beans... almost all studies of humans, particularly human behavior, even more particularly behavior about which humans are emotional and self-conscious, are way too problematic to take for granted. We cannot isolate cause and effect neatly, as we can in a lab. Take the bizarre notions surrounding food and health... Let me cite one particularly dramatic example from Marion Nestle's What to Eat:

The idea that eating soy might prevent heart disease or any other condition is based on wonderfully reductive logic:

  • Asians have low rates of heart disease (or menopausal or other health problems)
  • Asians eat soybeans.
  • Soybeans contain proteins, fiber, and isoflavones.
  • Soy proteins, fiber, or isoflavones must be responsible for the good health of Asians. (p. 135)
In short, those claims on your soyfood packages are kinda bunk. Sure, they MIGHT be right, but it would be almost by accident if they were. The same is true of corporate-sponsored studies that state that, say, milk consumption helps you lose weight... only they are even fishier, since they are concocted with cupidity and malice and fostered to raise consumption of a product proven to be harmful in DIRECT ways. Let's not get into dairy right now, though.

Just ... well, once phrenology would have told us that People Of Color Have Different Cognitive Capacity Than Whites. We know better. Phrenology was then considered science; now it's not. None of us want to go back to that time (at least none of us that I am willing to speak with.) Why would we want to go to a time with a "gay gene?" What's wrong with just being who we are, members of our society with different sexual and social preferences and quirks, without an identity "tag" that shouldn't necessarily be the business of casual acquaintances supposedly determining us for a whole suite of cultural predispositions and tastes in everything from foods (quiche, anyone?) to movies (the Wizard of Oz comes to mind) to not-necessarily-relevant political identities (not to be reductive, but what does abortion really have to do with gay rights, aside from aggregation in the same party?)... And why would we want to see ourselves as lacking in volition or choice (particularly with the rugged American individualism equating choice with patriotism... which is uniquely destructive when corporately steered, but that's another rant entirely.)

Biology is funny that way; it's a convenient way of saying what we believe using arguments we can construct with the (sometimes comically erroneous) authority of "science."

So, no, it is not biological, at least not convincingly so. And it is not necessarily the product of one's will, free of cultural externalities, pressures, and notions, i.e. "choice." What we are looking at is a cultural cluster of ideas adding up to "homosexuality" bisected by a cultural construction of "science" -- biology, in this case -- and complicated by a highly charged political and cultural concept of "freedom" -- i.e., "choice."

Stupid question, but frustratingly slippery and emotionally tangled by people wanting to blame their social tensions on a single, immutable (except by eugenics, which, again, only the horrible among us want) "biological" trigger. I find the notions of A.D.D., chronic biological dependencies, and clinical depression just as mistaken and just as alarming as underpinnings of political debate. Let's move on.

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