We often fail to incorporate scientific learning into social improvement. Consider sociology’s concept of the “Other” and our vulnerability to the dynamics it explains. By vulnerability, I mean our tendency in actual instances of dealing with those we don’t understand to react with fear, dislike, our distrust that is at variance with rational consideration. Because we take pride in our real or imagined “rational consideration,” we’re loathe to accept its being so easily overridden by instinctive susceptibility. Thus, we look for ways to feel justified that our resulting behavior is logical rather than just a product of eons of social evolution.
Who are these Others? The list of possible persons and groups is extensive. In our childhood, kids who look or sound funny, who have atypical behaviors, or even who are outstanding are prime targets. As we mature we don’t grow out of our fascination, fear, or even hate of the Other regardless of how much we think we do. We even develop more grownup ways of defining others as the Other. Race, nationality, religion, dress, language, gender, residence in another village, and sexual practice provide many ways in which we can transform any human being into the Other. It’s the last one in that list—sexual practice—that I want to dwell on here.
(I’ve addressed issues relating to gays and others of minority lifestyles in previous posts. If you are reading this on the website johnjustthinking.com, these are included in the right margin listing for Gays and other LGBTQs. But if you are reading this in the visually less polished email version—it has no listing by topics—those posts include “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017; Sunday at church on Gay Pride day,” Aug. 16, 2016; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Religious freedom to refuse service?” June 5, 2015; “What’s in a word, say, ‘marriage’?” Apr. 29, 2015; “Gay pride?” Nov. 16, 2013; and “Being civil about gay marriage,” June 30, 2013.)
With respect to any particular Other, we search out facts, rumors, confederates, or beliefs with which we can convince ourselves that rather than being enslaved by a primitive trait, our judgment is a soundly reasoned confirmation. In the case of treatment of gays by straights (or by gays passing as straight), there are several such sources of support. Since straights are in the majority, that alone is cause enough to feel justified treating gays as second class. Since most straights grew up in societies that have castigated gays for centuries, anti-gay sentiment is given the benefit of the doubt with no rationale necessary.
Further, since many or most straights find gay sex distasteful or discomforting, that is reason enough to “know” there is something wrong with it. (It doesn’t matter that gays may have a similar revulsion to straight sex, but as always, the numbers win.) Those “facts” and beliefs, along with others I’ve omitted, are quite enough to justify in the minds of straights that their dislike, revulsion, and mistreatment cannot be blamed on something as primitive as reaction to the Other. No, that would reveal homophobia to be a frail case, one based on an archaic vestige that has us in its grip. One aspect of that grip is that validation makes us feel good about our own virtue, thereby further fortifying our position by the comfort of ego-satisfaction.
Consider, then, what is arguably the most ego-satisfying rationalization of all: that God agrees with us! Humans have long and routinely used that device—in our support of slavery, our stands against abortion, our tests for witches, and the WW2 German adornment of military belt buckles claiming Gott mit uns. Whenever we can, our case against the Other is supported by ascribing our personal attitude to God. Thus, religion provides the most durable shield used to camouflage unethical treatment of gays so that it appears thoughtfully grounded rather than an instance of pure cruelty. In a world of 4 billion Christians, Muslims, and Jews (plus religions of fewer adherents), longstanding belief is that hate of homosexuals comes not from our inherited fears or ethical bankruptcy, but from God.
Islam furnishes an unending tale of appalling treatment of gays. Recently a 17 year old Chechen boy was pushed off of a ninth floor balcony by his uncle, after being outed as gay. Muslim families participate in killing their gay kinsmen; sometimes unrelated mobs save them the trouble. At the same time, homosexuality is so reviled that politicians pretend it doesn’t exist, as did Alvi Karimov of the Chechen government, who announced recently that gays “simply don’t exist in the republic.” Most American adults remember former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making the same claim. Christians have an equally beastly history and an only slightly better present. Despite changes in recent American attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals, powerful prejudice is still with us, frequently clothed in Christian piety. By no means has the enlightenment yet arrived.
Just lately, Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi told school children that “men in dresses” are natural targets for assaults, inspiring Erick Woods Erickson of Fox News to blog that the “BLT&GQ community. . . go around making people uncomfortable. I’m really damn tired of [their] screaming about their rights and privileges when called out. If you want to go around making people uncomfortable, you’ve got the problem, not the rest of us [italics mine; JC].” Blaming the Other for one’s discomfort is both preposterous and cowardly; apparently, Enzi’s excuse is that we just can’t help it!
Mark Green, Tennessee state senator who just removed himself from consideration to be U. S. Secretary of the Army regularly spews religious animosity. His behavior has long exemplified the unholy entanglement of theology and the secular state. He brings his fundamentalist Christianity into the public’s business, including mean-spirited treatment of homosexuals. His commitment to the Bible, he said, “means as a state senator, my responsibility very clearly in Romans 13 is to create an environment where people who do right are rewarded and the people who do wrong are crushed. Evil is crushed.” That doesn’t sound so menacing unless you understand that, for Green and millions like him, “right,” “wrong,” and “evil” are defined by his idiosyncratic, punitive version of Christianity. Of course, anyone disturbed by such mixing of church and state would be inflamed even if his comment weren’t so horrid in itself.
It should not be surprising that religion—so effusively credited with goodness and morality—can be the source of so much evil. Whether other sources of malevolence, such as greed and thirst for power, are greater causes of anthropogenic pain and suffering I’m not prepared to argue. But it is completely plausible that the net good produced by religion (good that would not otherwise have been done) is less than its net damage to humanity. Homosexual persons, historically depersonalized into the Other, are among those who’ve paid—and continue to pay—the price for religion-based unfairness and ill-treatment.
To be fair, there are many religious persons whose ethics have developed beyond those whose malicious religiosity I’m complaining about. After all, malice by the majority of white Christian Americans toward blacks softened during the 19th century, then more in the 20th and 21st—though prejudice still continues. Further, malice by the majority of Christian Americans toward gays softened during the late 20th century and continues—though prejudice still continues. As far as gay treatment is concerned, the situation in majority Islamic countries is abysmal, with minimal hope of improvement. The Abrahamic religions, on average worldwide, remain mired in the superstitious and brutal past, wherein bronze age views about morality rule the day.
So what happened to my theme of the Other with which I began this post? It is this: Most if not all of the social phenomenon we sum up as the Other has a disturbing and embarrassing implication. As humanity—at least part of it—has moved on to more secular morality, leaving or ameliorating the defective morality of religion, it has become increasingly obvious that for human beings to be seen as the Other requires all those harsh ways that divide us to be the dominant factor, more important than our fairness, our good-will, our recognition of personal value . . . in short, our very humanity, else the description of the Other would not have become so accurate and helpful a concept to begin with.