I am entirely in agreement with the conclusions of John Corvino’s post “What Bigtroy Is”, David Link’s “Non-bigotry”, and Andrew Sullivan’s “On Bigotry.” However, I come to my conclusion on a quite different rationale.
Before going into the difference, first my views. In my 2006 book, Rising Up, I set out my basic argument for judicious use of anti-anti-gay terminology:
Sometimes my work as a writer demands that I make difficult judgment calls with language. One of the hardest calls I have had to make is when to use “homophobic” and “homophobe.” Do you call someone homophobic? Is it enough that they hold conservative religious opinions about homosexuality?
Over the course of my writing, my views on the subject have gradually shifted, in part as a result of my spiritual work and study of integral theory. Here’s my current thinking on this subject.
The dictionary tells us that homophobia is “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.” That sounds about right. But in practice, people are sometimes called “homophobic” or labeled “homophobes” for a wide variety of questionable offenses. Among the pluralist culture, I have observed “homophobe” used to dismiss folks who oppose a particular piece of controversial legislation, refuse to go along with the group think of the “in” gay population, or challenge any politically correct mode of thinking. Throwing out an ugly label like homophobe or “bigot” can therefore become a mean-spirited technique of verbal abuse.
At the same time, there is a definite group think among elements of traditionalist culture that refuse to acknowledge the existence of homophobia at all. They deny homophobic prejudice under such euphemisms as “moral objections to behavior,” “defending marriage,” “protecting children,” and so forth. They insist that in their moral purity there is no fearful, hateful, or otherwise mean-spirited intention behind any of their thoughts or words. Many of them will go on about the many gay friends they allegedly have, and they may even announce that they haven’t a homophobic bone in their body. (If you’re gay, you’ve heard those little numbers before many times, usually right before you get slammed in the face with a horrendous piece of verbal abuse.)
The writer’s dilemma: How do you speak the truth in the face of a world where the same thing that pluralists see as homophobic bigotry, the traditionalists see as moral values? Note that I said speak the truth here, not try to skirt around the issue with a fake veneer of supposed journalistic objectivity as some folks occasionally try to do.
My answer is to say that both the pluralists and the traditionalists are right, up to a point. To the traditionalist, an attack on homosexuality is free, at least on a conscious level, from fear or hatred. It should be understood that, broadly speaking, traditionalists have not evolved in their moral awareness away from an ethnocentric-based awareness, and therefore do not yet recognize the suffering that their words and deeds cause to others outside the bounds of their myth-based constructions of reality.
And to the pluralist, an attack on homosexuality is insensitive, hurtful, nasty, and mean. It should be understood that pluralists have typically not yet evolved to a developmental perspective that is capable of integrating the traditionalist stage of awareness in a healthy way. Consequently, pluralists react out of anger rather than compassion, because they’ve failed to grasp that the views of traditionalists are conditioned by their relative level of moral immaturity.
One group is totally justified in calling a given action homophobic or bigoted, and the other group is totally justified in refusing to acknowledge the validity of the label. There is conflict.
An integral approach to writing about homophobia in the midst of this culture war is to tell the truth, responsibly, with sensitivity to the widest number of contexts that you can include. Sometimes this looks like calling a spade a spade, and other times it means learning how to let a spade be a spade.
Integral may look like telling a conservative religionist (read: traditionalist) that her ugly, ignorant remark is homophobic–or calling her a homophobe. It’s a responsible way of suggesting that she is creating disharmony that should be stopped. Integral may look like telling a left-wing gay activist (read: pluralist/egocentrist) that his vitriolic, mean-spirited remarks are unhelpful, overblown, or even anti-religious bigotry. Integral often means inaction: refusing to get drawn into counter-responses that perpetuate the karmic cycles of the suffering of existence. And integral may look like something else entirely, depending on the context, so long as it is an action completed with perfect sincerity.
We’re not quite ready to discuss our differences. Let’s begin by explaining their own positions.
John opposes “promiscuous” use of terms such as “bigot” for both principled and pragmatic reasons. The principle is that the term isn’t accurate because many opponents are “fundamentally decent people.” The pragmatic reason is to avoid a label that is counterproductive to their “redemption”. Andrew Sullivan agrees, and adds a faith-based argument: that no one is defined by either hatred or love. David Link wants us to helpfully “point out the sin of bigotry forcefully” while use the epithet “bigot” sparingly because it is bad manners (an epithet).
Their mix of both principled and pragmatical considerations is somewhat in conflict. If it is truly needful to “point out the sin of bigotry forcefully”, then speaking out is a moral good and should always be a compelling motivation irrespective of the consequences. Nevertheless, both John and David rely at least partly on consequentialism by weighing the practical effects of speaking the truth over a moral principle of speaking against evil.
John, David, and Andrew invoke a moral principle, but they could go farther than they do in defining it precisely. Their implicit assumption is that it is wrong to describe any person by a label or identity that is inadequate for describing the moral ambiguity of the human condition. Perhaps the reason that they avoid defining this principle is that if it is taken seriously, then it tends to lead towards an absolute prohibition on calling anyone a bigot because it is always wrong to assume one knows the heart of another when only God does. (Andrew makes a similar argument against outing, and he comes to a fairly absolutist stand as a result of his consistency. See his article “Out rage.” 28 Sept. 2004, The New Republic Online.)
I believe that the explanations of John, David, and Andrew for their views on bigotry while well expressed are neither internally consistent nor ultimately persuasive. If they follow either of the principles they articulate, they would either always be required to call out bigotry because it’s pointing out sin or never call out bigotry because they can never know another person’s heart. Which is it?
In my view, their responses are most persuasive when they rely upon consequentialism. Call out bigotry when it’s practical to some moral end (something about advancing gay rights and encouraging more humane behavior all around, I would suspect), but avoid doing so when it’s counterproductive. But such rationales are pretty messy without invoking some way of arbitrating between a wide number of conceptions of the good and making sense of incompatible moral worldviews. No moral actor can really anticipate all the possible consequences of one’s action and that actor is left with a position relying upon a tremendous amount of subjectivity. Hence, the risk of falling down the slippery slopes of emotivism or relativism.
Now the differences.
My own approach is consequentialism within an integral moral framework that invokes Ken Wilber’s Prime Directive as its guiding principle: the basic ideal that right action is that which attends to the health of the entire spiral of human development. Put simply, it means considering in one’s actions whether one’s behavior in calling out a “bigot” or “homophobe” is really advancing that person’s holistic development, and considering the consequences for all persons as a result of one’s choice. Or, to re-use the phrase I invoked in Rising Up, “Sometimes this looks like calling a spade a spade, and other times it means learning how to let a spade be a spade.”
I would argue that while my conclusions are similar to John’s, David’s, and Andrew’s, the difference in how we get there is worth noticing. Their own view suffers from a common problem of modernist argument: an internal conflict of logic which looks in the final analysis (to my eyes, at least) like attempts at rationalizing decisions that are possibly purely emotive, faith-based, or intuitive. My own view is that if one accepts a basic view of consciousness as evolutionary (as does any integrally-informed approach including my own STEAM-based model presented in Rising Up), then there’s the benefit of internal consistency along with providing a more helpful basis for applying a concrete moral principle in a wide variety of situations. My own view allows for different choices for responding to tribalists, traditionalists, modernists, pluralists, and others, with each choice colored in part by how one chooses to benefit that person’s holistic development and society at large.
And what is caring for another person’s holistic development, after all, but an expression of divine love?