Hillary Clinton, Gay Rights, and Cultural Relativism

12 12 2011

I’m not a cultural relativist. Sometimes customs are culturally relative, and sometimes, quite frankly, they are not. I don’t believe that sexism, racism, child abuse, animal abuse, rape, torture, murder, or homophobia are excusable depending on cultural context, because in each context these atrocities share the traits of hatred, violence, and exploitation committed against a sentient being. Let me get this caveat out of the way first: on some issues we are in no place to judge the practises of other cultures, and on other issues we most certainly are. In return, these other cultures are allowed to judge us on our faults. With that out of the way, LGBT rights are not an imperialist vision; they are a humanist one.

Given my wariness of cultural relativism, I was elated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s amazing speech at the United Nations in Geneva. In her speech, Clinton declares that the Obama administration will defend LGBT rights as a part of its human rights and foreign policy, and that the President will command all government agencies operating overseas to defend LGBT rights through various diplomatic strategies. She makes several points about how and why the world community should end persecution of LGBT people: first, LGBT rights are human rights; second, homosexuality exists in all cultures; third, religious and cultural beliefs do not justify persecution of LGBT people; fourth, the world must confront persecution of LGBT people, not dismiss it; and fifth, we must employ practical means to obtain equality for LGBT people. All of these points are interesting and relevant, but the most provocative to me are the second and third points, which challenge the cultural relativism cited to defend persecution of LGBT people.

In her second point, Clinton challenges the assumption that homosexuality and LGBT rights are purely Western, imperialist conceptions being foisted on non-Western cultures. This is simply not true, Clinton shows, because homosexuality exists in every culture, and homophobia is a problem in every culture. It is, in other words, a human condition, and creating artificial cultural barriers to LGBT liberation would do a disservice to LGBT people:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbours.

And just in case anybody insists there are no examples of efforts to advance LGBT rights in non-Western cultures, Clinton deftly turns the tables:

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Clinton has obviously done her fact-checking (which is to be granted, given that she is America’s chief diplomat): heteronormative sexualities, if not exactly ubiquitous, are well-distributed among the world’s cultures, hence LGBT rights are a relevant concern to all of the world’s cultures. It is now common knowledge among well-informed people that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not the product of a particular culture; they are a product of living organisms in general, from shellfish to human beings. It seems absurd, then, to say that these sexualities are the luxurious fad of one particular society (the West) of one particular species of animal (homo sapiens), hence it seems absurd to suggest that LGBT rights are relevant only to that society or species.

In her third point, Clinton criticises the notion that cultural or religious beliefs somehow justify persecution of LGBT people, and roundly dashes it to pieces. (I exaggerate, but still, she could have, and she probably would have if representatives of countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan weren’t present.) She does this by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of other persecuted peoples. Specifically, she draws an analogy between crimes against LGBT people and crimes against women, both of which derive from patriarchal hegemony:

[The justification for persecuting LGBT people] is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

Cutting off a woman’s clitoris is universally wrong because it causes unspeakable pain, stress, and health problems for the victim, whether she is from Sweden, Somalia, or Seattle. This is because every person of every culture possesses a common human physiology; the nervous systems of all human beings are basically the same. I suspect every woman feels immense pain when she is mutilated, burnt to death, or stoned to death, despite the cultural situation. And when proponents of cultural relativism cite reasons for their stance, those reasons fall nothing short of pathetic: women shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with men other than their husbands, women shouldn’t be allowed to experience sexual pleasure, or women shouldn’t be allowed to live if their husbands die. Forgive me if I find these justifications more solipsistic than utilitarian, and hence hardly socially beneficial. They’re just the laws of self-serving tyrants who view women as mere incubators. Similarly, every gay person experiences unconscionable pain and horror at being hanged or crushed to death for being gay. Opinions, insecurities, and concerns specific to a culture do not justify violence against women or gay people, because we all share the same basic human physiology despite cultural context. I think this is what Clinton was pointing at.

I won’t mince words. Hillary Clinton is right, and the cultural relativists are wrong. Heteronormative sexuality is found everywhere in the world, and LGBT rights are no more culturally relative than women’s or racial minorities’ rights, because all are products of a common human mental and physical experience. For some reason, though, this is a sensitive topic for many anti-imperialists, who often happen to be from the West. It seems to me that a lot of this cultural relativist dogma stems from white, middle-class people who feel guilty about their colonial heritage, and they spout this disingenuous nonsense about relativism to soothe their own conscience. But think about it. Arguing that women’s or LGBT rights are culturally relative is basically discriminating against women and LGBT people who live in countries, like Iran, which don’t recognise their status, and that isn’t very feminist or pro-gay, is it? It isn’t even very pro-human, as Clinton showed, and I can’t help but respect her for sending such a bold, unapologetic message to countries which still use cultural relativism as a loophole to commit human atrocities. It was truly a satisfying vindication of LGBT rights.





Are Women Funnier than Men?

4 10 2011

I’m usually very sceptical about sex differences, but I must admit that as of late I have been tempted to draw the tentative conclusion that women might be funnier than men. Now, I’m not saying that women are intrinsically funnier than men, nor that they should be, but I suspect that their different life experiences have resulted in a different sense of humour. A sense of humour far, far wickeder than anything the male mind has ever conjured up, something rich with subtle streaks of irony.

(To avoid over-generalisation, whenever I say “women” below, it should be taken for granted that I technically mean “many women”.)

Such dry cynicism might also be shared by racial and sexual minorities. Often, I find gay people and black people to be funnier than straight people and white people. Again, it is not that the former two are intrinsically funnier than the latter two, but their worldview, and hence their humour, may have been shaped by different life experiences. I think it might be a coping mechanism. Life is a little bit harder in some ways for people who are gay, black, or mixed-race, so it can be empowering for them to treat their oppression with levity. Such an attitude suggests that the oppressor has failed in their attempt to break down the morale of the oppressed, and as a consequence the oppressed  demonstrate a sense of triumph and resilience.

This notion that women and minorities are funnier than white, straight men is especially apparent when we look at women who are also minorities. Consider, for example, the comedians Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho. The former is black, female, and gay, while the latter is Korean-American, female, and bisexual. Not only can they make light of living life as a woman, but they can make light of living life as a racial and sexual minority. For these women, the vast reservoir of story-telling material is almost inexhaustible, and the droll, bizarre, sexually explicit anecdotes they tell are almost cathartic in their gutwrenching hilarity. They have embraced their human frailty, thereby shunting the sense of self-pity used against them by more privileged groups. Think about it. We’re all familiar with the straight, white male screaming, “stop pitying yourself and take responsibility!” Well, he has no reason to hurl such invectives when the object of his vilification laughs bittersweetly at her own lot in life. And the beauty is that that same self-mockery actually turns out to be self-sustaining.

Sometimes I detect this same cynicism when I listen to women talk about going on dates with men. I’m sure a lot of you have heard women complain about forcing themselves to laugh at their date’s stupid jokes. Why are those jokes so stupid? It’s because they’re artless, contrived, naïve, bourgeois. Men don’t have to put as much effort into their humour, because they’re men, so they can expect the listener to lavish them with heaps of unearned laughter. You don’t have to try as hard to be funny when you automatically command respect, but you do when you have more invested in it. Men don’t have as much to lose. So, it must be absolutely tormenting for a woman with a more nuanced understanding of life’s cruelty to feign some fake Miss Universe grin at her spoiled date’s inane, bathetic, self-satisfying jokes. Or I could just be reading too much into it. But this is what I imagine to be the case, because I think I see a shadow of the same thing in straight, white males as many women do.

This, I think, is possible because of the special camaraderie between women and gay people, who share, it would seem, a comic genius of particular sharpness and panache. For me, women and gay people harbour a secret cynicism about sex and romance. If we think about it, women are funnier than men because they have to try harder, and gay people are funnier than straight people because they have to try harder, too. Both straight women and gay men are in a position to comment on relationships with men from a perspective which lies outside that of the heterosexual male—a person with more privilege than either women or gay men. On top of that, both straight women and gay men like penises, so they already have a lot to talk about regarding their sex lives. Lesbian and gay male humour also overlap in that both lesbians and gay men view life from the perspective of sexual minorities. Thus, we can see how the comic taste of many women is corroborated by that of sexual minorities.

What all of this leads to is a distinction between two types of comedy—standard and vernacular. Standard comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the privileged classes (white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), while vernacular comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the underprivileged classes (non-white, female, non-heterosexual, transsexual, poor, etc.). As in language (e.g. AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English), vernacular humour is dangerous because it presents the worldview of the underprivileged classes, who tend to be seen as subversive. It lurks somewhere on the outskirts of the comedic metropolis, just beyond the purview of the cocky college jock grinning stupidly at his deltoids in his smartphone mirror shots, brandishing a middle finger for no real reason. According to standard humour, a funny woman isn’t feminine, because belly-rolling laughter is a messy, rowdy, indelicate affair, and while that kind of woman may not exactly be threatening, she isn’t considered as desirable as a male of the same calibre, hence she gets screwed over despite her talent. And that is why I love pioneering women comedians like Lucille Ball, and emerging talents like Melissa McCarthy. They’re utterly, unabashedly unruly—they’d be sitting on the toilet and eating Rice Krispies in their smartphone mirror shots.

Believe me, there are so many men out there who make me chuckle till my guts roll out of my mouth. Where do I start? Well, there’s Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Conan O’Brien for starters. But these men are self-deprecating. For some reason, they are able to mock themselves when it would behove them not to do so. Men are “supposed” to save face and look cool while telling jokes (because they can get away with it), but these men don’t care, and they relish every minute of it. They don’t rely on prestige to get a laugh; they shamelessly eviscerate themselves in front of a live audience. They make themselves look like fools because they don’t want to be taken too seriously. And in doing so they join the ranks of Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Wanda Sykes, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Margaret Cho, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Hynes, Julia Davis, and all of the other grande dames of comedy. Funny men, I salute you! You have clearly surmounted the nature of your sex. (Kidding.)

By the way, we should all salute our newest star Jocelyn Jee Esien for being so brave. She is a challenger of comfort zones, which is absolutely paramount in comedy.

I guess the point is that women are funnier than men because they have had different life experiences. These life experiences are determined by environmental stimuli, and are not intrinsic, but they affect us nonetheless—for the better, I would say. Meanwhile, female and minority humour often overlap, and together these upstarts turn puritanical, middle-class, mainstream American humour on its head (when America notices, that is). In addition, women and gay men in particular seem to share a similarly tawdry humour, especially about sex and romance, while this type of humour can be said to be vernacular, since it challenges middle-class norms. Should women be funnier than men? No, of course not, so what we should be doing is teaching men to relax for once, take themselves less seriously, and  start mimicking Conan O’Brien. Don’t worry—you’ll probably still have the upper-hand in most areas (until we take care of that). It’s just that you’ll be a little bit more lovable in the meantime.