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.

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Gay Marriage and the “Majority Rule” Problem

26 02 2011

The Barack Obama administration in the U.S.  issued a statement recently through Attorney General Eric Holder saying that it will no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act)—a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage. It is a huge step forward for gay marriage proponents in the U.S. But, while Obama’s administration wields executive influence over the legality of the ban, right-wingers are in a shit-roar over the consequences of its repeal: most people oppose gay marriage, they claim, therefore gay marriage should be banned. That’s democracy, they say.

 I say that that isn’t democracy. I say that recognition of gay marriage should not be banned, because the majority have no concern in the affairs of the minority. If Jeff wants to have the same pension plan as his partner Chris, it is not the business of their neighbours. They are not throwing their gay pension plan over the picket fence and onto their neighbour’s lawn. Caring about what your neighbours do on their own property, when they are mutually consenting adults, is just plain nosey. As much as you want it to, it doesn’t concern you. IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.

Let us define democracy:

1. government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

2. a state having such a form of government: The United States and Canada are democracies.

3. a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.

4. political or social equality; democratic spirit.

5. the common people of a community as distinguished from any privileged class; the common people with respect to their political power.

So democracy is a means for the majority to voice their concerns–when this applies–or it is a system of government in which all groups are equal. It is funny that, traditionally, the minority was privileged, while the majority was not. Now it seems to be the reverse: the majority is privileged, while the minority is not.

Here is my chief argument: A democracy is a form of government in which the majority rule on issues which affect them, not on issues which do not affect them. Whether or not Joan and Linda receive federal marriage benefits such as the right to file a joint federal income tax return does not affect the majority. Therefore, it is undemocratic to allow the majority to rule on whether Joan and Linda should have the right to marry. It’s simply nobody else’s business.

“Ah, but no matter which branch of government makes the decision, it is always going to be a matter of majority rule”, you will argue (and from here it goes down a slippery slope and keeps getting weaker and weaker). “For example, if a panel of judges rule on the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is still the majority opinion that rules.”

But there is a crucial difference between a majority of judges, and a majority of the people. Judges are obliged to adjudicate the law, not rule on the basis of personal preference. That’s why a person is appointed a judge–that person is deemed proficient in interpreting and implementing the law for the law’s own sake. Therefore, when a majority of judges rule on a matter, it is not just because they want their voice to be heard–rather, it is because of how they interpret the law. That is why the archetype of Justice is blindfolded. She is impartial. So, no, a majority on a panel of judges is nothing like the majority voting in a public referendum.

“But the law itself had to be ratified by a majority”, you will argue. “The U.S. Constitution was ratified when nine out of thirteen states–a majority–approved it.”

But, again, this was not your run-of-the-mill polling booth populated by old grannies cringing at the thought of two men rubbing up against each other (and God knows what else). These states were run by lawmakers who ruminated over the meaning and significance of a document which would affect the daily lives of people for centuries to come. That’s what judges and lawmakers do. They were not basing their decisions on flippant, arbitrary, impulsive prejudices; they were basing them on well thought-out arguments about human rights–which, in fact, were inspired by French Englightenment philosophy, not the Bible. In other words, they were not your average granny at the voting booth with the IQ of a rock. Besides, the original plan of the Constitution’s framers was to seek out unanimity among the states–in order to avoid the whole majority vesus minority scenario. Benjamin Franklin was one proponent of unanimity.

“But lawmakers are elected by the majority as agents of the majority in order to enforce the will of the majority. Lawmakers must reflect the will of their constituents.”

But this is fallacious repetition, because I have already explained the proper place of majority rule above. As already stated above, a democracy is a form of government in which the majority rule on issues which affect them, and not on issues which do not affect them. And, in light of what has been acknowledged, when a majority must rule on minority issues, they must do so under pressure of reason, impartiality, and foresight, because personal preference is not applicable to all. Thus, a representative is not obliged to reflect the views of the majority of her constituency when the issue at hand does not affect the majority of her constituency; in fact, she is obliged to reflect the views of the minority when minority issues are at hand. After all, whether or not Joan and Mary file a joint income tax return does not involve the majority. Why, then, should the majority be allowed to vote on it? Why, then, should a representative reflect the views of the majority, and not the minority?

What do America’s founders think about this issue? Thomas Jefferson, like many men in his day, may have been a slave-owning misogynist, but he had at least one highly perceptive thing to say about the proper function of majority rule:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

In other words, according to Jefferson, when the majority rule, they must do so on the basis of reason, and not irrational prejudices. He also concedes that majority rule must take into account equality between the majority and the minority, and we have already established far above that this is one sense of the definition of democracy. I disagree with Jefferson only on the point that the majority should always rule. I do not think that the majority should always rule. I think that the majority should rule when the issue at hand involves the majority, and not when it involves only the minority. But when a majority must rule at some level, it must be based on objective reasoning. In the case of gay marriage, the ruling majority should consist of serious decision-makers (legislators) who are not compelled to reflect the interests of their majority constituents on an issue which does not concern their majority constituents.

Oh, by the way, Jefferson sort of supported the more left-wing senses of the definition of democracy provided at the beginning of this blog entry. He invoked equality. Yes, originally it was meant to boost up the plebeian (underprivileged majority) to meet the level of the patrician (overprigileged minority), but, in an ironic reversal, in this case it is the underprivileged minority trying to meet the level of the overprivileged majority.

In summary, gay marriage should not be put up to a public vote because gay marriage is of no concern to the greater public. Whether or not Joan and Linda get to file a joint tax return is of no concern to their neighbours. Who makes the final decision, you ask? Informed, well-educated, impartial judges and lawmakers who demonstrate an appreciation for reason, justice, and compassion, separating their obligations to their majority constituents from those to their minority constituents. Because the majority do not have a say in the lives of the minority. What do you think?