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.

Fast Company on Female Infanticide: “Don’t Kill Girls! They’ll Cook and Clean For You!”

27 11 2011

Many cultures around the world are suffering from an undersupply of women, since many people prefer baby boys to baby girls. In response, the business magazine Fast Company has launched an advertising campaign aimed at swaying consumers to combat the world’s skewed gender ratio. This is a noble cause, but the problem is that the magazine goes about correcting this problem in the worst way possible—by promoting damaging stereotypes about women. Basically, the campaign argues, we need to make more girls because girls are intrinsically nicer than boys and they’ll cook and clean for you!

I read about Fast Company’s campaign on Aubrey Cohen’s blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Initially I thought, “Oh, this is great. A business magazine is helping raise awareness about female infanticide, gender-selective abortion, and all of the other practices which are reducing the world’s female populace.” Because we shouldn’t be killing or preventing life based on sex, of course. By the time I had finished reading the article, though, I was thinking to myself, “Christ on a cock. You’ve got to be kidding me. They’re basically saying that we should be increasing the global female population because girls are intrinsically nicer than boys, and boys are fuck-tards.” Below is the blog article I read:

Ads Make the Case for Girls

Parents around the world, including most U.S. dads, still prefer sons. So the folks at Fast Company magazine decided to attack the issue with advertising.

In the age of ultrasound, it’s an issue with serious repercussions. Chinese parents give birth to 120 boys for every 100 girls, while their Indian counterparts have 109 boys for every 100 girls, compared with a natural balance of 105 to 100, Fast Company noted.

That consumer preference turns into disaster when repeated across a society. Unnatural [s]election does a frightening, thorough job of documenting the consequences for countries full of men: sex trafficking in Albania, mail-order brides in Vietnam, crime in “bachelor towns” in rural China. The future portends aging populations short of nurses and teachers

Ad campaigns have been enormously successful in promoting seatbelt use and stigmatizing drunk driving, the magazine noted. “That’s why, as a thought experiment, Fast Company asked some top advertising, marketing, branding, and digital agencies to make the case for baby girls in the language of the global consumer — a challenge they took very seriously.”

The ads use the requisite flashy graphics and clever imagery to note, among other things, that women tend to make better leaders, be more compassionate and live longer, while “boys are 76 percent more likely to set something you love on fire.”

I have exactly what I wanted: one of each. And, while my son has never set anything on fire, he does start bouncing uncontrollably by the end of the day if he doesn’t get a chance to run around.

Wow. Really??

We need more girls because they’re nicer than boys? Really?

When I read the last bit, I thought to myself, “Aw, how sweet. Cohen ends with a sentimental anecdote about how his daughter can stay still longer than his son.” Unfortunately for him, this doesn’t prove that girls in general can stay still longer than boys. In actuality, increased exercise is actually positively correlated with better learning outcomes for both boys and girls. Contrary to the single-sex education fad taking the world by storm like some early 1980s hairstyle, girls need to move around too in order to learn well. They’re not submissive little princesses for you to talk at.

But the whole article is chock-full of simplistic, sentimental assumptions about sex differences, including the Fast Company quotation implying women’s teaching and nursing capabilities, which Cohen affirms with his own anecdote about his well-behaved daughter and his unruly son, a little boy plagued with the curse of a male neuroendocrinological system. (Oh, and isn’t it just so cute! He can’t help himself!)  Like the writers at Fast Company, he takes it for granted that women are better equipped to be nurses and teachers, because they are more nurturing. But what’s the proof? He provides none. It’s just a sweet, sentimental blog entry purporting to espouse a common-sensical truth. Yet Cordelia Fine adroitly overturns the hypothesis that women are intrinsically more nurturing than men in the first section of her rigorously researched tome Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. The science cited to prove this claim, she shows, is basically junk, and we need to stop cowtowing to our sloppy, self-serving sentiments.

When we look at the above, what we see is a form of paternalism: the author(s) seek to nurture an environment which “cherishes” women while placing them in traditional roles of servitude: the cook, the diaper-washer, the little angel in the house. For people like Cohen (and I don’t presume that his intentions stretch this far, although he reminds me of many whose intentions do), the global undersupply of females is bad not because women are being killed off, but because “nicer” people are being killed off, and nicer people are women. But we shouldn’t be combatting “female undersupply” because girls are “nicer” than boys; we should be combatting it because girls are being killed off simply for being girls, whatever they may be. If we’re short of females, it isn’t that we’re killing off “nice people”; it’s that we’re killing off people we view as inferior because they have vaginas.

The whole assumption that we’re killing off the “nice, female” population, and not just the “female” population is, as noted above, rooted in the idea that females are the “nice” ones. But maybe what we should be doing is two things: fighting against female infanticide, etc., on one hand, and training men to be more nurturing on the other. At some point, men will have to pick up the slack and assume responsibility for some of the traditionally feminine jobs, like nursing and teaching. We should be fighting against female-related deaths because it is murderous and gender-discriminatory, and we should be training males to be nurturing anyway. We should, in short, be fighting against the disproportionately low female population because it threatens females for being female, not because it threatens intrinsically “better” human beings.

That said, I implore you to read this blog article, which deals intimately with female infanticide in a way I cannot: http://viswanathanar.wordpress.com/ It is written in a local dialect, but most English-speakers should get the gist. It’s actually quite poignant once you’ve put the pieces together. In these places, women are merely striving for survival, let alone the rights we enjoy in Western cultures. We should keep things in perspective and place them in priority.

What do you think?

Dan Savage Gets a Piece of Miss B

3 09 2011

I usually agree with the stuff that comes out of Dan Savage’s mouth, and, yes, he does a great deal of good advocacy work on behalf of bullied gay youth, but I really took umbrage with something he said about the nature of men and women on a (relatively) recent episode of The Stephen Colbert Show.

In the discussion Savage argued that monogamy should not be the sole defining characteristic of a marriage, and that sometimes “fooling around” can actually have beneficial effects on marriage. Fine. I have no problem with that. It isn’t “fooling around” itself I have a problem with—what I have a problem with is Savage’s assumption that men are more inclined to fool around than women are.

Here is the dialogue verbatim surrounding the point I am contesting:

Colbert (facetiously): “Here’s the problem with your argument. It applies to gay people beautifully, I’m sure. I don’t know. I’m married to a woman, okay. I’m not married to a guy. If you and I were married and you wanted to have sex with somebody else, I’d totally understand…”.

Savage (testily): “But your wife is married to a man, and straight women have to be realistic about what men are and what men are like.”

And here is the video clip (or what is supposed to be the video clip):

Seriously, Dan? What are men? Wooly mammoth-hunters spraying their semen on everything that twitches while the women-folk languish back at home in the cave, cooking yesterday’s leftover wooly mammoth meat over the fire and popping out babies left and right? This isn’t the African savanna 100,000 years ago. Women don’t need men to protect them from sabretooth tiger attacks or provide meals and shelter for them, and men don’t need to go screwing everything that crawls. We live in the twenty-first century. Catch up, girl.

There are several reasons why Savage’s reasoning doesn’t make sense to me, and why he should stop promoting the assumption that men are supposed to be more promiscuous than women: 1) for every (straight) man who has sex, there has to be a woman to have sex with him, therefore men are only as slutty as women are; 2) recent insight from evolutionary psychology suggests that more intelligent and evolved men (but not women) are actually more monogamous; 3) it’s pretty rich for a gay man to excuse men’s desire to spread their seed as much as possible when gay men have no desire to breed with women; 4) it’s really annoying to watch gay men defend effeminate bully victims only to propound masculine stereotypes in the same breath; 5) what if men were more promiscuous than women? Why should men’s interests take precedence over those of women?; 6) it’s really just a package of fallacies (appeal to nature and tradition and the “is therefore ought” fallacy).

The first of these seems pretty straightforward. For every (straight) man who has sex, there has to be a female to have sex with him. Take out a pencil and paper. Seriously. Do it. It’s much easier if you can visualise it. Draw four Venus signs down the left margin of the paper, then four Mars signs down the right margin. Now connect each Venus sign with each Mars sign by a line. If each of four men has sex with each of four women, each of four women must have sex with each of four men. You can’t have men being slutty with as many women as possible without women being slutty with as many men as possible. It is logically required.

But there is a twist to this first point. There might actually be reason for women to be even sluttier than men. I had never thought about this until it was pointed out to me by my brilliant friend Christine, whose baking and food blog Angry Cherry is an unparalleled oeuvre of hearty yet sumptuous baked goods. I can’t possibly recapitulate her thought process without diluting or compromising it, so let me simply paste what she wrote to me:

Whenever someone tells me that it’s more “natural” for men to sleep around, I like to give them a logical diagram of sorts, too. First, I tell them: “Actually, if you reeeeeally think about it, it makes more sense for women to have way more sex than men.”

Of course, next, someone will ask me why—so think about it this way.

If we accept that the ultimate end of most sex is procreation and to spread seed (on which most people agree), then men have it easier than women. Once a man blows his load, he’s done. A woman can receive a man’s sperm, but since a woman only ovulates for 2 days out of an average of 28, she may or may not be pregnant—in essence, her biological “burden” for the goal of procreation is not yet alleviated.

So, next, I say, let’s take 25 men and 25 women — and let’s have them all fuck often and with whoever they want. Women will “drop out” of the fucking once they are pregnant and relatively out of danger of miscarriage (in other words, job done for the next 9 months). Soon, we will have 25 men and 20 women; soon after, 25 men and 15 women; soon after that, you get the idea. Eventually we will be down to 25 men, who cannot tell who has fathered which children (not that it matters), and 1 woman—because of the procreation burden, that woman should be promiscuous as all hell: in order to get pregnant, she should have sex with all 25 men as often as she wants in order to get pregnant.

Thus, under this logical model, it should be expected that women should  want to have, and have, more sex than men. Oddly enough, when I explain it this way, most people (women and men) scratch their heads and say, “Actually… that makes a lot of sense.”

Haha! How’s that for logic?

Very well stated, Christine, and you’re right—it makes a lot of sense. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa provides an hypothesis why there are so few societies which practice polygyny (the practice of one woman marrying multiple men), but his hypothesis does not account for Christine’s reasoning above, and, besides, that a practice has been common in the past does not mean that it should be, or even that it is evolutionarily beneficial (indeed, a part of evolution is the fact that non-beneficial traits eventually die out). Additionally, with all of our recent technological innovations, women are much more self-sufficient, so they do not need to depend as much on a single man for material security. So, actually, there is good reason for women to be even sluttier than men. Thus, Savage’s argument that men are inherently programmed to be sluttier than women doesn’t make much biological sense.

This first point closely informs the second, which is that more intelligent men (but not women) tend to be more monogamous. Interestingly, this argument also comes from Kanazawa, and is published in Psychology Today. It is based on a study which showed that smarter men were more loyal to their partners, but smarter women were not. This would make sense, because general intelligence and monogamy in men are evolutionary innovations, while general intelligence and polygamy in women are also evolutionary innovations. (Women no longer need as much security from one man.) More intelligent men are more monogamous because general intelligence and male monogamy are both adaptive and innovative, and intelligent men are less fixated on preserving the norms of their ancestors. This is not true for more intelligent women, because monogamy is not innovative for women. Now, some people will argue that the men may have simply been smart enough to cover their tracks after cheating. But this doesn’t make sense, because if people covered their tracks after cheating due to being smarter, how do we explain the smarter women? The smarter women did not profess to be more monogamous, whereas the smarter men did, so we can’t say that people cover their tracks after cheating because they are smarter. Thus, it must be that the smarter men were more monogamous simply because they valued loyalty more than their peers. So, no, Dan Savage’s assumption that men are inherently supposed to be sluttier than women isn’t necessarily true.

This preconception about the privilege of male promiscuity is especially obnoxious coming from a gay man like Savage. Savage acknowledges Colbert’s (admittedly facetious) assumption that men in general, whether gay or straight, are inherently slutty. Well, if gay men don’t want to breed with women, they have no reason to act like walking insemination machines, hence they have no reason to join up with straight men in the whole “let’s fuck as many chicks as possible” meme. Gay men don’t want to spread their seed everywhere, because they don’t want to breed with women. So, it doesn’t make sense for a gay man to defend the assumption that men in general should be as slutty as possible. It’s like the vegetarian preaching that human beings were made to eat meat.

This third point blends in nicely with the fourth one, which is that gay men should not be defending old-fashioned male sex roles (neither should straight men). Gay people are inherently heteronormative in that they have sex with members of the same sex, so they should be the first to defy appeals to normativity (although, ultimately, everybody should). For Savage to defend an effeminate schoolyard bully victim on one hand, then defend male sexual machismo on the other, is contradictory and hypocritical. By defending the “girlish” bully victim, he is challenging stereotypes about manhood, yet by promoting the notion of male sexual prowess, he is supporting such stereotypes. You can’t tell a little gay boy “Don’t worry; it’ll get better, and it’s okay to be effeminate” and then tell him “Butch up and spread your seed, because that is manly”. As a gay man, you shouldn’t be embalming assumptions about manhood, because you embody the exact opposite—you have sex with men. That isn’t “manly” in the traditional sense, so why are you defending traditional manliness? And straight men shouldn’t be doing this either, because no man has a good reason to treat women like his private incubator, his and only his, closed off from other, “inferior” genes (whatever those are supposed to be—who’s to judge? Hitler?).

So far we’ve argued that women are just as slutty as men. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that men are in fact more promiscuous than women. Why does Savage so strongly aver that women should understand men’s need for many partners, but not that men should understand women’s need for one partner? He seems so adamant that women should acknowledge the contention that men are sluts, yet he totally ignores the contention that women want something different. That’s just plain sexist. It isn’t fair to attend to men’s interests, but not to women’s, because both of them have equally passionate needs. And yet all of this is assuming that men are intrinsically sluttier than women. Are they? Above we have established that that assumption is highly questionable.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all just a cluster of fallacies, innit, m8? Savage’s argument that women should accept men for “what they are” consists of an appeal to tradition, an appeal to nature, and an “is therefore ought” fallacy. First, that men have been sluttier than women does not mean that they should be, because tradition is not necessarily good; second, that male promiscuity might be natural does not mean that it is right, because natural does not equal right, and unnatural does not equal wrong (manmade things like aeroplanes aren’t wrong); and, third, that men might really be sluttier than women does not mean that they should be, because a thing is not right just because it is real. Murder is real, but that doesn’t make it right. So Savage’s argument that straight women should accept male promiscuity is invalid since it relies on all of these fallacies.

In summary, Dan Savage’s suggestion that men are more promiscuous than women is misguided. First, for every man who has sex, there has to be a woman; second, more intelligent men (but not women) tend to be more loyal; third, gay men have no business talking about spreading seed, since they don’t want to; fourth, it’s hypocritical and contradictory for gay men to defend effeminate behaviour and then defend macho sex roles; fifth, even if men were sluttier than women, it’s unfair to place men’s interests above those of women; and, sixth, it’s all just a bundle of fallacies, as stated above. So, as you see, there’s really no good reason to believe that men should experience more lust than women. And it doesn’t matter whether men have more testosterone than women, because testosterone is just a hormone, and we can do whatever we want with it to meet our present-day exigencies. We treat postmenopausal women for hormonal deficiencies, so why not do the same for over-muscled thugs or under-sexed nuns? Ultimately, what we need to do is start thinking critically about sex roles and living in the modern age. After all, our huge brains, with all of their many ruminations, are also a product of nature, hence nature made us to think these things.