On Homosexuality and Non-Neutral Stances

This post from the Gypsy Librarian resonated with me. In it, he discusses his reaction to the anti-gay bullying and subsequent suicides, and the possible difficulty caused by taking public stances as a “neutral” librarian.

I, too, have been wanting to write about this, especially the Rutgers case, which I found both disturbing and depressing. Since I rarely treat this as a personal blog, I felt I didn’t have an appropriate space to write, but I’m going to do it anyway. At least I’m warning you up front.  In the case of Rutgers, I found myself wondering if we’re raising a generation of sociopaths, or at least of mild sociopaths. The inability to distinguish between right and wrong and the incapacity for empathy are characteristics of sociopaths, and both seem evident in the behavior of the student who created and publicly posted the videorecording of Tyler Clementi. Something about the anti-privacy culture of teens on Facebook encourages this, and I think it’s telling that Tyler Clementi’s penultimate act was a Facebook status update.
I very much disagreed with this response from an Inside Higher Ed blogger. In it, she argues that the minds of the young aren’t fully developed, and that we shouldn’t blame the student who posted the video. After all, we all did dangerous and foolish things when young! One example is driving drunk or stoned as teenagers, and thus endangering others. However, while such behavior is itself foolish and dangerous, the danger is also to the drunk driver. This doesn’t excuse it, but it changes the situation somewhat. Drunk drivers don’t deliberately try to harm themselves or others, whereas the video-posting student must have meant to harm Clementi, though I hope not to the extent he actually did. Her best example is the “hot lips” scene with Frank and Margaret in the movie M*A*S*H, a scene which the Rutgers incident eerily parallels in some ways. But the parallel doesn’t go far enough to to provide a good analogy. In the movie, Frank and Margaret are the outsiders, but they’re the outsiders only because they’re establishment figures temporarily in the midst of the real outsiders, whom they relentlessly criticize. Part of the motivation of that scene was to show the hypocrisy of a Bible-thumping and bullying Christian committing adultery. In the Rutgers case, Clementi was the outsider, or at least he felt himself as such. That it happened at a university makes the whole thing more disturbing.
I’ve never quite “gotten” anti-gay prejudice. Unlike other forms of hate and bigotry, it’s directed at something you can’t even see. One usually doesn’t look at a person and see desire for the same gender in the way one sees skin color or age or (often enough) social class. And I assume most anti-gay bigots have never actually seen two homosexuals having sex with each other (and two women in porn movies doesn’t count). It’s a prejudice against a way of being that has no effect on anyone else. I really can’t imagine why people care if other people have harmless desires or engage in harmless acts they don’t even have to see. Because the prejudice is based on something not actually seen but only sensed through often flawed signals, I myself have been a target of anti-gay bigotry, even though I’m not gay. I grew up in the deep south, and I met plenty of people who assumed that if a man didn’t watch football and hate gays, he must be a homosexual. In college, a friend of mine–at the time a semi-closeted homosexual–told me that he’d been warned by a mutual acquaintance to stay away from me because I was gay and people might think he was as well if he was seen with me. Somebody’s gaydar was sure messed up. The irony amuses me to this day. Another time in college, I apparently was verbally attacked by drunken frat boys in a bar. (I say “apparently” because the details are, um, a bit hazy to me, and I’m relying upon a friend’s testimony.) I’m not sure what the provocation was, but some guy called me a fag. According to my friend, I told him I knew I wasn’t gay because I gave a blowjob once and didn’t like it. I suspect that I (6’2″) and my friend (6’5″) were saved from physical attack because of our size. Possibly my antagonists believed it would be embarrassing to be beaten up by someone they thought was gay. Bigotry should be ridiculed, and bigots should be mocked.
Obviously, I’m not neutral. Like the Gypsy Librarian, I’ve given some thought to the supposed neutrality proclaimed for the profession of librarianship. As I understand it, librarians are supposed to be neutral in the sense that they build collections that represent diverse views, especially on controversial topics, and they don’t allow their personal prejudices to influence their selection of books, etc. In this sense, I am to some extent neutral. But in this series of posts, I argued that academic librarians aren’t really neutral about our collections. Every view doesn’t have to be represented if that view is poorly reasoned or unsupported by any evidence or argument. As the religion selector, I frequently receive gift books about all kinds of wacky stuff. If it’s about astrology, or crystal healing, or someone explaining scientifically that Jesus really was the son of God and that he can help you lose weight, the chances of it reaching the collection are slim. It’s always good to keep a few curiosities so that future researchers will know how some people believed in the past, but popular books on crystal healing aren’t exactly an area for a research library to collect to strength. Limited budgets mean some silly things just have to fare on their own. It’s part of our jobs to say one book is better than another in the sense that it adheres to a higher standard of reason. It’s also part of our jobs to teach students to critically analyze the sources they find. It’s not a matter of indoctrination into a particular position (as conservatives sometimes claim), it’s a matter of indoctrination into a standard of criticism and reasoning.
Typically, it’s some “controversial” topic that receives book challenges, but in academia there aren’t many controversial topics, and the ones that are controversial are the ones book-challengers tend to agree with. Controversial positions are roughly whatever social conservatives would support. The positions aren’t controversial because they’re conservative, whatever that means, but because they don’t adhere to the values of the academy: reason, liberty, and equality. There’s a conservative conspiracy theory that there aren’t many conservative academics because liberals dislike their politics. However, it’s very clear to me that there aren’t many conservative academics because conservatives tend not to defend their views with reason, analysis, careful argument, and evidence. Most liberals don’t either, but liberalism is a rational political philosophy because it believes political decisions should be based on public reasons, which is exactly what many conservative intellectuals have criticized it for. Academics tend to be liberals because they tend to value reason more than faith or tradition.
Conservatives value faith and tradition more than reason; that’s what makes them conservatives, and it’s what makes them so hard for liberals to understand. Most conservatives are impervious to argument about certain political and religious issues not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t believe in reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. To the liberal ac
ademic such a position appears just short of insane. Relying upon reason rather than faith or tradition will lead you to more liberal positions on most social issues. (I’m exempting so-called fiscal conservatives, who are often just libertarians, and thus a variety of liberal.) Add to this the freedom necessary to explore (almost) every topic and the equalizing nature of reason and argument. For the most part, what matters isn’t how much money you make, or how good you look, or what kind of car you drive, or who you prefer to have sex with, or what God you claim to believe in,  but how reasonable and civil you are. Other values are leveled by the value of reasoned discourse. We judge people by their reason and their civility, not their sexuality. Thus, one goal of a college education is to teach people to engage in civil debate and to think and reason critically, and once they do there are certain beliefs they’re unlikely to have. It’s merely a coincidence that these happen to be mostly conservative beliefs, because there are plenty of irrational liberals out there, too. The liberals who projected messianic qualities onto Obama two years ago were no more rational than the conservatives who now blame him because they can’t find jobs.
Thus, in academic libraries, as in academia more broadly, we have an ethic based in reason, liberty, and equality. It’s about the only place left in America where calm, reasoned discourse can prevail, which might be why some conservatives want to destroy it. We don’t have to be neutral about anti-gay bigotry, or racism, or sexism because they all conflict with our values. If someone tells tells us that “God hates fags,” the appropriate response is to ask why? And how do you know? And then to point out all the flaws in his reason. In open debate, bigots and bullies don’t fare very well, which is why they don’t engage in it. But we can. We can say to the bigots and bullies of the world that if they have something to say worth taking seriously, they can defend it with reasons, arguments, and evidence, rather than name-calling, fear-mongering, and demagoguery. And we can say with assurance they’re wrong because they’re incapable of working within the neutral framework of shared human reason to persuade anyone. They might be dangerous and popular, but that doesn’t mean they can hold an intelligent conversation with an opponent. And then we can mock them, because there’s not much point engaging irrational bigots in rational argument.
The values of academia are also the values of librarianship more broadly, at least in public libraries. Librarians might not keep someone from reading a book they disagree with, but it doesn’t mean they can’t criticize the ideas it contains. A dedication to intellectual freedom is a dedication to reason, liberty, and equality.
Does any of this help the children and adults being harassed because of their sexuality or anything else that marks them as “different”? Obviously not. If I saw an act of bullying, I would intervene, but there’s not much more I could do. I do wish someone had been able to tell Tyler Clementi, or Billy Lucas, or Seth Walsh that the bullies are wrong, their hatred pathetic, that there are people in the world who judge others as individuals and not types, that it does get better, that there are places in the world where outsiders are accepted and tolerated and inspired, and that one of those places is the library.

6 thoughts on “On Homosexuality and Non-Neutral Stances

  1. Just wanted to mention a recent Angelou quote about the library community: “God put the rainbow in the clouds…so the viewer can see the possibility of hope. That’s what a library is.”

  2. Thanks for picking up the post. Like you, I just don’t get the anti-gay prejudice. As you write so well, “unlike other forms of hate and bigotry, it’s directed at something you can’t even see.” Sometimes I want to ask those bigoted people, especially if they are married, “if gay marriage became the law of the land tomorrow, would your spouse suddenly leave you for a same-sex partner?” or something similar. Because at the end of the day, it is something that makes no difference to those folks, and it is about giving others fair treatment and equality.
    As always, I can count on you to write a reasoned, well-developed response. I am going to link this on the original post as an update note so people can read this as well. Thank you.
    Best, and keep on blogging.

  3. Hi: I am a parent and police officer. After reading your Cyber Bullying Hits Home Post-I wanted to respond with this comment. I wanted to inform you about a great, free service for your educators and parents. Superintendents, school boards, administrators, teachers, college students and parents use free books, lesson plans and other online resources at http://www.SafetyForSchool.com to reduce school & cyber bullying, help students remain safe online, prevent/minimizes school violence and to obtain free student safety tips and lesson plans
    Tony Newsom

  4. during your years in the South, do you think having family and people around who love you just because of who your are and who your parents were is worth putting up with some prejudices?

    • The short answer I suppose would be yes, but it’s complicated. For one, I haven’t lived in the south for almost a quarter century, before the culture wars erupted into the public domain and people didn’t feel compelled to either share their political views or isolate themselves within likeminded communities, both of which seem to happen routinely now. In Cracked articles, one of the recurring jokes is “your ranting racist uncle at the holiday meal.” Maybe I had a racist uncle, but ranting at a holiday meal would have been out of the question.

      My parents had mild versions of the sort of views about race common among white people growing up in the rural south in the mid-20th century, but mention of race wasn’t common, and by the time I was a teen I had so many things to argue with my father about that racism would have been far down the list. Unless the offending views were virulent and frequently expressed, I would put up with them to keep the general peace. Despite some exceptions (e.g. white supremacist activists), most people are not reducible to their prejudices. Frequent rants I would meat with frequent gentle mocking.

      A few years ago I did end up at a big family gathering with people I hadn’t seen in years and likely won’t see again. Someone brought up Obama and said, “we don’t like Obama.” I said, “I don’t really like to talk about politics,” and the conversation went back to general topics, catching up, etc., and everybody was happy.

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