, , ,

It’s frankly been awhile since I read a book on ethics or theory that expanded my brain so that it felt like it was slightly too big for my skull (aka getting intellectually hot ‘n bothered), but in the past ten days I’ve actually read two of them! The first was Janet R. Jacobsen and Ann Pellegrini’s Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (New York University Press, 2003). The second was Julie Stephens’ recently-released Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory, and Care (Columbia University Press, 2012), which I’m going to review next week. Both are slim volumes that tackle complex issues of embodiment, identity, the relationship between public and private, between citizens and the state, and ultimately the way in which we understand individual persons in relation to collective cultural and political spaces.

Reading Love the Sin and Confronting Postmaternal Thinking back-to-back brought out a lot of resonances. Both books are critical of the way in which individuals have been constructed in the modern liberal democracy. They ask hard questions about who counts as a full and worthy citizen under the laws and policies of such democracies (particularly in the United States). They point to ways in which the mid-twentieth-century rights movements — especially the gay and lesbian liberation movement and mainstream feminist movement — have been undercut and co-opted by a majority hostile to their more radical re-visioning goals. This is due, both works contend, at least in part because of the narrow “rights” rhetoric these movements have depended upon. In Stephens’ work, we see how the language of feminism has been deployed in order to shore up a neoliberal notion of citizen-as-worker, while political ethics grounded in care and connectedness (“mothering”) are erased from the collective memory and public discourse. In Love the Sin, Pellegrini and Jacobsen argue that notions of liberal “tolerance” and a reliance on innate/natural (“born this way”) justifications for non-normative sexual orientation have unnecessarily compromised our ability to advocate for a robust freedom-of-practice in the public realm.

While I have persistent reservations about Stephens’ framing of the maternal (which I’ll get to in next week’s review), I was thoroughly seduced by Jacobsen and Pellegrini’s passionate and articulate advocacy of “freedom” as a more expansive, humane, way of framing the question of sexual citizenship — and other types of citizenship — than the notion of tolerance. “In a situation framed by the rhetoric of tolerance,” they write,

It becomes impossible to distinguish between the perpetrators of racism or homophobia or misogyny (this list is hardly exhaustive) and the objects of various forms of discrimination. Rather, when the situation is characterized by tolerance, the public is not expected to take a stand against injustice, but merely tolerate both sides of the “conflict,” which is supposedly between opposing groups of people who are circumscribed outside of those who constitute “the public” or “the American people” writ large (59).

Drawing on media coverage of gay and lesbian activism and of violence motivated by anti-homosexual bigotry, Jacobsen and Pellegrini persuasively show how tolerance encourages the same us/them thinking that can lead to violence, despite liberal claims that tolerance is the way out of the hate that leads to violence. For to “tolerate” those who are different from you implicitly assumes alienation, “the other,” a distance between queer folks, for example, and “the public.” The public “tolerates” the homosexual, which means the homosexual is outside of the group. Therefore, as much as we’d like to believe tolerance is our answer to violence, it offers no escape:

Tolerance disavows violence and those who commit heinous crimes, but along the way it offers no exit from the us-them logic that structures hate and tolerance in our society. It also gives us no logical exit from the mandate to tolerate those who hate. (p. 65)

Jacobsen and Pellegrini go one step further and argue that we are further hobbled by the notion that our claims to toleration of homosexuality are grounded in the fact that one’s sexual orientation is supposedly hard-wired and therefore immutable:

Characteristics that are taken to be immutable, such as skin color or sex, will be tolerated. But when traits or behaviors are taken to be discretionary and volitional, people can be asked, indeed compelled, to change their behavior and assimilate to the dominant norm … Gay identity may be protected by the courts … but ‘homosexual conduct’ certainly is not (94).

As they point out, this is hardly simply a problem for left-progressive causes, such as gender or sexuality. The notion that only immutable characteristics are protected, not behavior, means that an Orthodox Jew can be asked to cut his hair, or a Muslim woman asked to remove her headscarf, in order to keep their job. It means that Christians are not protected from being fired for refusing to work on Sunday.

How, then to get ourselves out of the (violence-enabling) cul-de-sac of identity-based tolerance? This is where Jacobsen and Pellegrini’s theorizing takes what I think is a paradigm-expanding turn. They argue that rather than a framework of “human rights,” social justice movements around sexual expression (and potentially other things) would do better to argue on the ground of religious freedom. Essentially, they argue that sexual freedom is analogous to the freedom of religion in that both are practices that express core values, and that not just beliefs but also individual expression of belief deserve protection, in public as well as private.

This shift frees us from the interminable question of what “causes” sexual variation, which — while theoretically interesting —  is actually ultimately unhelpful when it comes to determining what is lawful. Grounding rights claims on the basis of one’s inclinations being “natural” will do little to answer critics who (quite rightly) point out that human beings are not compelled to follow every inclination without thought, and that our ability to regulate impulsive behavior is, in fact, part of what makes us human. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it “right” in the moral sense — since morality is a human creation, and deeply embedded in time and place. As Jacobsen and Pellegrini write:

An important virtue of the paradigm shift we are advocating [from identity-based “rights” to freedom to live out ones values] is that it does not force us to finally settle the question of what ’causes’ homoesexuality. In the end it just does not — or should not — matter how an individual came to be homosexual, any more than it matters how heterosexuals became heterosexual. Rather, homosexual life and experience are to be valued, are in fact sources of value. (98).

This shift also helps us to combat arguments to the effect of, “It’s okay for homosexuals to practice their lifestyle as long as they don’t flaunt it in front of me”:

Free exercise does not depend on the boundary between public and private that protects liberal freedom. In a liberal democracy, some people are allowed to live lives freely in both public and private; others are allowed freedom only if they keep significant aspects of their lives private and privatized; and still others … are not allowed even the protections of a ‘private life.’ But if ‘free exercise’ and ‘democracy’ are to mean anything at all, everyone must have access to life both in public and in private (106).

I see productive parallels here with discussions of ability and access, about what it means to work “toward restructuring our public life so that everyone is included in categories like ‘the general public,’ ‘the public at large,’ or ‘all Americans’ ” (72). The majority culture has a strong normative power — sanctioned by the language of “tolerance” — to enforce their own notions of civility, rather than practice radical acceptance and lovingkindness toward those whose behavior as well as identity challenge their notions of propriety. The perennial (and perennially heated) “debate” about children’s behavior in public spaces comes immediately to mind for me: because children are constituted as “other” in our society (as non-workers they are understood as future/potential citizens, but not full participants in their own right), we feel entitled to ask that their behavior meet our own criteria of acceptability, rather than ask how we might re-formulate our public spaces to better serve them. The same could be said for the elderly, the non-English-speaking, the mentally- or physically struggling.

Angus Johnston has a powerful post on this subject, in which he writes:

Here’s my secret: my kid doesn’t actually behave as well as I do. Sometimes she whines. Sometimes she has to be reminded to to keep her voice down, or not to run. So yeah, when I take her to the Museum of Modern Art, we do impose on other patrons, at least a little.

And you know what? A little imposition on other patrons is okay. I’ll apologize sincerely to anyone she disturbs, but I’m not going to apologize for her presence. Because MoMA is her space as much as it is mine.

My [cognitively disabled] sister whines in public sometimes, too. Sometimes she gets overwhelmed and cries. Sometimes she raises her voice. (Running in museums is not an issue with her, I’m happy to say.) If we say that my daughter shouldn’t go to museums because she might whine or cry or raise her voice, then we have to say that my sister can’t go either — and one of the best days I ever spent with my sister was the day that we visited a MoMA exhibit of design for people with disabilities. MoMA is my sister’s space as much as it is mine.

You can (and should) read the whole piece over at Student Activism.

The basic point both Jacobsen and Pellegrini are making here is that in the framework of “tolerance,” in which we tolerate non-Christians, non-straight folks, children, the disabled, in “our” public square is that through the mechanism of toleration we are perpetuating the hierarchy in which some people are more entitled to freedom of expression than others.

“The public” — understood to be the white, male, economically self-sufficient, heterosexual Christian (I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, but you get the idea) — “tolerates” those of us who diverge from that which feels comfortable to. But that toleration is conditional on our normative behavior. Jacobsen and Pellegrini remind us that such conditional acceptance is, well, otherwise known as being an entitled asshole.

I encourage anyone who cares about effective social change toward a more egalitarian, inclusive world to read Love the Sin. Even if sexual freedom isn’t your issue, per se, the framework Jacobsen and Pellegrini lay out is an effective one for any area where the personal and political intertwine.

Related Read: If you’re psyched by the ideas Love the Sin outlines, be sure to check out Kenji Yoshino’s Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House, 2006) which explores the legal side of these “freedom of expression” issues.