Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When I Was an Alien, Cultures Weren't Opinions

Suzanna Walters:

Tolerance is not just a low bar; it actively undercuts robust integration and social belonging by allowing the warp and woof of anti-gay animus to go unchallenged. Tolerance allows us to celebrate (hysterically) the coming out of macho professional athletes as a triumphant sign of liberation rather than a sad commentary on the persistence of the closet and the hold of masculinist ideals. Tolerance allows religious "objections" to queer lives to remain in place, even as it claims that a civilized society leaves its homos alone. Tolerance pushes for marriage equality and simultaneously assures anxious allies that it won’t change their marriages or their lives.

And there you see the crux of the tolerance trap: If an ostensible concession doesn’t challenge straight lives, it’s not very radical, and if it does challenge them, it’s not a concession gays and lesbians will win. The marriage assurances are similar to gay responses to right-wing attacks on queer parents: Researchers and advocates argue that "no harm" is done to our kids, that there is no difference between gay and straight parenting. But couldn’t we imagine the strong case? Shouldn’t we argue, instead, that our progeny would/could grow up with more expansive and creative ways of living gender and sexuality? Shouldn’t we argue that same-sex marriage might make us all think differently about the relationship between domestic life and gender norms and push heterosexuals to examine their stubborn commitment to a gendered division of labor?

Once you sift out all the pomo gender studies-speak, it seems to me that her essay balances uneasily on two contradictory premises. On the one hand, she decries "tolerance" as an ideal because, she claims, it depends on the idea of immutability — if gays are truly "born this way", then we have to grudgingly tolerate them, even if we aren't enthused about it. This interpretation might come as a surprise to J.S. Mill, whose classic formulation of tolerance as a liberal ideal did not depend upon a notion of people being born to think a certain way. At any rate, as is typical of radical leftist perspectives, she doesn't like the fact that "tolerance" implies a power imbalance. In a truly just world, no one should ever have to beg for concessions from anyone!

But then some of her complaints seem to be those of an aging radical unhappy that a new generation is content to accept queerness as just another insignificant lifestyle choice, rather than being a truly different subculture, forever opposed to the dominant culture's mores. These damn queer kids today, they're just content to be allowed to get married, join the army, and be proportionately represented among TV sitcom characters! Well, I just have two pieces of free advice, which are worth every penny: one, as long as you're wishing upon a star for things to be different than they are, don't forget to finish with "...and a pony." And two, if you're really into fetishizing intractable differences between cultures and subcultures, you might not want to be so scornful toward an ideal that takes for granted an imperfect state of affairs in which deep, important differences will always exist between people, and seeks to create the conditions for them to exist together without serious conflict. If the pragmatic reality is that you will always be a minority, both demographically and philosophically, disparaging the ideal of tolerance for being less than perfect is a bit like sawing through the branch you're sitting on.