Two university students boarded the train, standing near me. Continuing their conversation from earlier, he asked her: “Does your church have any rules against dating guys who are not Christian?”
She replied: “I don’t think there are any explicit rules, but it won’t be encouraged. Certainly the cell group, if they find out, will apply pressure on you to stop.”
“What kind of pressure? What will they say?”
“Don’t know exactly, I mean, it hasn’t happened to me. I suppose they will say something like compromising your faith. After all, it’s not really what god would want. . . ”
Question to consider: Is this really a matter of faith, or an example of peer pressure and socialisation?
Some time later, I was at a cocktail function that came with a buffet dinner. About one in three of the guests were Indians working in Singapore, one of whom was standing in line at the buffet just behind me, and with whom I was having a conversation about how he found life here since arriving six months earlier. Picking up some fried noodles with the tongs, I asked him if he wanted some.
“No, thanks,” he said. “I’ll be taking the rice.” And then he added, “I’m not used to that. No offence, but it feels like worms going down the throat,” half-laughing at the thought.
Primed by that remark, over the next half-hour or so, I looked at the plates of the other Indians at that function. Indeed, just about every one had rice; no one had noodles.
How representative that observation was, I don’t know. Certainly Singaporeans of Indian ancestry have no difficulty with ‘worms’.
* * * * *
People often confuse their subjective feelings, which are often the result of socialisation, with some kind of eternal truth. Homophobia is a prime example. Like racism, sexism and food preferences, it is learned behaviour, but ( though less so with food preferences) one that is rationalised through appeal to convention and pseudo-logic, such that it has the ring of truthful authority. I say ‘pseudo-logic’ because when one examines the bases and follow-on arguments, they are often false — unsupported assertions regardless of contrary evidence — or logically flawed.
Homophobia for some arises out of a subjective ‘yuck factor’ much like swallowing worms (yuckiness is also learned behaviour), but more importantly, is reinforced by an entire culture of “othering” gay people,with negative attributes assigned to them. Association with gay people is discouraged. The associator risks social opprobrium and accusations of betrayal of the in-group, a process that resembles that of a cell group exerting subtle control over the choices and thought patterns of a member.
A continuing difficulty for webmasters is the degree to which homophobic statements, including thinly disguised appeals to pseudo-reason, should be allowed. This seems to be more difficult for webmasters than taking decisions regarding racist statements. Why is this so when homophobia is equivalent to racism? Most probably it’s because an intellectual position against racism is longer established, and ordinary people, even if they themselves cannot quite articulate the intellectual arguments against it, have imbibed the conclusion — that racism is wrong — as morally-binding. The intellectual position against homophobia is just as strong, but perhaps not enough time has passed for this to migrate into popular consciousness.
Yet, even recognition of this does not resolve webmasters’ difficulties. Precisely because the intellectual arguments against homophobia have not sufficiently passed into popular consciousness, so should anti-gay remarks and rationalisations be allowed to be aired, in order that they may be rebutted?
Some might say Yes. But this runs up against the simple fact that for most people, the opinions they hold are not formed through intellectual enquiry, but through conformity to social climate. In other words, allowing anti-gay remarks and rationalisations to be aired and hopefully rebutted, ultimately does very little to change people’s minds. If anything, allowing those remarks and rationalisations to be aired in the first place does the opposite: it lends legitimacy to homophobic positions as somehow equivalent in the eyes of casual readers to the opposite conclusions arrived via higher reasoning.
Most webmasters will not allow racist comments to be aired merely in the hope that someone somewhere will rebut them intellectually. The allowing itself is seen as wrong. It is seen as lending some legitimacy to racism.
I myself have shifted back and forth between the two editorial positions. There have been periods when I’ve been more accommodating of homophobic comments, and there have been times when I have been stricter. At this moment, I lean toward the stricter side, and make no apologies for disallowing homophobic comments that will not pass muster if race was substituted in them as the issue at hand. I make no bones about the fact that this is a liberal, progressive site, seeking to change minds and society.
What about freedom of expression, some will ask?
It’s irrelevant. The very asking of the question betrays a poor understanding of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a civil right — this means that the state is enjoined from violating it. Note: the state. Private citizens can do what they please with their private properties. Thus ‘private’. Newspapers traditionally have been mouthpieces of their owners and editors, arguing for and promoting certain viewpoints. Restaurants are not obliged to pin any and every damning review of their food and service on their front doors. Mosques do not have to include Islamophobic letters to the editor when putting together their monthly newsletters. A political party is not obliged to carry criticism of its program on its website.
Even when it comes to the role of the state, it is generally accepted that the freedom of expression that the state should protect is not an absolute one. Arguably, states can regulate hate speech — which includes speech that deliberately demean an entire class of persons, urging social and political restrictions on them. Thus, even by that measure, there is a good case for not permitting the airing for homophobic views.
And so it shall be here.