Several people have pointed out by now how unprofessional it was to use the term “gay lifestyle” in a recent survey of public attitudes. The survey was conducted for the Singapore Conversation. For integrity, surveys must take great care to employ only clear and neutral vocabulary. “Gay lifestyle” fails both tests.
What this incident underscores is the extent to which conservative Christian influences have invaded our public bodies. Not only did the survey designers employ this loaded term, no one up and down the oversight chain stopped it. Either everyone thought it perfectly “normal” to use prejudicial language, or if anyone spoke up, he or she was a lonely voice and could not prevail. But it is only “normal” when one lives ensconced in prejudiced circles. Thus, the unthinking use of the term flags the degree by which members of these social circles have come to dominate government and their associated academic bodies.
LGBT news website Fridae.asia contacted one of the researchers behind the survey, and reported:
When Fridae contacted Senior Research Fellow Leong Chan Hoong – one of the survey’s researchers from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) – and explained the controversial phrase, he conceded that on hindsight, the survey could have used a more “nuanced and calibrated” term.
He clarified that the survey did not elaborate on the contentious term and explained that the questions throughout the survey were designed to allow respondents to interpret the question “using a lens they are normally used to.”
No, it is not a lens that people normally use. He’s just digging a deeper hole trying to explain it. Ordinary people speak of gays and lesbians, or perhaps “homosexuals”. “Gay lifestyle” is a term coined by and used as a weapon by anti-gay rightwing campaigners, notably conservative churches. They favour this term because it connotes promiscuity and hedonism, thereby tarring LGBT communities with these brushes. Sotto voce, it also implies that, as a “lifestyle”, it is something people can choose and unchoose, and by extension, homosexual orientation is also something people can choose and unchoose.
The propagation of the term is one big lie.
(If you still need more explanation why it is a prejudicial and offensive term, read Shah Salimat’s commentary in Yahoo: Why the term ‘gay lifestyle’ offends and is hurtful.)
Admittedly, the term has spread from the political Christians who first came up with it to the wider Christian community, without the latter understanding why the term was coined in the first place. Many of them now use it as a matter of course, but nonetheless, the term remains a tell-tale marker of the speaker’s or user’s social circles.
And since the pejorative term was not rectified before the survey was conducted, it tells us that the problem didn’t lie with just one person, but with a whole bunch of researchers and civil servants. For public bodies and research institutes that are supposed to be rigorously secular and professional, the lapse creates grave doubts on both fronts.
Of course, there is no reason why a deeply religious person can’t be a good scientist. But to be one, he must be acutely aware of his own cognitive biases. So, what does such an obvious and fundamental mistake tell us about the quality of Singapore’s research bodies?
Would you not laugh if a self-proclaimed research institute in a Muslim country conducted a survey with a question like this: “Should infidels enjoy freedom of religion?” Sure, you might argue that using the term “infidels” is to provide respondents with a lens they are normally used to, but you must be blind not to see that the shape of the question signals to the survey participant the desired answer.
In the same way, the “gay lifestyle” question contained its own signalling, creating an inherent bias. Very likely some respondents would have taken the cue to provide an answer they consciously or subconsciously thought the survey wanted. The resulting “rejectionist” numbers may be an overstatement.
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Here is the result as provided in the Report of the Singapore Conversation. From page 9:
(Click on it to get a larger image)
Look at the bars at the bottom of the chart, labelled “Overall”. Despite the cue from loaded language, rejectionists fell below 50%. How inconvenient it must have been to Singapore’s rightwing nuts!
Yes, there is a wide band of neutral, but were the neutrals really neutral or were they trying to be polite? In the context of the question that employs a signally biased term, it is not easy telling the interviewer one “accepts” gay lifestyles. Would some have chosen to provide a “neutral” answer instead?
Now look at the bands for younger age groups and the better-educated. The percentage of rejectionists fall quite dramatically. They tell you where we’re heading in the future.
Throughout, you may have a nagging question: What on earth did respondents understand the question to mean? What did they think “gay lifestyle” was? There is no easy way to figure this out now. But the very fact that this nagging question remains clouds the value of the exercise.
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The relative diversity of opinion did not stop our mainstream media choosing headlines that hail our continuing (and supposed) conservatism, e.g. “Liberal attitudes on gay lifestyles not prevalent here” (Today newspaper, 26 August 2013) — never mind if the evidence is ambiguous at the very least. It is precisely this kind of contortion that teaches Singaporeans what answers are expected of them in surveys. See my point above about inherent bias.
Yahoo headlined its story “Singaporeans split over gay, censorship, social support issues: OSC survey” which gave a better reflection of the findings.
The Straits Times picked up comments from those who seem peculiarly keen on spinning the line that the numbers don’t necessarily mean what they mean. Silly young Singaporeans with liberal views will grow up eventually, they try to suggest:
What jumped out to researchers was the generational disparity in respondents’ picks. On gay lifestyles especially, the younger the respondent, the more likely he was to signal acceptance.
Among those aged 50 to 69 years old, for example, the scales were tipped 56 per cent to 20 per cent with the majority rejecting gay lifestyles. This balanced out among those aged 20 to 34: the proportion of those who accepted and rejected gay lifestyles was even at 35 per cent each.
A similar trend was observed in respondents’ picks on censorship and freedom of expression
But National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the trend did not mean Singapore will inevitably liberalise over time. “There are two theories among researchers on social values… One is the life-cycle theory, that people change from being liberal to conservative as they grow older.”
For instance, one’s answer to whether those below age 21 should be allowed to watch R(A) films would likely change from when one is 18, to when one is the parent of an 18-year-old, he said.
But the other theory is that social values tend to conform to the era where one is born, and then remain more or less fixed throughout one’s life. To tell which theory pans out in Singapore, these questions would have to be repeated in surveys in the future.
Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad said the Internet has been a game-changer in exposing the younger generation to broader influences than their parents.
But signalling acceptance of gay lifestyles on an abstract level when one is young does not rule out a different reaction should, for example, one’s children in the future come out as gay. “Society is changing, but we are not quite sure how much and how far.”
— Straits Times, 26 August 2013, More remain socially conservative, by Rachel Chang
Whilst in matters of financial planning, choice of home and risk-taking, people may indeed change their attitudes as they grow older, in terms of social attitudes, people tend to keep their attitudes throughout their lives. Racially blind young people don’t become racist bigots as they grow older, for example. Ditto with attitudes towards lesbian and gay friends and family. What we have quoted in the Straits Times is not informed insight, but something more akin to frozen-smile denial.
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The survey also asked a question about same-sex marriage.
I’m of the view that this question is somewhat premature for Singapore; we’ve have hardly had this topic in public discourse, and I can’t imagine that many people are informed about the issue. Nevertheless, I shall leave the chart here for future reference as a kind of baseline.