Sunday, 24 November 2013

Being Born This Way

On Thursday last week, Anglican Mainstream, a conservative group within the Anglican communion (although perhaps it is more of a ‘compromise’ at the moment, what with issues like GAFCON and the controversy over women bishops) published an article on their website arguing against Stonewall’s role in Church of England schools in tackling homophobic bullying. As much as I love Stonewall (they are an incredibly powerful advocate for LGBTQ interests, and the community owes much to them), I think that AM have a point on (possibly only) one front: Stonewall has widely differing views from the orthodox Anglican position, and the issue is controversial both on both ecclesiological and ecumenical fronts. However, I would like to ignore this issue - I’m sure it will get its fair share of much more erudite and informed coverage elsewhere - and instead look at a different aspect of their complaint.

The aspect I would like to look at is that which comes under the heading of “unscientific stonewall”:

Of course we agree that in today’s society people should be free to identify themselves as gay if they so wish, without fear of harassment. Stonewall’s campaign is based on an assumption that being “gay” is something innate which people are born with, like a racial characteristic. However, repeated research efforts have failed to demonstrate any biological or genetic cause of homosexual orientation. Many youngsters who self-identified as gay in their teens shed the label and the identity later on. Institutionalizing Stonewall’s views will inhibit this process.

It gets interesting when you read the response produced by Changing Attitude, and Anglican LGBTQ advocacy group, which viciously contests the idea that homosexuality may not be innate. Here are some pertinent accusations of theirs:
  •  They believe that repeated research efforts have failed to demonstrate any biological or genetic cause of homosexual orientation – that’s homophobic.
  •  They accuse Stonewall of being unscientific because the leaders of Anglican Mainstream don’t believe that being gay is something innate which people are born with – that’s a homophobic attitude.
  • They believe that many youngsters who self-identified as gay in their teens shed the label and the identity later on. Describing lesbian and gay identity as a label is homophobic.

This shifts the debate onto an old and common battlefield: the genetics/socialisation dilemma. In denouncing as homophobic any claim that homosexuality isn’t innate, they imply that there is a link between innateness and the legitimacy of homosexuality. In claiming that if you believe homosexuality is anything other than innate, you are being homophobic, they imply that innateness is a necessary condition for moral legitimacy. Correspondingly, many anti-homosexual groups reject the idea that homosexuality can be innate, arguing instead that it is the result of socialisation or a (particularly bizarre and irrational in a society in which these groups exist) choice.

There are two problems with this type of reasoning. Firstly, as far as I am aware, the issue has yet to be conclusively settled either way, and in fact the settling of the issue is muddied by the fact that ideological groups have taken up as banners two alternative answers to the question, so that any scientist offering a response is now making a political statement. Furthermore, the fact that science is a human activity and so is as flawed and corrupt as anything else we do means that research in this area is inextricably linked in to ideologies as held both by the researchers and those who fund them. As such, it is far too easy for either side to call the other out as biased, and it is plausible for them to do so. To make any claims to either option is thus not only dishonest, but a purely ideological hi-jacking of what should be a strictly empirical question.  

To add to this, there is the issue of the dualism that both sides seem to assume, which underpins the either/or nature of the controversy. However, the idea that sexuality can either be a matter of genetics or socialisation seems odd. I am not a geneticist or a psychologist, but it seems plausible that the levels of each contributing to sexual orientation could vary between individuals. The fact that a social/genetic dualism has become emblematic of ideological concerns means that everybody seems to be searching for a dualistic answer, which probably doesn’t help in light of this. Perhaps the alleged inconclusive studies alternatively deployed or rejected by either side in order to invalidate their opponents or validate their own positions are all we will ever get, and yet they will never be acknowledge as people keep searching for someone to prove them right.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental problem with this line of reasoning, and that is that innateness has absolutely nothing to do with morality. The common assumption seems to be that if homosexuality is innate, it must be accepted as ‘natural’ and therefore morally acceptable. If it is, in fact, a matter of socialisation, then it is a choice, or at least reversible and therefore it is not unreasonable to hold it as wrong. It is worth pointing out here that if determinism (taken outside of potential reversibility) does, in fact, justify behaviour, then socialisation would justify homosexuality as much as genetic disposition would. Furthermore, if reversibility is the criterion for justification, then this could still be the case so long as the socialisation is not undoable – which, if we are to look at some of the studies around the success of supposed ‘ex-gay’ therapies, we might be lead to believe.

We still, however, have the consideration of innateness left. The thing is, Christianity has always acknowledged that things can be both innate and wrong: from the weak flesh of Matt. 26:41 to at least six out of the seven deadly sins (Sloth may arguably be a learned behaviour), the workings of grace have always been to allow Christians to overcome not their actions but the dispositions which lead to those actions. For Aristotle, the virtuous person is the person who acts virtuously as a natural expression of their character, not through concerted efforts of will. Christianity seems to have inherited a similar notion of virtue, which is why St. Augustine prays for “continence” (albeit not yet), and not merely “not to do sins”. Salvation is about redemption of character, not God just stopping bad acts. That’s why “all who hate a brother or sister are murderers” (1 John 3:15, NRSV) . To this end, the Church is more than capable of condemning homosexual behaviour even if it is, in fact, genetic. Equally, there are many innate things which people are that are arguably bad even from a non-Abrahamic perspective – for example, people are disposed to violence as a reaction to fear or anger. They cannot necessarily help this, and yet we argue that they should do their best to resist these dispositions, so it cannot be claimed even from a non-Abrahamic perspective that innateness functions as a moral get-out-of-jail-free card.

On the other side, there are many things that I do which are not direct expressions of genetic disposition – for example, playing the guitar, writing a blog, or making coffee - which are no worse for that fact. If I wish to justify such behaviour on theological grounds, I can attempt to do so. Homosexuality is, of course, a little harder to defend in this way than making coffee – but its being innate or not is by-the-by.

Having exploded the notion that innateness means justification, we must ask just how this entirely unnecessary situation has arisen. I think that the reason why the two positions have been adopted by their respective camps is that there is the belief on both sides of the argument that acknowledging homosexuality as both innate and wrong would throw up insurmountable theodical issues. Such an acknowledgement would entail incoherent a loving God creating (either directly or indirectly) people who are innately disposed towards sin. The most obvious reaction to this is to reject either the notion of a “loving” God (supposed by the anti-gay lobby), or the rejection of homosexuality’s sinfulness. However, we need not adopt either of these theses. Christianity has a whole host of theodical issues already, and yet seems to function fine none-the-less. The last time I checked, no-one had produced a universally-acknowledged-as-watertight response to the many problems of evil, and yet people find reason to keep the faith. As such, neither side has any reason to either embrace or anathematise such a conclusion. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Consulting Church

2014 will see the convening of an extraordinary general session of the (Catholic) Synod of Bishops on the family. The purpose of this is to respond to the changing cultural landscape with regards to attitudes towards family structure, same-sex relations and gender issues in general (although presumably still not intersexuality). While the promise of a new contribution to the gender and theology field is exciting enough, one of the most interesting elements of this event comes in the form of one of its preparatory initiatives.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has produced a questionnaire (which can be downloaded and filled in here) seeking to gather the views and experiences of Catholics across England and Wales on the attitudes towards issues such as divorce and ‘non-traditional’ families among congregations, presumably in order to put the hierarchy back in touch with the views of the congregations (intellectually rather than doctrinally, of course!) Some voices in the media herald this as a sign of a new openness, in line with the (dubious) popular perception of Pope Francis as liberal reformer. However, what seems to actually be a sign of is that the Church is terrible at statistics.

The questionnaire itself is comprised of forty essay questions. For example:

7a)  What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?

Now it is true that the purpose of such a consultation should be, ultimately, to answer this sort of question. The problem is that these sorts of questions are normally answered through collection of quantitative data, or qualitative data presented in quantitative form (multiple choice). What the Church seems to want to do is ask its questions and just receive the answers. Then when the topic comes round to, for example, the attitude of the local and particular Churches on the issue above, the Bishops can presumably rattle off a list of responses which can then be taken into account.

 However, due to the form of the answers, what the bishops actually end up with is basically a literature review of several thousand opinions, varying in both clarity and insight, and with no way to effectively present an overview which reflects the nuances of the field.  This method traps the Church in a hilarious double-bind. On the one hand, the greater the participation in the survey the more representative it is. On the other hand, the greater the participation in the survey, the worse the conclusions of the Bishops’ report become as the data becomes unmanageable. At the time of writing, roughly 5000 people are reported to have filled in the survey (including the inevitable non-Catholic trolls). This seems too few to be representative of what must constitute a significant chunk of Britain’s five million Catholics, but more than enough to be unwieldy.

There is, however, an alternative reading. Bishops are not stupid people, and nor are their researchers. They are deeply involved in politics on a number of levels, and so must be regularly exposed to statistics. Therefore it seems odd that they would make such a pig’s ear of this. As such, we are faced with a question: just what is the point in this consultation anyway? A cynic could claim that it is merely a PR exercise: by seeming to engage with the opinions of the common Catholic, the Church seeks to appear more open and ‘democratic’. If this were true, it would be both patronising and inauthentic. To feign an interest in people’s very real opinions and experiences is to belittle them, treating them as no more than a means to an end and with little value in themselves. To do so would thus be highly disrespectful both of these people as people, and also (in the language of the Church) as members of the mystical body of Christ in possession of the Holy Spirit: the laity may not be members of the administrative priesthood, but it is ultimately only on the presupposition of the spiritual priesthood that the administrative one exists. Furthermore, if the Church did indeed feel that it has theological justification for ignoring the input of its members, then it should fall back on this justification rather than hiding behind a smokescreen in an attempt to pander to ideologies which it resists.


That said, it is still possible that this is all just an honest mess. The document itself is longer and features more meaningful questions than you might expect if it were merely a cursory gesture. I just hope that this is the case – inability to produce decent consultations is a problem that can be sorted with an afternoon’s seminar. The alternative would indicate that the Church faces a problem of disjunction between the clergy and the laity far deeper than even those which the consultation was devised to overcome.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Book Review - Badiou/Žižek, 'Philosophy in the Present'

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek
Philosophy in the Present
Ed. Peter Engelman; Trans. Peter Thomas and Alberto      Toscano
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009, pp. xii, 104. Pb.
£9.99. ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4097-6

What is the role of philosophy in a contemporary society which, on the one hand, largely ignores philosophy, whilst on the other demands engagement with contemporary events? This question must be asked in the light of two major challenges to philosophy in general arising during the twentieth century: firstly, that we are forced to acknowledge the role of intellectuals in facilitating many of the great horrors of recent history, and secondly, that their recent replacement in the public square with celebrities might still be a bad thing. In 2004, Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou met in Vienna to discuss this very issue. Philosophy in the Present is a transcript of this conversation, originally published in German in 2005. The argument presented in the book, to which both philosophers subscribe, is that the role of the philosopher is to notice events (a concept developed by Badiou and adopted by Žižek), and affirm new, revolutionary discourses founded upon their truths. While Badiou and Žižek present an interesting and engaging case, the book fails to find a niche in the field, and the thrust of its critique of contemporary society is problematic.

Badiou opens the book with a brief summary of his philosophy of the event, situating it in the context of what philosophy can and cannot discuss: Philosophy’s task is to construct problems in response to the presence of an ‘event’ which challenges prevailing discourse, initiating a choice between irreconcilable theses. Its fundamental act is one of dedication, affirming events without recourse to ‘justification’ in the language of the existing discourses for which it constructs its problems. This dedication must be accompanied by a theory of universality, constituted by Badiou’s theory of the event: Firstly that truths are realised through subjective demonstration, and are “singular” in that they are cannot be subsumed into, nor acknowledge in themselves, any existing discourse. Universals arise from events, which necessitate a restructuring of the situation around them. Finally, the universal must be conceived as infinite - inexhaustible by thought - and is representable ontologically as an infinite generic multiple.

Žižek’s contribution to the debate is to situate Badiou’s thesis in the context of contemporary philosophy. He begins with an assertion that calls for philosophical interventions into ‘current events’ allude to the existence of, but simultaneously try to mask, a real problem with modern liberal capitalist society. The chapter highlights the nature of this problem. He proceeds to interrogate what he considers as bad answers to the question of the book presented by contemporary ‘liberal’ philosophical approaches to ethics as reconciling the views of disparate ‘others’. Badiou’s contribution to philosophy, according to Žižek, is to interrupt this: in proclaiming the nature of true universalism as subtracted from any particularity, he exposes the ‘otherness’ around which liberal ethics revolves as a facsimile: the freedom to be individual, or ‘other’, in capitalism is underpinned by a disciplinarian levelling of difference. This leads on to his next ‘bad’ answer: liberal philosophy asserts that in order to do justice to the victims of historical events such as the holocaust, such occurrences can only be conceived as unexplainable radical evil. As a result, the radical critiques to which these movements arose in response are prohibited. This leads to what he calls “state philosophy”, where the status quo is declared sacrosanct. He characterises this as a kind of “Neo-Kantianism”: a conservative attempt to reconcile, and thus preserve, disparate but equally ‘essential’ claims about the world. Finally, philosophy must not just seek to point out problems external to philosophy itself, which merely amounts to an un-philosophical listing of opinions given weight by the fact that their exponent is a philosopher. Žižek concludes: philosophy’s task is to present a radical challenge to norms in fidelity to events. This is the source of universalism: the employment of Kantian private (subjective) reason allows the philosopher to escape the particularism of public (social, national) discourse.

The remainder of the book is a discussion around the position established here. Badiou re-frames the argument in terms of ‘humanism’, noting that “humanity” references a particular historically contingent and ideological notion. Universalism challenges all such notions, and is thus a kind of anti-‘Neo-Kantian’ antihumanism. Žižek however is in favour of Kant’s transcendental subject, which he characterises as a positive principle in excess of the human pole of the human-animal oppositional schema. It thus opens up a concept of the Real as an object of science, external to any language game and thus undermining relativism. This leads Badiou to declare that philosophy cannot merely comprise of negating critiques of existing principles. Both philosophers then address the issue of relativism and the unwillingness to critique democracy in liberal politics and philosophy, which Badiou claims stems from a fear of radical change leading to radical evil. He asserts that the real question of philosophy is whether there is in fact a positive form of democracy, over and above merely the consensus in liberal politics, and thus something to defend. Žižek agrees with this, and proceeds to argue that democracy lacks such an affirmative aspect as it effaces itself in pursuit of the order underpinning its hegemony. Finally, both thinkers respond to questions from the audience on Badiou’s interest in electoral politics in light of his statements, and Žižek’s interpretation of Badiou’s ideas.

On the whole, this book is an accessible and engaging foray into the thought of both of these thinkers, and having them expound their respective philosophies in parallel provides a useful insight into their relative positions as leading thinkers in the world of continental philosophy. Due to the general agreement of the two authors, readers who are looking for more of a debate will be disappointed. That said, this does not detract from the book overall – its insights are clearly presented and razor sharp, and neither of these thinkers shy away from breaking the taboos they highlight around critiquing the democratic hegemony. To this extent, they are true to their characterisation of real philosophy as radical and revolutionary critique.

That said, there are a number of issues with the book. Firstly, one must ask just where it fits into the existing field. The main problem in this regard is that the main exposition of the doctrine of the event to which they nominally both subscribe is from Badiou’s point of view. However, it (inevitably, given its original context) avoids the deep ontological work which underpins his philosophy, and so grants little in the way of actual understanding of his position. Nor does it highlight the disagreements between Badiou and Žižek with regards to Žižek’s Hegelianism. To this end, the book is not suitable as an introduction to these two thinkers on anything other than the shallowest of levels. On the other hand, the arguments made in the book are very much in line with what Badiou and Žižek have written in their other texts, and so do not serve to further the existing debate particularly. As such, it is neither a suitable introduction for beginners, nor a novel contribution. We are thus left with reading it for entertainment alone - which risks falling into the very trap of ‘opinion seeking’ that Žižek decries: the philosophers themselves become the focal point of the experience, rather than the ideas themselves.

Secondly, it is arguable that both Badiou and Žižek slip into the kind of Neo-Kantianism which they both claim to challenge in the context of democracy. The doctrine of the event is predicated on two core principles: firstly, that there are events which can be acknowledged via a free decisional intervention in order to overturn discourses, and secondly, that the choice to acknowledge these events can be made, free of the constraints of the discourse being overturned by the decision. Thus, at the heart of the doctrine, there is a presupposition of a transcendental human subject/ego which is capable of such a free decision. Because it is precisely the possibility of an intervention which grants the event the power to initiate a radical critique, by disputing the freedom of the intervening agent and instead rooting its actions in a discourse (à la Foucault), the ability of the subject to initiate a conceptual revolution is overturned: any such revolution is merely an extension of existing discourse. Thus in order for Badiou and Žižek to maintain the possibility of their universalist antihumanism, they must from the outset prohibit any challenges to this notion of the human interventional agent.


In summary, this is an entertaining book presenting the thoughts of two of the most important philosophers in the contemporary continental tradition side by side. Its strengths lie in its ability to effectively communicate the shared aspects of their positions, as well as giving an enjoyable insight into a discussion between two exciting figures. That said, its strengths risk its confinement to a niche which it rejects, and it arguably slips into the kind of discourse it critiques. Overall, it is a rewarding read for fans of Badiou and Žižek, albeit neither a perfect nor essential one.