Is Conforming Non-conformism in Teenagers Nature's Backup Mechanism for Insuring Hetrosexuality?
By Alec Rawls © 1998 (2150 words) Published in The Stanford Review, 11/28/94

Several Stanford students are now being prosecuted for pouring paint on the Gay Liberation sculpture on campus. This is appropriate. Crimes against property must be punished and art at its best is a most valuable form of property. But consider an alternative scenario. If Stanford afforded pro-life activists a central place on campus to install a sculpture depicting abortion as murder there would be a fire-storm of protest. If pro-choice activists poured paint on such a sculpture and the University pressed felony charges, the property damaging protesters would be regarded by many as heros and martyrs.

What makes the two cases so different? Only a conviction on the part of some people, and acceptance by most, that depicting gay liberation is a political good while attacking a woman's freedom to choose abortion is a political bad. But is Gay Liberation good political art? One obvious consideration is whether a particular piece of art as politics is productive or counterproductive of the ends it seeks to promote, and here I think Gay Liberation falls on its face.

Does it really make sense to try to increase tolerance for homosexuality by forcing homosexual displays into the public consciousness? Natural philosophy and common sense should give us pause.

Human beings have an instinctive revulsion to homosexuality, much as we have an instinctive revulsion to certain smells, and for the same reason: that our species, like all others, has evolved instincts to avoid a wide variety of substances, threats and activities that are detrimental to our survival and reproductive success. We also have open ended faculties of intelligence, capable of seconding or vetoing our instinctive judgments, but our instinctive judgements are unavoidably with us.

In the case of homosexuality, rationality tells us that, however much we might be glad to embrace our personal revulsion towards homosexuality as regards our own sexuality, we should want to temper this revulsion regarding those who turn out to have gotten their embryonic wires crossed. The fact is, they have got their wires crossed, and there is nothing to be gained by despising them, but much to lose. Homosexuals still are human beings, whose lives are valuable for the same reasons that other people's lives are valuable: because they have the same open ended moral intelligence that other's have, capable of discovering what there is to value in the world and of acting for it.

Does it increase tolerance for homosexuals to draw attention to what it is about homosexuals that makes them instinctively repulsive to others (their sexuality) rather than to what really matters (their full endowment of intelligence and humanity)? Would we think of trying to increase tolerance for those who have their wires crossed about what smells foul by filling up a planter in the quad with foul smells? More likely the result would be an arousal of repulsion, and I think that the effect of the Gay Liberation tableaux is similar.

So long as repulsion remains an abstraction, rationality has home court advantage and can more easily determine how a person in sum will feel about homosexuals and want to behave towards them. The ideal for promoting the politics of tolerance would be for repulsion to remain an abstraction while the common humanity of homosexuals is displayed. It is not impossible for this common humanity to be displayed by gestures of affection, but the arousal of repulsion always carries a cost, making it harder for people to accord full value to the welfare of homosexuals.

Most gays recognize this and are even more circumspect than heterosexuals about displaying their affections publicly. Presumably, few of these would condone the constant and entirely gratuitous display of public homosexuality in the Segal tableaux. Sure, the tableaux represents a nice utopian idea for homosexuals: a world in which their sexuality does not repulse. But that is not our world, and gays who are rational do not want to pretend otherwise.

Those activists who want to make a big stink about their sexuality are partly just obstreperous I think: "We know it is counterproductive, but we like these smells that others consider foul, and we are going to make them wherever we want." But while such motivations cannot help but get thrown into the mix, I think most homosexuals who favor a bit of social engineering like the Segal tableaux do so on the premise that attitudes towards homosexuals are not innate but are "socially constructed. "

If repulsion to homosexuality is socially conditioned then exposure to homosexual relationships might provide a countervailing conditioning. Instead of arousing repulsion, it might make homosexuality seem normal and inoculate the body politic against repulsion. But this is a most dangerous kind of wishful thinking. There is every reason to believe there should be a strong innate revulsion to homosexuality. What could be more critical to reproductive fitness? And any device that is evolved to make homosexuality personally repulsive is going to make it repulsive to think about or observe in others.

Sometimes ancient Greece is cited as proof that attitudes towards homosexuality are socially constructed, but anyone who has read Plato's Symposium knows that Greek homosexuality was pederasty, which provides the explanation for its spread. Modern clinical experience demonstrates that sexual abuse propagates -- that abused youngsters have a very strong drive to abuse others. Far from showing that sexuality is socially constructed, the example of ancient Greece is explained by the strength of heterosexual repulsion to homosexuality, seen in the strength of the the obsessive pathology created by the homosexual abuse of adolescents. That such a cycle of pathology once apparently spread to infect much of a nation is one of the saddest sickest stories in human history.

Most homosexuals reject the social construction nonsense anyway. They know that their own sexuality is immanent to themselves -- that it is not something they got from society or that society can change -- and this is a core belief. Does that mean that the dogma of "social construction of sexuality" that is so prevalent amongst left leaning homosexual and other academics is pure intellectual dishonesty, embraced as an excuse for unrestrained social engineering? Not entirely, because there really is a conundrum for homosexuals about the source of repulsion to homosexuality. This arises from the most painful subject of all for homosexuals -- their terrible self hatred -- which, it would seem, must come from society, because if a person's wires are crossed, he should feel repulsion at the thought of intimacy with the opposite sex, not repulsion at his own sexuality.

The simple biological explanation simply does not work for self-hatred, and if the self-hatred homosexuals go through can only be explained as socially constructed, that makes it plausible that the revulsion others feel for homosexuality could also be a matter of social conditioning. It is obviously tempting for homosexuals to grasp at this possible way that hoisting their flag and pushing awareness of homosexuality into the public consciousness could be the strategic thing to do, just as it is tempting in battle to pour through a breach, but beware the cul de sac. Social construction cannot be correct. In our hearts, each of us knows that his own sexuality is not socially constructed, and one's gut reaction to homosexuality is part of one's own sexuality. There has to be an explanation besides social construction for this conundrum of homosexual self-hatred, and I believe I know what it is.

Natural selection has obviously not been able to perfect the coordination of sex with sexual orientation during the complex developmental stages of the human being, particularly in the womb. Now put this together with the fact that few things are as crucial to reproductive success as this alignment. This combination of natural facts necessarily creates a huge reward in terms of fitness for backup mechanisms capable of enforcing the alignment between sex and sexual orientation. Homosexual self-hatred is, I believe, such a backup mechanism.

A backup mechanism is forced to work in a round about way. It cannot just instruct: "hate your sexuality and try to suppress it if you turn out to be attracted to the wrong sex," because the homosexual's conception of the "wrong sex" will be backwards. With the direct approach closed off, any feasible backup mechanism would have to employ social clues. It would have to instruct: "if your alignment of sex and sexual orientation turns out to be different than the norm, then hate and suppress that sexuality and try to adopt the dominant alignment." Stated more simply, we would have a powerful drive to conform.

That works, and since the reward in terms of fitness for such a mechanism would be huge, it would in fact have evolved if the design possibilities throughout our evolution have been amenable to it. These are simple natural facts, and when we turn from hypothesis to evidence and look for such a mechanism in the world, we discover a T-Rex staring us in the face.

A house-mate of mine once said something that perfectly captured my own experience and perceptions about youth and adolescence. I think it is the profoundest truth. He remarked how striking he thought it was that children seem to reach a kind of first adulthood before adolescence, full of mature judgement. Then when puberty hits, this first adulthood seems to get crushed. In particular, independent judgement is razed and replaced with the most slavish conformity and social consciousness.

Is it purely coincidence that such a transformation should accompany sexual awakening? I don't think so. I think we are programmed to become acutely aware of our conformity, and in particular, acutely concerned for the conformity of our awakening sexual urges, as a biological backup mechanism for inducing heterosexual behavior. Our crushing adolescent drive to conformity causes a great deal of misery, and not just for homosexuals, but genes that can produce such a drive have a clear selective advantage, getting passed on by those homosexuals who it can induce to act heterosexually.

If I am right about this, the biological forces allied to create repulsion towards homosexuality and self-hatred in homosexuals are powerful indeed and any social engineering attempt to ameliorate these forces must pay close attention to how the driving biological forces are likely to operate. If social conformity in adolescents (including the eerie perennial conforming non-conformism) really is a backup mechanism for enforcing sexual orientation then there may be some scope for ameliorating hatred and self-hatred of homosexuals by including them in the social mix. When conformity is the driving force, the mere presence of a thing can make it acceptable. The example of ancient Greece certainly proves this, that even a pathology like pederasty can become socially acceptable if only it propagates far enough.

But if this mechanism for increasing tolerance is to work, awareness of homosexuality must be introduced in a way that does not excite the primary mechanisms of repulsion towards homosexuality that will be active in those who do not have their wires crossed. Otherwise, this excited repulsion could well become the norm that is conformed to. Wisdom would be to target attention so as to emphasize the valuable humanity of homosexuals while dwelling as little as possible on their problematic sexuality.

One would hope that some way can be found to ameliorate the self-hatred that leads many homosexuals even to kill themselves. At best, this is how one can see the Segal tableaux -- as reaching out to those who are struggling with self-hatred induced by their drive to conformity and saying "there is a place for you." How far this timid display of four geeky pallid ghosts sporting a 70's homosexual chic goes to deliver such a message I don't know. I hope it is a comfort, but as a call for toleration I think the tableaux is ill judged.

The fact is, very few people have anything but good will for homosexuals. I suspect this is true even of those students who vandalized Gay Liberation. Listen, you people with your wires crossed: we moderate our instinctive revulsion to your instinctive natures out of regard for your larger worth. We just don't like being repaid for this effort by having our noses rubbed in what we are trying to moderate our negative reaction to. What ever happened to common sense?

Homosexual activists pretend it is unfair if their situation is not symmetric with that of heterosexuals -- that it isn't fair if their sexuality does not enjoy the same public acceptance. But fairness is not about equality, it is about mutuality, which means accounting all value, which means accounting the reasons why things are different for homosexuals. Homosexuals got stuck with a sexuality that their and our our biological mechanisms are trying to stamp out. We are glad to try to ameliorate their situation, but reciprocity means accounting the special problems their situation raises and trying on all sides to minimize them.

Alec Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D in Economics


End of Non-ideal Theory volume of Moral Science. Next volume: The Decentralized Coordination of Intelligence

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