The Moral Landslide: Defying Discrimination

I’ll be honest with you. Before writing this post, I had no idea what a “LGBT person” actually was. “In what sort of world is this guy living?”, I hear you ask. Well, I live in the same world as you, but the meaning of this dreadful label that has been tagged on the shoulders of these poor human beings, somehow managed to escape me. You see, if I were told that these people were human beings, like myself, I would understand what you were talking about. But LGBT? It sounds like a sporty version of a Ford Escort. “Hey, friend, have you seen my new LGBT? It drives like a dream.” Today though, I’ve learned something new: LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Well, I never…

In fact, I have acted in the same way that Monsieur Jourdain did, in Molière’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (“The Bourgeois Nobleman”), when he didn’t know that he was continually speaking prose. I didn’t realise, until now, that in all my years of not knowing what LGBT stood for, I have put forward the most potent argument imaginable against any kind of LGBT discrimination. The argument being, that these “LGBT people” are completely and utterly human.

One of the characteristics of being human is that of having feelings and expressing them. Friendship and love are two of the most beautiful feelings with which we are blessed, and we should be unforgiving in wanting to express and defend them. The French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, summed up brilliantly his passionate friendship with the poet, Etienne de la Boécie. The friendship lasted from 1558 to 1563, year in which la Boécie tragically died. In Montaigne’s text on friendship he writes, “If you pressed me to say why I loved him, I feel that it can only be expressed by saying: ‘because it was him, because it was me’.” We cannot be sure if the relationship had homosexual undertones, but the passion that existed between the two men is undisputed. The relationship was “self-sufficient” and needed no explanation and, even less, a justification.

Reports coming out of Chechnya, where hundreds of homosexuals are being unlawfully imprisoned, are alarming. In other parts of the world, homosexuals are being discriminated and chastised, only on the basis of their lifestyle, and in countries such as Thailand, “in accordance” with the country’s interpretations of Sharia law. The increasing occurrence of such horrendous acts of violence must not let us forget more “mundane” acts of discrimination that occur all over the world. A glaring example being the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. But we also need to look closer to home, and decide if our societies are completely exempt from discrimination.

It is ironical, and even rather sad, that despite the repeated cases of blatant discrimination, no one can come up with a standard definition of what discrimination actually is. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that,

The law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Article 26).

The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights cannot do much better,

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status. (Article 14). 

These guidelines do not really tell us anything on what discrimination itself actually is, they only tell us that discrimination will be protected against.

Discrimination is, in fact, a moral concept. It is morally wrong to impose a disadvantage or deprivation on someone based on his/her membership in some salient social group, and that the act is carried out only in view of that appurtenance. In his widely acclaimed but sometimes controversial book, entitled “The Moral Landscape”, Sam Harris argues that morality changes with the times. What was thought of as being morally acceptable in the 19th century may not be so nowadays. Furthermore, an act or concept can be thought to be morally right if it benefits the society in which it takes place. Like a landscape, it is argued, moral values will have “highs”and “lows” depending on the temporal context in which they find themselves.

If the moral standards do vary in the same way that a landscape does, with peaks and troughs corresponding to moral excellence and deprivation, respectively; where do our present societies find themselves? Probably under sea-level, and sinking fast. What to think of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s rectorial speech, delivered in 1933, consisting of a patriotic rhetoric in favour of the “self assertion of the German university”, arguing the role of philosophy in the building of Nazism, and precursor of a more “aggressive” rhetoric promoting the excellence of the Aryan race? It sends shivers down your spine. The same can be said about the conservative MP Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of blood” speech, in 1968, where he exudes in paranoiac gibberish over a future blood bath between indigenous and exogenous human beings on a small island, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood. –  Enoch Powell, 1968

More recently, of course, Nigel Farage made it absolutely clear that foreigners were threatening to take over the UK’s towns and cities. Not hearing a word of English before the London underground train reached Green Park was, for poor Nigel, a real cause for concern. The fact that Farage himself admits that he’s no good at languages, and that London gets millions of foreign visitors every year is neither here nor there. Farage was, of course, the leader of the extreme right-wing party UKIP. However, inciting racial hatred is not only the trademark of politicians belonging to extreme right-wing parties. Middle ground politicians can also, willingly or not, make remarks that will fuel the already hypochondriac and/or paranoiac voter’s mind. A good example of this is to be found in a speech made in 1991 by the French politician Jacques Chirac.

Add to that the noise and the smell, and the French worker goes crazy. –  Jacques Chirac, 1991

He was alluding to the fact that France could no longer “afford” handing out benefits to what he called “polygamous immigrants”. He added that due to the noise and smell coming from an immigrant’s council flat, it was no surprise that his French neighbour would “go crazy”. Well, to be honest, if my neighbour were playing loud music and having a barbecue at 3 in the morning, I’d go crazy too. Chirac, of course, went on to become president of France, but not without criticising his predecessor, François Mitterand, for an “overdose” of immigrants. Noise, smell, overdose? It sounds more like the back streets of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Not that I would know anything about that, of course.

For me, one philosopher stands out like a beacon of light in our ocean of disintegrating moral standards. Immanuel Kant and his “categorical imperative” remains, at least for me, the benchmark for all moral values. Morality should be universally true, and universally applicable. You do not imprison someone because he is gay, you do so for something he has done, not for something that he is. You do not fight Islam as a religion, you fight the murderers who kill in its name, and those who incite them to do so. You act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Morality, according to Kant, doesn’t tell us what to do on the assumption that we want to achieve a particular goal. Morality consists of categorical imperatives that tell us what to do, no matter what our desires. Although the universality of moral principles must remain throughout time, the moral principles themselves can be adapted as ours societies and technologies also change. This is not a problem as long as their universality is maintained. An example would be that of a medical breakthrough that enabled humans to live to 130 in a healthy condition. Not only would it be amoral for this technology not to be applied, but the beneficiaries would find our present day discussion over euthanasia, amoral.

However, the problem with Kantian morality, as with any other moral system you wish to use, is that of differentiating between moral principles that are justified, and those that are not. Who is to decide if an individual action or political/social stance is morally justified? Concerning LGTB people, the sole judges appear to be God himself, and until recently, psychiatry. This lack of understanding and phobia of homosexuals are the root causes of the incessant discrimination and violence perpetrated against them.

“The Lord rained down sulphurous fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah. He overthrew those cities and the whole Plain, together with the inhabitants of the cities and the produce of the soil.” (Gen. 19:24-25)

One of the possible explanations of why believers react so violently when challenged, is a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance, a theory put forward by Leon Festinger. It comprises a deep conflict occurring in the brain, and is caused by the presence of conflicting and/or incompatible ideas or beliefs. Cognitive dissonance can lead to incoherent and sometimes violent manifestations in the affected individual. The idea that two people can love each other and wish to share a few moments of their fleeting existence in sharp contradiction with the sacred texts, causes an insurmountable schism in the psyche of most religious adepts. Every single one of their arguments condemning homosexuality can, at the very least, be challenged. But religion and its followers will not listen and not tolerate, preferring to discriminate and persecute those they cannot understand.

Incredible as it may sound, the fact is that psychoanalysts have classified homosexuality as a mental disease, up until less than 50 years ago. These learned people went to great lengths to explain homosexual preferences, which were described as  the remnants of the oedipal complex that Sigmund Freud held so close to his heart. Attempts were even made to change sexual preferences by using psychoanalytic techniques, predictably without success.

Homosexuals must certainly not be treated as sinners or cast outs. Recent studies suggest that biological processes may play a non negligible part in determining the sexual preferences of any given individual. Evidence suggests that differences in brain structure and size that are observed between homosexuals and heterosexuals could occur during pregnancy under the influence of hormones. A Swedish study compared the size of the brain’s halves in 90 adults. Homosexual men and heterosexual women had halves of a similar size, while the right side was bigger in lesbian women and heterosexual men. According to Dr Qazi Rahman, lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary, University of London, these brain differences were laid down early in foetal development.

As far as I’m concerned there is no argument any more – if you are gay, you are born gay – Qazi Rahman

We must be very careful with the interpretation of such studies, which only suggest a possible hormonal effect on sexual orientation during pregnancy, and infer nothing.  Any talk of structural differences in brain size between any population groups can worsen already existing discrimination, leading to persecution of individuals and even stigmatisation of entire populations. Furthermore, suggesting biological “discrepancies” would no doubt encourage highly controversial, and even dangerous, medical treatment of homosexuality. In the 60’s, numerous adolescents with observed homosexual tendencies underwent treatment comprising testosterone injections together with psychological “councelling” in an attempt to “cure” their homosexuality. The results were disastrous. Not only did the subjects remain homosexuals but were, in many cases, mentally, and sometimes physically, scarred.

Another controversial aspect of homosexuality is the role that epigenetics could play in orientating sexual preferences. Epigenetics refers the way that genes can express themselves differently depending on external circumstances. Depending on the environment, a given gene can undergo a chemical change that has nothing to do with a gene mutation but will lead to an altered expression of gene activity. Taken together with social background, and familial upbringing, these factors could influence an already “susceptible” individual to become homosexual.

All in all, it is becoming more and more apparent that homosexuals do not “have the choice” concerning their sexual orientation. They cannot repent and change, or be chastised, as religious adepts would advocate. The fundamental question concerning homosexuals, however,  is not so much the need to discover the intricate biological mechanisms responsible for their sexuality, but whether we should not only leave them alone, but also admire them. Here are human beings who marry, or form stable relationships out of pure love, knowing that they will not procreate. They aspire to, and probably encounter, higher values that they share with their partners.

It is homophobia that is the root cause of sufferings and persecutions. Some persist in thinking that homosexuality is a deliberate choice made by people seeking to challenge accepted norms of morality. Homosexuals are wrongly persecuted and chastised for just being who they are. Geneticists, endocrinologists and psychologists are slowly becoming more and more aware that homosexuality results from complex interactions between genetic and external environments, between nature and nurture. However, seeking to biologically or psychologically “normalise” LGBT people has proved fruitless and even undesirable. Their resistance to change proves that homosexuality is something much more profound than a simple preference. It is part of life itself, and as such, must be protected and cherished. It cannot and must not be otherwise.