April 14, 2011

Civilized Conversation

I've had several thoughts in reaction to Archbishop Okoh's latest rant.

If procreation is the cornerstone of society, then celibacy is as much of a threat to the world as same-sex marriage.

Such scant attention to the place that celibacy plays in the teaching of Jesus and Paul, and in the history of the church and the world — and his failure to connect with the even more important imagery of adoption that runs through the Scripture, including the foster-fatherhood of Joseph for the Holy Child himself! — offers little to commend in Okoh's understanding. Monasticism preserved much of the world's wisdom during times when the fertility- and inheritance-driven royal families of Europe were laying waste to it. Saying that the biological family is the cornerstone of civilization is simply a falsehood. A better case can be made for monasticism.

It also strikes me that Okoh has misplaced accusations of selfishness and hedonism which he attributes to gay and lesbian persons. Many gay and lesbian Christian couples spend more time and wealth on the church, or on raising children not their own biological offspring, instead of raising their own flesh and blood. Which is more "selfish" in the long run?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
h/t to the Episcopal Café


Paul said...

I had no idea how rapidly the population of Nigeria was falling! :-)

Tobias, you and the good Archbishop are arguing from completely different approaches. You are making conjectures, following the logic wherever it takes you, looking for logical contradictions and coming back to re-evaluate your initial assumptions. The Archbishop is doing nothing of the sort. He starts out with The Answer in mind and fills in whatever arguments might serve to get him to the Right Place. If you were to demolish one of those arguments to his satisfaction, he would merely substitute another in its place.

This mode of argument is by no means unique to the Archbishop. It should seem familiar enough to anyone who has ever followed a political debate in this country.

Erika Baker said...

We're back at that place where logical argument cannot change people's minds because they're responding from deep within, from emotional prejudice and disgust, not reason.

The only thing that will slowly change Africa is more and more people discovering that they do, after all, have gay children, nephews, neighbours, and that these are actually quite normal people.

We need to concentrate our energies on keeping lgbt people in Africa safe and supported during this process.

Our countries had to go through this process and, sadly, I don't think it's possible to shortcut any of it.

MadPriest said...

Okoh's understanding of our human situation demonstrates just how influential Richard Dawkins, and his fellow selfish geners, have been in the world. If they have managed to persuade Nigerians that it is all about the procreation of the species then I think we may have lost the battle.

Tim said...

Perhaps this replacement-for-Akinola needs to read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_displaying_homosexual_behavior

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Paul. There is a question as to how much this represents what Okoh believes to be true, as opposed to what he finds a useful political position -- or both. Ultimately it doesn't alter the end hurtful effect of his words.

Erika, this also reflects on your comment. I am not sure it is accurate to attribute all such prejudice to emotional roots. That is clearly true in some cases, but with knowledge of personality types I think it safer to say that some people are "head" and others "heart" and still others "gut" in their modalities. Thus I'm reluctant to speak of "the only thing" that can bring about change. I think those of us engaged in this struggle need to deploy all of the skills and tools in our armamentarium. That includes debunking "logical" arguments that may indeed stem from an "emotional" basis. One major strategy in this struggle is to disarm our opponents -- if only because it will leave the emotional basis of their position exposed. Frankly, were it not for the harm statements such as Okoh's cause in his own land, I would rejoice in the presentation of such absurdities, for the good they do in exposing the fundamental problems with the thesis. I fully agree that we need to support lgbt folks in Africa -- for me it is not either/or but both/and.

MP, so very true. "Species maintenance" as the highest value is ultimately a heartless (and headless) ethic.

Tim, of course, then he will just say, "See, they act like animals!" At least that evidence can counter an intellectual assertion that same-sexuality is "unnatural."

Erika Baker said...

I'm not saying we're all Enneagram Heart people. But if an intelligent man, who has been told time and time again that approx. 5% of all people are homosexual then claims that allowing these people to marry each other will eradicate the population of his country, it is patently obvious that he is not arguing from reason.
Whether he wrote that speech himself or just agreed to speak it.

What I do respect are his fears that our Western approach to personal happiness is selfish. Much of what he writes is consistent with the fear also voiced by conservatives here: that changing the parameters of marriage and of how children come to live in families, means destabilising the structures of society.

If we think this can be answered with reason and logic, then the argument should not be that homosexuality is “natural” but that gay people want to be as conservatively integrated into their respective societies as anyone else, that we do not pose a risk.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, my point is that it is not possible to make an "emotional" argument. Even if the question is "fear" it has to be addressed by calming the fears in a rational way -- as you say, not by appealing to "nature" but by demonstrating that gay and lesbian persons are not in fact a threat to human society, any more than celibacy is.

In my own conversations with African church leadership, I have tried to understand the basis of the perceived "threat" presented by LGBT people. From what I have seen it has primarily to do with the extent to which personal identity is understood as family or tribal identity. (While in the West we often see our jobs as central to our identity, in Africa it is ones parents and children that become the prime identifier of personhood.) This relates to some extent to the issue of individualism in the West, (seen as more individualistic than it actually is because of this cultural difference; so that plays a big part in the rhetoric of Okoh and others.)

So I agree with your closing statement, that the main issue is to continue to press the "civilizing" aspect of same-sex marriage; that is, the benefits of the institution to the larger society.

Ultimately, I do believe that rationality can help to calm irrational fears. This is, in fact, a standard approach in dealing with delusions or phobias -- gently leading people to engagement with reality. In the long run, I think reality wins out.

Erika Baker said...

"Ultimately, I do believe that rationality can help to calm irrational fears."

Ah! Of course, I agree with this.
My point is that the fears are irrational and that people who use supposedly rational arguments against homosexuality may genuinely believe they are only guided by reason, but that I don't believe they ever are.

You are, of course, right in saying that we have to answer with reasoned arguments.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Erika. My concern is that if one simply says, "You are being irrational" the conversation won't get very far. As I learned in working on the psych ward, gradually engaging people with their own assertions, helping them see the errors in them, is far more helpful in restoring a balance both to the conversation and the outcomes.

There does, of course, come a "shake the dust from the heels" point in some cases; but then I also feel that I want to be left on the higher ground of not having been the one to walk away from the conversation. The "jury" perceives such behavior, too. This is, in the long run, why I title this post, "civilized conversation."

Erika Baker said...

Rational conversation also means that we tend to listen to each other better and end up understanding each other better and maybe even respecting each other dispite our differences.
Simply to tell someone that they're an idiot won't achieve that!

Paul said...


From what I have read on the net, the African attitude toward homosexuality is heavily influenced by some of the worst elements of the American right wing. They are making some of the worst arguments that were prevalent in this country 20 years or so ago. Homosexuality is a choice or a sickness, it can be spread by recruitment, it came from the West, it is totally alien to Africa, it can be "cured". And by the way, don't believe the lies the American liberals are about to tell you. We know that all of this is bogus, but this is what the Africans are hearing from their American fundamentalist friends. Add that to other African cultural issues as Tobias is telling us(particularly those in Ugandan history) and you have a dangerous mix.

Fr. J said...

Reading through that interview with Archbishop Okoh is tough for a variety of reasons. I can only assume that the language barrier plays a big part here, because most of what he says on every topic is incoherent. I appreciate your sharing, Tobias, the thought that part of the cultural barrier in understanding may lie in an African idea of group identity versus an American idea of individualism. That's very interesting, and I hope you might elaborate on it at some point.

I can't argue for Okoh. What he says here literally makes no sense. But I am curious about your contrasting of monasticism and celibacy with procreation. Isn't procreation a necessity and a cornerstone of society? Does one have to denigrate forms of holy celibacy by admitting that?

Brother David said...

It is interesting that you point to the family and tribal identity of African culture because recently I learned of a very similar concept in Maori and Polynesian cultures, and the conclusion is just the opposite, they have no issues with the gay and lesbian minority that make up their families and tribes.

And as an aside, at least among the Maori bishops of that Tikanga of the ACANZ&P, homosexuality is not a bar to ordination.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Paul, what you describe has been my experience. All of these aspects, perhaps most importantly the revived colonial exportation of misinformation and prejudice, have contributed to this situation in the African context.

Dahveed -- I think that is one of the major points of difference with Aotearoa/NZ -- while there was plenty of 19th century colonial activity, the "nouvelle vague" of homophobia did not target the So Pacific as much as it did Africa. I'm not sure about the evangelism of NZ, but one of the points of difference in Africa, back in the 19th c., is whether an area was missioned by CSM vs. SPG. Not a complete correlation, but an interesting angle.

Fr. J., I'm curious about you comment. What do you mean by denigration, and who do you think is doing it? My point here is merely that Okoh states that same-sex relationships are a threat to society because they stand in opposition to procreation. Whether that is true or not, I'm observing that the same could be said of celibacy -- with the even stronger biblical argument that Paul, at least, applied it as a kind of categorical imperative when he said he wished all were as he was! I, on the contrary, am pointing out that while the continuation of society obviously (and trivially) requires a certain amount of procreation, that those who do not procreate are also an important part of society. I, for one, am not denigrating celibacy, but pointing to its utility and virtue. My point is that Okoh denigrates same-sexuality on the grounds it does not lead to procreation; I doubt it has occurred to him to say the same about celibacy, although it clearly stands in contrast with procreation, too.

As a matter of fact, though, monasticism has had a hard time taking root in much of Africa, in terms of indigenous vocations. While there are exceptions, it has been difficult for religious orders to cultivate [especially] male vocations to monasticism due to the cultural issues I've outlined; the Anglican Franciscans had to close down an effort some decades ago.

Paul said...

Tobias, has the Catholic Church had the same problem in Africa with its celibate priesthood?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Paul, the short answer is "yes." See the brief note at Wikipedia. This is likely also one of the reasons that Anglicanism and Evangelical traditions have a relatively strong foothold on the continent.

Mark Diebel said...

The following comment relates to the question of the rights of the persons either adopted, conceived using donor gametes or embryo, and/or born from a gestational carrier because these rights should be a part of any discussion of family formation. It is tangential, but I hope you agree, relevant.

"Many gay and lesbian Christian couples spend more time and wealth...on raising children not their own biological offspring, instead of raising their own flesh and blood. Which is more "selfish" in the long run?"

It is also true that gay and lesbian persons are the most open with their children about the circumstances of their conceptions and birth. This is to be applauded. The right of donor conceived persons are being denied by common clinical practice in the USA...a practice that makes optional the disclosure of the donor identity to the person so conceived. This information should be preserved and made disclose-able at the request of the person conceived.

The arguments for the commodification of gametes and embryos so that anonymity must be preserved are destructive of human dignity and history. This is something that the gay and lesbian community can become vocally active about.

Thank you.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Mark. While not the main theme here it is an important and related issue.

Personally I see the old model of what I'll call for shorthand "genetic secrecy" -- which includes, in the older society, adoption, and more recently donors or surrogates -- as morally akin to the old tendency not to inform people with terminal illnesses of their condition. The idea that ignorance = protection (from what?) is an assault on human dignity. Thus at both ends of life, beginning and end, access to full information is an inherent right of the human person, or so I say.

Frank Remkiewicz aka “Tree” said...

It never ceases to amaze me that the most powerful religious figure in Nigeria would devote his time to anything as long as there are hostages in his country. Yes, about 200 or so and just like his predecessor, he could care less about those imprisioned illegally.

Fr. J said...

Fr. J., I'm curious about you comment. What do you mean by denigration, and who do you think is doing it?

I was assuming that you are saying that Archbishop Okoh unwittingly denigrates holy celibacy by contrasting homosexuality with procreation. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear from the way I worded it.

...while the continuation of society obviously (and trivially) requires a certain amount of procreation...

Do you really think that procreation is "trivial"?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Erika; that is certainly part of the dynamic.

Fred, Yes. Which is why so much of this, as in US politics, is being raised not because of any actual threat to society, but as a "scare tactic" to motivate a base.

Fr. J., I was not saying that Okoh denigrates celibacy. What I am saying is that his argument, which I translate into standard English as "Homosexuality is bad because it does not lead to procreation," could equally be applied to celibacy. As indeed the traditional rabbinic view held: celibacy is a violation of the first commandment ('be fruitful and multiply') and is ultimately selfish. I do not agree with that view, I am simply citing it. To my mind it goes beyond denigration to castigation!

On the question of "trivial" I fear we are talking past each other. I am using the term in its logical of mathematical sense of "it goes without saying." (I am influenced in this by my reading of Gödel on the robustness of systems for non-trivial calculation. See here for a good definition.) I am not saying that procreation is trivial in itself, but that observing that procreation is necessary for the continuation of human society is a trivial observation