Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The gays of the other

Is this stupidity or a deliberate attempt to distort the facts? The headline claims that Michael Ballack's agent called the Germany squad "a bunch of gays." This implies that he is both bigoted and hostile to the German team. But the story makes clear that in fact what happened is that he is alleged to have told a reporter which members of the squad are gay. This implies neither of those things. It certainly isn't "an anti-gay slur on the national football team," although of course the players probably didn't want his speculations about their sexuality made public.

Identifying anti-gay slurs can be tricky, as this case shows. The email in the case is here and there's discussion here. Roughly speaking, an adjunct professor of religion has been fired because he made what were taken to be anti-gay remarks. Actually he wasn't fired since he was an adjunct and you don't have to fire adjuncts--you just don't offer them another contract. No need for a good reason or anything like that. This is one reason why tenure (which still allows you to be fired if you don't do your job) is a good thing.

Anyway, responses have varied, some people thinking he did nothing wrong and others thinking it was right to let him go. But others avoid the issue of judging whether expressing his views was an act of hate speech by suggesting that he should have been fired anyway for gross incompetence. That seems unfair, since we all make mistakes (although his characterization of utilitarianism is very odd, with its emphasis on consent and all).

PZ Myers seems to get things about right to me, although I'm not convinced that Howell has in fact got Catholic doctrine right (as Myers implies). Howell writes (in his email):
To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
Myers seems to take this to mean "If it fits, you need not quit," but 'fitted' here is not like fitted carpet. It means something more like 'right.' Which makes the reference to health irrelevant. Yes, unprotected anal sex can lead to HIV infection, but so can vaginal sex. Masturbation does not make you go blind or grow hairs on your palms, yet it is considered wrong by the Catholic Church. So what Howell's physician friend told him is really nothing to do with Catholic doctrine as I understand it.

The structure of the human body is probably believed to reveal God's will by some people, but it tells us little about what is and is not a proper use of the body. If one thing fits in another thing and the result feels good, how can we know whether this pleasure is sinful or blessed? We need reason or revelation, not a lesson in anatomy or health.

So we would need to consider the meaning of the human body, as Howell puts it. And this depends on the meanings of other things, such as life, death, pleasure, sex, love, and so on. Once we've figured out the meaning of life, then we can start telling consenting adults what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Of course the Church has, and is entitled to have, a view on what the meaning of life is. But this view centrally involves faith.

The giveaway is probably Howell's use of capital letters:
sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.
There certainly seems to be confusion about fitting here, but the caps show that he means something other than reality. In religion, caps often function like an unintended negation sign.

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