Rachel Held Evans – Is the gag reflex a legitimate moral compass?
Update: Here’s Anyabwile’s latest post responding to critique of his earlier piece.
At his Gospel Coalition blog, Thabiti Anyabwile writes that in arguing against gay marriage, social conservatives ought to use the “yuck factor” in our favor. The title of his post is “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage.'” His post includes a description of gay sex apparently for the purpose of inducing in his readers the ‘gag reflex’ mentioned above and, as a result, to convince them of the efficacy of such an argument.
Unsurprisingly and perhaps understandably, Rachel Held Evans had a conniption when she read about this. Her response accuses Anyabwile of homophobia:
“I believe the post exhibits homophobia, not because of the author’s conservative position on same-sex marriage, and not because the author intended to be hateful, but because the post employs degrading, fear-based language to dehumanize gay and lesbian people.”
Is Evans right? Is Anyabwile a guilty of homophobia? While Anyabwile’s post is at best a limited commentary on a secondary means of argumentation, it is not homophobic.
Moral revulsion is, to be sure, one guide to morality. However, it is a guide that is affected by all sorts of factors beyond rational criteria for assessing morality itself. As Evans notes:
“A person might get a bit squirmy at the thought of his parents having sex, but it does not then follow that his parents’ sex is inherently immoral. Furthermore, there are heterosexual acts that can be considered immoral—adultery, for example—but that might not induce Anyabwile’s handy ‘gag reflex.’”
This is a helpful point. Our gag reflex is not a infallible guide for ascertaining whether or not an action is moral. I’m sure there were a number of New Testament Jewish Christians who had a very difficult time eating a pulled pork sandwich with their gentile co-religionists. Yet, it was not until his heavenly vision that St. Peter was able to accept eating non-Kosher food. Evans should not hold her breath for the sort of vision that would convince mainstream evangelicals of the beauty of the gay sex act.
In her response, Evans reads into Anyabwile’s post more than is actually there. It should be noted, that he nowhere argues that our gag reflex–socially constructed as it likely is–should be the exclusive guide to morality. He instead argues that our moral revulsion at homosexual sex acts is something that can be used persuasively alongside other arguments to undermine the legitimacy of same sex marriage.
In reality, we use this rhetorical device all the time, which does not, admittedly, make it good, right or helpful. How many people have given up meat because of the moral revulsion they feel on reading a description of the slaughter process on large modern farms? How many people have called their senator or signed a petition in light of footage of dead people gassed in Syria?
Anyabwile rightly notes that this sort of description can, in essence, be a tiebreaker in making moral decisions. It works because humans aren’t computers–as Evans seems to suggest– but are a mix of reason, emotion, and social formation.
As to the charge of “homophobia,” I think Evans misses the mark. Let’s use her own definition of homophobia as our starting point. Does Anyabwile, “employ degrading, fear-based language to dehumanize gay and lesbian people”?
In reading and rereading the Gospel Coalition Post, I was unable to find any instance of degrading or fear-based language used with the intention of dehumanizing a gay person. That’s not to say that there was not strong language. There most certainly was, but Anyabwile uses his strong language in describing homosexual sex acts, not in describing homosexuals.
Some will claim that this is a distinction without a difference. I beg to differ. It’s almost necessary that someone opposed to homosexual practice will find the physical reality–this is what we’re talking about–objectionable. This is not homophobia. The intent is not to degrade a person, but instead to bring to the fore the reality that homosexual marriage presupposes homosexual practice.
Describing that practice is fair game. As Evans applies her definition, it would be almost impossible to write any essay critical of homosexuality without being culpable of homophobia, much less one that aims to employ both logic and rhetoric to persuade a reader of the author’s perspective.
As I’ve written before,
“The contemporary [GLBTQ] movement is essentially the continuation of the attempt to deny that a connection exists between sex (referencing bodily structure and chemistry) and gender (one’s self-perception). In some respects it comes quite close to a gnostic denial or devaluation of the physical—we are who we are on the basis of our interior self, free to choose to alter our physical structure according to our own ‘inner self-knowledge.’”
We cannot discuss sexuality and gender identity in a way abstracted from our physical selves. We are embodied selves, and our sexuality exists in our physical bodies as well as in our souls. For this reason, among others, Anyabwile can authentically address this issue in the way he did and not be homophobic.
You may disagree with his argument and may believe that moral revulsion is not a sure guide in morality, but I do not think you can ask an author to avoid any reference to or judgment about the sex act(s) that underlies all homosexual practice.
In many respects we are what we do. Aristotle noted, “Plot is character revealed in action.” Evans fears that describing gay sex is somehow dehumanizing. She writes,
“Sensing that the consideration of full personhood might sway the gay marriage debate toward legalization, he suggests we should deliberately move away from speaking of gay and lesbian people as multi-dimensional human beings and instead reduce them to sex acts in order to make others more repulsed by them.”
Again, if Anyabwile were really saying this it would indeed be problematic. Nowhere does he suggest that copulation fully defines homosexuals any more than it defines heterosexuals. Ironically, it is the GLBTQ community itself that has posited sex acts and sexuality as the basis of identity differentiation.
Rather, he is suggesting that as we consider the issue of gay marriage we not lose sight of what we are really talking about. We’re not simply talking about the abstractions of “love,” “attraction,” “desire.” We are talking about the physical expressions of these abstractions in the context of relationships and sex acts between people of the same gender. This is a legitimate element—if not the only element—of forming value judgments about gay marriage.