Heteronormative

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I've been struggling with the idea that we have no shorthand for the view that homosexuality is abnormal and morally aberrant. Most who hate such a view call it homophobia, but there's a clear distinction between those who have this view and those who truly don't like people who are gay, are uncomfortable with gay people being involved in their life in any way, etc. Well, now I've seen a term that sounds to me as if it's just simply descriptive of the view in question. Someone who considers heterosexuality normal and/or normative is heteronormative. I think there are already a few ambiguities in the term, but it's better than anything else I've seen so far. The biggest problem is that the people who coined it seem to rule out the possibility that it could be ok to be heteronormative, as evidences by those of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) who are criticizing Jada Pinkett Smith's comments last week at a Harvard multi-culturalist event, a criticism that itself raises some interesting moral questions.

The Background

The Harvard Crimson didn't bother to include what she said that got them so upset, but the original Crimson writeup does give a quote:

Women, you can have it all � a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career. They say you gotta choose. Nah, nah, nah. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. You can do whatever it is you want. All you have to do is want it. To my men, open your mind, open your eyes to new ideas. Be open

Jordan Woods, a leader in BGLTSA said this in response:

Some of the content was extremely heteronormative, and made BGLTSA members feel uncomfortable.

The Crimson adds:

Calling the comments heteronormative, according to Woods, means they implied that standard sexual relationships are only between males and females.

Woods further said: Our position is that the comments weren�t homophobic, but the content was specific to male-female relationships.

So they're clearly distinguishing between homophobia and heteronormativity, but heteronomativity would still be condemned by them. I'm not sure they're going to draw the line between the two where I would draw it, but I'm glad they see the distinction. I would just hope that they're morally sensitive enough to realize that the term itself doesn't assume whether heteronormativity itself is good or bad and that their classification of it as bad is beyond what the meaning of the term conveys.

Heteronormativity and Similar Concepts

The closest analogy I can think of is what some people who write about race call normative whiteness. See my post specifically on that for more detail, but it's basically the structures in society that make whiteness seem normal for most white people, such that they tend to assume things that are normal for white people will be normal for others. In one sense that's exactly the sort of thing the BGLTSA is saying Jada Pinkett Smith was doing, assuming relationships will be like the heterosexual relationships she's experienced herself.

I think they're saying a little more than just this sort of assumption, though, because this is what happens with right-handed people assuming right-handedness except when specific information says otherwise. The difference is the moral element. Hardly anyone nowadays, at least in western nations, thinks the normativity involved with handedness is a moral normativity. It's not that it's morally superior. It's simply what's assumed because it's most common.

There's a little more going on with race. While the average white person doesn't think about race often enough to affect many aspects of their lives, there often is residual racism that crops up, leading to instinctive snap judgments assigning a more negative value to things done in way perceived to be black. This is the sort of thing most white people don't want to do and are embarassed when it happens, but it's more than just assuming whiteness or white ways, as is the case with right-handed people assuming right-handedness and right-handed ways.

What about heteronormativity? One of the reasons I said there's an ambiguity is because we've already separated out two elements that can be in this sort of thing, and there's even a third one when it comes to homosexuality. There are those who assume straightness and think of straightness as normal and gayness as unusual, out of the ordinary, and other. On one level, that's got to be uncontroversially natural, not because heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality unnatural, but just because it's natural to assume what you know and to think of those who differ as different.

The second element is the one that appears with race but not with handedness, and that's some level of value without necessarily bringing in a moral judgment. Men might have at least an unconscious negative response to the idea of having sex with another man, and that can easily transfer to thinking of gay sex as gross. I think this is less common with women, but there's probably something like it. Also, many people think there's nothing at all morally wrong with homosexuality itself, gay relationships, or even gay marriage but will still believe deep down, whether they like it or not, that heterosexual relationships are better.

Finally, the element that doesn't appear in either handedness or race, at least in the west and among fairly educated people, but does appear with sexual orientation is a moral evaluation of the action involved. It's primarily the idea that gay relationships are morally wrong and that something is bad even about the fact that people might be gay (not that they are necessarily to blame for having found themselves gay, which would be a further thesis). It's this last element that I've been trying to put a name to, since it's usually erroneously called homophobia. Calling someone who holds this view heteronormative is at least a little better than calling the person a homophobe. The problem is that heteronormativity might refer to any of these three elements or some combination of them. I think the BGLTSA meant something like the first category, but I can easily see the term being used for either of the others. So perhaps I haven't found the word I'm looking for.

Jada Pinkett Smith's Heteronormativity

The BGLTSA seem to be upset that she said something assuming most of her audience to be straight. She told the women to have certain attitudes with respect to their men, and so on. The reason this group is so mad is that she didn't speak to every possible situation there, in particular gay people who wouldn't have the same sorts of relations with people of the opposite sex. I just can't see how this moral claim can stand up. They're saying that any group that might possibly feel not included in a statement needs to have a similar statement that would include them, or else it shouldn't be said. That strikes me as pure victimology. Even if it's true that straight people assume straightness and find it and only it to be normal, I don't see how that justifies condemning someone trying to speak in favor of diversity for stating something that she thinks applies to most people (and if it's indeed true then it does apply to most people, because most people are straight). How is this supposed to help the ignorant see when it seems more likely that it will just get them mad? How is it looking toward real solutions to whatever social problems there are related to sexual orientation?

If they'd really cared about everyone being represented, they would also have thought to mention that some people intend lives of celibacy, and they'd feel left out. At least that's what someone applying their own logic would say against their objections, since the objections leave out celibates as those who might feel offended. If you leave the group out, then you're assuming normative sexual activity. The same would go for those who actually want to stay home with their kids and not have a career. Maybe the BGLTSA should apologize for their insensitivity in leaving those groups out. Do you see the problem? There's always going to be some group that gets left out, and Jada Pinkett Smith left out some groups who don't share her perspective on gender roles in society. When BGLTSA complained, they themselves left out all the same groups except the one they represent, gay people. They committed the same crime of insensitivity that they accused her of committing, and it's an unavoidable crime.

When you're talking from one perspective, you don't need to include every possible perspective on that issue due to potential offense it might cause to oversensitive people of that group who think you consider them worth nothing simply because you don't always think from their perspective. That's what's called paranoia. Thinking people don't like you or don't consider what you value important simply because they don't approach it the way you do is a sign that something's gone wrong, either in your reasoning or in your emotional responses. Not everything is about you. We're supposed to learn that as we get older. Victimologists don't seem to get that. Some things are about one particular group or perspective, and the fact that another group or perspective isn't represented in every sentence uttered at a diversity event at an elite institution should not be the cause of moral outrage.

What's really funny to me about this is that the kind of heteronormativity they're accusing her of is the same kind most right-handed people exhibit toward lefties. It's not really all that outrageous. So why the outrage? The person here who should be offended is Jada Pinkett Smith for their assumption that her speech reflecting her own conclusions from her own life should be phrased so it would apply to every single person there in the same way.

A former officer of the BGLTSA wrote an opinion column in The Harvard Crimson criticizing his former group for their political idiocy. He himself amounts to calling it victimology, though he doesn't use that word:

"Heteronormativity" is hardly a pressing concern when issues like hate crimes and job discrimination plague LGBT Americans more frequently and devastatingly. And yet still the BGLTSA focuses its efforts on demonizing Pinkett Smith, who spoke from her heart and personal experience in a plea for a respect for diversity. How dare she? By terming Pinkett Smith's speech "heterosexist discourse," the BGLTSA serves only to isolate and alienate proponents of a respect for diversity.

Victimology is counterproductive. Anyone who wants to see social progress needs to learn that. Conservatives, whites, Christians, and other groups traditionally associated with the majority need to learn that and cut it out just as much as minority groups need to.

[Hat tip: Confessions of a Cooperator]

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13 Comments

The problem is that heteronormativity might refer to any of these three elements or some combination of them.

Having been friends with people that are into Queer Theory, I think I can address this somewhat accurately (I think). First, your parsing of different potential meanings was very, very good - lotsa clarity, very crisp.

The response: heteronormativity, as a concept, is, in fact, flexible enough to encompass all three meanings. Far from that being a flaw, though, it's a strength; the ideology of heteronormativity itself doesn't draw sharp distinctions between these levels of meaning ('natural', for instance, can operate at any or all levels).

In fact, some (if not most) anti-gay discourses function precisely through the conflation of these levels. The semantic flexibility of the concept of heteronormativity, then, is actually a strength: it's the case of a concept being adequate to its object.

The person here who should be offended is Jada Pinkett Smith for their assumption that her speech reflecting her own conclusions from her own life should be phrased so it would apply to every single person there in the same way.

I don't buy it. She wasn't talking about herself, she was talking about gender roles.

What's really funny to me about this is that the kind of heteronormativity they're accusing her of is the same kind most right-handed people exhibit toward lefties.

The discourse re: lefties is patently different than the discourse re: queerness, however. When was the last time you heard a lefty called 'deviant'? The difference is that people often smuggle in a moral dimension to their evaluations of gayness as 'unusual'.

I don't have a problem with a term that has these features. It's just not the term I was looking for, because I wanted a term to define precisely what it is that people on both sides seem to ignore. Instead, I have to be wordy and explain these distinctions fully each time I want to talk about it.

I wouldn't say that it's really so much talking about herself that's relevant. It's that she was talking about heterosexual gender roles. She was talking to heterosexual women when she addressed women. The complaint assumes this, because it says she should also have talked to others. But is it wrong if she hadn't intended to say this to lesbians but wasn't addressing them at all?

My point is that you don't need to talk about deviance to talk about normalness, and deviance itself has ambiguities between moral and empirical norms. I also want to say that even explicitly saying something in the moral dimension can be much less extreme than what most people are getting mad at when calling people homophobic.

"Heteronormativity" is hardly a pressing concern when issues like hate crimes and job discrimination plague LGBT Americans more frequently and devastatingly.

That's unfair. The BGLTSA is a campus organization, not the Human Rights Campaign. Yes, the BGLTSA needs to address nationwide and worldwide issues to avoid irrelevancy within the ivory tower. But as a campus organization, the BGLTSA also needs to speak to issues within Harvard. Another example: Last year, they mounted a petition drive to get one-room bathrooms to be labeled as unisex rather than "men" and "women," so that transgendered/transsexual people wouldn't feel uncomfortable using a bathroom that matches their gender identity but not their appearance. This may be a minor issue nationwide, but it is a major issue on campus, for the lives of some Harvard students.

That's a fair point about focusing on issues near to Harvard, but I can't see the fact that someone might direct some comments to heterosexuals as more urgent than discrimination and those attitudes that genuinely are hate (as opposed to merely considering homosexual behavior to be morally wrong) even within Harvard. It's not so much that it's bad to point out that there are other perspectives besides heterosexuals'. It's that it doesn't make someone a victim simply to be someone who isn't in that perspective that people emphasize. That's why I think it's a lot like left-handedness. There are other issues that aren't like that, but those aren't present in this case.

I've only heard the word "heteronormative" as a mild pejorative. Then again, almost everyone I talk to about these issues thinks homosexuality is morally unobjectionable.

I guess I have a little bit of sympathy for the complaint you discuss. I agree with the opinion letter writer and with your general point that this is hardly a big deal, and maybe they're taking things too far, but yeah, I would probably feel a little uncomfortable to hear that speech, especially if I were a lesbian.

You say:

If they'd really cared about everyone being represented, they would also have thought to mention that some people intend lives of celibacy, and they'd feel left out. ... If you leave the group out, then you're assuming normative sexual activity.

Well, to be honest, I think that's sort of right. I'd feel every bit as uncomfortable if I were a celibate woman having heard that speech. Now obviously, I'm not going to advocate the sort of PC-caricature that demands a laundry-list of every possible life choice in the speech. A tiny bit of recognition of diversity would do the trick: "Women, you can have it all � those of you who'd want it can have a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career." Or instead of my italic addition, a tag at the end of that sentence: "And those of you who want something else can have that, too."

I know, it's a tiny thing, and again, I agree that it's not worth getting very upset over, but I think that those few extra words would've made the difference between marginally discomforting for some and perfectly unobjectionable.

I think that there is an implicit (weak) implicature in the quotation as given that women want loving husbands and families and careers. And that *is* heteronormative. Whether you think that's bad or not is another question, obviously, but it seems like exactly the sort of thing that a BGLT organization would appropriately criticize.

When BGLTSA complained, they themselves left out all the same groups except the one they represent, gay people. They committed the same crime of insensitivity that they accused her of committing, and it's an unavoidable crime.

This is definitely not fair. BGLTSA is an advocacy group for a specific community, and does not have particular obligations to stand up for other groups of people. That said, I do wish they would have -- I wish they *had* pointed out people who want to stay single, or people who want to stay at home. It would have made their case more compelling. But the fact that they focused on their own interests is merely slightly disappointing, not insensitive.

I also don't think it's an 'unavoidable crime'. Umbrella clauses like the couple I mention can do a lot of work.

Even as a woman who will possibly someday be married and have children, I do find her saying that you can have it all, and by "all" she means "a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career" to be a bit out-dated. Certainly not all straight women want to have kids, get married, etc., nor should they want that. However I agree with Jeremy in that she was speaking from her perspective. If she had tried to speak for bi/gay/transgendered individuals, would perhaps some of them have felt hurt that she attempted to speak on their behalf when she knows nothing of what being any of those means? These kinds of issues are tricky and complicated, but I don't find it helpful in terms of building a greater understanding for Ms. Pinkett Smith to be criticized when there are more crucial violations going on everywhere.

Your first sentence is one of the points I made in the post. There are more people than lesbians who were not included in the statement.

It's not very complicated. There is no rational argument in favor of laws that treat homosexuals differently than heterosexuals. There is no rational justification for negative attitudes toward homosexuals. There are only catch-phrases, bad analogies, lies and misinformation. Therefore scripture is pointed to.

The view of scripture as "inerrant" is, of course, always a matter of selection. So one has to ask: Why do some Christians cling so fervently to the few lines condemning homosexuality - why, for example, don't we see a lot more one-eyed Christians who plucked their eyes out after their eyes did something to offend?

The answer would be, "homophobia." Fear of homosexuals. It isn't really such a difficult concept. Many heterosexuals, apparently with some unexamined worries and issues around sexuality, feel profoundly threatened by the fact of homosexuality. Beyond this, there is a strong element of that kind of hatred, which also occurs in reaction to a sense of threat, that we see in racial bigotry.

I am on the sidelines of all this, being a heterosexual myself. But the style and frequently thinly veiled fear and loathing of many of today's preachers thundering against homosexuality is strikingly reminiscent of preaching I heard against integration and equal rights for African Americans during the civil rights struggle.

Having an other to hate and feel better than - better yet, a whole class of them - can make Christians who are into self-righteousness feel just great. It masks fear in a grandiose form of posturing that I can't imagine Jesus having taken against any group of people.

And since Jesus appears to have been honest and intelligent, it's safe to say he would never have asserted that homosexuality is a "chosen" sin. You don't have to be a psychologist to know that developmentally speaking, this would be hilarious if some people didn't take it seriously. I have never heard one homophobe refer to that glorious day when he or she chose their heterosexuality and eschewed the homosexual life for the glory of God.

Since sexuality is not chosen, and since few are capable of a life of celibacy, and since everyone knows this, including heterosexual Christians, it is almost painful to hear heterosexual Christians claiming there's nothing wrong with homosexuality, only with acting on it. I notice that hypocricy is rather frowned upon in the New Testament.

While I agree with you that what you're describing can and does happen, I think it's a vast overstatement and huge leap in reasoning to assume that everyone who criticizes anything related to homosexuality is homophobic. Jesus followed the Torah and said not one iota of it would pass away. He would most certainly have included its prohibitions against gay sex in that.

It seems pretty out of step with lots and lots of research to insist that homosexuality is a mere choice. However, it's just as out of step with lots and lots of research to insist that it's in no way a choice. I can't accept your simplistic claim any more than the common one that it's a mere choice as if there were no biological or social factors. There are biological contributors. There are social contributors. There are elements of choice. I don't think merely that all three are possible contributors to why some people are attracted to people of the same sex. I think it's actually been demonstrated fairly clearly that there are elements of all three involved.

Even if that were not the case, it's just philosophically obtuse to suggest that someone can't be morally blameworthy for acting on a tendency that's biologically caused. Am I a hypocrite for recognizing that it's wrong to steal even if some people have biological conditions that strongly increase their desire to steal? The causal origin of a tendency is completed unrelated to whether certain acts that are more likely to be desired because of that tendency are immoral acts.

What's worse is that this defense of homosexuality is even considered insulting by many gay people. Telling them that they can't help it doesn't do much to affirm them in their identification as gay. They insist that they have consciously accepted being gay, which sounds like it's at least to some degree a choice. Having the tendencies to be attracted to people of the same sex may not feel like a choice, but identifying as gay at least has some elements of a choice for many gay people.

Is it hypocrisy to say that something with features A, B, and C is wrong while something with features A, B, and D is not and then doing that thing with features A, B, and D? If your argument is to succeed, you need such a general principle. Of course, that would disallow you from saying that killing is wrong when it involves an innocent victim but ok when it's in self-defense or to protect a young child. Such a general principle is obviously false. Hypocrisy is when you say something with A, B, and C is wrong and then you do that same thing, not when you do something with some of the same features. It would be hypocritical to say gay sex is wrong but then to engage in gay sex. There's nothing hypocritical about saying gay sex is wrong while engaging in heterosexual sex.

I'm not sure why you take Jesus' statement about plucking eyes out in a way that's completely out of step with the kind of language he's using. Cutting out your eye won't stop lust. It's extremely vivid imagery to make the point that lust is immoral and needs to be rooted out even if it takes radical action. If you're wondering why some Christians rail against gays but lust all the time, then that's fairly easy to explain. Everyone sins, and people don't notice their own sins. The point is not whether Christians sin. It's whether they acknowledge their sin, repent of it, and seek to live as God desires. Now you may think people who don't take that literally shouldn't take the passages declaring gay sex immoral in a similar metaphorical use, but what would the metaphor be, and why would we think that metaphor would be what was intended when it appears in standard lists of sins in the New Testament alongside things no one considers merely metaphors.

I agree that fear of 'violent norms' can be taken too far very easily, but I don't think the issue is quite as clear as Jeremy's first post implies. While not every failure-to-include is wrong, it's certainly possible for even the mere act of failing to mention some group to be hurtful. There are the obvious cases of lying by omission, but there are also those much closer to the Jada Pinkett Smith one.

Take the Americans with Disabilities Act; if you think it's a good idea (I certainly do!), you think that we ought to sometimes make special accomadations for minorities, where merely doing things as we're accustomed to for ourselves - constructing wheelchair-inaccessible buildings - would be wrong, even if no malice whatsoever were intended. As that's all that's involved in failing to pass or enforce the ADA, it seems unlikely that we could have or use it, if we habitually avoided thinking of disabled people. I don't have to hypothesize utter silence on the issue; simple absence from the political discourse is certainly enough to get problems ignored indefinitely. It seems to me, then, hard to avoid the conclusion that it's possible for the mere verbal act of leaving people out to be wrong. Whether the case at Harvard is an example, I know too little of the context to say, though I have a visceral negative reaction to reflexive praise for family values, whoever it comes from.

I'm not saying that it's always ok to fail to mention a perspective. I think it's pretty awful that she assumed women would want what she assumed they would want. My wife, for instance, thinks it's much more desirable (and objectively better, in fact) for a woman to be a full-time mom than to want to have other people raise your children for you. I do think it's morally blameworthy to ignore that perspective.

What I want to know why her omission of a much more minority perspective, one that we properly ignore when talking about women who want husbands and children, is so bad that it's worth complaining so noticeably about but omitting a much more common viewpoint (and really dismissing it as inferior) isn't even worth a mention.

Handicapped access isn't a good analogy. It's one thing to leave out a minority perspective. That may or may not be wrong, depending on whether you had good reason to be aware of the issues, whether it could properly be ignored in the context, whether you say enough to make it clear that you're not pretending those issues don't exist if the context won't allow you to ignore it completely (as Jonathan suggested), etc. Whether you deny handicapped people access to something is a very different matter. The truly parallel case would be if you say something that doesn't make it explicit that someone might not have the abilities to do something you're talking about, e.g. "anyone can jump three inches!" That doesn't seem to me to be a morally awful statement, because you're properly ignoring people who can't jump at all because they're paralyzed from the waist down.

I'm glad you agree it's not always ok to omit perspectives, but I still think we disagree at least about the likelihood of it being ok ot omit minority ones.

I agree that what we really ought to be concerned about are the practical results - denying handicapped people access, for example (I used that one cause the material consequences are obvious). However, this will happen inevitably if we don't talk about handicapped people in certain necessary contexts - which I don't think you can limit to Senate debates, because those have prerequisites too. A policy solution gets its content and purpose from the way we frame discussions about the issues at stake, so that framing is for any issue necessarily as important, in some sense, as the issue itself. It has to happen the right way in at least a certain minimal number of contexts.

We obviously can't mention every minority every time. But our choice not to at any given time has certain hard-to-measure-but-real costs, too, which ought to be weighed against the practical necessities. So I think it's quite possible that speaking as a feminist at a conference on multiculturalism (which is what Smith was doing, right?) would be a time when you really ought to take GLBTQ people into account in your talk.

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