Ethics: March 2010 Archives


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I previously posted my worries about the glossary entry for the word 'gay' in Elizabeth Meyer's Gender, Bullying, and Harassment. I'm worried about the following entry also, for several reasons:

Heterosexism: A bias toward heterosexuality that denigrates and devalues GLB people. Also, the presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality or prejudice, bias, or discrimination based on these things.

The first thing to notice is that this is a disjunctive definition. It lists three different things, any of which it will count as heterosexism. This isn't problematic in itself. There are plenty of words that can apply to a number of different things. Some of them are due to plain old ambiguity, e.g. the word 'bank' can mean a financial institution or the sandy shoreline alongside a river. More often a term can refer to several phenomena that all fit under the same category.

What might generate more of a problem is when a term is defined to refer to a number of different phenomena that are sufficiently different and should not be confused with each other. This isn't necessarily a problem, though. For instance, there are plenty of things the word 'homicide' can refer to, and they've of a pretty diverse sort. A homicide could be a cold-blooded, premeditated murder, or it could be an unplanned violent killing in the heat of an argument. It could be criminal but accidental manslaughter, or it could be excusable self-defense. In all cases, someone has been killed, and thus it counts as a homicide, which etymologically and in actual contemporary usage simply means the killing of a person by someone else.

Where it becomes more problematic is if the word you choose to use for this is loaded in such a way that its very usage carries the sense that anything it applies to is equally wrong. This is a new enough term that I think it's fair to say that people who are using it as Meyer does are in fact in the process of coining the term and determining its meaning by how it's used. The fact that it's deliberately a parallel with words like 'sexism' and 'racism' is important here. I suspect Meyer, and those whose consensus she wants to represent in her glossary of how such terms are used, wants all three things she lists to be seen as serious as racism and sexism are. The problem is that a case can be made that they're not. Let's separate the different meanings.

A: A bias toward heterosexuality that denigrates and devalues GLB people
B: the presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality
C: prejudice, bias, or discrimination based on these things.

It seems to me that anyone satisfying meaning A is engaging in pure evil, but meanings B and C can range over a wide enough range of things that they don't belong in the same category at all. Some of that wide range is clearly morally problematic (perhaps stemming from something like what meaning A is getting at). Some of it is simply a matter of empirical discovery, but some of it involves moral judgment.

Consider a man named Jim in the 1960s who does what people sometimes call "passing for white". His family is black, but there's enough white ancestry for him to appear white. Someone looking at him without knowing his family would think he's white. He talks in a way that no one would know his family is black. His employers would never discriminate against him because of his being black, even if they normally did such a thing, because they wouldn't know that he is black.

Jim decides to apply for college late in life, after the civil rights era is long over. There's a checkbox to indicate if he is black, which will be used for affirmative action purposes. Some people think affirmative action is immoral, and some people think it's immoral to ask or report one's race. Ignore those issues for this example, since what I want to get at is a different issue, and I don't want those as distractions. Assuming people should normally report their race accurately on such forms, should he check the box indicating that he is black? If you think he is black-passing-as-white, but you think he shouldn't check the box, exactly why is that (because it seems as if such an action constitutes a lie)?

Now consider a man in our day named Tom who has three white grandparents. His fourth grandparent is Jim. So he has two great-grandparents who are indisputably black and a grandparent who many people would consider black-passing-as-white. But Tom grew up in a white suburb in a family considered by everyone around them to be white, and almost no one he comes into contact with ever learns of or suspects that he has pretty recent black ancestors.

Tom applies for college. Again, ignoring issues about the moral status of affirmative action and assuming people should normally report the race on such forms, should Tom check the box indicating that he is black, knowing that it will qualify him for affirmative action? If not, but Jim should, what is the difference between the two that justifies a different moral result? If you think they both should not check it, is it for the same reason in both cases?


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