The Politics of Stereotyping, or: please stop asking me why lesbians look like men

 

 

 

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In a recent conversation, I had the bad fortune to be re-exposed to an argument I’ve heard time and again since middle-school: gay men can’t be trusted to be moral members of society, because of some inherent flaw or dysfunction. The line of argument typically goes that “childless homosexuals” (either trait logically following from the other) are by their nature promiscuous and hedonistic. Meaning, of course, that gay men as a group have no stake in the defense and preservation of traditional Western values, like Mom, apple pie, and Christianity – which is ridiculous, because gay men love their mothers, are culinary connoisseurs, and built the Vatican. After all, if we’re going to go by one stereotype, why not go by them all, even if they contradict? Because stereotypes are nothing more than the traits of a cultural group turned into eternal and essential characteristics, and redeployed as bigots’ talking points. Like, for instance, gay men’s widely discussed (and wildly misunderstood) sluttiness. Whatever the truth about our famed sexual appetites, there’s something more sinister at work here: the systematic oppression of anyone markedly different through the naturalization of cultural differences.

But you are sluts!

It’s true. Gay guys are the ho-bags of the human race, or so Republican politicians love to tell us. Like I said in my previous post, homophobic rhetoric continues to be a problem in conservative and libertarian circles. Brad DeLong went to the trouble of detailing a small part of the grand history of conservatives’ economic gay-baiting. Considering how long they’ve been at it, you’d think that these Ivy-educated straight men would have found a better epithet than “childless homosexual” to fling at their gay male opponents. The association of childlessness with male homosexuality is quite useful, though, because it has a grain of truth to it. Historically, gay men haven’t been allowed to adopt. Among non-gay people, not having children isn’t a crime, but being gay adds a whole new dimension to childlessness, at least according to a society which puts a premium on reproductive sex. The perpetuation of this particular stereotype about gay men (or stereotypes about any minority, really) helps to reframe this group as a separate species, with its own distinct, essential characteristics, completely unlike “normal” people.

This can be useful for all sorts of purposes. It can justify the dismissal of the most important economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, without any significant debate of his ideas. It can provide reasons not to trust gay men and other minorities with the same rights that everyone else enjoys. It can even, in extreme cases, justify their extermination. The same stereotype that made these economists’ prejudices socially acceptable also allowed Hans Hoppe to preach to a college economics class on his apparently extensive knowledge of what I guess are gay men’s attitudes on the philosophy of time (“homosexuals as a group…are more present-oriented,” he writes) without much fuss in right-libertarian circles. Hoppe also used this same stereotype to defend his belief in “discriminating against…habitual advocates of alternative, non-family centered lifestyles, including homosexuals.” All this because of the purported promiscuity of gay men. Honestly, I wish I were getting laid half as often as people like Hoppe seem to fantasize that I am. Maybe then I would care less about the ways stereotypes impact and shape my life.

Just because it is doesn’t mean it always was

Merely noticing the existence of a cultural trait, whether good or bad (as much as that can be measured), isn’t enough to understand where that trait came from. It’s intellectually lazy to chalk it up to some sort of biological or psychological “fact of reality” and leave it at that. For anyone queer, the arguments behind the purported truth of stereotypes, whether from “nature” or “nurture,” always just end up blaming your mom and calling you a congenital freak. So bear with me as I take a third route.

Frédéric Bastiat famously wrote, “In the economic sphere an act…produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen….” Bastiat intended this as an admonishment toward economic foresight, but his advice can be just as useful when working backward: a visible effect might have invisible causes, requiring us to look beyond the present and the superficial. Today’s “nature” was yesterday’s “culture,” but thanks to years of incremental change, people who are born now see biology or psychology at work, not larger social forces. This is what your snobby post-modernist friend in college might have called a “paradigm shift.” But whatever name you pick, conservatives hate it, because it’s difficult to make categorical claims about the eternal essentials of human nature when that nature always seems to be changing, at least according to the authorities of each age. This applies to practically everything. It especially applies to gay male culture, as David Halperin recently proposed in How To Be Gay. So let’s try it out on one small aspect of that culture: promiscuity.

What happens when you stigmatize and even ban a certain form of sexual relationship for literally centuries? Libertarians should know best that making a law against something doesn’t make it disappear; it just creates an alternative, underground market or community. And when a good is made illicit, buyers and vendors don’t have the protection of their government in the case of fraud or theft, making them especially vulnerable to the violence of black markets. This applies equally to sex, except “fraud” and “theft” are supplanted by rape and blackmail. Trust becomes difficult to come by in such situations, and lasting relationships aren’t especially prevalent when you risk being imprisoned, beaten to death, or denied housing or medical services because of your particular desires. That, roughly, is what occurs when you have a civilization predicated on the criminalization of certain pleasures. Imagine what other cultural peculiarities might occur as the result of state violence.

Keynes loved economics, long walks on the beach, and sex with hot German men

Hopefully you have an idea why using stereotypes to justify state action (or inaction) might be harmful. But rhetoric itself can be damaging, by creating a discourse of prejudice that makes it easier for governments to discriminate and oppress. Joking about black people and high crime rates, women and math skills, or gay men and promiscuity contributes to a system of oppression by naturalizing that which is cultural in origin, and indirectly teaching future generations that change or deviation from the norm is not only undesirable, but impossible. Regardless of whether Keynes’s “libertine” lifestyle prior to marriage merits disapproval, it is dishonest and irresponsible to use his life as an excuse to perpetuate an economics of homophobia which dictates that gay men, by their “nature,” are incapable of seeing beyond the immediate financial present. We need to question what cultural legacies have shaped us, and be sensitive to the myriad cultural forces that have shaped others – without fetishizing or obsessing over those differences.

Brendan Moore is a current undergraduate at Coe College, studying feminism, zen deconstructionism, poetry, Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos. He currently lives in Las Vegas, and would like to help you smash the patriarchy.

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17 Comments

  1. Andrea Castillo

    Interesting to note that Keynes’ lauded biographer, Lord Skidelsky, made a similar conjecture that Keynes’ sexuality influenced his worldview. In fact, he claimed in his 1977 work “The End of the Keynesian Era” that: “To ignore the possible influence of its ‘childless perspective’ on Keynes’ attitude towards life, and thus on his life’s work, would be biographical philistinism.” (https://twitter.com/dcfowkes/status/331359055908065280/photo/1)

    Strong words for a man who later wrote this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/true-keynes-cared-little-about-the-long-run-but-that-wasnt-because-he-was-gay/2013/05/09/9f4afad4-b71e-11e2-aa9e-a02b765ff0ea_story.html

    It is certainly true that close-minded people have seized upon others’ preferences, sexual or otherwise, to undermine that person’s character and ideas. But it’s hard to argue that a person’s worldview is not strongly influenced by the uniqueness of their preferences. Camille Paglia, for instance, celebrates this.

    • My issue with that approach is this: there’s a difference between a person seizing on their personal experiences when writing a theoretical work, and another person saying that an entire group of people is incapable of understanding a body of knowledge because of their sexuality, gender, race, etc. The “childless perspective” thing is bunk when you bring up the very obvious fact that there are plenty of straight people who are childless, plenty of gay people who have children, plenty of childless people who care about the future, and plenty of people with children who genuinely don’t give a damn about what happens to future generations. Like I said, it’s a naturalized stereotype with origins in state oppression, so what place does it have in discussions about actual, lived personal experience?

      It’s totally valid to talk about the experience of having children as formative when it comes to economic perspective, but only if you do this in a truly inclusive way. Conservative and (many) libertarian economists have been using Keynes’ childlessness to imply his homosexuality (and he WASN’T “homosexual,” though he may as well be at this point, since that’s how economists treat him), as if the two are inherently concomitant (which they are not), and as if childlessness is only a sin in gay men. Basically, they pick and choose whom to condemn for childlessness, and that’s intellectually dishonest.

      And anyway, I thought that libertarian theory was about respecting knowledge asymmetry. There’s value in all life experiences, and we need to be open to the variety of human experience when it comes to formulating theories, whether economic, literary, psychological, or [insert discipline here]. Childless gay men, polyamorous lesbians, heterosexual old white men with 2.5 children and a stay-at-home wife, asexual poly-romantic lion tamers – everyone can potentially have something of value to bring from their personal experiences, but the problems arise when we start locking people in, naturalizing those experiences (e.g. “all gay men are promiscuous by nature”), AND using them to dismiss someone’s ideas without seriously considering them at a theoretical level.

      Also, I love Camille Paglia as much as the next guy, but I doubt her arguments regarding gay men and aesthetics would extend to saying that Keynes literally couldn’t understand the concept of the economic long-term because he liked dick. Likewise, Niall Ferguson’s assertion that Keynes supported Germany after the Treaty of Versailles because he was having a relationship with a German man is so oversimplified that it would’ve been unpublishable had it been written about a straight man; but luckily for Ferguson, it falls neatly into a long history of discourse about gay men as being sexually insatiable and pawns of their own lust, so he could get away with it. You can’t excuse that kind of rhetoric by saying that “a person’s worldview is…strongly influenced by the uniqueness of their preferences.” This has a completely different tone than a free and open discussion about the personal and the political. It’s accusatory, libelous, and patronizing, and has the same stench of barely disguised prejudice as any rhetoric about the “naturally” separate roles of men and women.
      (See again: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/31/megyn-kelly-erick-erickson-lou-dobbs_n_3367571.html )

      Here’s a more positive example of analyzing theory through the lens of personal experience. I find it valuable because it doesn’t naturalize “the homosexual experience,” but instead talks about how the private (i.e. attitudes toward sexuality) has shaped the public (i.e. attitudes about money-lending).
      http://prospect.org/article/sex-economics-and-austerity

      • Andrea Castillo

        “My issue with that approach is this: there’s a difference between a person seizing on their personal experiences when writing a theoretical work, and another person saying that an entire group of people is incapable of understanding a body of knowledge because of their sexuality, gender, race, etc.”

        Very well stated. This nuance is far too unappreciated among some of my friends to the left.

        • It’s an oversight of the left AND the right. I really love Paglia’s emphasis on people needing to “be more ethnic” in their approaches to life and culture, but I can also see it turning into a form of cultural fetishism. Good ideas have the possibility of being taken horribly.

          I don’t know where I’m going with this except, thanks for your great points and for making me think with your original comment!

      • Travis Moore Hearne

        Brendan, sorry to jack your thread! This is a great discussion! This article on Keynes & the “unnatural increase” of usury and sodomy is amazing! But surely you can see the issue here:

        “If Keynes’s economic vision is intertwined with his larger views on sex and love, meanwhile, the same is surely true of the many strands of pro-austerity thinking that oppose Keynesianism. Schumpeter was fundamentally a nostalgist who longed for a return to the heroic days of bourgeois family capitalism, a world he knew was irrevocably lost. No wonder Schumpeter was so unsettled by Keynes, a man at home with both modern economics and modern sexuality… Implicit in austerity are all sorts of moral adages: no pain, no gain; suffering builds character; thrift is virtue.”

        The author is arguing for Keynesian policy. This is an argument familiar to libertarians, as I am sure you are well aware. The argument, while it has much to speak for it and is a very brilliant, serious, respectable, and well informed argument, is an argument for increasing the state’s economic power. It is perfectly acceptable to oppose these policies without being a “nostalgist,” whether Schumpeter was or not. There are many who would argue that things like “bourgeois family capitalism” are the state’s institutions, and that giving the state more money to spend will not lift this form of oppression from individuals, but may exacerbate it. The author is inappropriately moralizing and stigmatizing his own opponents’ views.

        • Oh, I agree, it’s not without problems. I don’t agree with everything in that article, and when it comes to actual economic policy, I certainly don’t agree with the conclusions Keynes reached. But I appreciate his critique of classical economists. I also think that the article unfortunately accepts the false dichotomy between “austerity” and “stimulus,” but that’s another discussion entirely.

        • York Luethje

          Schumpeter had as one of his three goals in life to become the greatest lover of his time. If that is nostalgia for bourgeois values I’m in.

  2. York Luethje

    Meine Güte! Brendan, my man, you need an editor 😉

    This one stuck out: “Hopefully you have an idea why using stereotypes to justify state action (or inaction) might be harmful.”

    Ya think? On a site run by an an-cap and visited by an-caps and libertarians? That’s very brave of you.

  3. Travis Moore Hearne

    Great! Very well-written. I consider myself a relatively Keynes-sympathetic libertarian, after hearing this episode of EconTalk with Robert Skidelsky: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/10/robert_skidelsk.html. I admire Keynes’s eccentricity, his views of QoL, and his general anti-Victorianism. But I don’t think that the state should undertake inflation to dissipate hoards of cash and stimulate demand. I think you will run afoul of many libertarians with the suggestion that opposition to Keynes’s economics is the result of homophobia. Some Keynes opponents may jab or sneer inappropriately at his sexuality (shame on them), but that has nothing to do with Say’s Law, Green Cheese, and Animal Spirits.

    Also, I see your point about stereotypes in humor, but do you think that maybe sometimes there are grey areas around humor and comedy? Stereotype jokes are often not intended to mock the stereotyped class/individual, but the stereotype itself (and those who would ignorantly assert that the stereotype is factual). Sometimes we think it is very funny to assert that things which are outrageously false are actually true. I remember this debate unfolding around Dave Chappelle, whose show I always found to be more uniting than divisive, in my personal experience with people who watched the show. I’m not sure I would argue the same for Daniel Tosh, though…

    • You’re absolutely correct, and I’m sorry if I implied that all criticism of Keynes is fundamentally homophobic. My intention was to say that Keynes is a very complex thinker and deserves more nuanced treatment than “fags can’t do economics,” which is what stereotyping fundamentally reduces discussions to, even among academics.

      Grey areas are everywhere! I grew up watching/listening to Dave Chappelle, so my sense of humor is very much “break the stereotype by joking about it.” Maria Bamford does that pretty well, too, especially in this set: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDnLedkBjWg

      And like you pointed out, Tosh has a totally different approach to humor. He doesn’t break down stereotypes and prejudices, he just affirms and reifies them by joking about rape for shock value. A vastly different approach, and one that legitimizes violence against women.

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