Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Logic and Doctrine: Homosexuality and Contraception (and "Affirmative Consent") [12 Jan. 2013]

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            Secular sorts will sometimes complain that this position or that position of one of the older religions is illogical; such complaints of illogic are often wrong.

            I was once at a party back in the days when academics consumed a good deal of ethyl alcohol (street names: "booze," "drink") and less dangerous but also less legal drugs (street names: "pot," "weed," "hash") — when I heard a cultured and well trained, and mildly smashed, voice behind me present a several-step syllogistic argument. Turning around as much as I could — the party was crowded — I asked in the direction of the voice, "Good God! Are you a Jesuit?" The voice replied, "No. I'm a Basilian," but added in defense of his order, "But we can be as pedantic a pain in the ass as the Jesuits any day."

            The good Father may've been high; his point — whatever it was — may've been wrong; but his logic was impeccable.

            Logic is part of the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, and of the Talmudists who developed alongside them. Indeed, the only two readings I liked in my one class in philosophy were Jean Paul Sartre's lecture on atheistic Existentialism, "Existentialism Is a Humanism," and some excerpts from St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica. In each case I admired the author's honesty and logic: the consistency, clarity, concision, and coherence of their arguments.

            (A professional philosopher colleague later told me that Sartre largely repudiated the lecture, suggesting that Sartre was correct to do so: "If it was clear and concise, it couldn't have been what Sartre meant." My colleague was and is an acerbic man.)

            I received more powerful introductions to the power of religious logic, and of traditional Catholic education, from three undergraduate students at Miami University (Oxford, OH): two of mine, and one of the philosopher colleague.

            The two of mine were doing an honors project writing a filmscript. In the script was some weirdness involving male homosexuality, and my job as project director was to try to extricate these guys from their prose, figure out what they were trying to say, and help them say it.

            What they were trying to say would nowadays be summarily condemned as gay-bashing and forbidden to them, and it was problematic back then; but I was trained in the old "radic-lib" school of having students work through any ideas, and I had tenure and a full professorship, and there was little Miami U could any more do to me, or for me.

            So I pressed the issue with them, working through their logic, reaching a point where I asked, "Okay, if I understand what you're trying to say, it's your position that it'd be better for your character here — or you for that matter — to be gang-raped in prison than, say, consent to a blowjob from Tom Cruise?" Or I may've said "Brad Pitt," since I'm not knowledgeable on show-biz lore on who's putting what to whom.

            They said that was "a no-brainer"; of course it would be better to be gang-raped; "I would," one student said, "hit myself unconscious with a heavy piece of concrete" rather than get blown by Cruise or Pitt or whomever.

            To will acceptance of the blowjob would be mortal sin; there is no sin in being gang-raped or … well, or anything while unconscious.

            I think I was able to raise the ethical issues in ways they might understand — "values clarification" — and talk them out of the whole sequence in the script as unnecessary for plot and characterization and not justified on artistic or economic grounds (in real films, unnecessary locations waste money; unnecessary anything in any medium is, to my Chicagoan, Modernist tastes, an esthetic flaw).

            A more sophisticated and important argument (a "brainer," so to speak) came from my colleague's student.

            She argued that what came to be known as "Abstinence Only" programs, like traditional Catholic instruction on sex, actively did harm.

            A product of such indoctrination — "indoctrination" is the correct word, from "doctrine" — a product of traditional anti-sex indoctrination is apt to get drunk and engage in unprotected sex in part because s/he would be right to do so. Or, more exactly, less wrong in going about the evil of fornication.

            George Carlin pointed out before her, in a routine the student did not know, "It was a sin to want to feel up Ellen. It was a sin to plan to feel up Ellen. It was a sin to figure out a place to feel up Ellen. It was a sin to take Ellen to the place to be felt up. It was a sin to try to feel up Ellen, and it was a sin to feel her up. There were six sins involved in one feel, man!"

            The student did know that "Good girls don't" was the teaching; don't even want to. Also "Good boys don't," though boys are a bit freer to desire to, though active desire is still a sin.

            For a couple to practice safe sex, they'd have to intend to have sex and plan on sex sufficiently to, say, pick up condoms and go to a place where they would have time and space to use them. They would have to pervert the image of God within themselves by using the divine gift of reason to plan the sin and the equally divine gift of free will to will themselves to do the sin.

            Far better to, as the saying went and she quoted — far better, theologically, to "Get smashed, get stupid, get laid" and then "get remorseful and repentant and absolved," until the next weekend.

            Good kids don't plan to have sex; they might, though, get sufficiently drunk so that the Originally Sinful beasts within succumb to lust.

            Holy Church can forgive that; indeed, all the churches can: Christianity generally is big on the returned lost sheep and penitent prodigal.

            Willfully planning fornication and denying fornication is sin; saying, "Hey, I'm buying condoms and using condoms" and then actually doing so: that is a whole lot more serious. That is prideful turning toward sin and very deadly sin.


            As a practical political matter, it's usually a bad idea to clarify things too much when discussing really basic, radical — from the roots — disagreements with powerful organizations, such as Holy Church and the various churches (and the puritanical portions of the Orthodox Rabbinate and "'Ulama-nate," or whatever the term would be for Islam). Still, we more secular Americans can use this much clarity on issues such as contraception, whether by condoms or methods more elegant: the problem for sound public policy isn't the illogic of traditional positions; the problem is moving with too rigorous logic from premises that can be accepted only on faith to conclusions that can have very bad effects in the everyday world of real people.

            Well, that and pre-rational prejudices and feelings: My male students writing the script were probably homophobic, and a lot of conservative older folks find teen sex simultaneously erotic and icky.