Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dysphemism: Sodomites and Breeders (and Gay Marriage in America)


            If "eutopia" is a good place, a dystopia is a bad one. If "euphemism" is saying things way too delicately — "fallen warrior" as opposed to "dead soldier," "collateral damage" for "killed, wounded, maimed civilians" — dysphemism is saying something overly crudely.
            So in direct language, people die; in euphemism they pass on or, frequently nowadays, just pass; and in dysphemism they might croak. In my years and decades teaching writing, I advised sticking with direct forms most of the time and (usually) to avoid both euphemism and vulgarity — and just about always to avoid derogatives for ethnicities and other human groups. I'll stick with that position, but discuss here an exception.
            As we move from gay marriage into disputing broader issues, it would be well for a few impolite folk to throw into the debate the derogatory term "sodomite" for homosexual and "breeder" for (married, reproducing) hetero. Such words will stop intelligent discussion in its figurative tracks for a bit, but in the long run getting the nasty terms out into the argument would be useful.
            It'll start some fights, but "Sodomites" and "breeders" will aid keeping the conflict clear.
            "Sodomite" comes from the story in the Biblical Book of Genesis of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain of Sodom and Gomorrah (18.17-19.29): by fire and brimstone — directly sent by the Lord — because "the outcry against" them "is great, and their sin is very grave" (18.20). Now what the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah) is, or sins are, has long been a matter for debate and, in LitCrit terms, narrative elaboration by the early rabbis on down. Still, in moral and political Christian usage — and in old legal statutes — "sodomy" means sexual "sins against nature," excluding masturbation but capable of applying to all non-reproductive sex, but centrally sex acts of a homosexual variety.
            One probable sin of Sodom in the Biblical story is demanding a violation of the laws of courtesy to guests by demand two of them to be gang-raped by "the men of Sodom, young and old — all the people to the last man" (19.4). Now, the guests were angels, but they were gendered male and thought to be men by their host, the Hebrew Lot, and the mob of (male) Sodomites. Also, Lot offers instead his two virgin daughters as preferable to surrendering his male-gendered guests, so, especially in ages that don't rank the obligation of hospitality up there with "Honor father and mother" — and the Jewish morning prayers do so rank it — especially in later ages, the issue here was less rape than indeed, homosexuality.
            And this makes sense since Hebrew Scriptures are important in the great tradition of pronatalism — "Be fruitful and multiply" and all that — and in keeping the classifications of the world in order: emphatically including the binary oppositions (and sometimes complements) of male/female and Israelites/gentiles.
            One way to encourage fruitfulness, strongly, is to forbid all sex except the reproductive, and the Mosaic Torah pretty well does that. And, indeed, later interpreters even got around to including masturbation by tweaking a bit the story of Onan (Genesis 38.8-11), and the Roman Catholic Church came to forbid even heterosexual vaginal sex between a married couple — if they used contraception.
            Homosexual sex was among "The Abominations of Leviticus" because it undermined what were considered proper male/female roles, thereby undermining patriarchy in Israelite society — and because it was seen, with some justice, as popular among the gentiles — and because it wasn't reproductive.
            "Sex is a great mana," as Ursula K. Le Guin says in a major essay, and therefore "there is always a code" for sex in any society. An "immature society" or immature individual psyche will set "great taboos about it. The maturer culture, or psyche, can integrate these taboos or laws into an internal ethical code," with true maturity allowing "great freedom" but forbidding "the treatment of another person as an object" ("Is Gender Necessary?" Language of the Night [1979]: 166).
            Sex is controlled by strong taboos in the Mosaic Torah, and in some ways got even stronger taboos in the more puritanical of the sects that evolved from it. Throwing in a body/soul opposition that would've seemed an Egyptian hang-up to Moses, later sects got sex associated with the corruptible and corrupted mortal body as opposed to the soul: indeed, the body was the prison of the soul and temptress. Sex became something not only to be regulated by taboo but in dire need of justification and redemption.
            "Be fruitful and multiply" — okay. Sex within marriage for reproductive purposes … redeemable (if barely in some views); any other sex was either natural in the sense of brutish or an unnatural act: sodomy.
            "Breeders!" was never thrown about to the extent of "sodomites!" and never got backed up with threats of execution or jail. But if you listened carefully in the right conversations, it was a possible epithet, and, as should now be clear, a kind of complement to "sodomites."
            Gay marriage in the US is more settled as a legal issue than abortion and more settled as a cultural issue than, say, the significance of the US Civil War. The continuing fights over sexuality will be over the larger issues the gay marriage debate has raised.
            Paul the Apostle and much of Christian doctrine following him stressed Christian freedom from Torah, with Torah a word Christians consistently translated "Law." But — but there were a lot of "but's." The ancient equivalent of shrimp wrapped in bacon (Leviticus 11.7-11) coming from a pagan sacrifice, would be okay for a Christian to eat at a baptism feast for a son emphatically left uncircumcised. Or you might be offered to eat blood pudding at an Anglican Church breakfast, even though God forbids blood-eating not just to the children of Abraham but also to all the descendants of Noah — i.e., in Biblical terms, everybody. But homosexuality … maybe not. For some of Paul's long-range spiritual descendants, definitely not.
            A rigorous Calvinist nowadays can learn that homosexual orientation has a large genetic component and find that appropriate: some of the damned majority of humankind can be justly damned for homosexuality programmed into their bodily genes.
            Well, etc.
            In a world of competing tribes and nationalisms, in which "People are the riches of a nation" and numerous people are the strength of a nation, pronatalist policies can make secular, national-interest/national-security sense. In our world of competing tribes and nationalism and over seven billion people, encouraging "breeding" is some place between "problematic" and just a horrible idea — and taboos on homosexuality can be defended only as taboos, only on religious grounds.
            So the first question in the US is the First Amendment one of what extent, if at all, religious taboos are to be incorporated into American law and custom and enforced by the power of the State, and the second question is the other half of the First Amendment as to what accommodations are to be made to people's strongly-held taboos.
            The third question is, if marriage is to be open to all US adults and not centered on "breeders," what options do we want to make for marriage as a society and how much should we continue to bring in the State (and tax codes) in the process?
            Like, okay, some county clerks don't want to grant marriage licenses to sodomites (including female ones). Beyond asking "Should they be required to?" we should start asking whether marriages should be licensed by the State at all or just registered with the State, or maybe something different.
            Perhaps we should go for a situation where some Americans see gays as sodomites and state that outright — and then mind their business and let their sinning fellow citizens of all varieties quietly go to Hell in our own ways (as long as we at worst only annoy, not harm, the neighbors). And given environmental and resources issues to come, the breeders out there should be happy with their life choices but have to start defending all claims to tax breaks and other privileges.

            In those cultural battles, "sodomite!" and "breeder!" may be among the milder terms thrown around.

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