Sunday, January 20, 2013

S377A - don't get it

You know what? I don't get it.

A prominent member from a religious community has commented on Section 377A. Rather, it's Pastor Lawrence Khong who wrote a statement to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. I'm sure those keywords will be picked up by the Prime Minister's Office's team, and they'll be paying really close attention to the issue - the kind of issue when religion and politics tango (but religion is politics).

He says, as with other countries, the repeal of S377A can and has led to social problems, breakdown of the family as the basic building block of society. Okay. Statement. Check. Empirical evidence. Welllll...

Religion and Power
As a citizen, Pastor Khong can say whatever he likes. As a (religious) community leader, what he says has an impact on the community.

In the context of a nation highly sensitive towards issues and risks to religious harmony, we have politicians who exercise great caution and conservatism when interacting with religious representatives or dealing with issues that court the attention of religious institutions.

In my view, to have a belief and conviction gives you one extra reason to be offended when someone challenges it. When there is a collective belief and conviction, there can be collective action. Collective action is what strengthens and weakens the elected ruling party in a democracy. Therefore collective action is what scares the ruling party.

As history has shown, when there is a belief and conviction that touches on topics such as life, death and virtue/morality, there can be a mobilisation for violent collective action, or any other action that can cause what a state perceives to be a disruption to harmony.

Belief and conviction can be arrived at once one is convinced by an idea or an ideology. To get there, there could be rigorous questioning and rationalisation. There could be faith. There could also be combinations of all the these - whatever works at the individual level.

It is when one's subscription to an ideology on life, death and virtue/morality attempts to externalise itself and enter the race to gain an exclusive foothold on peoples, governance and government, that it becomes political. Save for those that encourage plurality and harmonious co-existence, ideologies are fighting to displace one another in this perceived zero-sum game.

That said, because of its (peaceful and violent) history locally and globally, the state wears thicker mittens when handling issues involving people with religious affiliation and representation, compared to those who don't.

In Pastor Khong's statement, we see the travel of a message beyond its socio-religious boundaries and into the domain of politics. It is crafted in the rhetoric of nation-building, leveraging the Confucian "family as basic building block" to call for the retention of a statutory law that has elements which are incongruous with the Constitution.

This is where it gets interesting.

Baseless Basis
There's the baseless basis - a call for the family to follow a prescribed form. Male and female, in a sanctioned union, and their biological child(ren) created after the sanctioned union, of course.

Why are we so preoccupied with form? Is it because of our obsession with the convenient, the tangible and the articulable?

Shouldn't a family be defined by its function, as is a home? If we had to define some properties of a family, unconditional love will be one of them. Unconditional love transcends form (family structure).

We have long been socialised into believing that form precedes and defines function. We then believe that it is form that defined the basic unit of society, when it was function. It's the properties such as unconditional love, loyalty, faithfulness, submission, etc. that formed and defined this unit.

Depending on which social theory you subscribe to, it could be the function and ideology of the dominant institutions and macro structures that engineer and replicate their microcosmic units, their subsets; or, it could be the function and ideology of the ground-up sub-unit of society that shapes the institutions and structures of wider society, so this captures and continues the ideological and material aspirations of the sub-unit.

Whichever way it goes, micro to macro, macro to micro, it doesn't matter. The formation of a family is ideological. I believe that we have historically ascribed meaning to what we perceive to be natural, i.e. heterosexual intercourse with procreative results.

It is in the process of ascribing meaning to the perceived natural, in our warped, flawed and self-conceited empiricism, that we created the very believable myth of cisgendered heterosexist necessary-ness. The concepts of manly male men and womanly female women, having been practised, hardened and amalgamated over the many generations, are now seen as natural, hence necessary, and now compulsory.

Anthropologists, no matter how eurocentric they were, saw how religion played a central role in defining the natural and unnatural, the sacred and profane, virtue and sin, and many other dichotomies that helped articulate the boundaries for their communities. The whole idea was to enforce uniformity in belief and in action.

Because of what was assumed to be natural, therefore necessary, therefore compulsory, its form had to be legitimised. After all, for all you knowledge management buffs out there, form (in its overt physical glory) is way easier to codify than function, which is more often than not riddled with irrational and inarticulable ambiguities. The (oxymoronic) motivations for unconditional love are way harder to capture than the description of its manifestations - function versus form again.

(we can talk about the dichotomy of function and form another time)

We legitimise structures by protecting them with more ideology, with punitive and violent mechanisms. These only further consolidate and strengthen the power of the community or ruling elite of the day, simply they would continue to enjoy the same lifestyle, privileges and conveniences for the indefinite future. Plurality, diversity and heterogeneity would be disastrous for this scenario.

So, you have to come with an agenda to ensure homogeneity and conformity to a singular ideology and continue to perpetuate its singular taste for form and aesthetics. To avoid drawing attention to this, it would be more convenient to project these tactics and developments onto a demonised "opposition" - e.g. "gay agenda".

Some religious ideologies claim universalism and infallibility. Therefore, they cannot be challenged without social and political ramifications. Is there an element of fragility in an ideology or a way of life that warrants iron-clad measures of maximum security?

The preoccupation with the form and structure of the family either sidesteps the importance of its functions or is intellectually incapable of articulating and appreciating the abstractness of its functions. It would be the "lapses" in some of the functions that cause problems such as adultery and abuse. Conversely, a perceived "lapse" or non-adherence in traditional form in itself meaningless without "lapses" in function, for instance, the lack of trust, love and care, in which many a family may risk collapsing.

So, if the point of reference is the form of the family, I think there are more important things we could be investing our time, energy and fists (if violence is ever ideologically required) in.

Slippery Slope
The converted on all sides are well aware of the rhetoric of morality, structure and humanity falling like dominos, snowballing down a slippery slope and plunging into everything perceived to be bad, wrong, profane and demonisable. So there's no point preaching to any one.

If anything, it seems that there is an intolerance for pluralism, diversity and harmonious coexistence, that demands an articulation at the levels of society, law and all other institutions that can ensure a lived daily relative that continues to privilege some demographies and affiliations over others. Simple as that.

It is because of the moral boundaries clearly carved out by socio-religious communities that everything "outside" is demonised and conflated. For instance, the conflation of homosexuality or any other non-heterosexual orientation into paedophilia - because they are all bound by the very fascinating phallocentric concept of penetration and subjugation.

In another view, the need for institutions to police behaviour is indicative of the belief of inherent human "weakness" vis-a-vis a perceived perfection that is ascribed to something that is metaphysical, a deity for example, which transcends the perceived limitations of humankind, although the mode of transcendence is very much couched in present day socialisation.

The idea of inherent "weakness" combines temptation and the tensions of the virtue and sin. At the same time, if temptation is assumed to be an inherent condition, what kind of relationship does it have with "nature", in particular the perceived natural-ness of heterosexuality?

The slippery slope argument charges that an acceptance of homosexuality will result in "conversion" to homosexuality. In fact, an acknowledgement of the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity will have no bearing on one's preferences and inclination.

But the tactic of casting doubt on one's heterosexual inclination so as to create a homosexual enemy is used instead. For example, there's the moral panic-worthy argument that if children are taught to appreciate the diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation, they will run the risk of becoming "deviant". That's how you engineer homophobia, causing people to believe that their heterosexuality is in trouble (e.g. play on the masculine male man's fear of being penetrated and all), because homosexuality or queerness is not inherently threatening.

Yet another way to rally a community bound by a common set of beliefs on life, death, natural and what-not, is to play on the fear that the natural is under threat. Heterosexuality is an order that is seen as necessary, compulsory and natural. A threat to this order is something worth collectively waving your torches and pitchforks to.

The strategy of personalising the threat is an effective way to mobilise collective action by a bunch of emotional individuals. One good example is characterising your children as a potential victim, such as a victim of homosexual paedophilia. That'll get your goat.

Threats
When the rhetoric of moral decay goes beyond its socio-religious boundaries and enters the wider self-proclaimed secular political domain, we get ourselves a sticky situation. It disguises itself as something that's universal and affects everyone outside the community.

What is distressing is that most of us have invested time and effort into subscribing to and defending any way of life and a way of thinking, and we take for granted it to be universal, and hence mandatory to propagate. We ignore how this impacts the lived daily realities of others, and how our beliefs continue to drive certain societal practices that marginalise others. Not that most of us care, because we suffer no disadvantage or loss.

So what exactly is the threat of having a society that tolerates sexual diversity? Is it more of a threat than having groups that spread moral panics by conflating every development into something really disgusting like paedophilia, bestiality, murdering one's parents or all the horrible things you can find in the ancient Greek religion?

To avoid drawing attention to itself, the fragility of heterosexuality is projected onto homosexuality, and any non-heterosexual orientation is conceived as something that is learned and hence discardable. That is why it is labelled as a "lifestyle", which is an attempt to denaturalise it.

When you portray something that is contrary to the prevailing concept of "nature" and present it to a community that subscribes to that concept, they'll rationalise it that way. And it's thanks to the very strong belief in what is "natural" that the medical, psychiatric, social and legal institutions are mobilised into coming up with ways for reorientation and rehabilitation. Essentially, we have a narrower scope for what is acceptable and what isn't. The narrower it is, the more people there are who are cast to the margins. If there are religious beliefs that permit and propagate this, I don't think the state can allow this at the national level.

It is hard to understand how the acceptance of sexual minorities will delegitimise any religious institution or community, or how equality regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation will cause society to crumble because every straight man will turn into a v-neck t-shirt-wearing hairstylist.

What some communities fail to understand is that we live in a diverse society. The government has to do what is right for this society and not what a community thinks is (universally) right by its standards. It will be a true test of their leadership to see if they'll bow to pressure from religious circles, even though it is the state that continues to create and protect safe spaces for communities to practice their respective religions.

From these safe spaces, we get messages that perpetuate inequality and exclusion. I don't get it.

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