We respect our professors because we are enticed by their compassion, their broad-mindedness, their willingness to share, their bibliometric success and their love for learning. They impose themselves in our lives as moral authorities insofar as they embody many if not all of the principles that are of value in meritocratic society. However, every so often, they disappoint us. The latest to do so, in my very personal opinion, is Professor Hadley Arkes. While I have not lost respect for him, I do resent his blindness to the nature of love and pity his worldview that is inflicted by what Justice Blackmun calls “sterile formalism.” I take my cue from Mr. Arkes’s recent article in The Catholic Thing (which compounds the frustration I was already feeling towards anodyne statements such as “No Homo” that litter my Facebook newsfeed).
In this pithy article, Professor Arkes blasts the purported injustice of Proposition 8 and DOMA go beyond a simple interest in conserving the “traditional” meaning of marriage. He evidently finds the whole idea of a romantic partnering between people of the same sex incomprehensible. His indignation, if not revulsion, is elaborated in the assertion, “That the matter [of a coupling of two men or two women] should even be arguable, or treated as plausible, is already the measure of a culture that has lost its moral coordinates, or even its clarity of mind.”
Many of my fellow students who have seen this article are thoroughly devastated. Yet, why should he not judge? One does not even have to invoke the diffuse Judeo-Christian adage “Do not judge” in order to demonstrate that judgment is a human condition. It is an obvious and necessary byproduct of society’s prized attributes: inter alia, education and moral rectitude. Albeit indirect, the very notion that we find offensive and contemptible, i.e., his lumping together homosexuality with proclivities that are more severely and universally vilified such as necrophilia, betrays the passing of judgment. The degree to which this comparison appears absurd should indicate our universal prejudice. In that measure, therefore, I’m not repelled by Professor Arkes’s decision to put sexual orientation on trial or by disapproval of more inclusive marriage reforms. I don’t find it hurtful. It bores me at best and annoys me at worst.
We live in a morally relativistic world, or rather I should say that I’m one of many a moral relativist in this world. Yet in my thinking, there are some things that are unimaginable and undesirable, taking eugenics for instance as an uncontroversial example. Professor Arkes renounces relativism as a sufficient moral philosophy, suggesting that it creates a breeding ground for an altogether corrupt moral consciousness. In my limited understanding, however, relativism does not mean the acceptance or embracement of everything; it does not even mean one has to have a well-baked opinion on all social issues. However, it does demand compassion and at least an attempt at understanding the other.
Professor Arkes poses the question, “Or is ‘sex’ in the strictest sense marked by its telos or purpose: the act of begetting,” the rhetorical and normative tenor of which the author does not even disguise with question. It is unclear whether this is a semantic critique of the term “homosexual” or a critique of the practical acts of sex that occur between people of the same sex. Whatever the case, what does the terminology matter? If we submitted to the term mutual masturbation, would he be less disinclined to denigrate marriage between people of the same sex? I doubt it. He would then doubtless argue that a marriage could only unite individuals who can have procreative sex. Perhaps the ability to limit a sexy tally, via the standard of procreation, offers the advantage of allaying the onanistic pleasure guilt complex. Of course, by this standard, the world can be overflown with virgins.
Those who recognize, valorize and partake in relationships of our kind understand that, contrary to Arkes’s contention, homosexuality cannot be reduced to a sexual arrangement. For him to tell us that all to which our relationships amount is mutual masturbation is symptomatic of a perverse mind that overemphasizes sexual contact and is blind to the range of human affection.
We have all heard rebuttals to the arguments that Arkes makes, rendered in one form or another with varying success. I could defend democratic liberty by evoking the right to equal protection under the law and to privacy in sexual relations. I could maintain that his religion can be no basis for a rejection of the homosexual “lifestyle” through an easy demonstration that his religion is a delusional system of domination and organized hypocrisy. I could even cite, to my sparing credit, the ever-increasing number of studies that attempt to demonstrate that homosexuality is a trait co-determined by the biology of genetic material and prenatal conditions and by the sociology of human conditioning. These are all arguments that I could make, but won’t because I am (as will be the many other people who will feel the ever so slight sting of his cannon) through with attempts at accounting for my position on the sexual spectrum.
Society, in large part, condemns relations such as zoophilia and incest on the grounds of biology. The only biological downfall of homosexual pairings is that, as Arkes points out, they waste the seed. If that is really true, the Professor should then see that the world might be better off for all its homosexuals. We give the world a chance to phase humanity out and start afresh.
To close, with all jest put aside, Professor Arkes pontificates that society is embroiled in a process of “self-deception” through abstractions. The only argument or “airy” contribution I wish to make via this terribly long response is more of a testimonial than anything else. I have come to realize that in life — and I believe I speak for more than myself — it is only through recognizing and accepting whom one is that one can have what one wants and thus be happy. This may seem like a sentimental appeal to Professor Arkes. It is not. It is rather a statement of fact. The love that so many homosexual couples feel towards each other is no abstraction. It is a series of actions taken, emotions felt, experiences shared, opinions expressed, hands held, bread broken and aspirations built together. Life is an incoherent pile of bricks and love is the shelter that we construct together from this pile. This love is as natural as the love that can develop between a family and its adopted child. People of Professor Arkes’s persuasion — wiseacres with a low capacity for humanity — choose to trivialize this. They choose to call diversity deviance. We refuse to deny ourselves a shot at happiness. Thanks be to the God(s) in which some of us trust. The odds are still stacked, but our burden grows lighter by the day, whatever the outcome at the Supreme Court will be. By the summer, France will have a more egalitarian understanding of marriage.