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Homophobia is not just another point of view July 22, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Singapore, Society.
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It has been a couple of weeks since the Thio-NYU incident and I think I’ve finally figured out why it has been bothering me so much. It’s not as if homophobia and other forms of intolerance don’t already irk me enough, but for some reason, just something about Dr Thio Li-ann’s cool response to the reactions of the law school’s LBGT organization to her anti gay stance, including an open letter from NYU student Jim McCurley (reproduced here), gave me a fortnight-long sense of unease.

 

 It wasn’t the fact that Dr Thio’s response seemed so calm and almost reasonable, so unlike her crass and tactless description of anal sex as “shoving a straw up your nose to drink” while arguing against the decriminalization of gay sex in Singapore. I did not assume for one second that she would present herself as anything less than professional in her capacity as a Professor, and especially to a more liberal audience such as NYU. It wasn’t even the irony that her course is about “Human Rights in Asia”, a topic that many have questioned about whether she is qualified to teach, given her failure to recognize the rights of homosexuals.

 

 No, what I find most disturbing about this whole incident was Dr Thio’s polite and articulate defense of her homophobia, so cleverly disguising homophobia as an almost legitimate view. In an e-mail interview, Dr Thio wrote:

 Everyone is entitled to their opinion, free conscience, free thought — that is a cardinal principle for every academic community. I hold to it, in my own law school, and I would expect the NYU law community to do so as well.

 

 I am disappointed at the intolerant animosity directed at me by strangers who do not know me and have decided to act on their own prejudices,

 

 Do some Americans by appropriating the rhetoric of human rights assume they can impose their views on another sovereign state? Is there a human right to sodomy? Is this a core right or a contested one? There are countervailing views that this is the wrong way to characterize the issue — so do students who dislike this view refuse to engage with dissenting views?

 Skillfully and shrewdly directing the blame to the “intolerant” proponents of gay rights, Dr Thio’s articulate argument managed to fool me into questioning my own position regarding pluralism and freedom of speech, and even got me wondering why I was so uncomfortable with such a seemingly coherent and “rational” argument in defense of homophobia.

 

 And then it hit me. Almost two distressing weeks later, I finally realized how faulty her sleek, astute argument was.

 

 First of all, Dr Thio made the flawed assumption that “free thought” and “freedom of opinion” entitles one’s opinion to be free from criticism. Not all opinions are created equal; some are simply better than others, and consequently deserve more respect than others. Just because Dr Thio, or anyone for that matter, has every right to believe anything she wants about homosexuality, it does not make us obligated to accept her beliefs as valid. I have just as every right to treat her views as a load of rubbish.

 

 Secondly, and perhaps most commonly ignored by many people, is the fact that homophobia is not merely another opinion. “Vanilla is the best ice cream flavor” is an opinion. But some things are not so simple. Let me illustrate. Consider the following “opinions”:

 

 “I don’t want those Indians near my daughter. Who knows what they’ll do to her.”

 “Blacks and whites should never get married to each other, let alone have mixed race kids. It’s just disgusting and wrong.”

 “Women don’t have the ability to take part in politics. They should just know their place and stay home to take care of the kids.”

 “I send my kids to elite schools so that they won’t have to mingle with those Chinese speaking neighborhood school kids – they’re all poor and uneducated anyway.”

 

 Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we. Those aren’t mere opinions. Those are examples of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. The difference is that bigotry and intolerance against races, sexes or classes are acknowledged as such, and not regarded as valid in a pluralistic society, whereas bigotry and intolerance against homosexuals are still treated as simply “differing opinions”, or mere disagreements.

 

 Would we allow a distinguished professor to get away with racist or sexist comments by explaining them away as his or her opinions? Would we let someone with sexist or racist views protest with self righteous indignation towards those darn “intolerant” feminists and civil rights activists who dare suggest that he or she was being bigoted or prejudiced? Would we still give Dr Thio the same respect and welcome her into an open, liberal university if she had argued against women’s right to social and political equality with men – which is after all still a contested right, with differing opinions on it,  in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran?  (Which are interestingly two of the few countries left which continue to criminalize homosexual sex.) Would we allow a racist or a sexist with a similar rhetoric as Dr Thio’s get away so easily?

 

 What bothers me most is the (correct or wrong) assumption that homophobia is still widely accepted by society as a valid opinion. Just like a racist, a homophobe has every right to his or her opinions, but should not feel anything less than ashamed to voice such intolerant views in public. A racist, a sexist, or a homophobe should have every reason to fear public backlash for proudly advocating intolerance and discrimination. To even suggest that such opinions should be respected is absurd.

 

 I guess to me this was the crux of the matter. It wasn’t the “surprising” news that Dr Thio is still against homosexual rights. It was the fact that yet again, we let her get away with it, when she and other proud homophobes should be publicly chastised the same way we do with proponents of other forms of bigotry and intolerance. It disturbs and depresses me that as a society, we are still unwilling to see homophobia as what it really is: prejudiced, self righteous narrow mindedness, and not just “another point of view”.

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Comments»

1. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 22 Jul 2009 - July 22, 2009

[…] AWARE Aftermath: Thiology Goes to NYU – Laïcité: Homophobia is not just another point of view […]

2. soo lian - July 22, 2009

This is so well said… excellent stuff, thank you.

A phobia is a psychological condition, not a point of view.

3. girlwithlongname - July 22, 2009

right in the head.

4. Lynette - July 22, 2009

I agree with everything you said. One thing though: homophobia literally means “fear of homosexuals” – just as arachnophobia means “fear of spiders”. And I’m not really sure that word truly describes the feelings of those against homosexuals. Sure, there is fear (of homosexuals corrupting their children etc), but mostly there is hate. And I think society needs to focus more on that emotion/behavior than referring to fear towards homosexuals. As Soo Lian so kindly pointed out, a phobia is a true psychological condition, and not a hateful point of view.

5. laïcité - July 23, 2009

I get what you mean, Lynette. It’s just unfortunate that the hatred of and prejudice against homosexuals is most commonly described as “homophobia” when there really should be a stronger word for it. Other terms we could use are “heterosexism” or “sexual prejudice”, but they are not so widely used. As you mentioned, I think that while there may be some fear involved, the fear is usually based on nothing more than perpetuated myths and indoctrinated intolerance.

0.5 - July 23, 2009

I suppose hatred does stem from fear after all. But i do see the point – it IS unfortunate that “people who are outright prejudiced” and “more passive people who simply have not been properly educated about homosexuality and thus feel fear” have to be lumped together under the same term. While it is important to defend rights against the former’s attacks, there should be a more understanding approach to the latter.

On a separate note, thank you for posting this. It is just as i have always thought – Dr Thio is simply hiding an uncivilized attitude behind big words. It is a relief to the average individual who isn’t a lawyer (or basically someone who is supremely articulate) that this view is expressed. If only Dr Thio could understand properly that in fact, she is the one who bullys with her words and debate-speak.

6. Crescent - July 23, 2009

If I were the school principal, Thio LiAnn would be fired because she presented herself utterly brainless and illogically, she did not behave like an intellects, more like, an arty-farty intellect in disguise.

7. Lee Chee Wai - July 23, 2009

Nicely put, laicite, nicely put! Good examples of prejudice where you can simply replace the necessary words with “homosexual” and things no longer sound reasonable at all.

Speaking of prejudice, I still cringe at the amount of vehemence Singaporeans spew against the non-citizen population when the topic of foreign nationals working there are discussed on TOC. Perhaps my being a foreign national (aka “Resident Alien”) in the US made me more sensitive to it …

8. Jolene - July 23, 2009

This passage really sums it up.

“Fortunately, (perhaps because it doesn’t exist), nowhere in the Handbook of Radical Feminist Etiquette does it state that one is obligated to try to convince or win over or convert or reassure aggressively antifeminist dudes. The path to enlightenment is, for such amoral lost-cause pricks, beyond the purview of women. We’ve got our own problems. […] I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the patriarchal position is irrelevant to feminist theory, and the substance of feminism, the value of the liberation of women, is not itself a legitimate subject for debate among rational beings.”

http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2007/08/20/the-fucking-pedantic-asshole-chronicles/

A lot of the wordiness and rationalisation that people use to defend their positions of contempt are just items they use to ward off criticism of their contempt. Arguing with them does not necessarily do anything to dissolve their contempt; and even more than that, nobody is obliged to justify why they should not be treated with contempt. You can if you want, but you shouldn’t feel you are being “weak” or “irrational” if you don’t. Nobody should feel their basic humanity is up for question by virtue of being a woman or gay or whatever.

There are clearly strategic and pragmatic problems with this position – it is useful to deconstruct the arguments that bigots use, in case it is helpful to others who are not so firmly committed to their feelings of contempt and a world of hierarchical domination and subjugation. But refusing to engage hatred is perfectly fair.

Jolene

9. dtf - July 23, 2009

Wonderful analysis, eloquently written.

10. Sam - July 23, 2009

thank you for this post.
I was tremendously (and strangely) moved.
As a person, any kinds of bigoted or prejudicial statements, opinions and whatnots should NEVER be tolerated – homophobia included.
Thank you Laicite.

11. Gilbert - July 23, 2009

“A racist, a sexist, or a homophobe should have every reason to fear public backlash for proudly advocating intolerance and discrimination.”

What irony, you advocate a climate of stifling fear while pretending to march under a banner of freedom. Yeah, freedom for your brand of thinking only. Tolerance for your brand of thinking only. In that case, what is wrong with others doing the same to you? Thanks for helping me make up my mind why I should continue supporting the existence of Section 377A. Since your kind advocate instilling fear in those who are different from your views, I see no reason why those same people can’t do the same to you.

12. laïcité - July 23, 2009

@ Gilbert

I’m afraid you haven’t gotten the main point of my post. The point was that homophobia is not “just an opinion”, or merely a “brand of thinking”. It is a form of bigotry which aims to dehumanize a group of people simply on the grounds of their sexuality; it advocates discrimination and denial of freedoms to homosexuals on no basis other than their sexual preference. Such a belief is very much like sexism, racism, anti-semitism, classism and xenophobia.

I advocate tolerance and open mindedness, but that does not mean tolerance of intolerance. Blatant sexism and racism are taboo in our society -and rightly so- because those views deserve little respect. I’m merely stating that homophobia should join the ranks of racism and sexism on that embarassing shelf of society called bigotry.

13. Jolene - July 23, 2009
14. AF - July 23, 2009

Whilst I agree TOTALLY with the idea that ANYONE can like, enjoy and behave in any way they want (most certainly in private) just so long as it does not adversely affect someone else without their consent, I don’t think your argument is entirely valid.

To pur it anither way, I think you’re right, but not completely for the reasons you quote. For instance: you can educate people (especially when young) and thus encourage them to have clear, well thought out and tolerant opinions about everything; what you cannot do is to change a persons thoughts (and therefore their opinions) by force. You can of course try, but that way lies the fanaticism we see from the Taliban and in Iran etc. To imply that something is wrong just because it is an undesirable opinion (thought) is simply not valid to my way of thinking.

Homophobia, like all other phobias is actually an IRRATIONAL fear of homosexuality and the irrational most definitely has no place in a college or university and nor does your professor.

I don’t really agree with your examples – entirely – you just can’t change people’s thoughts and opinions and, to me, they are entitled to them (heck, poeple like that are WELCOME to them!). If a white man doesn’t believe that blacks and whites should marry (for instance) then he is in my opinion entitled to that view and even (propbably) to try to prevent his children from doing that – UNTIL THEY REACH ADULTHOOD! though that is I must admit a difficult area. However, he has NO RIGHT whatsoever to voice his opinion to the adult world, or to attempt to influence others in that way since his view is reprehensible and against the law once he attempts to pass it on or adversely affect another with it, but he still has the right to have such an opinion.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but, basically, I do believe in the right of everyone to behave as they wish if it doesn’t harm another. Sadly, that right must logically extend to the guy who is an asshole – he has the right to be one – just not to behave towards others as one.

15. laïcité - July 23, 2009

Hi AF,

I don’t think I mentioned anything about preventing homophobes (or sexists or racists) from voicing their opinions. I do believe in freedom of speech, and I would fight for the right for others to say things that I wholeheartedly do not agree with. I would say that everyone deserves the legal right to say whatever they want, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, clever or stupid, moral or immoral.

But this does not mean that all opinions should be equally respected. I believe in the “marketplace” of ideas – as long as we have the right to voice and criticize opinions, eventually the “correct” or rational ones would surface, and the wrong, stupid or hateful ones would be discredited. As civilized societies we have already recognized that racism and sexism are bad, and that although people may have the right to say racist or sexist things, it is not socially acceptable. But homophobia is still treated as an acceptable, neutral opinion, instead of one that is founded on hate and prejudice.

16. maw - July 23, 2009

I support the right of people to have their own opinions and live their own lifestyles (barring the usual caveat about not harming others, etc) but i think that in this case, we’re not quite arguing along the same lines.

To accept that homophobia is not simply an opinion, and that it can be considered ‘equal’ with race, age, etc, requires acceptance that homosexuality is NATURAL (ie comes with birth, etc) and NOT A MATTER OF CHOICE. Which is clearly not a position that Dr Thio holds.

This isn’t the place to get into that particular discussion, but given that both camps are arguing from different assumptions in the first place…. er… no one’s REALLY right or wrong, no?

Now, while my own views PREFER that sexuality is not a matter of choice, and while i would not wish to belittle the difficult choices and experiences homosexuals have faced in their lives, i’m just not sure that conclusive (scientific or otherwise) evidence has been obtained to prove that issue beyond all doubt, one way or another.

I don’t like Thio or her mother, having seen them in action, but it just seems to me we’re comparing apples and oranges here.

17. AF - July 23, 2009

Yes, I understand what you’re saying. Where I come from and certainly where I live that sort of attitude is NOT regarded as either normal or acceptable. However, whilst I also agree with the principle of free speech, I can’t say I agree with the idea that anyone should be allowed to say things under that guise which incite anger and hatred in others against a particular individual or group (except probably in the case of public figures and on occasions such as democratic elections, where the individual or group has deliberately put themselves “in harm’s way” so to speak).

I think this whole subject of free speech is an absolute minefield because criticism is one thing and should not be stopped whilst to publicly attack an individual or group (verbally or physically) that has done the attacker no direct harm is something else and I can’t see that as right … but then again…

However, what clearly CANNOT be right, as you say, is when a professor of “Human Rights” is clearly not in favour of human rights. How does THAT work?

One other thing, though – equal respect for opinions: I’m not sure I get quite what you mean – it is up to each of us as an individual if we respect an opinion or not. I don’t think any opinion DESERVES respect, or not. An opinion is just that – an idea, belief or thoughts that frame a person’s way of thinking about a subject and you either agree with tem or not. Facts and reality are something else entirely and DO deserve serious consideration by all of us.

Decency and the natural freedom to live our private lives as we see fit without hindrance as long as it doesn’t harm another seems to me both logical and right and it saddens me that we should even still need to discuss it – it ought to simply BE that way for everyone! How can ANYONE, least of all a professor, argue against that, however, stealthily?

18. laïcité - July 23, 2009

@ AF

I mentioned the issue about “respect for opinions” because Dr Thio argued that her view was being attacked by “intolerant” liberals who refused to accept her homophobic opinion as valid in academic discourse. She mentioned that the “right to homosexuality” is a contested one, and that there is no true right or wrong answer. In this way, she tried to frame it such that one must accept her homophobic view as a legitimate opinion (rather than an irrational or hateful one), or be labelled as “intolerant” by her.

But she wrongly brought up freedom of speech, because free speech and free thought does not entail automatic respect for those opinions. Dr Thio seems to assume that it does, and cries foul when we do not respect her homophobia as a valid, legitimate view.

AF - July 23, 2009

Ah, yes. There we are in total agreement. It comes back to the view that, “You have the right to say it, and I have the right to hate you saying it,” argument, with which I concur completely.

19. laïcité - July 23, 2009

@ maw

I disagree that whether or not homosexuality is a choice is even an issue. I wrote a post about it here:

https://laicite.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/on-homosexuality-why-were-asking-the-wrong-questions/

What matters here is that homophobia involves prejudice and discrimination against a group of people for no reason other than their sexual orientation. Whether or not they chose their orientation has no bearing on the fact that such discrimination is backed by hate and bigotry. For example, xenophobia is still a form of bigotry (and not a mere “opinion”), regardless of the fact that such feelings are directed against immigrants who chose to live in another country.

20. soojenn - July 24, 2009

Looks like Thio LA has chickened out of the trip to NYU … reports fromt he CNA. Link at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/444322/1/.html

Former NMP Thio Li-ann cancels trip to teach at NYU School of Law.
SINGAPORE: Former Nominated Member of Parliament Professor Thio Li-ann has cancelled her trip to New York University.

It was revealed in a media statement published online by the Dean of NYU’s School of Law, Mr Richard Revesz.

In it, he said Professor Thio was disappointed by the atmosphere of hostility by members of NYU’s community towards her views and the low enrolments in her classes.

He said the school’s Global Appointments Committee was not aware of Ms Thio’s speech made in Singapore’s Parliament against the decriminalisation of consensual sex acts between men.

Still, Mr Revesz said he sharply disgreed with Ms Thio’s 2007 remarks made in Singapore’s Parliament and he did find Ms Thio’s responses to those who objected to her appointment, offensive and hurtful. However, he said the entire episode served as a good learning experience.
————————

Well it looks like the wonder of the internet… which is allowing people in general to know what Thio’s views and stance of homosexuality.. Thio could probably get away with this in Singapore.. well apparently not in NY.

21. Mark Zamen - July 28, 2009

Yes, any thoughtful, balanced person would be ashamed to espouse narrow-minded and hateful opinions. And of course such views are not worthy of respect. Yet, we must always remember that the First Amendment is there specifically to protect the expression of unpopular viewpoints. Things are gradually changing in favor of gay rights and one day, hopefully in the fairly near future, homosexuals will have the rights and respect other citizens take for granted. But we have a very long way to go. That is the salient point of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance (of himself and by others). More information on the book is available at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/BrokenSaint.html.

Mark Zamen, author

22. moses - August 1, 2009

Excellent post! Finally, someone who realises that freedom doesn’t mean the freedom to do anything and everything, and that homophobic opinions should be as respected as racist opinions.

It also struck me as a terrible irony that the people shouting for freedom here are often also the same people who are against freedom – they’re are for the freedom of speech but against the freedom from having your sexual orientation attacked.

And just because some people are disagreeing with what is plain doesn’t mean we have to accommodate their views. Denying the fact that homosexuality is perfectly natural doesn’t make your opinion worthy of consideration. It makes your opinion unsound. False premises make for unsound conclusions.

23. Lee Chee Wai - August 2, 2009

Interestingly enough, Thio’s NYU case actually surfaced all the way out here in the Illinois when the owner of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant asked me about it. I was surprised it was even considered newsworthy enough to have surfaced in an unrelated part of the US.

It also made me think about Thio’s mentality, whether it is peculiar to Singapore and Singaporeans. That is, when challenged in an environment as a minority, she hides in a defensive “you are out to bash me” bubble instead of presenting her views the way she did in parliament where she was in an environment as a member of the majority view. I mean, surely she’s not that bad a person and can still teach human rights as an academic subject in spite of her views? Surely she has fundamental ideas and principles she lives by that are sound enough (to her) so she can engage in discussions with people who do not agree with her? The reason I ask if this is peculiar to Singapore is because I see this same behavior pattern when the Singapore government is criticized outside the country.

laïcité - August 2, 2009

I can’t say whether this is peculiar to Singaporeans, but I do think that it has something to do with a skewed expectation for respect, and that anything less than polite, subdued disagreement would be seen as a gross sign of disrespect. The way Thio Li-ann reacted to those who didn’t agree with her views struck me as similar to how her mother (the “feminist mentor” /eyeroll) reacted to her lack of support at the AWARE AGM. Just like how Thio Su Mien demanded respect from the AWARE members using her infamous “I am on page 73!” quote, I somehow get the feeling that Thio Li-ann had exactly the same mindset. When her views weren’t given the respect that she thought they deserved, out came the screams and cries of being persecuted, and the bitter sarcastic statement: “maybe asians are more polite after all”. How she can rationalize her expectation for politeness and respect when her own views reflect hate and intolerance, I’ll never know.

24. soo lian - August 2, 2009

TLA does not represent Singaporeans.

wanna understand Thio Li-ann and you’re in Illinois?… easy, think Bush… they’re pretty similar, at least to me : )

25. Lee Chee Wai - August 3, 2009

Soo Lian – hehehehe, well, at least Bush can go to other countries and continue to spout his hare-brained ideology. Just because her class gets low enrollment because of the bad flak, TLA decides she’s not even gonna go.

26. slotusch - August 3, 2009

… it may be for the better…

27. Lesha - November 19, 2009

When will the rest of humanity get the message?
LGBT people are the most superior class of persons on the planet,
and anyone who dares to express distaste at thei sexual practice(s)
should automatically be disqualified from whatever position they hold in life.

In the case of Liann Thio, all her years of excellence in academia and law
is automatically negated because she dared to speak words that the LGBT community did not like. How mature and impressive, just and tolerant!!!

laïcité - February 7, 2010

Just a question, if Thio Li Ann said something nasty about a certain race or religion, would you continue to hold the same respect for her? Is it more okay to be prejudiced against gays than be prejudiced against race or religion? If so, why?

28. Sasayaki Wolfe - December 6, 2009

I’d say it’s high time we changed the score.


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