Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The distinction between tolerance and approval: an ongoing series

John Derbyshire, "Carl Sagan," The Corner on National Review Online, 16 May 2004.
"Sagan wasn't convinced that homosexuality was genetic, though if forced to accept that conclusion, he wanted it understood that homosexuality was a genetic deformity. [W]hen Sagan discovered that his son was best friends with a homosexual at school - he told his son that it would be wrong to not be friends with the boy just because he's gay, but also wrong not to acknowledge that the boy's sexual preferences were not to be approved. ... Sagan's views on homosexuality left the authors confused because at one moment he would be saying something very homophobic and at the next arguing for the promotion of a gay faculty member, etc. What the authors lacked the imagination to understand is that this is how the mild & tolerant homophobic mind works."
Kikuchiyo, "The mild & tolerant homophobe?" Kikuchiyo News, 17 May 2004.
Derb is trying to prove that he's in excellent company by posting a reader's email which claims that Carl Sagan was a "mild and tolerant homophobe." What's the point of that? I mean, if you're going to sully your personality by being a homophobe to begin with, what do you gain by being mild and tolerant about it? And isn't there some kind of oxymoron swimming around here?
What does a homophobe gain by being mild and tolerant about it? Perhaps this would become clear if we replace "homophobe" with "vegan". Without respect for fellow citizens' rights and liberties, he will find it difficult to live in a liberal pluralistic society where people have the right to eat meat or wear leather and some invariably will. However, like a pro-lifer, he may feel that the acts that he objects to are tantamount to murder, releasing him from the obligation to respect the rights of those who carry out or abet such acts. If, in following the dictates of his conscience, he violates those rights, the state may see fit to subject our vegan to incarceration, where efforts to impose vegetarianism would likely earn him the sort of treatment that would appall the homophobe. (Advice to incarcerated vegetarians: "tossed salad" may refer to something other than a meat-free meal option.)

For Islamic fundamentalists, the primary criterion of moral worth is acceptance of the perfection and finality of Muhammad's prophecy; for evangelical Christians, the acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. Political ideologues' use of shibboleths is similar. "You're a socialist? That must mean you hate America!" "Only an anti-Semite would criticize Israel!" "You don't agree with affirmative action? Then you must be a racist!" A person's morality is judged by whether he subscribes to certain beliefs, as opposed to the crazy idea of judging a person by how he treats others (including those who disagree).*

So Carl Sagan held attitudes some might label "homophobic" yet still treated homosexuals decently and fairly. In my book, that makes him a damn sight better than the right-wing McCarthys of the 1950s and the left-wing McCarthys of today.

*This dynamic is also employed in reverse.
Premise: X is/was a moral person.
Conclusion: Therefore, X must have been one of us.
Hence hanifiyyah, the Islamic doctrine that claims that Abraham, though he lived millennia before Muhammad received the Qur'an, was a Muslim and most certainly was not a Jew (which is impossible because Muslims hold that Judaism didn't exist until Moses received the Covenant at Sinai); and attempts to claim that Jesus - you know, he of the fishes and loaves - was a vegetarian but that Hitler was not.