Still from the 1999 film Fight Club
People who dissent from the narratives, constructs, and goals of the LGBT movement are increasingly liable to be labelled homophobic, and accused of fuelling the kinds of animosity and prejudice that motivate anti-gay violence.
Such accusations reflect the increasing polarisation of the debate.
From a polarised point of view, it doesn’t matter whether one writes:
“The contemporary framing of sexual desire in terms of sexual orientation and identity is incongruous with the essentialist approach to ethics and philosophy more generally, and results in something more reminiscent of a contemporary utilitarianism.”
Or instead scrawls “God hates fags” on a piece of cardboard. Every participant in the debate becomes either an ally or an enemy.
But are those who dissent from the increasingly mainstream narratives, constructs, and goals of the LGBT movement really complicit in anti-gay violence?
Are we, formally or materially, cooperating in evil?
Let’s not cooperate in evil
To cooperate in evil is to “work together with” an evil action. Evil is, broadly speaking, corruption of the good and can include intentions, actions, and also consequences both intended and unintended.
But in terms of cooperation, what we “work together with” is an action – in this case, the action of anti-gay violence.
Cooperation in evil comes in two basic kinds: formal and material. Formal and material are philosophical jargon derived from an Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics.
“Formal” refers to the form or essence of the evil act, “material” is the substance or matter from which the evil act is made. For example, the “form” of an attempted murder might be the intentional shooting of an innocent person. The “matter” would be everything that made the act possible – the weapon, the time and location, the ability to fire the gun, and so on.
Formal cooperation in evil means that we are cooperating with the “form” or essence of the evil act. This presupposes an intention that the evil act be carried out.
If you hold the intention that an evil act be carried out, you’re already in the wrong regardless of any other connection or lack of connection to the evil act itself. If I intend for you to carry out a murder, then I am complicit in your crime whether I bought the gun for you, taught you how to shoot it, and drove you to the scene of the crime, or merely sat back in quiet approval while you did the deed.
Hence the pastor who spoke out approvingly of the Orlando massacre was (assuming his words were sincere) formally cooperating in the evil of the massacre. He didn’t help the massacre to occur, he didn’t have anything to do with the massacre materially. But by approving of it, his own conscience is damaged, even though his approval was given after the fact. Understanding cooperation in evil allows us to clearly state that the pastor’s approval of the evil act is itself evil.
The first and most important thing is to examine oneself for any trace of formal cooperation in terms of sharing the intention that people be assaulted or murdered on the basis of their sexual orientation, or approving of such actions when they occur.
I would add to this that we should pay particular attention to any affective (that is, emotional) change in our response to assaults and murders that are described as hate-crimes or as motivated by the sexual orientation or identity of the victim.
After all, the pastor who celebrated the Orlando massacre probably would not have carried out such an act himself, but taking some joy or satisfaction in such an evil act demonstrates a deeply warped conscience. Joy and satisfaction are proper responses to good, not evil.
Assault is assault, murder is murder. Both are evil acts regardless of who the victim is. Any sense that the evil is diminished, or any trace of reduced sympathy on the grounds that the victim’s identity places them potentially on “the other side” of a cultural divide should be regarded as a warning sign. Allowing one’s response to an horrific crime to be coloured by considerations of cultural or ideological conflict is a sure sign of impaired objectivity and a failure of dispassion.
Some people resist self-examination because they fear it is a concession to their opponents’ point of view. But the ideal is to have no opponents other than your own errors, and hence self-examination is not a concession but the most important work you can do. Self-examination is not a sign of weakness, nor is attacking your ideological enemies a sign of strength.
People often recoil from examining their own faults. No doubt we fear that our critics will take advantage of the opportunity to pile on. Or perhaps we fear that their accusations might hold some truth after all, and we would prefer not to face that truth.
Facing the truth can be terrifying, but we can take strength in the knowledge that only the truth really exists. Everything else is delusion. As the “Litany of Gendlin”, after the American philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin, states:
What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
It is up to the individual to discover through self-examination whether he or she is guilty of celebrating, diminishing, or sympathising with anti-gay violence – that is, formally cooperating.
Material cooperation is less straightforward.
The accusation is that dissent from LGBT narratives, constructs, and goals encourages or validates animosity and prejudice in the broader community, which in turn encourages and validates people who commit anti-gay violence.
But cooperation in evil cannot be applied to abstract crimes. We need to examine specifics to see whether some degree of unintended culpability can be found.
Are hate-crimes motivated by hate?
In January 2016 a 32 year old man was viciously assaulted by a group of four young men during an evening picnic in St Kilda Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.
“The verbal abuse started as soon as they noticed me,” he said, recalling that one of the men called him “faggot freak” and said: ‘This is the men’s toilet, not the the ladies, f—-ing faggot, get the f— out of here!’
The victim, Danny Levi Bryce-Maurice suffered a broken nose and other injuries in the ensuing attack. While noting that the attack was unprovoked, Bryce-Maurice told reporters: “Every time I leave the front door I prepare myself for some sort of abuse or hate. It has been like this my whole life.”
Research into homophobic assaults or hate crimes in Australia and the US suggests that Bryce-Maurice’s attackers are typical. Most assailants are male, most are between 15-25 years of age, most commit their assaults in groups of between three and five assailants. Most reported attacks are “of circumstantial street based violence where the assailants are unknown and most usually are not able to be arrested and charged.”
Despite the dearth of testimony from assailants, evidence does exist to indicate that the motivation for homophobic attacks:
“appears to be part of the general motivation behind violent attacks on a range of targets by adolescent and young adult males. The profile of an assailant of lesbians and gays is very similar to the profile of assailants of women, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”
The theory is that violent young men engage in assaults against women and socially marginal minorities in order to prove their own masculinity in accordance with various social and cultural norms.
Visibly diverging from heterosexual masculine norms makes homosexual men a valid target in the eyes of their assailants.
Yet surprisingly, the assailants themselves are not necessarily “homophobic” in the simple and clear-cut way portrayed in the media, and some are self-professed supporters or at least accepting of gay rights.
The forensic psychologist Karen Franklin has dedicated her career to researching the psychology of violence, including anti-gay hate crimes. Her research has revealed a complex social phenomenon at the heart of anti-gay violence, which includes peer dynamics, thrill-seeking, proving one’s masculinity, ideological or moral motives, as well as a kind of “policing” of cultural gender norms.
“Some people who participate [in a bashing incident] have no more anti-gay animosity than most people who don’t. I’ve found, in interviewing perpetrators, that some adamantly support gay civil rights, for example, which is a real surprise to a lot of people.”
Franklin’s work emphasises the cultural aspect of anti-gay violence, diminishing the notion of individual animosity as the true motivator of such crimes. She writes:
“In a nation that glorifies violence and abhors sexual diversity, a minority perceived to violate gender norms functions as an ideal dramatic prop for young men to use in demonstrating their masculinity, garnering social approval, and alleviating boredom.”
Yet the popular view is that hate crimes must be motivated by hate. Our folk psychology tells us that it takes a small amount of animosity and prejudice to say something rude or demeaning about homosexuality, a fortiori those who commit violent anti-gay assault and even murder must be driven by proportionately greater animosity and prejudice.
Instead Franklin’s research suggests that animosity and prejudice are, at best, incomplete descriptors of anti-gay violence. If people can commit anti-gay violence while being self-professed supporters of gay rights, then the popular understanding of anti-gay violence must be flawed.
A broader problem
Research into anti-gay violence suggests that the real culprit is not philosophical and religious disagreement with LGBT narratives, constructs, and goals, but a much more potent and specific dynamic involving young men in the context of “hegemonic masculinity”.
Franklin describes hegemonic masculinity as:
“operating more as a cultural standard than as an achievable status for the majority of men. Although hegemonic masculinity is somewhat elastic…it generally connotes dominance, competitiveness, occupational achievement, and heterosexuality”
Dominic Parrott, Professor of psychology at Georgia State University, supports the view that a particular masculine ideal promotes insecurity and aggression:
“because men who endorse traditional male gender role beliefs also demonstrate extreme adherence to masculine ideology, they are threatened when confronted by violations of the traditional male gender role. Consequently, these men are at increased risk to respond with stereotypical masculine emotions (e.g., anger) and behaviors (e.g., aggression). This expression of aggression purportedly functions to enforce traditional gender norms as well as reaffirm one’s masculine identity.”
The need to affirm one’s masculine identity is at the heart of the pernicious group and social dynamics which motivate a variety of violent acts, including anti-gay violence:
“Of course, endorsing traditional beliefs of masculinity and femininity does not directly translate into antigay aggression. Rather, men who frequently question their masculinity or have it questioned by other men are presumably more likely to exaggerate stereotypical masculine behaviors (e.g., aggression toward gay men) in order to maintain gender dichotomy and reaffirm their heterosexual masculinity.”
While it is true that anti-gay animosity and prejudice contribute to the motivation of some violent offenders, it is difficult to separate these themes from the broader context of “hegemonic masculinity” in which group dynamics of masculine insecurity and aggression play out against the “dramatic prop” of minorities who violate strict gender norms.
In her 2008 paper drawing correlations between anti-gay violence and group rape, Franklin detailed the internal dynamics of group attacks:
“The division of participants is crucial to understanding male group aggression. In masculinist, assault-prone environments, men fall into one of three categories: dominators, dominated, and followers. Followers feel like they must go along with the dominators, lest they be branded as nonmasculine, risk expulsion from the group, or, in extreme cases, become victims themselves.”
Hegemonic masculinity is already a familiar theme for those of us who have witnessed first-hand the often perverse group dynamics of schoolyard posturing and aggression. Femininity may have been the worst attribute for a boy to have, but there was no shortage of vulnerabilities: introversion, studiousness, socio-economic status, athleticism or lack thereof, physical stature, appearance, awkwardness; any of these could render you a target of someone else’s self-validating aggression.
Is it a coincidence that people I knew as a teenager and regarded as potentially dangerous went on in later life to perpetrate violent crimes that caused death and serious injury to others? Their aggression, social posturing, and peer dynamics were an obvious implied threat to all of those further down the social hierarchy.
Franklin’s recommendations echo anecdotal experience of group dynamics:
“The leaders need to be identified early in their transgressive careers; in cases such as those discussed here, subsequent violence could have been avoided if authorities had intervened earlier. Followers, on the other hand, may be reached through educational efforts and reduction of their dependency and sense of peer pressure to conform to the group.”
Leaders initiate and dominate violent and transgressive acts; followers take part out of fear and peer pressure. Individual guilt is subsumed in the sense of collective responsibility and the ensuing camaraderie.
Material cooperation in evil
This article was motivated by a desire to ascertain whether or not dissenting from LGBT narratives, constructs, and goals could constitute material cooperation in hate crimes. Yet in the process of investigating the accusation it turned out that the motivation for anti-gay violence is much more complex and specific than expected.
While it remains important for dissenters to disavow violence and prejudice and to choose language with care, it seems less likely that merely dissenting from aspects of LGBT narratives, constructs and goals contributes in any significant way to anti-gay violence. Nor does it seem likely that ceasing to dissent would contribute to the cessation of anti-gay violence in any meaningful way.
Perhaps a better objective and an area of common interest lies in the destruction of “hegemonic masculinity” as a social force. I may not want to teach my children LGBT narratives and constructs, but nor would I want to teach them that masculinity consists solely in being good at sports or dominating others, or being successful in their career, or simply being a winner.
Likewise we might want to teach our children to recognise the dangerous “alphas” who find validation in thrill-seeking, transgressive criminality and hurting others.
As for resisting peer pressure, being less dependent on others, and avoiding an unthinking conformity to the group – if we want our children to learn these qualities we might begin by modelling them in ourselves.
The young men typically responsible for anti-gay violence are not materially supported by dissent from LGBT narratives, constructs, and goals where such dissent is expressed reasonably and in good faith. Nonetheless it may behove dissenters to further scrutinise or criticise insecure and narrow portrayals of masculinity within society, or to offer more diverse accounts of what it means to be a man, and the virtues implicit in being a good one.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com