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Dear Former Archbishop…

Dear Former Archbishop of Canterbury

Some notes on your piece in the Daily Mail, which I won’t link to because I don’t want to increase their hits.

You claim:

more than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’.

Interestingly, this is the opposite of what you normally claim when you’re trying to assert that the majority of people in the country are Christian, and therefore you should be allowed to use your bigoted, offensive prejudices to set a social agenda which excludes minority sexualities from equality. On this occasion you’re seeking to feed the persecution complex that so many Christians like to assert.

The problem with that is that a minority, in technical terms, is a function of power, voice and visibility in society. People in same-sex relationships have been powerless and excluded from power structures for years, a situation which the institution you led sought to maintain (after all, homosexuals are sinners, and it’s wrong to facilitate sin by recognising it, right?).

Lack of visible role models, an absence of voice in the public spheres, and an inability to effect social change leads to a number of social outcomes.

Homophobia – allowing stereotypes and prejudice to negatively influence personal, institutional and/or social interactions with people who want or are in same-sex relationships – is legitimised when groups are invisible. This gives rise to bullying, physical violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people. And whilst I’m sure you’ll say that you deplore such behaviour, any actions or statements which perpetuate a state of inequality and powerlessness creates a fertile environment in which such behaviour can flourish.

As a result of this, LGBT people are at much higher risk for stress-related mental health problems (eg. depression and anxiety), a problem in itself, and increased use of non-positive coping mechanisms such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or risky behaviours, such as unprotected sex. As such, serious health problems, physical and mental, are more pronounced within LGBT communities, along with the associated higher rates of mortality and suicide, particularly in young people. Young LGBT people tend to do less well in the education system and are more likely to be made homeless by parents rejecting them.

Similar patterns have been observed in other minority groups, including ethnic, religious, gender and ability minorities. We know that legitimising even minor discrimination increases the social acceptability of any form of discrimination.

We have been countering this by fighting for small changes: LGBT characters in soaps, high profile community actions, positive news stories enabling politicians to come out and campaigning for changes in laws. Slowly, our voice has been heard, and things are beginning to change. However, young LGBT people still commit suicide at higher rates than straight cohorts, older LGBT people still don’t get the respect they deserve in care institutions and we are still at a disadvantage in society.

To contrast Christians – specifically but not exclusively the Anglican Church for whom you speak – have automatic seats in parliament, have historically had a massive influence over how society has been structured and are rarely out of the press. As a single example, the number of bishops and archbishops who’ve been given column inches to repeat their offensive, wilfully ignorant and factually incorrect bigotry over the last year has, I’m sure, contributed negatively to the self image and health of many in the LGBT communities. And whilst numbers of church attenders and self-identifying Christians are undoubtedly dropping, our society is still culturally Christian, caught up in the moral values of an increasingly secular society.

You go on to say this is evidence that

there lurks an aggressive secularist and relativist approach towards an institution that has glued society together for time immemorial.

Except that institution isn’t fixed, unchanging and constant. Marriage from five thousand years ago is not the same as marriage from five hundred ago, or even fifty years ago. Women are no longer chattels to be bought and sold, rape is no longer a socially acceptable way of taking wives and polygamy has been nominally (if delusionally) forbidden and unseen for the last couple of hundred years. As our concepts of relationships have changed, so have the institutions which formalise them in society. And now you claim that reflecting changes will change the institution beyond recognition.

You say that marriage has a

fundamental religious and civic meaning as an institution orientated towards the upbringing of children.

Except that’s historically not true and I deeply offensive to the large number of (in your view, legitimate) marriages in which procreation does not occur. Contrary to your belief that “traditional” marriages are diminished by reflecting practice in law, you in fact diminish “traditional” and non-traditional relationships which do not confirm to your narrow, normative view of relationships. It is you who diminish the bond of love, not those who seek to join it.

There will be no exemptions for believers who are registrars. … Christian teachers … may face disciplinary action if they cannot express agreement with the new politically-correct orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, it’s not the job of the state to provide exemptions. Would you accept that registrars can opt out of performing mixed ethnicity or mixed religion marriages? I would hope not. Whether teachers like it or not, if the law changes, LGBT people will have the right to get married regardless of their views on it; just as teachers are expected not to bring their party political views to the classroom, so they’re expected to support and uphold the rights, education and dignity of all their students regardless of their backgrounds.

Frankly, Mr Carey, your entire message reminds me of the temper tantrum of a school bully who has been found picking on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the school, and who then tries to bully the teachers into silence when they challenge it. Your religious values – and make no mistake, the only objections I can see are values, for the facts cannot and do not support continued discrimination – are not a legitimate reason to perpetuate a social wrong.

What you regard as a dangerous move towards secularism is, for many people, one to be welcomed. Secularism isn’t about banning religion or excluding religious views from public discussions, it’s about broadening the range of voices to include the broadest possible cross-section of the people in that society. It’s about ensuring that no particular view, however significant from an historical perspective, is privileged and that all people are treated equally.

The sad thing is, Mr Carey, you are more concerned with maintaining a discriminatory, favoured voice, and the power that goes with it, than you are in empowering the dispossessed and allowing the silent to be heard. If I’m honest, this doesn’t really sound like the example of a Jesus who dined with tax-collectors and prostitutes.

I’m sorry that you feel that the campaign for equal marriage is going to inhibit your “right” to discriminate, but ultimately this isn’t about you. It’s about the LGBT people whose lives and health are put at risk by your attitudes and values. Lets focus on the victims here, not the abusers.

Yours sincerely

David W

We are not ‘gays’, we are people (who happen to be gay)

Dear all

I applaud when people draw attention to injustices: situations in Africa where homophobia has political and religious traction are deeply upsetting and I am all for protesting against governments and churches who make threats of violence against us.

However, it annoys me when people write about “gays”. First, purely gramatically, gay is an adjective, not a noun. This is a common annoyance: for example, “medal” is a noun and not a verb.

However, if grammar were my only objection it would be churlish to comment. I also contend that using gays as a noun reduces the identity of the group in discussion to one aspect of their lives. For example, I am a man who happens to be gay, or if you want, a gay man. I am not a gay. In fact, the only time I can think of where gay is used as a noun was in the deliberately ironic Little Britain “Only Gay in the Village” sketches, where the word gay was deliberately chosen because Daffyd’s entire identity was posited on his sexual preferences, with everything in his life orbiting that fact. He dressed in (hideous) PVC outfits because that was his perception of what gay men wore. He even wanted a gay career, and was oblivious to the fact that all of the guys in the village were busy having a bit of bum fun of an evening and dismissed their self-generated identities.

People are diminished when reduced to a single aspect: hospitals promote referring to “the patient in bed 8 with {disease name}” rather than reducing the patient to “the {disease name} in bed 8”. We refer to people with disabilities rather than the disabled or even disabled people because it puts their personhood first. Using a lazy label can dehumanise people so that we can consider them as the label first, and worry about their humanity later. Just ask someone with dyslexia whether they’d like to be permanently reduced to their learning difficulty! The irony is, in an article where someone is drawing attention to an injustice like punishing people merely for their sexual orientation, using “gays” continues to reduce the people, the individuals, with complex lives and heterogeneous characteristics, attitudes and lifestyles to a single label.

Worse, in my opinion, “gays” can actually be exclusive of other groups being oppressed. Women who identify as gay are usually called lesbians, although gay woman is also used, albeit rarely. Bisexuals, often as much a victim of these waves of hate because they’ve committed the same “sin” of consensual sex with another adult (who happens to have the same genitals), are not included in the word “gays” and nor are members of the trans community, whether male to female or female to male, and who are by default also considered to be in the same group. In traditional African cultures where homosexuality is still taboo and gay cultures and identities are emerging in response to oppression, many man who have sex with men (MWSWM) probably won’t self-identify as gay (a similar group exists in the UK of men who don’t identify as gay but who regularly have sexual contact with the same gender). Talking about “gays” being slaughtered ignores the women who are dying, and denies the identities of people who are bisexual, transgender or who don’t really have a label but like a bit of same-gender fun.

And it’s entirely legitimate to say “well, you need to prioritise: either we can fight the oppression or you can worry about labels”. Fair enough, if you think the objectives are mutually exclusive. I don’t. I think that challenging language which continues oppression of groups is as legitimate as challenging homophobic policies. Whilst increased coverage is to be welcomed, I’d prefer it if the people doing it had sufficient respect for the groups affected to respect their self-defined identities rather than demanding gratitude for it being covered at all.

I speak only for myself; nobody can speak for an entire community except by consent of that community, and I don’t have it. However, I am a human being. I have a genetic condition which affects my day to day life. I own a cat, a car and a house. I own an iPhone, have a medical tricorder from Star Trek on my shelf and I am a lefty liberal namby-pamby do-gooder who thinks that everyone deserves the same opportunities in life. I am an enthusiastic proponent of the efficacy of science as an explanatory method for the universe around me, and I am a computer programmer, web developer and project manager. I have an undergraduate degree in life sciences, and I am studying science and society for an MSc. I am white, male, 34 years old, 5’10” tall and have a penchant for chocolate-based snacking products which has, doubtless, contributed to the bulging keg where my six-pack should be. I am a former born-again, baptised, evangelical Christian, and I would now describe myself as a pragmatic atheist. I also happen to have been hugging the same guy for the last ten years.

Does that mean I should be reduced to being “a gay”? No, of course it doesn’t. It diminishes me and my experiences when I am reduced to that, and it diminishes the people who are suffering in the fear of everyday life when their complex, multi-spectral identities are reduced to a single adjective used as a noun, and excludes half the people who are being oppressed anyway. Reducing me, them, us to a single aspect reduces us to being a stereotype worthy of pity. Instead, remember they are people, with interests, relationships, histories and lives in which being reduced to a single aspect is what is causing them to be threatened with violence.

Am I really being unreasonable if I challenge language which continues this reduction?

Is calling people “deniers” legitimate?

A friend earlier challenged me over the use of the word “denier” to describe people who don’t accept the facts of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), on the basis that “denier” is a loaded term.

To put the discussion into context, a self-described climate “skeptic” had stated in comments on a blog that “no evidence can convince me”. The specific objection was that denier implies that it suggests a knowledge of the truth of a claim, whereas the assertion was that the person might merely “mistrust sources of information”.

My person position is that denial is an appropriate word, and is deliberately chosen, and has a specific meaning. However, it may create a barrier to overcoming differences and achieving closure in the debate, although I would suggest that there is, in all cases of denialism as I define it, a mismatch in the points of stasis, which means that the dispute is unlikely to be resolved.

To be clear, I know there are issues with identifying consensus, but I am not addressing that in this discussion; I am assuming for the sake of the argument that the consensus has been pragmatically agreed in some way.

The classic example of denialism, and the origin of “denial” as a label for a form of discourse, is the holocaust, and deniers famously include the author David Irving, a self-described holocaust “revisionist” and Nick Griffin, leader of British National Party. Despite the existence of extensive documentation, first-hand witnesses (from both sides of the event) and broad consensus on the part of historians, holocaust denialists seek to downplay the magnitude of the event, the roles of senior members of the Nazi party in orchestrating the events or that the holocaust happened at all. Typically, justification turns on the holocaust being an propaganda tool of the Allies, a conspiracy by a Zionist conspiracy or that the German treatment of Jews did not differ from the treatment of Axis prisoners by the Allies.

More importantly, the claims often seem to be driven by an underlying ideology: in the case of holocaust denialism, proponents of holocaust denial narratives seek to diminish the horrors associated with Nationalist Socialism and fascism as practised in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and thus legitimise their political leanings and anti-Semitism. In addition, the narrative causes harm: in this case, the harm can be caused against the survivors of the event (by denying the suffering they experienced), or from those who seek to ensure that such horrors do not recur by undermining their activities.

The key characteristics of denialist narrative as identified from holocaust denial are:

  1. A narrative that significantly diverges from consensus interpretation of evidence.
  2. The narrative includes elements derived from alleged conspiracies that have been successfully kept secret.
  3. The narrative serves an ideological, and political, end.
  4. The narrative causes, or has the potential to cause, harm.

Other examples of denialism include denial of evolution (as creationists have been labelled, notably by Richard Dawkins), denial of ACC, denial of vaccine efficacy and denial of tobacco harm. (One could include numerous other examples, including, for example, the Flat Earth Society.)

Denial of evolution satisfies the first two criteria by claiming that vast quantities of evidence have been maliciously misinterpreted and that biologists and journals are perpetrating this for purposes often unspecified, but often suggested to involve dark spiritual forces. In this case, the narrative seeks to promote a particular religious view, and whilst harm is caused to the way in which people are taught about the world in which they live, denying the reality of evolution has potential to cause significant harm in the way we consider, for example, infectious diseases.

In addition to the first four criteria, an additional characteristic can perhaps be identified.

  1. Proponents of the narrative engage in intellectually dishonest practices when engaging with opponents.

In the case of evolution denial, this includes the continued use of arguments which have been successfully countered, and extensive use of cherry-picking and quote-mining.

ACC “skeptics” (as they style themselves) deny the reality of man-made climate change, a position contrary to settled consensus in the climate science community. It has been asserted that this is both a green (environment) and a red (socialist) conspiracy, and this betrays the underlying ideology, which has been demonstrated to be associated with agencies promoting libertarian (ie. unregulated) capitalism, and with a vested interested in promoting use of hydrocarbon fuels. The harm here is that caused to the long-term stability of the climate, and the intellectual dishonesty is seen in the way in which the “skeptics” seek to manufacture controversy.

Vaccine and tobacco denial both have significant harms, and have been characterised by a number of incidents of intellectual dishonesty, which I’ll not catalogue here.

Two logical questions arise, one directly from the original challenge and one as a matter of semantics. The original challenge suggested that this was mere distrust or miscomprehension of consensus views (and I certainly wouldn’t suggest this is a case of cognitive deficit, just to cover myself). However, despite multiple attempts at bridging “misunderstandings”, there haven’t been any sustained successes in communicating effectively with deniers; indeed, the claim originally labelled “denialist” was that no evidence would change their mind.

This, along with other issues, to me suggests that whatever it is they are engaged in – and for whatever ideological reason – it isn’t science. Some theories (eg. creationism) are so broad as to explain everything, and therefore don’t really explain anything. Others deny the importance of evidence or try to introduce the supernatural into the domain of science – something argued against by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago. However, their positions are potentially dangerous, particularly, if political decisions are made on the basis of advice posing as scientific.

Second, how does climate “skepticism” this differ from Skepticism, as defined by the global movement? Massimo Piglucci neatly encapsulates the fundamental difference: Skepticism is characterised by a demand for evidence proportional to the nature of the claim. As so neatly demonstrated above, climate “skeptics” will be persuaded by no evidence or rational argument presented to them.

As a further note, denialism differs from normal disagreement because of the nature and scope of the issue at stake. Whilst I may have political differences with people, typically such differences are different interpretations of the same evidence and information. In the case of denialism, the evidence is irrelevant to the disagreement.

I believe, therefore, denialism is an appropriate label, which used semantically encapsulates the fundamental position of the group, which is that they deny or seek to deny what might be called “reality”. As a type of discourse, it has distinct characteristics that set it apart from other forms of contention.

Labelling people as deniers undoubtedly creates a barrier to communication across paradigmatic boundaries. However, as mentioned previously, the statement “no evidence will convince me” automatically excludes the possibility of successful engagement. I question therefore whether the use of more sensitive language would result in any benefit to existence of denialism. I would welcome information on how we can effectively engage across intractable epistemic boundaries.

The discussion is therefore about third parties to the discussion – observers and those who are seeking advice on policy issues. Arguably, this can go either way. Using the label denialist could either be perceived as an aggressive move that diminishes the value of advice by those in tune with the consensus, or could be viewed as an effective way to communicate the value of an opposing viewpoint. I would suggest that the success of the label can only be assessed within the context of the use of the label. I think it therefore behoves the practitioner to consider the appropriateness of the language within the context in which it is being used. As a short-hand for communicating within a given community, it seems to me to be both justified and legitimate.