Long, rambling notes on the limited usefulness of putting a label on someone
Rob Ford’s decision not to march in the Pride Parade is stupid, as I’ve already argued. It is disrespectful to queer people in Toronto, and as mayor his disrespect carries symbolic weight—he is being disrespectful on behalf of the city. I find that offensive.
But a lot of the discussion about this, and about Rob Ford’s history of disrespecting the gay community, centres on the question of whether or not the mayor is a homophobe. I think that’s kind of stupid, too. Because whether the mayor is homophobic or not is irrelevant. What matters is what he does. Here are a few reasons why I think the question is unhelpful:
1. There is no right answer
Last week a Toronto Star reporter asked the mayor point-blank if he was homophobic. According to the report, “Ford looked away, mumbled something under his breath and didn’t answer the question.” His apparent refusal to answer suddenly became a damning talking point on Twitter.
But I was uncomfortable almost immediately, because I tried to imagine what response would have been less damning to him. It is a question with no right answer—at least no right answer politically.
If he says “no,” people can point to his growing history of disrespectful actions towards and comments about gay and trans people and call him either a liar or deluded. If he says “yes” then… what? We all denounce him for being proud of his ignorance and bigotry? Praise him for being self-aware? Or, most likely, evaluate everything he ever does in the future through the lens of his admitted homophobia? Or he could try to deflect the question by talking about gay friends (as his brother did) or something like that, which would just leave him open to more mockery and accusations of ignorance. Does he gain anything either way by answering a question like that, a question that asks him to define himself by his emotional and psychological reactions to homosexuality? More importantly, do we gain anything by getting an answer to that question? I don’t think we do.
Here’s the thing: almost no one thinks of himself (or herself) as a bigot. No one feels homophobic, or racist, or sexist. We all tend to think of ourselves as reasonable people who see the world through a fairly prejudice-free lens. (We’re almost all wrong.) That’s why so many people – and I’ve probably been guilty of it – say things like “this may sound sexist, but…” It’s because even when we’re aware that a certain attitude or idea has been widely judged to be bigoted, we think that if we hold that attitude or idea, it is because it is correct, based on our fair and reasonable assessment of the facts, and therefore is not an expression of prejudice.
The way almost any thoughtful person would honestly answer the “are you a homophobe” question is: “Well, I don’t know. I hope not. I try not to be. I know and admire a lot of gay people, and I really value and respect their part in my life and my society. But cultural norms are pretty deeply ingrained in the subconscious, and there are probably ways that I think of gay people and gay behaviour differently than I do straight people and straight behaviour, ways that I’m not even aware of. I’m probably in many very subtle ways less comfortable with bold expressions of queer sexuality than I am with similar expressions of straight sexuality. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as ‘homophobic,’ and I don’t like being described that way, and to the extent that I have homophobic attitudes, I’m ashamed of them and consciously try to ensure that I don’t let them influence my behaviour. And when I notice homophobic attitudes inside myself, I try to work on examining them carefully so I can make them an ever smaller part of who I am.”
This would be the honest answer, probably, even of many gay people, who were raised amid the same cultural norms and exposed to the same stereotypes as everyone else. (For a look at subconscious prejudice against one’s own group, check out Implicit Association Tests, on which a good number of black people demonstrate roughly the same subconscious negative associations with black faces as white people do.)
But even if Rob Ford answered the question that way, I can’t see how it would help him (headline: “Politician doesn’t know if he’s a bigot, admits he ‘probably’ is”), and I can’t see how it would help anyone else evaluate his behaviour in any kind of intelligent way. But then intelligent evaluation may not be the aim of the people asking…
2. The impulse to label is antithetical to discussion and persuasion
It is helpful, on a personal level, to know what homophobia, and racism, and sexism (and classism, and ableism and whatever other flavor of intolerance is your favourite) are and how they might influence your attitudes in ways you’d rather them not to. But those terms are very next to useless in most disagreements, for a couple reasons.
Firstly, because saying “you are a racist,” for example, or “that’s racist” puts the person you’re talking to on the defensive. They are now no longer able to defend the idea they’ve just expressed until they have successfully defended themselves against an accusation that they are essentially evil. And stupid.
Secondly, the label does nothing at all to refute the idea under discussion, even if you just label the idea and avoid labelling the person. It attempts to describe what kind of idea it is rather than dissect its substance: I personally believe that sighted people make better car drivers than blind people do. You can label that idea “ableist” all you want, and I will defend myself against the charge of prejudice by replying that my opinion here stems from the available facts and basic logic. But we’ll be no closer to addressing the substance of the issue.
The simple assertion that the idea is offensive is useless without an explanation of both why the idea is offensive, and why it is wrong. (An idea can be offensive and correct—I’d take offense to being described as “that pale, scrawny, snaggle-toothed, balding guy,” even though that description of me is accurate.)
You might just as easily say, “this idea is stupid.” (Or worse, “this person is stupid.” Which is satisfying—look, I did it myself at the top of this post!) But then, if you want to actually move on from name-calling to argument and even persuasion, you need to explain what is stupid about it (or him).
As a writer at the now-retired publication Eye Weekly, I was often subject to hectoring from readers accusing me, with a sneer, of having expressed a “conservative” or “libertarian” or “right wing” idea. Those people seemed to think that advising me that they had labelled my idea as belonging somewhere on the political spectrum was equivalent to mounting an argument against my idea. These are among the saddest letters someone in the opinion business can receive because they indicate some readers are under the impression that you choose a team (right-wing, leftist, libertarian, anarchist) and then you are outfitted with an ideological uniform that comes off the shelf. Then when a proposition is put forward, rather than going through the hard work of actually thinking it through, you simply check the decoder ring to see if it is one of your team’s ideas or not. Rather than discussing the merits and drawbacks of a given idea, you simply label it and then rant or rave, accordingly.
This is not argument. It’s a simple declaration of tribalism. By labelling a statement or idea or action (communist, fascist, homophobic, sexist) with a tribal identity, you signal to the rest of your tribe whether or not it is an acceptable idea to entertain, and attempt to intimidate the person you’re addressing by warning them that anyone discussing that idea will be shunned by your tribe. This is exactly the impulse behind the old schoolyard taunt “that’s so gay.”
That kind of sloganeering can be useful if your aim is to rally the rest of your tribe into shouting someone down or publicly shunning them. It is useless as a method of engaging in conversation that is meant to inform, educate, persuade or further our understanding of an issue. And importantly, if you start shouting someone down or publicly shaming them, you lose any hope of persuading neutral onlookers that you have the superior argument. Because you’re the one acting like a bully—you have lost the moral high ground, if you ever had it.
3. Actions are more important than motivations
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin long held to the line that he had personal moral objections, based in his religion, to same-sex marriage. Which might make him some kind of homophobe, according to the scorecards of some people. But while he was saying that, he was introducing legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada. He said that his religious and moral beliefs were irrelevant to what the law of the land should be. And he was right. In this sense, whether he was personally homophobic might be of concern to his friends and family (especially his gay friends and family), but to the general public, his private belief system was irrelevant as long as he recognized that his role in society called for tolerance and acceptance of other moral codes.
Rob Ford has consistently shown that he is ignorant of the lives of gay people in Toronto, and openly disrespectful to the organized groups representing queers. His refusal (so far) to attend Pride is symbolically important because he’s the mayor of the city, and his attendance or non-attendance indicates the approval and respect of the city as a whole. Whether or not he’s homophobic in his private life is absolutely besides the point. Consider for a moment that he is not: imagine there is some litmus test for homophobic attitudes that you could apply, and that when Rob Ford was tested he seemed to be more a candidate for Queer of the Year than homophobe. Or imagine instead that George Smitherman was mayor and that he did and said all the same things that Rob Ford has. Do either of those scenarios change anything about how disrespectful his actions and words have been? No.
But here’s the really interesting part of that: when you make the debate about his possible homophobia—thereby debating what label to put on Rob Ford and weighing guesses about what his feelings and motivations are—you have little chance of getting him to change his behaviour. (He’s on the defensive, he thinks he’s immune to bigotry, you’re not bothering to argue with him, etc.) And his supporters, who might be in an even better position to pressure him and persuade him than you are, occupy themselves with defending him against the perceived charges of evilness and hidden motivations.
If instead you make the discussion about why he needs to behave differently, you can get somewhere. Trying to change Paul Martin’s mind about the morality of same-sex marriage would have been close to impossible. But convincing him to act as a leader in recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage was incredibly effective.
What’s in Rob Ford’s heart—whether it be fear or passionate hatred or an all-embracing love—is irrelevant. What matters is what he does as mayor, and the effect of those actions on the people of Toronto. And the most effective way to persuade people to do something is show them both why it is the right thing to do and why it will benefit them to do it (for example: the mayor needs to openly show respect to all citizens, and can score political points by doing so). Among the least effective ways to get them to do something is to demonize them.
The interesting thing is that behaviour often precedes attitude. Research shows that you can actually put yourself into a good mood by smiling. Likewise, you can become tolerant and accepting of homosexuality—even without really wanting to—just by behaving tolerant and accepting of homosexuality. This has actually happened, slowly, to our society as a whole. We’ve gone from realizing that people shouldn’t be thrown in jail for having consensual sex with each other (in the late 1960s) to majority support for our recognition of same-sex marriage (today). The longer same-sex marriage is legal, the more it strikes people as normal and acceptable—even David Frum has come around to accepting same-sex marriage. The more time any random straight person spends around gay people, the less strange homosexuality seems to him and the more bizarre the revulsion he used to feel about the very idea seems to him (surveys show that people who have a gay friend or relative show far more support for gay rights—mere exposure changes minds).
If you are worried that the mayor is homophobic and you hope to change the contents of his heart, you could do worse than to start out by encouraging him to simply spend time around gay people. But for the purposes of public policy, his being homophobic or not is far less relevant than whether he does things that are hurtful to gay people as mayor. And branding him with a scarlett H is among the least useful ways to influence his behaviour, and among the least effective ways to influence public opinion about him.
4. And finally…
Homophobia is not a binary yes/no thing, it is a spectrum—from fear and hatred of homosexuality on one side to (theoretically) gay supremacy on the other. And many of us have slowly but surely moved from one side of the spectrum towards the other over time. I’d certainly include myself: as a high school student, I remember being consciously sort-of tolerant while still making “what are you, gay?” jokes and feeling revolted by the idea of gay sex and angry at any joking suggestion that I might be gay. I had the “As long as they aren’t gay around me, I have no problem with it” attitude that so many young men (and older men) proclaim. By the time I finished university, I was far more comfortable with the idea of gayness, and then later I became so comfortable I didn’t even think about it as I found myself surrounded by more and more gay and lesbian friends.
I think what we’d all like is for those still on the intolerant side of the spectrum to move to the accepting side, and the way to encourage them to make that move is to celebrate them for trying. Mel Lastman was fairly obviously homophobic early in his mayoralty. He was persuaded to march in the Pride parade because it would demonstrate open-mindedness and tolerance from him as mayor – qualities he wanted to see in himself. It seems that the warm reception he got there shifted his thinking fairly substantially. I think those who are opposed to bigotry can only hope more Torontonians follow in Mel’s path towards acceptance. That is one of the things Pride is really about today, now that most of the legal forms of discrimination have been eliminated.
Of course, it’s easier to cheer someone on when they say “I’m uncomfortable with this, but I’m hoping to become more comfortable with it over time.” If Rob Ford said that out loud about gay stuff, a lot of people would chastise him, but I think a lot of the people calling him a homophobe now would also welcome the beginning of an honest discussion about a process quite a lot of Toronto residents still need to go through. But very few people ever say something like that, because they tend not to recognize their discomfort, or the need to deal with it, until after they’ve finished dealing with it. And if they do recognize it, they’d certainly be wary of saying it out loud. Why is that? Because if they admitted they were uncomfortable around gay people, someone would stand up and label them a homophobe.
POSTSCRIPT: When it can be helpful to label someone
The one time I can think of when it is actually useful to label a public figure racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever is when they use that label to describe themselves. When a member of the Klu Klux Klan runs for office on a white supremacist platform, their racism is not a subconscious influence on their thinking but is their very ideology. Open bigots can fairly be labelled bigots because they embrace the label—it is therefore useful in understanding their thinking and their agenda. Likewise, religious freaks and others whose very argument is that gay people are sick or twisted or depraved and that gay behaviour should be punished or eliminated can productively be described by the shorthand terms “homophobe” or “anti-gay” because they would probably agree that that is an accurate summary of their beliefs on the topic. In this limited and increasingly small number of cases, the labels can be useful in the way that “Republican” or “New Democrat” can be useful—as a summary of a person’s openly declared worldview.
Yes, I’m a straight guy. And a white guy. And a male guy. No, I’m not trying to lecture oppressed minorities on what offense they may or may not take to expressions of intolerance to them, and I’m not trying to limit the ways in which anyone may choose to express themselves. I’m simply trying to make an argument, as someone who believes in tolerance and human rights and also believes in the power of public discussions to change minds and change policy, about the most effective ways to have discussions. You, of course, are free to disagree. I’d welcome the discussion.