20 February 2012

Mister Gove Again

I was more than a little bemused yesterday to see Neil Gaiman tweet:
'I'm still trying to get my head around a Catholic Sex Education manual that plagiarises from John Norman's GOR book'
And linking to this blogpost, which in turn links to another blogpost and to an Observer article.

The Basics
The story, on the face of it, is pretty simple. In 2010 Catholic schools in Lancashire were visited by the Californian couple Jason and Crystalina Evert, who spoke to pupils in years 10 and 11. They spoke to students about chasity, and after talks gave out booklets including one entitled Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be.

The contents of the book clearly bothered people, at least in part, such that Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary, wrote to the Secretary for Education, Michael Gove, to complain about its allegedly homophobic content, arguing that the terms of the Equality Act 2010 were such that discrimination against individuals was forbidden, and . Gove declined to take action, saying:
'The education provisions of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibit discrimination against individuals based on their protected characteristics (including their sexual orientation) do not extend to the content of the curriculum. Any materials used in sex and relationship education lessons, therefore, will not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the act.'
This, understandably, has led to both confusion and anger, with the TUC again referring to Evert's booklet as homophobic material, and describing Gove's lack of concern' as 'very alarming'.

Now, I'm no fan of Mister Gove, who always reminds me of a slimmed-down version of Kenneth Graham's Mister Toad, what with his fads and fetishes and innumerable enthusiasms, but I think he may well be right on this one.

I'm troubled by how this is being reported and commented upon. I've seen several reports on this and they don't quite add up. I'm not quite sure of where the books were handed out, for starters, though I suspect they were distributed in part of Lancashire and throughout Cumbria. Why? Because that's what the Diocese of Lancaster covers. Southern Lancashire is divided between the dioceses of Liverpool and Salford, with Blackburn being in the latter diocese, such that it has no business being cited in this post.

This might seem like a picky detail, but when I see inconsistency in this kind of stuff I tend to get suspicious about everything else.

The supposed link with John Gorman's misogynistic Gor fantasy novels appears to be complete tosh, despite how much the aforementioned blogger harps on about them.

There's a passage in the booklet which apparently likens a boy's capacity to love slowly being destroyed by exposure to pornography to a wolf being killed by constantly licking a knife in arctic conditions. The blogger claims that the Snopes community sourced this story to John Norman's 1978 book Beasts of Gor and goes on to claim:
'Jason Evert, apparently, is a Gor series fan. At least, that’s where he’s taking his illustrative examples from, to teach to teenage children at Catholic schools... I am alarmed and amused about The Beasts of Gor being used as a teaching aid.'
Balderdash. Go to the Snopes discussion and take a look at what's actually said.

In 2006, Snopes quotes someone as saying that he'd heard the wolf anecdote from his pastor, and that Snopes had heard the story several times in the years leading up to that point; Snopes wondered whether the story was true or simply an urban legend [sic] of conservative Christianity in America.

Note that. Snopes wondered whether it was just a an urban myth. Or a rural myth. A tundra myth, maybe. A myth, at any rate.

Anyway, the dicussion began, with one poster saying that he'd read in his childhood of exactly that way to kill wolves; the book where he'd read this had been about the extirpation of wolves from America's great plains, and this passage related to the killing of wolves in snowy Montana. The poster doubted whether it was true, but still, he recognised that it was an old story.

Another poster pointed out that the scenario did feature in a Gor novel, and speculated that the story had been around for a long time and been picked up on by John Norman.

So, while it is possible that Evert drew his example from Norman's book, it seems at least as likely that he drew it from a book on how wolves were killed in America in the past, and far more likely still that he took it from a sermon he'd heard somewhere, as the story seems to be a trope of American conservative Christianity.

Knowing that I know nothing, I know something
The next thing we need to do here is to admit how little we know. I've yet to speak to one person online who says they've seen Evert's booklet. I don't dispute for a moment that the booklet contains the passages I've seen quoted, but passages shorn from context are always rather shy of meaning.

The booklet's more than 50 pages long, so I'm deeply wary of getting stroppy about a few sentences in it. I would hope that somewhere it also includes the Church's teaching that homosexual people must be treated with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Even if it doesn't, I would expect that the speaker would have made this point if he spoke on the subject, and that the teenagers' teachers would have said the very same thing when discussing matters with students.

That said, the reviews on Amazon suggest that there's stuff in the booklet far more problematic than what's being quoted. This apparent extract claims that 'the life expectancy of homosexual men is half that of heterosexual men', which seems highly improbable, at least in the developed world. 

I'm intrigued as to why such details haven't been reported on, assuming that that's indeed the case.

Regardless of how objectionable people might find the extracts from Evert's book, I'm not sure how they'd ever constitute discrimination. Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of people based on their race, religion, gender, sexuality, or whatever. It involves behaviours, and the denial of opportunities -- of access to goods or services, say. The UK Citizens' Advice Bureau says that 'Discrimination means treating someone worse than other people because of who they are.'

I asked somebody about this on Twitter this morning: 'All else aside, how would this constitute discrimination? In what sense?'

The answer I got was 'Because it's homophobic? Imagine being gay & being told that this may stem from an unhealthy relationship with your dad, an inability to relate to other guys or sexual abuse. No-one would say that about heterosexual feelings, ever-and the sexual abuse bit I find particularly repugnant.'

The reason why nobody would ever say this about heterosexual feelings is that Occam's Razor makes creative explanations unnecessary. We are sexual creatures no less than birds or bees, in that we reproduce sexually. Without sex, the species dies out. Heterosexual feelings are easily explained by the species' reproductive drive.

As my accountancy teacher once put it, with reference to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory, 'After air, food, water, and so on, there's sex, which tends to preoccupy you lads. And that's a good thing, because it keeps the species going. When you get to my age you're happy with a mug of tea and two sugars.'

That said, there's a serious point there that the book could well make people feel uncomfortable -- and that's where I'd hope it would be used sensitively, but is that discrimination? Again, discrimination is about behaviour. It's about offering things to some people and denying them to others based on their identity -- or some aspect of their identity.

What could possibly be being denied here? Respect? Love? Perhaps the booklet encouraged people to discriminate against gay people, such that, even if not itself discriminatory, it'd constitute hate speech?

Well, let's take a look at what I hope is the relevant passage.

Fingers Crossed
Now, this blog claims to contain lengthy extracts from the book. It seems to tally with what the Observer article says, so I'm going to hope it's accurate and run with it...
'What if you have homosexual attractions?'

'The world tells people who have same-sex attractions that they have two options: either hide in the closet in fear or come out, embrace your identity, and sleep with whoever you want. Acknowledging your attractions but living a pure life isn't even proposed as a realistic choice, because the world assumes that sex equals love, and no one should have to live without love.

A guy who has these attractions may not want them, or even know where they're coming from. Perhaps they stem from an unhealthy relationship with his father, an inability to relate to other guys, or even sexual abuse. Whatever the case may be, purity will help him understand the origin of his feelings.

Every guy needs male approval as part of becoming a man. But in this need for masculine love, some guys may question their identity and try to find it in sex. But that will not satisfy their calling to make a total gift of themselves. The homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals.

Both acts are directed against God's natural purpose for sex- babies and bonding.

Even if a person does not believe in God, he cannot argue with nature. For example, the life expectancy of homosexual men is half that of heterosexual men. Furthermore, imagine what would happen if all people with same-sex attractions were placed in their own country. It would be empty in a century, because bodies of the same gender are not made to receive each other. Even if a man has same-sex attractions, his body is heterosexual. He was designed to give life. If you struggle with same sex attractions, realize that you are not alone. God loves you and has a plan for your life. The Church has a network of those who carry the same cross and choose to glorify God with their bodies.'
So, first off, I'm deeply uneasy with the claim about life expectancy, as I said, and I find it extremely odd that Evert, in speculating on the possible causes of homosexual feelings, homes in entirely on environmental factors without considering the possibility that genetic ones may be at work too. While he doesn't discount other explanations, I feel the possible explanations he puts forward don't seem calculated to help teenagers grappling with their sexuality to feel any better about themselves.

I'm hoping the booklet wouldn't have stood on its own, but would have been discussed and explored. That's the Catholic way, after all. We tend not to rely on books alone...

That said, what's this actually saying?
Evert, when you get down to it, is saying a small number of things, notably that our sexuality has a purpose and that this purpose should be respected, that God loves everyone and has created everyone for their own unique purpose, and that no matter how people may struggle they are not alone and are called to glorify God.

All of this is utterly mainstream and orthodox Catholic teaching. So too is the bit about artificial contraception being wrong.

I saw one person online saying she'd be furious were she to learn that her son had been exposed to this sort of stuff at school. Fair enough, but I'd imagine she'd not choose to send her son to a Catholic school. It kind of goes with the territory: if you send your children to Catholic schools, you do so in the expectation that they'll be taught Catholic stuff.

Anyone who thinks this shouldn't be taught at all, is basically saying that they think Catholics shouldn't be allowed to teach Catholicism. And anyone who thinks that should be directed to the European Convention of Human Rights, article nine of which reads as follows:
'9.1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

9.2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.'
Catholics, like everyone else, have the right to manifest our religion in teaching; this right should only be curtailed when it is both legal and necessary to do so for the protection of others' rights and freedoms.

Now, which rights do people think are curtailed by Catholic teaching on homosexuality? You know, the teaching that says homosexual persons must be treated with respect, compassion, and sensitivity, and which while identifying homosexual acts as sinful such that Catholics can never approve of them, nonetheless recognises that individual citizens may freely engage in activities that fall within the common civil right ro freedom.

Go through the list of the rights the ECHR recognises, and then come back to me on this one.

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