CW: sexual violence, substance use, abortion
This is a note to my Christian friends. In the last few years I’ve been part of a few small, relatively homogenous communities of faith, and I’ve also been part of diverse, urban communities. I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the differences between them: there are people I love in both spheres, and both types of community have taught me a lot. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some things that I’ve been thinking about lately.
This post is based on a presentation I gave a few months ago. A friend of mine started an initiative within a student group we’ve both been involved with. The project is called Women in Philosophy, and through it we’ve aimed to promote and centre the works and experiences of women and non-binary folks in philosophy in order to promote equity in the discipline. Our main forum is an annual conference. I spoke at this year’s event about miscommunications that occur between people with different views about social politics, especially around issues related to sexuality. A rough sketch of my presentation follows.
Comments are very welcome: I want to hear from you!
Miscommunications in mainstream public discourse around ethics and sexuality
Much of the debate on key issues around sexual and reproductive ethics operates at a surface level. People often miss each others’ arguments and engage with caricatures of their opponents rather than with the actual people. Upon looking at my own background through the lens of the few years of philosophical training I’ve picked up at U of T, I’ve come to think that many of the arguments are more tractable than might be expected.
For the sake of discussion I will introduce the (reductive but helpful) categories of socially progressive and socially conservative with some religious commitment. These labels are relative, and they’re not totally accurate; they simply serve to collect different viewpoints into a simple binary for the sake of discussion.
About my background: I grew up in a suburban community with Calvinist roots. (I don’t claim to speak on behalf of all religious people: in my own faith there is an unusual dose of pragmatism, and I have more agnostic tendencies than most.) I’m located in Toronto now, and I’ve met many people here whose experiences of life differ from my own. (My perspective is limited in a bunch of ways, so I don’t mean to imply that my experience is generalizable to anyone else’s. Intersectionality matters!) I’ve met many, many good people on both ends of the spectrum. Here is my attempt to bring a little clarity to the tension that exists along that spectrum.
A NOTE ON EPISTEMOLOGY
Growing up, I was often told to stand up for my values, to stay true to my beliefs, and to avoid being swayed by the broader culture around me. Being called a relativist was a grave accusation. The worst, most inaccurate thing you could say was that something, especially a set of values, was “true for you.” You ought instead to seek the actual truth (unspoken: as dictated by the community or institution.)
However, if “this is true for you” means “this reflects your sincere attempt to live well,” it looks less like an excuse and more like a legitimate process of moral discernment. In my experience, being set on defending Truth can lead to a failure to acknowledge and include different understandings of reality. Something I’ve learned through engaging in diverse communities is that even though it may seem like the task is to defend, the more important thing is to listen. That’s important in order to acknowledge peoples’ different lived experiences. I’ve come to see that nobody has a monopoly on truth. (That’s not to say that there is no absolute truth, but simply that we don’t have any certainty that there is a group or individual with privileged access to it.) This understanding has been reinforced by spending time in different faith communities: a friend and I may have very different expressions of following Christ, or of being a religious person, or of being a person in general, and my job is to listen. There is no value whatsoever in “defending” my values at the expense of sincerely listening and being present with another person and treating them with respect and humanity. Being a witness is about engaging with people where they’re at. I’ve learned how to do that a little better thanks to my progressive friends.
INSTITUTIONS, COMMUNITIES, AND CRITIQUE
In religious communities, value is placed on tradition, texts, and authority. The arguments that I’ve found to support this value judgement most strongly have been based on humility: “some really smart people have come before me.”
Over the past few years, I’ve also learned to recognize the value in critique. I’ve always been fairly comfortable taking a skeptical approach to faith – my underlying assumption has been that if the thing I believe in is really deeply true, then it will hold up to even my most intense scrutiny. (Also, that if I go astray in that process, that there is grace for me.) That requires a lot of trust, and it may be a little bit heretical, but it’s the only way that I can be both i) a person of faith, and ii) an inquisitive, analytical person. I’d like to be both.
In terms of institutions, this process of critique means questioning whether the traditions, doctrines, and community norms of a religion mesh with its core message. (My assumption here is that the core message of Christianity is something good.) I often have theological disagreements with a friend of mine, but at core our values are very similar; the way we proceed when we disagree is to talk about the core vs. the periphery. We often agree on the core value but disagree about peripheral things, such as how precisely to implement that value in practice. Sometimes I come across ways that Christian institutions and community norms directly act against Christ’s message of love and grace.
Religious institutions in every tradition have used and do use their power to oppress and violate, often in ways that directly contradict their core teachings. For example, I didn’t know much about the residential school system, an instrument of cultural genocide of Aboriginal peoples, until I arrived at university. Now, I’m deeply dismayed that Anglican and other church authorities administered these schools in the name of God. In light of that history, my estimation of the authority and infallibility of church institutions is undermined. I don’t think the conclusion is that the institutions and communities should be thrown away. I do, however, think that a lot of humility, reflection, and self-awareness is required from the people who are benefiting members of these communities. There is room for individual discernment and critique. The core will stand up. Remember Jesus, in a moment of anti-capitalist fervour, turning over the tables of the temple. This sort of thing is entirely within the scope of Christianity. We’re part of a religious tradition that has always been counter-cultural. It’s completely alright for us to look critically at the elements of our own Christian culture in order to check whether they truly reflect Christ’s teachings.
MORAL GUIDANCE AND DISCRIMINATION
In religious communities, there is a space for moral guidance – people can lead each other toward acting well. Growing up, I really valued the guidance that I found in my communities. I felt supported and challenged. There is a danger here, though. If someone is not open-minded, then although their goal may be gentle correction, the end result may be oppression and a failure to accept. When you’re working within a commonly accepted moral system, it can be nice to have some help as you seek to act well. If someone sincerely holds values different from yours, though, even within a broader ethical framework that you both accept, imposing your own values isn’t cool. The guidance I received was helpful for me because I conformed to the community norms. It would have been a much more difficult experience if I hadn’t conformed for some reason. Some things (dying your hair) are choices; some (your sexual orientation) are not. I’d like to think that the same love and inclusivity that was extended to me with my narrow range of choices would have still been there if I had identified as someone at the margins. Upon reflection, I see that that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case. That makes me sad.
One example that comes to mind is the broad and extremely disheartening failure of Christian communities to fully invite in people who don’t conform to traditional norms around gender and sexuality. In the words of a good friend of mine, the goal is to create a space where everyone can be present “without fear or concealment.” There are so many Christian spaces where that is not possible.
There can be a reluctance to make changes that makes the air grow a little stale. In my (small, insular) communities, I caught faint hints of the view that “things are working for us, so why change?” The problem with this point is that it assumes homogeneity and total satisfaction with the state of the community. “Things are working for us” is said from a position of comfort and power and likely does not reflect the experiences of everyone in the community, especially those who don’t conform or who are at the margins. Jesus deeply loved people at the margins of society, and I am convinced that Jesus would not have wanted anyone to sit in an assembly at a Christian school and to feel like they couldn’t be met with acceptance when they were honest and open about their identity just because they didn’t happen to be heterosexual.
Another thing I respect in progressive circles is an acceptance of diversity and an acknowledgement of incommensurability. Many people sincerely attempt to live their lives well and to be moral people. Those processes, and their end results, often look different and may not be compatible. More on that later.
For the most part, everyone’s goal is to be a decent person and to live in a good society. Of course, there are exceptions. It may not be wise to trust that everyone actually means well. It can help for the purpose of conversation, though, to take the most charitable interpretation of your interlocutor’s argument. See what that looks like. What does it look like if the person you’re talking to sincerely means well? What does it look like if it is their goal, too, to pursue what is good for people and for society?
When people are humanized, and seen as having legitimate struggles, it becomes much easier for important ideals like love and grace to come through. What would it look like to extend love, grace, and respect, even if the subject doesn’t look exactly as we’d like? What would it look like to make people truly welcome, as they are? I’ve learned to look at my communities and to think about who is included and who is excluded, who would feel comfortable and who would feel cast aside.
I’ve learned to be open to conversation and to consider that there are many “people of good will,” i.e., people who are sincerely trying to be good. Even those people who engage in behaviours I don’t endorse may very well fall into that category. (It’s important to recognize that lefties do have values!)
I’ve also gained some perspective on diversity in ethical values. When a certain set of values are the most important to you, and you see that people are not sticking to those values, it’s easy to see them as immoral people. But, for example, many people reject the idea of the value of chastity but still hold other ethical values. Those other values capture very important elements of morality that are often completely missed by the more conservative discourse. Things like consent and equality, for example, are very important for human flourishing, but the more minimal discourse that says that sexual ethics consists mostly in refraining from sexual activity misses all of those points. Another example: in my experience, when communities stress abstinence until marriage, that’s the end of the conversation. It’s as if you’ve fulfilled your ethical duty by being i) abstinent, or ii) married, and then there is no such thing as sexual ethics. It’s like you’ve arrived and ethics no longer applies. What about marital rape? Why isn’t that a conversation? It’s dangerous not to talk about consent, equality, respect, etc. It’s worth engaging even in frustrating conversations.
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE: HARM REDUCTION
I’d like to argue that the idea of harm reduction is very important in crafting a society that is livable for everyone. In the past few years, this has become the cornerstone of my social politics. Accept that people will do things that you might not do, see what it would look like to respect their choices, and make provisions to minimize the harm that befalls the most vulnerable people.
For example, people are going to eat sugar. There’s no getting around that. It’s good, then, to take provisions to ensure that the sugar-eating causes as little harm as possible. Clearly label products with their nutritional value. Promote good dental health. Floss.
Social progressives should be happy with viewpoints that integrate harm reduction, since it means that prescriptive ideological concerns will not get in the way of administering services to all members of society. (Harm reduction itself is rooted in an ideology, but it is an ideology that has as its goal the provision of services to everyone in society.)
For people who do not identify as social progressives, there are a few ways to conceptualize the need for harm reduction:
1. Humans will never live up to the ideal because they’re flawed (argument from brokenness)
2. People have their own different ideals that lead to incommensurable values that may nevertheless be worthy of respect (argument from incommensurability)
Integrating harm reduction into your politics doesn’t have to be a suspension of your own values or an admission of stark relativism. It’s simply a reorganization of values. Recognize either brokenness, incommensurability, or both, and then choose to prioritize values such as love and mercy.
A paradigmatic example of harm reduction in practice is safe injection sites for illegal substances. People are going to do drugs. In areas where people are especially vulnerable to infection, make provisions so that they can use substances safely, without causing further risk to themselves. The argument from brokenness would say that substance use is undesirable, but that we should nevertheless minimize the harm that befalls users of illicit substances. This argument would also recognize that addiction is a terrible illness, and that safe injection sites are part of mitigating the associated harms. The argument from incommensurability might recognize that different substances are prohibited in different societies and that there’s an element of arbitrariness to that; that people who use drugs can and do have healthy lives; and that harm reduction is necessary to ensure that a societal prejudice against drug use doesn’t endanger anyone who fails to conform to the standard.
Similarly, abortion: women are going to have abortions. Self-performed abortions are extremely dangerous. Make provisions so they don’t have to happen. Harm reduction means acknowledging that abortions will happen whether they are performed in a safe medical clinic or not. Organize your healthcare system accordingly, with empathy. The argument from brokenness is that no, it’s not at all good for abortions to happen, but that they will happen, endangering women physically and psychologically if there is not access to medical assistance, is a fact that must be appreciated by political and healthcare structures. The argument from incommensurability recognizes that people have disagreements that may be legitimate about whether it is morally permissible to have an abortion in different cases.
The argument from incommensurability is a much more useful tool for being deeply accepting of people. When you employ the argument from brokenness, you’re indicating that the other person’s values are less valid than yours. In many cases, that’s not ideal. “Which of you will throw the first stone?” It’s important not to be patronizing.
I was talking to my priest a few weeks ago about inclusivity in Christian communities. We talked about the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” and how it’s been applied to people within or outside of Christian communities who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, non-binary, asexual, gender non-conforming, etc. That’s the argument from brokenness gone wrong. It’s important to be very humble here. My priest pointed out that it’s easier to genuinely love people when you don’t think that what they’re doing is unconscionable.
To work with people when you really don’t like or endorse what they’re doing is a huge moral challenge. It’s hard not to let an attribute about a person that you don’t endorse eclipse their entire personhood. It takes a lot of effort to recognize another human being in all their fullness.
I’ve felt a lot of cognitive dissonance over the past few years. The core message of Christianity is something I am wholly invested in. However, a lot of Christian institutional teachings and cultural norms are really oppressive, again in a way that goes against the core teachings. I’ve found a lot of its core ideals – love, grace, being a neighbour – expressed very well in practice by progressive folks. This post is my attempt to reconcile some of these pieces in one contentious area in social politics.
Thank you to B.W. and R.B. for their helpful comments, to A.B., A.P., C.D.F., and M.B., who helped me think through some of this stuff, and finally to M.M., D.A.H., and M.L., who made this year’s Women in Philosophy forum possible: centring the experiences of philosophers who are not cis white males is super important, and you folks are making this possible.
Image: Osgoode Hall, Toronto.