Archbishop Williams and Holocaust Denial
Avidly following the latest burps and regurgitations in the wild world of Anglican Christianity, you might have heard Rowan Williams say this:
The belief among conservative Christians that some behaviour is sinful does not amount to an expression of hate, says Rowan Williams, so why have some student unions withdrawn recognition from religious societies?
I. Williams' Argument
The question was rhetorical--it may have seemed he meant to go on to say that Christian groups should be permitted to say any old behavior is sinful, because no matter what activity they claim is sinful, it will not amount to an expression of hate, and so should not be regulated, e.g. by student unions withdrawing recognition. And indeed Williams would have been on good, solid liberal ground: among political liberals, left and right, there is a tradition of respect for freedom of speech, even and especially religious speech, and this tradition includes appeals made by religious speakers. But it turns out he doesn't want the liberal ground.
He answers his own question: some speech is rightfully regulated and prohibited from the public square:
Are there views whose expression is automatically so hurtful to some that they have to be restricted for the sake of general good order and justice? Well, we legislate on that basis, certainly, where racism or holocaust denial or similar matters are concerned. Talking in a way that denies the human dignity of others - by racist abuse, by labelling Jewish survivors of the Shoah as liars - is outlawed. Such views are unjust: they place people at a disadvantage and deny due respect.
And he admits this may apply to speech about homosexuals:
And we quite rightly regard language abusing or dehumanising homosexual people in the same light: the language of contempt and disgust is not admissible.
The general and substantive moral principle here being:
We recognise the reality and the atrocity of hate crimes in this context as in others, and we recognise that hateful speech is close enough to hateful action for it to deserve sanctions against it.
So, no defense of freedom of speech simpliciter here.
But then, you might ask, why can't Christian groups be regulated for their speech about homosexuals? In principle Williams cannot, it seems, object. Well,
Quite often in discussion of Christian attitudes to homosexuality (and this is often the presenting issue where Christian unions are concerned), it is taken for granted that any statement that a form of behaviour might be sinful is on a par with the expression of hate, so that it is impossible for a conservative Christian, Catholic or Protestant or, for that matter, an orthodox Muslim to state the traditional position of their faith without being accused of something akin to holocaust denial or racial bigotry.
It seems the issue for Williams, then: Is the Christian opinion that homosexual behavior is sinful, spoken in the public square, an expression of hatred? He seems to say it is not: Christian speech against homosexual behavior being of a different kind from say (Christian or otherwise) speech denying the Holocaust or expressing racial bigotry, different at least in not being hateful.
Why? Williams says:
Yet the truth surely is that while it is wholly indefensible to deny respect to a person as such, any person's choices are bound to be open to challenge. Any kind of behaviour or policy freely opted for by a responsible adult is likely to be challenged from somewhere; it isn't as though sexual activity were different from any other area of conscious choice. And to challenge behaviour may be deeply unwelcome and offensive in a personal sense, but it is not a matter for legislative action.
And that is as deep as Williams goes here; Christian speech to the effect that homosexual activity is sinful is compatible with respect for homosexual persons as such. Such speech questions their free choices, choices connected to a type of activity freely opted for, and is in principle no different from questioning the choice to vote for a certain type of candidate or support a certain policy or buy a certain model of car.
It is not as if one's race is being morally questioned, or the moral relevance of whether one belongs to a group like the Jews singled out by the Holocaust. Over such things we cannot have conscious control. You cannot freely choose not to be a Jew in the sense relevant to the Holocaust, or not to be Black. To be disrespected as a person on account of things over which one cannot have free control is morally wrong--and that kind of thing can be regulated, Williams seems to think. But not speech disrespecting homosexual activity--such speech does not disrespect homosexuals as persons, but only a certain kind of homosexual activity.
II. Danger, Rowan Williams, Danger!
Ah, it is not really so simple.
What does he mean by "homosexual activity"? I take it homosexual intercourse would be included; but how aboout really gay kissing--is that icky, o0ps I meant "sinful", too?? Ok--how about holding hands with more-than-brotherly affection? Or a sending a sassy card in the mail?
While Williams thinks that homosexuals might freely choose not to engage in any homosexual activity at all, and that such a choice would not harm them as persons, I think you can see the truth is quite otherwise. Williams' celibacy, the celibacy he thinks homosexuals might choose without harm to their persons, includes a prohibition on "homosexual activity"--everything from an affectionate hug to a sensual kiss on the cheek is on par with intercourse; all of it counts as "activity". He makes no attempt to distinguish the really sinful homosexual activity from the kinda sinful or a-ok homosexual activity--and surely we are on a great big continuum here with lots and lots of room for imagination. It is extraordinary, and indeed indicative of a bizzare affection for Abstractions, that Williams would consider advocacy of a ban on all homosexual activity neutral with respect to the well-being of homosexuals.
If he is going to so theorize with any credibility, he'll have to draw a firm red line; maybe he meant to, but was just to shy (poor Rowan!): let "homosexual activity" mean "homosexual intercourse". But even so--can we seriously entertain advocacy on a ban on such for all homosexuals is neutral with regard to their well-being as persons? Consider the effects of such a ban on all heterosexual persons. We would see, I think, lots of straight folks become mentally ill: neurotic, clinically depressed, et al. And a few might be driven to criminal acts nevertheless. Indeed--did not Paul speak to this effect about heterosexuals? Better to marry than burn? If we recognize "the" or even "a" need for intercourse among heterosexuals, why would we fail to recognize it among homosexuals?
Seems like Williams is plumping for a pretty shoddy double standard, the kind that collapses with any added pressure. It is false to think that speech calling all homosexual activity sinful is neutral with respect to homosexuals--you cannot reasonably expect them to be freely choose not to engage in homosexual activity, at least without incurring harm.
Poor Rowan--it gets worse. Remember we are not talking about the American Bill of Rights and criticizing Rowan using that document as a base. We are rather carrying on an internal critique, using some of Rowan's own premises from his article noted above. His defense of speech calling all homosexual activity sinful is inconsistent with his own principles, the very principles he is using in the article. It is Rowan Williams himself who says that we should or at least may legislate where Holocaust denial is concerned--and not only that. Racist abuse too, and calling Holocaust survivors "liars"--and who knows, anti-Semitism as well? These are sufficient in his judgement for justifying restrictive legislation. As Williams notes, this kind of speech has a bad history, a history closely ties to atrocity.
But Williams seems to have a curiously short memory when it comes to Christian speech, homosexuals, and the Holocaust. Remember the Holocaust? When someone says there were no Jews, or even not so many Jews caught up in and harmed by the Holocaust, or any equivalent, we--on Williams' terms--say the person is a Holocaust denier, and call it hate speech.
Indeed, we provide special protections to Jews because of this history--it indicates a vulnerability of the group to suffer violence in our communities, at our hands. On account of that demonstrated vulnerability, we offer special penalties for anti-Semitic speech, say, as expressing hatred, admitting that here, at least, speech of this certain type is too close to action.
But while Williams is quick to recall the Jews who suffered in the Holocaust--and he is right to do so--he does not have a word for the homosexuals who suffered in the Holocaust.
Yet it is a fact: the Nazis came calling for homosexuals too and carted them off to concentration camps. The Nazis criminalized not just their behavior, but their being as persons. Maybe a bit of a refresher is needed: Rowan could consult the U.S Holocaust Museum online here. What is fascinating in our context about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals was their revison of the notorious Paragraph 175; here, from the museum site:
Even before the new law went into effect, Nazi courts expanded the range of so–called indecent acts beyond the single offense prosecuted under the old law. By 1938, German courts ruled that any contact between men deemed to have sexual intent, even "simple looking" or "simple touching," could be grounds for arrest and conviction.
I anticipate replies from conservative Anglicans saying, in effect, the gays did not suffer in teh Holocaust, or they might have, but their pain was negligible: ignore their pain then, as it is ignored today (and, I might add, uterly ignored in the Windsor report--or did I miss the Windsor report's refernces to the suffereing of homosexuals? I might have--I do not remember). So maybe the deniers/ negaters might want to look over the German government's official site on gays persecuted by the Holocaust (in English); an article on Dr. Vaernet who singled out homosexuals for "experimentation"; a quite extensive bibliography on the topic.
Another instance of an odd double standard for Williams: does he mean to deny Homosexuals suffered in the Holocaust? Or is he just "forgetting" about it--and how convenient for him! Or maybe he is, in fact, willing to admit homosexuals were persecuted in the Holocaust, but he means to deny them the protection he would offer to other groups so singled out? Well in that case I still think he owes us an explanation: Why? Why, Rowan??
Or maybe he thinks that little bit of Holocaust trouble was a mere aberration, and hey, homosexuals should just lighten up and trust Christians to be able to keep their speech and action separate. Hey homosexuals: recent history aside, you can count on Christians to be in the very front lines defending you as persons, whatever we say about what you do. Not.
Explain yourself, Rowan.
There are Christian groups with political influence in the Anglo-American world seeking to bring back the death penalty for homosexuals--you know Rushdoony and the Christian reconstructionists. They are just reading the Bible seriously--as the Global South calls on us to do--taking the Bible authoritatively when it calls for anyone engaging in homosexual acts to be Executed. This is your Bible--and at least Rushdoony was consistent. Our Global South brethren are not--another case of a convenient, self-serving double standard. Although they are happy criminalizing advocacy for homosexuals, they have not called for the death penalty. Yet: have they unequivocally renounced it, and explained why that renunciation is not mere temporal contingency liable to revocation, but necessary, following from enshrined hermeneutical principle? No, they have not: they offer no principled protection against future atrocity.
Of course Williams does not see a problem there; it seems he could care less. He does not seem to have a problem either with Nigeria's apparently surprisingly popular criminalization of advocacy for homosexual persons, a move carried out in Williams' own communion, in the very communion which he heads, over which he has some measure of authority.
One can be forgiven, I suggest, for finding Willaims' defense of speech calling all homosexual activity sinful odd, even mistaken. For his community seems to have grave problems not just with homosexual activity, but with homosexuals as persons--his community has proven and proves again unable to keep the distinction on which Williams' defense hinges in mind and in practice. In practice, where it counts, it does not operate where it should. In the Anglican Communion, speech aginst homosexual activity is too close to actions against homosexuals. Why can't he see this?