Monday, October 06, 2008

What drives the "don't tell" mentality?


Just as I relayed the announcement about the new film “Ask Not” last week on this blog, I have to ponder the real reasons behind the concept “Don’t Tell.”

Of course, we first associate that phrase with the military policy for gays. But in many parts of our society, particularly in families, people still don’t want to see gay people “tell”. Sometimes they get nosey and halfway ask, and then resent it when someone “tells.”

I grew up in a different time (the 50s and 60s mainly) and I often get the impression that many modern gay activists really don’t understand what is behind this attitude of “homophobia.”

Or perhaps they half do understand. After all, the most popular argument for justifying gay equality seems to be immutability. The nice thing about the argument is its simplicity. It cuts short any calls for more justification. Nevertheless, the argument, when applied in other areas (not race) where “behavior” matters to some people, seems incomplete.

Because the real problem, in the minds of many people, does get existential. And it matters a lot more to men than women.

Remember how it was back in the 50s and early 60s. Most men believed that they owed primary loyalty to their own biological families and that they needed to have families of their own in order to be respected in dealing with the outside world. (People “incapable” of marriage and children were supposed to stay home and look after the elders and be taken care of by the more “competitive” men in the family, but they weren’t allowed to be publicly visible.) It’s true that straight men started out with a “double standard” view of sex. Marriage tended to tame and socialize them. An important point is that “most” men learned to be intimate in situations the demanded emotional complementarity. The morality was a lot more than just faithfulness to a wife or raising the children you sire. There was an unspoken assumption that you owed the world continuation of the family, or at least homage to the family that had mad you possible. You took care of your own, and you couldn’t really do this without a wife and children of your own, who became a social and sometimes economic asset. This way, you justified what you had in view of your indirect dependence on the sacrifices of others. Of course, marital sexuality was given the power to dominate the lives of whole families, as a way of making long term commitment and fidelity “rewarding” enough. It kept things stable, but, yes, it was so unfair! And, since men believed that they had to keep their families intact or else, it led to terrible jealousies and to the tribal, patriarchal behavior that we see both in soap operas and today in fundamentalist religion of any kind. New involuntary family responsibilities, as eldercare becomes a pressing issue, can reinforce the need for "domain" and lineage in the minds of many men.

In this kind of world, it wasn’t thinkable for a man to submit to another man. So for a man to admit that he was attracted to men was seen as a way of capitalizing one’s own sense of abasement. Since this couldn’t be “rational” according to the moral world of the time, the only motive for someone’s doing this was to make other men aware that they, too, can fail to “compete” physically and be brought low. How existential! But that’s how it is. You don’t tell people things with the not-so-hidden intention of making them feel vulnerable. In dangerous or perilous times, people look for hidden motives behind everything and see enemies among any who don’t “conform.” Male homosexual interest might even (paradoxically) be interpreted as a sign that societal male competitive values really matter on some personal level, reinforcing the sense of insult. You can imagine who that kind of social thinking would live today in places like the military. Understandably, today, it sounds easier to derail all of this by just saying “I was born gay and that is all.”

In fact, that sort of “thinking” would seem self-effacing by today’s notions of radical individualism and “personal responsibility.” If you are inadequate, that is your problem. I didn’t create it. I didn’t harm you. But, remember, in earlier times, family was the one sanctuary for emotions based on collective rather than individual values. The “emotional sanctuary” was seen as a matter or religious or moral necessity. It was the one area for non-rational changes in self-definition, without question, to meet the needs of other flesh and blood.

We have a similar dichotomy today with respect to personalized self-expression on the Internet. Content, viewed by itself, might be acceptable, but we’ve learned from the “reputation defense” problem that people very much care about why someone puts something up (especially about oneself) for others to find.

The values of individual sovereignty and localized personal responsibility worked well in arguing for gay rights when times were good. The obvious danger is that today’s economic calamities and sustainability claims will bring back the calls for people to accept the emotional interdependence that families used to take for granted. It’s important to understand how this whole system of familial “emotional capital” used to flow because it could come back again.

Societies often believe that they need “simple rules” (perhaps religiously based) to get people to live up to their “karma-like” obligations to others. In the past, we had the idea that a “no sex out of marriage” rule would get as many people as possible to get involved in parenting stable families and reduce the need for government to intervene in making things right. We know how that failed, eventually: it encouraged class and race differences and stifled individual psychological diversity. Now, it seems, we need a “pay your dues” kind of moral paradigm, and implementing it can bring back government in most unwelcome and possibly repressive ways.

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