14 August 2008

Brain surgery - what's inside the heads of homophobes?

Part of Singapore's month-long gay pride celebration Indignation 2008, the eponymous talk attracted the attention and interest of Agagooga and myself. [Yes, we attended the talk together and I typed the notes on his laptop - happy picture of us live-blogging (or note-taking, as it turned out that 72-13 had no wireless@sg network) at event to come, courtesy of the official photographers from Sayoni].

Brain surgery - what’s inside the heads of homophobes? AnJ Ho will take you inside homophobia, to find out from the perspective of research: What constitutes homophobia? What’s the profile of a typical homophobe like, and what might make a difference?

There are several possibilities that suggest themselves from a title like this: as Agagooga points out in his blog post, it is highly provocative:

try turning it around: "Brain surgery - what's inside the heads of homosexuals". Surely, such an event would be labelled homophobic sooner than you could say "rim me now". Given that the theme of the festival is "Building Bridges: Indignation 2008", the title was especially puzzling.

To me, the title raised the possibility that the talk would about giving people who have negative attitudes towards homosexuality a bad name, and/or possibly raising up strawmen arguments of people unaccepting of homosexual (the aforesaid "homophobes").

As Agagooga points out, thanks to the saner heads of Sayoni and its event speaker AnJ, the worst of our fears did not come to pass. This is my report on the talk.

1. The psychological construction of homophobia

We were relieved that the talk consisted of a literature review of homophobia from the psychological perspective, and AnJ was more than qualified and trained to conduct this talk.

That said, being scientific wasn't really a guarantee against the potential pitfalls of the title of the talk: the study of homophobia by psychologists is apparently a new field, and a working definition of 'homophobia' (currently defined as a score in the Wright, Adams, and Bernat Homophobia Scale), hasn't been agreed on by the experts in the field - who are still in the process of fine-tuning their methodology.

Second warning sign: other researchers in this field have acknowledged that homophobia isn't even a real (clinical) 'phobia'. For simplicity's sake, we know that personal and public acceptance of homosexuality runs along a scale, but 'homophobe studies' makes the leap into turning a emotion-leaden phrase (homophobe) into... a subject of study.

Third warning sign: Sociologists of medicine and those familiar with Michel Foucault's Birth of the Clinic will recognise with discomfort from AnJ's overview of current Abnormal Psych research, the all too familiar strategy of grand medical science: the creation of a clinical scale for a brand new phenomena (homophobia); of a field of knowledge, with objects of knowledge, subjected to a medical gaze that asks: What are the answers a good (nonhomophobic) person should conform to and report?

Presumably anyone who disapproves of homosexuality in any way could be labelled as a diseased and unnatural "homophobe".

Of course this is highly problematic: More than a century ago, the psychological profession used a set of methods, strategy, and rhetoric to classify homosexuality as a condition; today, the psychological profession uses the same methods etc. to create new 'abnormalities of human psychology' to include "internet addiction" and now... homophobia.

I have no doubts that the researchers cited by AnJ were acting in the purest of motives - yet the studies cited are extremely troubling, and Agagooga raises doubts of the assumptions and methodology of the experiments carried out in "Homophobia and physical aggression toward homosexual and heterosexual individuals", as well as the validity of the questions used in the WAB scale, which I do not have anything new to add.

An interesting note about the alternate "functional theory" of homophobia - more time should have been spent to explain what's a functional theory and how this one differs from the rest of the night's offerings. My personal analysis of the slide: functional theory approach may explain 'homophobia' as a manifestation of boundary maintenance behaviour, but does not explain why it takes the form of homophobia specifically - this may mean homophobia is not a special condition and homosexuals aren't all that special - they're just being discriminated against like any other minority and out-group.

2. Profiling the homophobe

While other social scientists (notably Ronald Inglehart and his World Values Survey) have confirmed the correlation between lower acceptance of homosexuality with religion, age and education, I fail to see the wisdom in launching from this fact into a hatchet job on "conservatism", which the speaker blamed for the ills of racism, classicism, sexism, intolerance, inequality and authoritarianism.

Here's your history lesson of the day: the suffragette movement only gained traction when Susan B Anthony got the conservatives on board; the abolition movement was very much the effort of very religious people; the "solid (racist) South" used to be the province of liberal Democrats before they crossed party lines to join the Republicans. Last I heard, authoritarianism isn't the sole province of the conservative right.

This particular section of the talk was thankfully short, taking only paltry 3 slides of a total of about 20, and being the 3 of the slightest slides of the presentation. That the speaker got sufficiently carried away to raise the hatchet on conservatism or blame homophobia (note: not the same as 'low acceptance of homosexuality') on people being older, less educated, and therefore unenlightened... tsk.

3. Breaking news: Everyone's a little bit racist (should we pathologise them too?)

Lest readers think I'm being unfair to the speaker, allow me to report some of the Q&A responses from the floor: Several audience members told several anecdotes highlighting the point that LGBTs themselves make disparaging remarks about each other that straight people would be labelled homophobes if caught using.

A member of the audience also pointed out/weakly objected to the apparent rush to medicalise/pathologise homophobia as a condition.

I'm not sure if the speaker got the import of what these audience members were hinting. The dialogue that would have resulted would have served to clear up questions about the assumptions of homophobia studies for everyone, including Agagooga and myself.

4. Conclusion: Eye for an eye makes the world go blind: How not to build bridges

If the psychological profession used to create a homosexual subject, criminalise and pathologise 'homosexuality', it appears that the same profession is now being used to create a homophobic subject, to criminalise and pathologise 'homophobia'.

I'm flabbergasted. I don't get it. According to the banner on Sayoni, Indignation 2008 is dedicated to "Building Bridges". I don't get how this talk builds bridges, and who it will build any bridges with, given it ultimately did end up being about giving people who have negative attitudes towards homosexuality a bad name.

As a talk, it has succeeded in giving a fair overview of current research in the field of abnormal psychology, as well as avoid creating strawmen arguments for the opposition, but failed in the sense that:

99.9% of the audience already know how the opposition behaves, what they tend to say about the acceptance of homosexuality, and how to spot the opposition a mile off.

While interesting to know what motivates opponents of homosexual acceptance, the talk failed to develop strategies of building bridges and civil engagement with them.

While glib and entertaining, the stereotyping of 'homophobes' failed to suggest a way to divide and conquer, or to handle them.

If the speaker had prepared by searching for studies about acceptance/non-acceptance of homosexuality instead of homophobia (thanks, Alex Au, for sabotaging AnJ with just one line of advice!), and taken a far wider interdisciplinary perspective, it could have been a truly well-researched and informative talk.

Instead of building bridges, the talk ultimately did to 'homophobes' what had been done upon to LGBT; and embraced the eye for an eye logic of its title. That Alex Au persuaded AnJ to change the title of her talk to this is proof enough of its disturbing, incendiary logic.

Evidently several audience members got the dog-whistle too, and were infected with it: possessing a laptop on which we used to type notes during the talk, an audience member was jittery enough to mistake us for Christian fundies out to sabotage/picket the talk, and pointedly asked if "the two gentlemen in the corner [that is, myself and Agagooga] are from a religious organisation". I suppose that when you give your talk a name like that, people from the religious organisations will want to crash and picket your talk. Ergo: How does this build bridges?

Never mind that Agagooga and myself are natural allies of the LGBT community - Agagooga having been flamed and threatened by Christian fundies, while I have declared my opposition to the National Council of Christian Ayatollahs Singapore - if the two gentlemen had been any other blogger (aka "potential liberal ally") than Agagooga and myself, that one statement from the audience member would have cost the community our support, right there and then.

Again: By giving this talk such a name that somehow signals to audience members of possible 'enemy participants' and heightening their paranoia, how does this build bridges?

I'd disagree vehemently and gladly debate with anyone subscribing to stupid conceptions of homosexuality, but I'd defend their right to believe in such nonsense - rather than try to get them institutionalised, pathologised, marginalised out of the conversation and labelled as 'abnormal'.

Unlike Agagooga, I intend to attend more Indignation events, namely Queer Women within Feminist Singapore, on Saturday.


Anonymous said...

unfortunately, contemporary psychology still seems to be stuck in a highly clinical, humanist state (and is to an extent, anachronistic), without considering culture and its interpellative power.

Integrating cultural and queer theory into formal education, which is not going to happen anytime soon, could possibly help naturalise queerness and combat heteronormative behaviour. alternatively. educating the queer community in poststructuralist discourse through forums like AnJ's one will create informed queer citizens. just a thought.

maybe i'm anti-psychology because i'm terrified of the day researchers find a "cure" for homosexuality.

akikonomu said...

I'm terrified of psychological researchers finding a cure for almost anything.

As a profession funded by the state, historically psychologists have go after the 'social problems'. An interesting way to figure out the current problems in any given society is to see what psychologists are treating, or are putting forward as abnormalities to be treated.

Agagooga said...

Sociologists are state-funded too

And that's China. I'm sure they have Marxist Sociologists too. Oh wait, all sociologists are Marxist...