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Friday, April 10, 2015

Witch Doctoring, Good and Bad

The Province of Ontario’s New Democratic Party (NDP), which, for non-Canadian readers, is a “progressive” / left opposition party, has introduced a bill to ban gay conversion therapy (let’s call it GCT for short) for anyone under 18. The bill has found ready support from the province’s governing party and has now passed. It probably helps that Ontario’s premier, Kathleen Wynne, is herself a lesbian. It also helps that Ontario’s is possibly the most paternalistic government in what is left of the free world. But that’s a post for another day…

I will begin by saying that, in essence, I am a supporter of the ban, but not for the reasons I have heard offered for it by its sponsors, which for the most part range from the muddled, to the silly, to the downright dangerous.

Wynne herself objects to GCT because it “is based on the premise that being transgender or gay is wrong and needs to be corrected, adding it simply does not work.” The latter claim (of non-efficacy) is likely true, while the former claim is less clearly so. Rather than being based on the premise that being gay is bad, GCT could conceivably be based on the idea that there are some who would rather be straight than gay, for any number of reasons. It is conceivable that there are gay persons who  might rather not be gay, and not because they hate gays. But even assuming the truth of the claim that GCT assumes that being gay is bad (in the moral sense of “bad”), I’m not quite sure I understand how that in itself is grounds for a legal ban. After all, assuming that being gay is not bad, the most we can say here is that GCT is based on a false premise. Being based on a false premise is not good grounds for illegality. If we were to go around banning things that were based on mistaken beliefs, we’d have to ban an awful lot of things, religion for instance. Good luck with that.

There seems to be something muddled — and hypocritical, as I hope to show — about the justification for banning GCT.

The objections I’ve heard offered against GCT are typically variations of three main ones:

Objection #1:    GCT does damage to gay community.

I have heard (pardon the pun) a similar argument from some in the deaf community, who would like to see cochlear implants banned because helping deaf people to hear again would do damage to deaf culture (while implying that there is something “bad” or “less than” about being deaf). Aside from it being debatable whether or not this “damage” claim has any factual merit, it seems monstrous to me to deny some people the use of one of their senses so that others can continue to feel comfortable in their culture. By the same reasoning, should we consider a on ban any kind of intervention that seeks to reverse a physical disability? Jesus surely didn’t think of himself as killing whole communities when he helped the lame to walk and the blind to see. If your culture depends on denying others something so fundamental, then I submit that your culture is too weak or too vicious to deserve to be artificially kept afloat.

The point here is that if a particular person with homosexual inclinations views those inclinations as something they’d rather not have, why shouldn’t they have the right to seek to be relieved of that burden?

The gay community is strong enough and large enough to survive the existence of what amounts to a fringe element that seeks to convert them. There may be threats out there, but I don’t think GCT is one of them. The LGBT community has survived through times much more hostile than these. In recent times the gay community has gone from strength to strength; the same cannot be said for the gay conversion movement. With respect to the “damage to community” objection, a ban on GCT seems like a clumsy solution to a non-existent problem.

One more point: It is a fact that a number of people are born female who would rather be male (and vice versa). “Progressives” would presumably celebrate their decision to seek sex reassignment. After all, it seems that being a trans person is all the rage right now among progressives. Progressives certainly don’t prevent trans people from seeking to change their sex. After all, it’s about personal liberty, right? And progressives certainly do not complain that the choice such people make “does damage” to, say, women’s rights. Why is the same respect for liberty not accorded to people who’d rather not be gay? The example of trans people brings us to

Objection #2:    Gays are born that way.

Therefore stop “correcting” them, goes this objection. To this, I would point out that many people are born many different ways, including ways they’d rather not be and that can be changed. Again, does this mean that someone with a birth defect ought never to be allowed to correct that defect, because they were born that way?

And again, many are born male who would rather be female and vice versa. Should we prevent them from seeking to change this because they would be messing with the way they were born? Unless one is a theological hard head, one must be honest and admit that nature makes mistakes from time to time. If those mistakes can be corrected, why should they not be corrected?

To be honest, I've never quite understood the importance of the "born that way" argument to LGBT rights anyway. As I've said, one can often change the way one was born. But more fundamentally, to me the claim has always had a certain unpalatable undertone of apologetics: "I'm sorry, I can't help being gay. I was born this way. Please don't hate me." I suppose the idea here is that if it's not a choice I can't be held morally responsible for it. But the better route is simply to acknowledge that even if it were a choice, it is not one that is morally culpable. The "born that way" argument seems to cater to the intolerant enemy rather than refuting him, by accepting his premise that homosexual behaviour is sonehow prima facie morally wrong. If I have nothing to be ashamed  of for being gay, then I don't have to apologize for it, and I certainly don't have to "justify" it on a quasi-deterministic basis.

Objection #3:    GCT doesn’t work.

Correct. In most (but not all) cases, GCT doesn’t work. However, this in itself is no argument to ban GCT — though it may be an argument not to publicly fund it. To compare: most of the addiction therapies on the market have abysmal success rates, at least where statistics are even made available. By any standard, Alcoholics Anonymous is a joke, as judged by its outrageous recidivism rates. And yet few make the case for banning alcoholic treatment centres or stopping the funding of them. If anything, there is a strong lobby to expand them.

And let us not discount the fact that there are those who claim to have responded positively to GCT. Naysayers will claim that these people weren’t really gay in the first place, or that they were brainwashed, or that they’re not really happy. Personally, I don’t feel well-placed to make such judgments, because I am not them and I don’t have special access to their souls. I am willing to believe that there is a small subset of people for whom GCT “works”, even if only through a kind of placebo effect. As long as they’re willing to try the therapy out, who am I do deny them the opportunity?

And who knows? Maybe for some of those for whom GCT doesn’t work, it may nonetheless have an unlooked-for positive consequence in helping them come to terms with their homosexuality. When treatment fails, maybe you just have to live with it, even embrace it, and maybe join a community of fellow travelers.

For all these reasons, on balance, I am in disagreement with a general ban on GCT, even though I am an utter sceptic as to its efficacy. However, having said that, I would impose the following strictures on the practice:

(i) Unless it can empirically demonstrate its efficacy, GCT it should not be publicly funded.

I leave it as an open question whether, should it somehow prove its efficacy, it should still be refused state funding insofar as it is faith-based and violates the principle of the separation of church and state.

(ii) Nobody should be disadvantaged in any way on the grounds of having refused to undergo CGT.

This is nearly equivalent to saying that nobody ought to be disadvantaged on the grounds of being LGBT and is intended to assuage fears related to objection #1 above.

(iii) Nobody ought to be forced to undergo GCT.

With regard to the last point, I would also go so far as to say that this stricture ought to apply to minors too. In other words, a minor should never be forced by their parents or guardians to undergo GCT, even though in other areas we accept that parents or guardians can make decisions on behalf of their children and wards. Nay, further, I would say that the therapy ought not to be available to minors at all, not even should a minor request it in the absence of parental consent or knowledge. Here my reasoning is more controversial, in that I base it mostly on my reluctance to slap a label like “gay”, lesbian” or “straight” on any minor. They may have inclinations one way or the other, but I am not convinced that anything is set in stone until they have had more life experience. In resisting the urge to put sexual labels on minors, I partly wish to resist the societal trend towards sexualizing children. It is unhealthy and, to my mind, morally objectionable.

I think too that Premier Wynne was grasping at something like this explanation when in the article I linked to above, she said that “she had a lot of life experience when she came out in her mid-30s and understood her sexuality in a way an eight-or nine-year-old cannot.” (N.B. It seems that the Premier and I are both agnostic about whether gays are “born that way”. For most purposes I think it is a pointless debate anyway, much akin to 17th-century philosophical debates about the existence of innate knowledge.)

Unlike other parental decisions regarding medical interventions for their children, an intervention here (one way or the other) is largely unnecessary and can have serious long-term negative repercussions. To see this clearly, imagine a counter-example: What would your attitude be if a pair of gay parents decided to make their child undergo “straight conversion therapy” to make them gay, so that it would fit in better with its parents’ community and lifestyle? If you’re like me, you will find this morally objectionable, and not because it’s trying to make the child gay, but rather because it’s trying to impose a sexual identity on a being that should not be sexualized at all. It’s just creepy. Although trained philosophers will tell you otherwise, I believe that sometimes “creepy” can amount to a valid moral argument.

Looked at from another angle, I would view the decision to put one’s child through GCT as analogous to a decision to sterilize it. A parent should not have the right to make that decision, because there is no good reason to make it (barring some immediate life-threatening emergency) and because the consequences of the decision are so potentially dire and such a gross assault on a person’s future.

A child should be prevented from exercising the “voluntary” decision to undergo GCT because it cannot yet be said to have enough experience to make a considered decision about its sexual or reproductive future. There is no settled will in the agent that allows us to call such a decision “voluntary” in a substantive moral sense.

 It is specifically the limitation of the Ontario ban to minors only that gives it my approval, and it is for this reason only that I said at the beginning of the post that I am a supporter of it. Ne plus ultra. Thus far stretches my paternalism, but no further. Aside from the above three strictures, I see no reason why GCT shouldn’t be available to those who want it.

*        *        *        *

One of my main objections to a broader ban on GCT is that, besides being an unwarranted invasion of personal liberty, it smacks of hypocrisy. The progressives who advocate for such ban believe that they are being high-minded and are striking a blow for liberty and tolerance. They are doing the opposite on both counts. To see that this is the case, it may help to juxtapose this Ontario government decision with another concurrent one.

In addition to banning gay conversion therapy for minors, the Government of Ontario has also passed a law that will regulate the homeopathy industry in much the same way it regulates the medical profession in the province. So there will be some kind of government recognized college of homeopathic witch doctors just as there is a college of real doctors.

There is about as much empirical evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic “medicine” as there is for gay conversion therapy, maybe even less. And yet, the government encourages the former and even funds it. Of course, this rather undercuts the government’s own so-called “Patients First: Action Plan for Health Care”, which claims to be “making evidence based [sic.] decisions on value and quality, to sustain the system for generations to come”

The desire to ban one empirically bogus treatment while sanctioning another one seems incoherent unless understood in the context of one group (“progressives”) imposing an agenda on everyone else. This is paternalistic. And to demonize those who think differently on the issue of GCT, as is being done, strikes me as not particularly tolerant. Progressives take (mostly undue) credit for fighting paternalism and intolerance. Hence, my charge of hypocrisy.

To end, here’s a little piece to lighten the mood — sort of.

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