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The Softness of Reason

A classical case for gay studies

In The Clouds, Aristophanes' great comedy about Socrates, a young man eager for the new learning goes to the Think-Academy run by that strange and notorious figure. A debate is staged for him, contrasting the merits of traditional education with those of the new discipline of argument. The spokesman for the old education is a he-man. He favors a tough military regimen, including lots of gymnastics and not much questioning. (Never mind if he does dwell a bit on the beauty of naked youths sitting in the sand; we know that he is no pathic, that his pleasures are not passive, but active and insertive.) His idea of art is the song "Pallas, glorious sacker of cities." His idea of culture is the recitation of the great works of the past by a chorus of boys, with no interrogation and no innovation. Study with me, he booms, and you will come to have a small tongue, a broad chest, a firm ass, and a small prick (a plus in those days, symbolic of manly control).

His opponent, Socrates' representative in this scene, is a seductive softie, a man of words and arguments, a tongue man. He promises the youth that he will learn to talk critically about the social origins of apparently timeless moral norms, about the distinction between convention and nature. He will learn to construct arguments on his own, heedless of authority. He won't do much marching. Study with me, he concludes, and you will come to have a big tongue, a narrow chest, a soft ass, and a big prick (a minus in those days, symbolic of lack of control over one's appetites) -- and possibly, even, a widely stretched asshole.

This self-advertisement, of course, is being slyly scripted by the conservative enemy. The message? The new education will subvert manly self-control, turn young people into sex-obsessed pathics, and destroy the city. The Think-Academy soon gets burned to the ground by an angry parent. And twenty-four years later, Socrates, on trial for corrupting the young, cites this play as a major source of prejudice against him.

New forms of study, subversive of cultural conventions, urging the critical scrutiny of what had previously seemed natural and inevitable, are once again under attack. And once again the conservative assault charges them with weakening time-honored sources of manliness, of political motives, of a dangerous corruption of the character of the young. Once again, coupled to these explicit charges is the insinuation that these new Think-Academicians are all really after sex, and are in some sense all about sex -- especially sex of a passive, soft, dangerously unpatriotic variety.

My focus will be on controversies about gays and gay studies. But this controversy, I shall argue, is part of a larger history, in which women and women's studies play a parallel and earlier role. The best way I know to approach this connection is to tell some true stories.

Last year I gave a series of lectures, on the role of emotions in legal reasoning and on issues pertaining to gay civil rights, at a major law school. From that experience I report two incidents, involving norms of manliness and the new education. At the dinner that followed my lectures, the non-lawyer wife of one of the lawyers showed surprise and perplexity on being introduced to me. When I inquired about this, she explained that her husband had come home and reported that there was a woman lecturing who looked "just like Madonna." (I do not resemble Madonna.) We laughed at our discovery of a view of the legal academy in which there are just two boxes for women: the gray-suited woman who looks like a male lawyer, and the subversive, the wet, the dangerous woman. The latter, of course, is the one who talks about emotion, gender, and gay rights. And the statements that she makes about legal rationality are not arguments, they are seductions, an elaborate game of Truth or Dare.

In my final lecture I discussed Bowers v. Hardwick, criticizing the reasoning in the Supreme Court opinions that denied due process rights to a gay man. A third-year law student came up to me afterward and said he was gay, and wanted to thank me for treating that case "with dignity." I pondered the implications of his comment for the contents and tone of his previous legal education. Was this not an academic institution? And weren't academic institutions places where one learned about the history and the experience of people similar to and different from oneself, all in an atmosphere of dignity? And weren't schools of law, just maybe, especially concerned with knowledge about the lives of excluded minorities, and their dignity? But it appeared that such knowledge had been warded off in that law school, as in the Supreme Court opinions themselves, which show no curiosity about the history of homosexuality, and treat the gay man Michael Hardwick as a weird and dangerous being, altogether unlike other human beings who wish to make their own sexual choices in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Madonna, the study of emotion, the study of gender and sexuality, Michael Hardwick -- these soft and dangerous, sticky and subversive things, these threats to order and morals, were being evaded, carefully moved away, and their knowledge with them.

There is a norm of manliness in our society (much as there was in fifth-century Athens) that is deeply hostile to reason and learning. Its enforcers frequently wear the mantle of reason and learning. They speak of upholding standards, of time-honored educational values. But unlike true Socratic reasoners, they are unwilling to be penetrated by new factual information, new forms of interpretation, unwilling to commit themselves to following the argument and the facts anywhere they lead. To follow reason in the Socratic way requires a form of vulnerability and even passivity. It means dropping the pose that one is always adequate to any occasion, always on top, always hard. It means letting reputation and mastery wait on the outcome of impersonal logic and factual discovery; searching with humility for the truth that will refute what one most holds dear. As Callicles remarked to Socrates in Plato's Gorgias, that form of life is not for the he-man -- although, as the Platonic dialogues amply attest, self-defensive he-men love to ape the give-and-take of argument, so long as their manly control is guaranteed.

To people who define themselves in this way, and who think of education accordingly, certain minorities seem especially dangerous and subversive -- both by their physical presence and by the stimulus of knowledge about them. They stand for vulnerability and emotionality, forms of passivity so seductive that they must be relentlessly scrutinized and chastened. In the nineteenth century this scrutiny targeted the Jew and the woman -- and it became a common stratagem of anti-Semitic rhetoric to portray the Jew as a dangerously effeminate being, whose inclusion in the academy, and in the polity in general, would spread both intellectual and sexual corruption. The link between the Jew and the woman -- and between both and the "effeminate" male -- was made in an especially vivid and influential form in the twisted arguments of Otto Weininger, a Jew and a closeted homosexual, whose rhetoric portrayed both women and Jews as beings obscenely emotional, soft, open, slimy, hence parasitic and subversive of intellectual creation.

By now the mantle of culpable and corrupting softness has to some extent shifted in American academic life from Jews to gay males -- though all women still must wear it, especially when their presence is a reminder of desire. The academy, today as earlier, is not happy to have strange beings, reminders of desire and emotion, around; it views them -- and studies about them -- as corruptors of the intellectual life. This resistance appears to have deep roots. (As Schopenhauer perceptively if misogynistically argued, the female is a constant reminder of the intellect's lack of self-sufficiency, the unassuageable nature of desire, the limits of the body, the proximity of death.) And thus the rhetoric of resistance to these forms of "corruption" has changed relatively little -- whether it takes the form of the charge that "Madonna" will subvert the purity of legal analysis, or that gay men, in positions of instruction, will corrupt their young charges by attempting to convert them to their own sexuality. In short: those who want to add such people and such forms of study to the curriculum are interested in just one thing -- in having sex with them, or their students, or their children; in turning the pure Think-Academy into a den of vice. And so, as the Aristophanic chorus says to the audience, insofar as you listen to this stuff you are all wide-assholes, every one of you.

The past two decades have seen a considerable transformation in humanistic research and teaching, both in studies concerning women and in the study of lesbian and gay minorities. But these new studies are increasingly under attack from conservative critics, who charge that they have little scholarly legitimacy, entail the lowering of traditional standards, and are introduced only out of some sort of illegitimate "political motivation," which, in Dinesh D'Souza's words, defines a "shared orthodoxy for ... the entire field." Although many scholars in these new areas have successful careers, many still face suspicion and hostility. So one must confront the question: Why should the academy add to its rich repertory the new disciplines of women's studies and lesbian and gay studies?

I suggest, as the beginning of an answer, that there are two central goals of an undergraduate college education in the liberal arts: to produce students who can reason and argue for themselves, conducting a Socratically "examined life," and also to produce students who are, to use the old Stoic term, "citizens of the entire world."

The first idea speaks for itself. It demands the searching criticism of traditional belief, conducted in an atmosphere of open debate and genuine receptivity. Indeed, the Socratic commitment to the life of reason not only does not require reverence for traditional norms, it requires their most vigilant scrutiny, and a determined openness to new argument and new evidence. And far from requiring the abandonment of logic and standards of rigor, as some conservatives charge, this critical posture of the mind rests precisely upon logic and a respect for standards of argumentation -- a point that some anti-traditionalists on the left have not always sufficiently grasped.

The second idea holds that we live in a world that is complex and various, that has a history of still greater complexity -- and that in order to be good citizens in such a world, we must make ourselves competent in that complexity, able to grapple with that variety and historical many-sidedness. We will need to know, in other words, whatever is required in order to converse and to argue intelligently with people who come from ways of life other than our own. We will also need to be able to convey our respect for our fellow world-citizens by taking them and their lives seriously. Our students will go out to take many roles in this world, participating in discussions where progress can be made only with information, sensitivity, and sound argument. They must be pedagogically prepared for this, both by learning many things and by coming to know what they don't know.

Before the field of women's studies began to be represented on university campuses, neither students nor faculty had much knowledge about the history and the lives of the world's women. It seemed perfectly normal and neutral to study the history, the lives, and the achievements of men; and any change in that status quo seemed like a radical departure, motivated by political concerns. But of course the status quo was far from neutral or apolitical. Indeed, it undermined the integrity of historical understanding by taking entire groups off the agenda of the humanistic professions, preventing generations of students from learning anything about approximately half of the people with whom they would deal in their lives. It comes as no surprise to find that this failure of attention coincided with the exclusion of women from many of the rights and privileges of the academy.

In order to change the status quo, it was necessary not only to add new content to the curriculum, but also to introduce and to refine new methods of research. In history, for example, research into the lives of women could not be well done with the methods customary for writing the history of the political leadership. Discovering how the excluded and the often illiterate lived is a difficult business, requiring demographic and statistical methods, and often interdisciplinary cooperation.

A distinguished example of this can be found in the career of the late David Herlihy, one of the most eminent medievalists of his generation, and at his death in 1991 the president of the American Historical Association. Herlihy was one of the founding members of the Women's Studies Committee at Harvard University; years earlier he had called for the establishment of this new discipline in a famous lecture that transformed the field. He also gave a founding impetus to lesbian and gay studies, when he encouraged his doctoral student John Boswell to write his massive study of homosexuality and the Christian Church -- at a time when gay people found almost nobody in the academy willing to speak their name. I had the good fortune to be an associate of Herlihy's, and at Brown we worked together on the founding of lesbian and gay studies. I always note with interest the absence of this distinguished name from the conservative attacks on women's and gay studies, since he was a pioneer in both, and a man universally respected for his learning and for his integrity.

What led Herlihy and others to propose radical changes in their own professions, and to follow them up with political action aimed at founding interdisciplinary programs to pursue the new studies further? Above all, a passion for truth and understanding. It seemed ludicrous that we knew nothing about the lives of women in the periods on which he worked. It seemed shameful, too, that we did not care to know and to teach views of sexuality along with everything else we knew and taught about the medieval world. And it seemed, too, that this was connected to the fact that neither women nor gays enjoyed equality in the academy. Surely greater equality of these groups in the historical record might contribute to their equality in the larger society. That was Herlihy's political agenda -- radical enough for Harvard in the 1960s, when there were no tenured women on the faculty, and no non-closeted gay men. Herlihy was a conservative man, a religious Catholic, dedicated to home and family. But in his preference for the openness of reason over exclusionary scholarship, he was a true radical.

Introducing the study of women was difficult enough, but the effort to introduce the study of homosexuality into the curriculum has proved more difficult by far. Let me adduce my own experience at Brown, and the efforts made to incorporate the study of lesbians and gays into the curriculum. In 1985, as chair of a special committee on Minority Perspectives in the Curriculum, charged with describing the resources the curriculum offered for the study of various minority groups, I recommended adding the study of lesbian and gay minorities to our fact-finding task. The then dean of the college opposed my suggestion, on the grounds that these groups and their goals were controversial and troubling in a way that racial and ethnic minorities were not. I pressed, arguing above all that this was a legitimate and important area of scholarship. I also suggested that our failure to inquire as scholars in this area might be connected to the fact that we were the only remaining Ivy League university that had not adopted a statement of non-discrimination for sexual orientation. Nor had we even seriously debated this question. It appeared that we had not been eager to confront the topic of homosexuality, either in the classroom or in the formation of university policy. I eventually succeeded in securing the formation of a separate fact-finding committee, devoted to the curricular treatment of sexual orientation. But then an odd thing happened.

An old friend of the dean's, a professor of medicine, invited me to lunch. After much general discussion, it emerged that what he really wanted was to discover my real motivation for this keen interest in sexual minorities. He began asking numerous questions about my personal life -- attempting to ascertain whether my political activity was motivated by a minority sexual orientation. How odd, I thought, this scrutiny was. For it appeared we were talking about two things: the curriculum, and social justice. Could I really infer this gentleman held principles of the following sort:

(1) For all x and all y, if y defends x as a legitimate area of study, y is (whether openly or secretly) a member of x; and (2) For all x and all y, if y defends a claim of justice involving a member of x, y is (whether openly or secretly) a member of x?     

If (1) is true, I thought, we have in our university many more fascists than I knew, many more criminals and psychopaths, many more saints, many more heroes. If (2) is true, then we have many more blacks on our faculty than anyone has known, and we can now unmask all those secret Jews who oppose the Holocaust, along with those extremely well-disguised rabbits who oppose product testing.

It is a dogma of American life, of course, that all actions are motivated by self-interest. But this dogma is false. There are claims of justice, and there are people who pursue them for their own sake. On this one issue of sexual orientation, however, the straight academy's (and above all the straight male academy's) fear of contagion was so deep that it was rare indeed to find support for those claims of justice, or for the closely related claims of scholarly inclusiveness. Straight men who had risked their lives in the civil rights movement shrank from taking any stand on this issue, and they thought it mighty odd that I would do so.

In the aftermath of that lunch, I lived for some months on campus as a person of undisclosed sexual orientation, "out" as a heterosexual to my friends but the object of surveillance by others. I understood, in that very brief time, the intensity of the scrutiny to which a lesbian or gay person in the university, or a person who is suspected of being gay, is subjected throughout his or her career, as though no conversation about any topic can begin until we first define "who you really are." The criticisms I had made of Foucault in my writing came to haunt me, as I experienced the truth of his claim that modern society makes questions of sexual orientation fundamental to all its dealings with a person, more fundamental than kindness, or excellence, or justice. I surrendered my public pose of ambiguity only when it became clear that students wanted to know whether the person in whom they wished to confide shared their experiences -- a context in which my experiment in pursuing the educational issue without personal declaration seemed misguided.

The scrutiny I encountered was trivial. It caused me mild embarrassment, but no real damage to my activity as a teacher and a scholar. The opposition, however, can take a far more pernicious form, impugning the personal integrity of leading scholars in gay studies as a way of attacking their academic programs. Take the lawsuit recently brought against MIT by Professor Cynthia Griffin Wolff, a member of that university's literature department. Wolff seeks damages from the university because of the unpleasantness to which she has been subjected by the curricular efforts and the departmental politics of some of her associates. Her lawsuit has received wide publicity, and her efforts have been praised by some well-known conservative opponents of women's studies and gay studies. Wolff's suit is about to go to court.

The substance of her allegation is that MIT, by cooperating in the efforts of some of her colleagues to diversify the curriculum by adding material dealing with women and gays to the existing core of study, has subverted standards of scholarship and supported an agenda that is "politically motivated," by which she seems to mean subversive and bad. In the process, she made some unsubstantiated allegations against the professional integrity of David Halperin, a prominent figure in gay studies, a founder of the gay studies program at MIT, and an outspoken political activist. Halperin's own homosexuality makes him peculiarly vulnerable to an Aristophanic attack.

Wolff makes two serious charges against Halperin, in close connection with her opposition to the gay studies program. The first charge is that

This story has all the hallmarks of the Aristophanic pattern I have tried to describe: someone who advocates "gay and lesbian views" must be all about sex, and his every professional act reveals a sexual motive. However, an affidavit from Professor Louis Kampf, who was one of the few of Wolff's colleagues whom she does not accuse of anything, tells a very different story. According to Kampf, all present at the meeting understood that Halperin was declaring a potential conflict of interest with respect to the candidate, for whom he had some erotic feeling (not an erotic relationship). "He wanted to make sure that everything was above board." The candidate was later offered the job by the unanimous vote of the department, though he declined to take it. The story of a homosexual plot to foist on the department a sexual pal instead of the best candidate is thus false in more than one way.

Wolff's second charge is more elusive, but it is from this charge that her link to the Old Education emerges most clearly. Wolff speaks of her belief that Halperin had subjected a colleague to "sexual harassment." What is interesting here is not simply that no formal charge of harassment against Halperin was ever brought or adjudicated; or that Halperin was never formally asked to defend himself against any charge; but that Wolff went on to argue that he "could readily be harassing undergraduates, especially as Professor Halperin had been charged and funded by the administration to create an undergraduate program in gay and lesbian studies." It is as good an example as one can find of the Aristophanic syndrome.

But let us now return to Brown and to the struggle for curricular reform. At Brown, our committee looked at the curriculum to ascertain what resources it offered for any person who wished to understand the phenomenon of homosexuality in history or psychology or biology or literature. We sent a questionnaire to all departments and programs, with three questions: (l) Did they have any courses that dealt with homosexuality? (2) Did they have any plans for course development in that area? (3) Did they have any faculty member who could advise students who wished to do reading and research in that area? The following departments, among many others, answered all three questions in the negative: Psychology, Sociology, History, Japanese Literature, German, French. Only Religious Studies and Biology (a subsection of a single course in each case) had any formal curricular offerings. When individual faculty members were named as competent to advise work in the area, odd disclaimers tended to be attached, protecting the person's straight reputation against the suspicion of a personal connection to the topic. To want to know something about this suspect form of life calls for explanation; and it is assumed that the explanation is a confession, unless a disclaimer (never fully convincing) is explicitly entered.

In short, our students' knowledge of psychology and literature and history was not well served. And this refusal of knowledge -- for that is what the opposition to the study of homosexuality was -- came linked with prejudice and injustice, as both cause and effect. Lesbian and gay students reported the feelings that seized them when, as so often happened, an instructor arrived at a portion of a historical event, or a literary text, in which the issue of homosexuality arose -- and passed over it with embarrassment, or even disgust, as if to say that we all know what that is. Well, we did not know, and do not know; and on the whole do not want to know. For in this case, to want to know is to be tainted. We were not far, and in many cases still are not far, from the moment in E.M. Forster's Maurice when, as the undergraduates prepare to translate a Greek text, their tutor "observed in a flat toneless voice: `Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.'"

This, then, is the primary rationale for gay studies, as for women's studies: the completeness of knowledge itself demands their promotion. And the completeness of knowledge, openness to the facts of history and to arguments about history, is an ideal that conservative opponents of these new forms of study cannot consistently repudiate and still claim to be honoring the time-honored norms of the Western philosophical tradition.

It is also true that this knowledge can help produce students who are more fully "citizens of the entire world." This knowledge will, of course, have a special meaning for those whose very identity has previously been excluded from the precincts of knowledge. (Hearing his first real discussion of Greek homosexuality, Forster's Maurice is transformed: "He hadn't known it could be mentioned, and when Durham did so in the middle of the sunlit court a breath of liberty touched him.") But to know about the lives of one's fellow citizens and to understand their history is essential also for those who are not lesbian or gay. As the legal theorist Richard Posner has recently argued, a great deal more knowledge about sexuality, and especially about homosexuality, is essential if we are to have a well-informed judiciary and, in general, a humane and just society.

To strive for a citizenry of this sort is, of course, a certain sort of political agenda. But is this really a bad thing? Political motivations have been explicit in many of the greatest works of moral and political thought -- within the Western tradition, in Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Spinoza, Kant, and Rawls, to name just a few. Since Aristotle, indeed, it has been common to argue that the end of inquiry into areas touching on ethics and the conduct of life ought to be not just theoretical understanding, but also the improvement of political life. Thucydides argued that this was also true of the study of history, and many great historians have followed him. That literary study also may have a social goal has been more controversial; but many leading theorists, from Plato and Aristotle to Wayne Booth, have argued that it can and should.

So what do the critics of gay studies and women's studies mean when they say that these studies are "politically motivated"? Surely not just that the proponents side with Plato and Aristotle -- or with Leavis, Trilling, and Booth -- against more formalist or aestheticizing humanists. That could hardly be a point against their inclusion in the academy. Perhaps they mean that these studies are pursued because they advance a political goal that is improperly related to the goals of scholarly study itself. But what could such a goal be? It was evident enough at Brown that we connected scholarship to goals of equal respect, arguing that silence about a group undermines its dignity. But this seems a cogent argument; and one would hardly have to be a radical to endorse it.

What assailants of the new studies might mean, by their claims of "political motivation," is that there is no inquiry here, and no reasoned debate, but only the dogmatic imposition of a single viewpoint. But the nature of lesbian and gay studies in the academy today bears little resemblance to this stereotype. Indeed, what is most striking about the field is its variety, in both its subject matter and its methodology. Where ancient Greece is concerned, the tight-lipped omissions described by Forster have been replaced by a wide variety of scholarly accounts of Greek homosexuality, from which a student may now learn what the historical, literary, and artistic evidence shows about ancient sexual life. The pioneering work was Greek Homosexuality by Kenneth Dover, one of the century's leading ancient historians, and among the least likely to be accused of lowering standards of scholarship for the sake of a political end. (Despite Dover's prominence, he had difficulty finding a major press that would undertake the job.) Michel Foucault then made a major theoretical step forward by pointing out that our modern categories of the heterosexual and the homosexual have no precise equivalent in classical antiquity. The fundamental distinction for males was that between the active and the passive roles, and so long as one took the active role, the gender of the partner was not considered a matter of great importance. David Halperin's work has advanced this inquiry further. Many other scholars are by now contributing to the investigation on many fronts.

Much the same situation obtains across the humanities. "Lesbian and gay studies" are sometimes pursued in separate programs, though far more often within existing departments of history, literature, art, philosophy (where ethical and legal issues concerning homosexuality are vigorously debated). It is as if an entire new continent for scholarship has just been opened up, and younger scholars can feel the exhilaration of uncharted territory. Conservative critics paint a picture of narrow political uniformity. They suggest, for example, that all scholars in this field are themselves gay or lesbian, and are all either deconstructionist literary theorists or uncritical followers of Foucault. But the projects undertaken in gay studies are too varied to be captured in such glib generalizations. Although, as with any study connected to deep concerns about identity, many in this field have been lesbian and gay, they are, like heterosexual scholars, tremendously varied in their style of life, their politics, their religious attitudes and practices; and some leading writers in the field are not homosexual at all. It is, after all, as I have argued, an important area of knowledge for all of us.

About the central methodological questions raised by Foucault's work, moreover, there has been a lively and sometimes heated debate. The historian John Boswell and the philosopher Richard Mohr stress the underlying continuity of types of sexual practices; Halperin and others, persuaded by Foucault, stress instead the extent to which social conventions shape the categories recognized as salient in the assessment, and even the experience of sexual desire and activity. Richard Posner makes a complicated synthesis of the two positions, recognizing the extent to which sexual categories are "socially constructed," but suggesting that within this historical variety we may see certain biological constants. The debate is intellectually fascinating -- and it is also urgent, for all too frequently, in our social and legal lives, we have proceeded as if we knew for sure that a person's sexuality is something innate and "natural"; these new inquiries promote self-understanding, and hence justice.

The conservative attack on gay studies, then, is not a defense of classical learning, or of the Western philosophical tradition. It is an attack on that learning and that tradition, disguised as a defense. At root, these critics are saying little about intellectual life and everything about political life: these studies, they are saying, are motivated by the desire of certain people to be included in the academy and to have their way of life recognized as an object of study, and that is precisely what we object to: these people should not be included and their way of life should not be recognized. But why not? What is the argument? Why are these people, and knowledge about them, being pushed away? The Aristophanic answer comes back: because there is something strange about them and they make us very uncomfortable. Never mind that both history and philosophy are, in their very nature, forms of inquiry into the strange and unsettling.

"Go with me," says the Old Education. "I am manliness. I am tradition. I am reason." But reason is not impenetrable manliness or invulnerable mastery or inflexible adherence to tradition. Reason is, as Plato once said, a soft, slender gold cord, flexibly pulled by the draw of truth and understanding. Unless (he notes), as often happens, it is rudely shoved aside by the iron strings of self-interest, greed, and fear.