The Virtues of Ambivalence
After Professor Harvey C. Mansfield called gay love "shameful" and inherently "imperfect and stunted and frustrated," the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students' Association staged a protest, calling on the University to endorse homosexuality against moral views like Mansfield's. Though he defended Mansfield's right to free speech, BGLSA co-chair Bob E. Giannino '95 said "the University should publicly deplore his statements." Former BGLSA co-chair Rachel E. Cohen '94 also said she wanted the University officially to condemn Mansfield's views. All this was explicitly pretexted on the fact that Mansfield "was speaking not merely as a private citizen but as a tenured Harvard professor whose words carry the weight of the University's implicit approval."
This premise is ridiculous. The very fact that the BGLSA can equate a refusal to condemn Mansfield's moral beliefs with the wholehearted approval of those views should not only signal a failure of logic and common sense--it should also warn us that the political debate over homosexuality is fast deteriorating. If Harvard wants to prevent this debate from collapsing, it must not endorse homosexuality--partly for the sake of those who share Mansfield's views, but even more for the sake of homosexuals themselves.
To see why, we should take hard lessons from the national debate over abortion. I'll leave it to others to ponder the nuances that make abortion and homosexuality different kinds of issues. All I want to argue here is that the central feature of both issues is their susceptibility to extreme polarization, which makes the acknowledgement of moral ambivalence the first, most pressing priority.
The tragedy of the abortion debate is that it fails utterly to maintain itself as a constructive, compassionate discussion. Instead, it turns neighbors against each other, producing the spectacle of a shouting match between two sides who refuse to comprehend each other's moral position or even to recognize each other's capacity for moral choice. It is this polarization that we should do everything to avoid. And the same ingredients that make abortion a painfully divisive issue--religious sanction, sexual liberation, and personal autonomy--make homosexuality another potential focal point for national acrimony.
But there is a way of making the moral issue of homosexuality less susceptible to polarization. This involves the way we frame the question. We should not ask, is homosexuality right or wrong? We should ask, what are the possibilities and the costs of gay relationships? This doesn't mean that we should abandon moral judgment and resort to a tally sheet of pros and cons. It does mean that we should let go of moral certainty and embrace moral ambivalence. Ambivalence. after all, describes the vast majority of us. Moral ambivalence is more faithful to reality.
I suspect that most Harvard students, if forced to take sides, would deem homosexuality morally acceptable. But I suspect also that most Harvard students--and many Americans--would confess privately that they are morally ambivalent and internally divided on the issue. I count myself among this silent, groping majority.
For those who share my ambivalence--which may include not only straights but also gays--a university that unequivocally supports or deplores homosexual love would bruise the our personal integrity by telling us that we had better come to the right moral conclusions about homosexuality, fast. By taking an official stance on the issue, Harvard could say that homosexual life is completely unproblematic, or it could assert that homosexual life is hopelessly compromised. Both statements are unconvincing and patronizing. It is like saying either that abortion is completely acceptable or that abortion is in all cases unacceptable. Either way, one denies moral complexity and rejects ambivalence as an option.
What is a morally ambivalent position on homosexuality? It differs from both radical and bigoted views of sexuality because it refuses to reduce the individual to his or her sexual orientation. Moral ambivalence starts by putting the individual above sexuality. Yet, unlike the way a liberal might treat sexuality, the morally ambivalent person does not try to relegate sexual identity to the private sphere. Sexual orientation remains an important, though not all-consuming part of one's public identity.
Being morally ambivalent does not mean withholding moral judgment. It means acknowledging that there is a very fine line between celebrating homosexuality as difference and condemning it to deviancy. It might help in this case to compare homosexuality to deafness. Homosexuals and deaf people are capable of sharing friendships and love with their heterosexual and hearing counterparts. But the fundamental differences in experience can make those relationships more difficult to achieve, and perhaps impossible to fulfill.
Moral ambivalence offsets the condescension that often tinges unconditional acceptance with a frankness about one's moral failings. Moral ambivalence tries hard to bring sympathy and honesty together.
It was moral ambivalence that allowed me to see a germ of truth in one of the remarks Mansfield made last week, a germ that probably went unnoticed by partisans on both sides. If there is one standing moral flaw in homosexuality that continues to cause morally ambivalent people concern and perhaps causes them to withhold their approval of homosexual love, it is the problem of procreation. Gays have proven themselves brilliantly in all but this sphere of social existence. Procreation, then, is not an issue that gay activists can afford to be morally flippant about, especially if they want to win ultimate acceptance into society by showing that homosexual love is truly an analogue of its heterosexual cousin, and hence deserving of access to the social recognition and civil sanction accorded to heterosexual marriage.
One does not have to believe that procreation is the sole purpose of marriage. But most people will agree that having children is an essential part of love and marriage that ties two people together in a way a civil marriage contract never could. A child represents the biological, social, civil and mystical unity of two lovers.
If this is where the analogy between homosexual love and heterosexual love truly ends, then the morally ambivalent will have no choice but to conclude that gay life--for all its pleasures, achievements, and joys--remains sadly and radically incomplete. My own moral ambivalence shares in the hope that this is not the case.
Daniel H. Choi '94 is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House.