Mindless Moralizing


It's tempting to respond with rational arguments to Professor Harvey Mansfield's recent diatribe against homosexuals. But to do so is to assume that Mansfield's comments rest on some logical foundation that can be uprooted by more compelling logic--an assumption that is entirely unwarranted.

Unlike Peninsula magazine's smut-filled condemnation of homosexuality two years ago, Mansfield's assault does not merit forceful rebuttal. What made the Peninsula issue so sinister was, first, that it shrouded its hateful bigotry in scientific, psychological, theological and philosophical arguments; and, second, that the issue's authors had the gall to insist they were motivated by the humanistic desire to help homosexuals see the error of their ways.

Mansfield's comments, and the predictably venomous trash that last week spewed from the lips of arbiters of morality like Peninsulite Rob Wasinger, are less dangerous. The attacks that Mansfield and Wasinger have leveled against homosexuality are not sophisticated, and don't pretend to be efforts to make life easier for gay men and lesbians. Their comments, instead, are recycled mantras of hate and intolerance: Mansfield calls gay love "imperfect and stunted and frustrated," while Wasinger agrees and adds "vile and detestable" to the list.

As a result, these most recent additions to campus conservatives' catalogue of reactionary garbage neither deserve nor require the kind of angry and concerted response that the Peninsula issue generated.

Mansfield's Colorado courtroom testimony and follow-up comments in a Crimson interview do not mask their bald mean-spiritedness with respectable theory. The same is true of Wasinger's praise for Mansfield. Both Mansfield and Wasinger offer opinions of homosexuality without any justifying rationale to support those opinions. Their remarks are not arguments, for an argument would imply there was some supporting logic offered to justify it.


It is pointless, then--and maybe even counterproductive--to refute their comments, as one might attempt to refute an argument. How does one debate an assertion that homosexuality is "shameful" and "vile"? Certainly not with logic--logic cannot refute epithets. The dialogue can only degenerate into a childish "is too-is not" sparring match. Debate devoid of reasoning cannot possibly enhance intellectual discussion at Harvard or contribute in any valuable way to John Stuart Mill's marketplace of ideas.

This is not surprising, given Mansfield's history of intentionally making unsupported (and often unsupportable) assertions for the ostensible purpose of generating debate--and then failing to contribute to the debate in any meaningful way by demonstrating the reasoning behind his remarks. This was true of his allegation last year that affirmative action caused grade inflation (a claim he framed in a way that seemed intentionally to lend itself to misinterpretation), as well as his attacks on women in an interview last spring.

Mansfield's comments typically seem casual and off-the-cuff, but they are clearly calculated to generate the most adamant and angry response possible (either that or he's just dump, and compelling as this possibility seems, it's unlikely). It is sad that, as part of a minority of conservatives on campus, he does not take more seriously his self-proclaimed responsibility to contribute meaningfully to intelligent discussion at Harvard.

Neither, it seems, does Wasinger. Never known on this campus for his open mind, Wasinger contributed this comment to the debate: "Homosexuality is a vile and detestable lifestyle and I think that it is completely disgusting that two people could do that freely to each other."

He does not say what it is that the "two people" do to each other that he finds so disgusting. They love each other and they sometimes make love with each other. Often, they live together and share their lives with each other. They support and encourage each other. Such actions may indeed be foreign and frightening and even disgusting to someone whose anger and hatred apparently leave him no room for love. But "two that freely to each other" regularly, and no one complains when the two people are a man and a woman.

To bother to demonstrate the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of Wasinger's blather, though, is to fall into the trap of debating unsupportable absurdities.

It should be obvious by now that Mansfield and Harvard's moral AALARMists are unlikely to be persuaded by rational debate. Their comments come from the gut and from the most blackened corners of the soul, but not from the mind (and certainly not from the heart). It is meaningless to ask them to substantiate their epithets, not only because no empirical evidence can possibly support the claim that something is disgusting, but also because they have no desire to do so.

The only semblance of an attempt by Mansfield and other campus conservatives to produce an actual argument against homosexuality is their claim that a non-procreative relationship is morally unacceptable (or at least "morally ambivalent," a term that allows its author the luxury of making implied moral judgments without taking responsibility for them).

But until those who wield the procreation argument commit themselves to a condemnation of heterosexual couples who--because of either choice or infertility--have no children, their "argument" deserves no discussion. Their failure to denounce childless heterosexual couples (or heterosexual couples who choose to adopt rather than to procreate) suggests that they are merely using the procreation "argument" to mask their bigotry.

If these attacks on homosexuality do not deserve rational refutation, they also do not require a response by the University. The fact that Mansfield spewed his hateful bile in a courtroom underscores the depth of his intolerance, and indicates his willingness to prostitute his academic integrity by using his scholarly reputation as a shield for unsupported claims. But whatever weight Mansfield's affiliation with Harvard may contribute to his reputation, it is wrong to equate that reputation with a sanction by the University for his hatred.

The Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association makes an intellectual error by calling on the University to denounce Mansfield's comments and confirm its own policy of nondiscrimination. The BGLSA presumes that Harvard agrees with the views of its faculty until it proves otherwise by actively distancing itself from those views.

Such an approach denies the importance (if not the existence) of a diversity of views on campus, among professors as well as students. Though Mansfield's tenured status at Harvard implies intelligence and contributions to intellectual life, it is no way an endorsement of his views--even when those views show no sign of either intelligence or contribution to intellectual life.

The angry response to the Peninsula issue two years ago was justified and appropriate. But this time around, no one on campus should glorify this mindless moralizing and homophobic hatred. The BGLSA rally last Friday and the follow-up letter in Saturday's Crimson were surely an adequate (if not excessive) response to Mansfield's vicious and baseless attacks on homosexuality.

While it is certainly too much to hope that ignoring people like Mansfield and Wasinger will make them go away, another cliche usually applied to immature children does seem apt here: The attention only encourages them.