Harvard historian Niall Ferguson apologized this weekend for suggesting that John Keynes held hedonistic economic beliefs because he was a childless gay with no investment in the future — becoming the latest in a long list of public figures forced to make a dramatic mea culpa for anti-gay remarks. That list speaks volumes about the continued homophobia that mars American culture even as legal progress marches impressively forward. And it raises the important question of whether, despite that progress, American hearts and minds have really changed as much as many assume. Is homophobia really dying, or is outrage simply driving it underground?
The apologies have taken a predictable form. The week before the Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said that if he had gay teammates, “they gotta get up outta here.” He released a statement the next day saying “the derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel.” Last month, a Louisiana State University running back apologized for comments that “may have sounded insensitive” after saying that football is for “grown men” and a gay player would be regarded “as a sissy.”
Also last month, Jeremy Irons said he was “deeply concerned” that his skepticism about gay marriage might be read as anti-gay. He “perhaps rather too flippantly” suggested, he said, that letting gays wed could “debase” marriage and lead to men marrying their fathers to avoid estate taxes. And over the weekend Howard Kurtz issued a groveling apology for lambasting NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out process. Kurtz glibly — and incorrectly — wrote that he must “assess a foul for the incomplete nature” of Collins’ disclosure since he didn’t dwell on a past relationship with a woman (in fact he did discuss that past, but Kurtz missed it). It was a bizarre fight to pick, and betrayed a cruel insensitivity to the experience of sexual minorities, who are born with the peculiar burden of disclosure, one that makes us “liars” until we correct the world’s unfair assumptions about who we are.
And then there was Ferguson, who reportedly cast Keynes as selfish, short-sighted and “effete” because gay people care more about “poetry” than progeny. Ferguson issued what he called an “unqualified apology,” stating he would never link his criticisms of Keynes’ economic beliefs to his sexual orientation, and adding, “I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise.” Andrew Sullivan defended his friend Ferguson, saying he has “never seen or heard or felt an iota of homophobia from him.” But evidence quickly materialized that Ferguson has a history of making precisely such disparaging links between Keynes’ personal life and his ideology.
And there you have the formula: Glibly share your worldview that gay people are irresponsible pleasure-seekers who are prone to sexual excess and other destructive hedonistic tendencies; watch the now-predictable train wreck you caused, as establishment figures holler in outrage that you could say such a thing; apologize, explaining that’s of course not what you really feel, but you just, for some inexplicable reason, had to say it; and hope it’s a short enough news story that your career recovers.
But should we believe the carefully concocted apology or the unvarnished original statement? Are we really to conclude that, just because approval of gay relations has passed 50 percent and mainstream politicians have embraced gay marriage, all these “sorry” people who aired anti-gay views erred by saying something they don’t feel, or by saying something they do? The danger is that, just as conservatives complain, the widespread expectation in polite society that homosexuality will now be embraced has created a new level of political correctness that’s stifling our ability to genuinely address underlying homophobia and its consequences.
Consider, first of all, that even if 51 percent of Americans now back gay marriage, that still leaves well over a hundred million people who think it’s wrong. Surely some of our gaffe-makers fall into that group. And despite the much-ballyhooed poll numbers among young Americans, who increasingly favor gay marriage, Georgetown University recently found that young people “are nearly evenly divided over whether sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable.” Even among the growing number of Americans who outwardly embrace LGBT equality, there is evidence that many still hold anti-gay views in their hearts. Most gay people I know have had an experience where a proudly “pro-gay” straight friend or acquaintance has a drink and lets rip a belief that there’s something “decadent,” “corrupt” or “just off” about homosexuality.
The evidence is not just anecdotal. A growing body of research shows that homophobia, like racism and other forms of bias, occurs in the unconscious reaches of the brain, and may be harder to access and modify than most of us pretend. To demonstrate this, psychologists collected a range of information about their subjects, including their stated (conscious) beliefs about the moral acceptability of homosexuality. They then asked their subjects about specific acts involving gay couples, but rather than asking them directly if these acts are morally acceptable, they asked if they viewed the acts as intentional. Since prior research has found that people are more likely to believe that actions they view as morally wrong are performed intentionally, the research can use “intentionality judgments” as a proxy for intuitive moral judgment, even when it departs from a person’s explicit moral judgment. Sure enough, this research found that even when people stated that they found nothing wrong with homosexuality, they held intuitively negative judgments against it.
Related research has found that those with greater sensitivity to disgust are more likely to have anti-gay feelings, even if they consciously embrace more tolerant and egalitarian views. Disgust is believed to play a strong role in shaping “moral intuitions” — snap judgments about right and wrong that are rooted not in conscious deliberation about what’s harmful but in emotions that evolved to protect us from the unknown. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, “intuition comes first, rationality second.” Because our instincts haven’t caught up with what our rational minds would have us realize, we spend our lives rationalizing — telling ourselves plausible but untrue stories to justify how we feel, to plug the gap between the values we embrace consciously and the sentiments we actually feel. This helps explain much about the gulf between the egalitarianism so many of us tout and the prejudice in our hearts.
So when Chris Culliver says his anti-gay comments “were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel,” he likely had it backwards: that was precisely how he felt, but his head is now trying to do better. And Niall Ferguson may “detest all prejudice,” but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold deep biases against gay people.
Maybe we should be content that more people are backing gay rights and worry less about what’s in their hearts. But feelings have consequences, and driving them underground can be as dangerous as it was to force the repression of homosexuality itself. After all, feelings shape behavior. Juries who hold their peers’ lives in their hands, police who shoot first and ask questions later, taxi drivers who bypass black customers — all are instances of quiet but consequential bias that’s often belied by what people explicitly state when trying to conform to expected standards of behavior.
For sexuality, perhaps more than race, feelings matter when they depart from the values people consciously espouse. Unlike racial minorities, queer kids grow up as outsiders in their own families. Having parents or neighbors who profess tolerance but quietly find you disgusting, immoral or rotten at your core is not an acceptable way to have to grow up or go through life.
Maybe all the outbursts are doing us a favor by allowing us to understand and address homophobia. Ferguson’s remarks, in particular, reveal an insidious worldview, one I fear is shared by millions, in which people have a dire need to see themselves as good, orderly and virtuous, and others as selfish, profligate and untamed by desire. Gays are the perfect scapegoat, as are liberals — both are cast as short-sighted children who don’t understand the virtues of the Protestant ethic. This worldview is insidious not because it’s malicious but because much of it is surely rooted in unconscious beliefs and lazy rationalizations, views which are unexamined and unaddressed, and the more damaging because of it.
But the outbursts can only be helpful if they are taken seriously and not dismissed or censored by the outrage police. Sadly, too many pro-gay voices, their hearts in the right place, are doing the opposite. They feel they can scrub the public airwaves of what must be acknowledged to be deep, genuine and widespread anti-gay sentiment, and then call it a day — everyone will have “gotten the memo”: homophobia is no longer polite, no longer the conscious belief of hip and educated people or the winning position of national elected officials. Yet in an ironic coda to the death of the military’s anti-gay policy, the new, preferred policy of the progressive, pro-gay establishment is its own kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We’re better off when we expose and challenge this worldview, not when we bury it. Genuine consciousness-raising is hard work. But that doesn’t make it dispensable.