Saturday, July 31, 2010

University of Illinois Rehires Homophobic Catholic Professor

The Department of Religion at the University of Illinois decided not to have Kenneth Howell continue teaching courses on its behalf. Then, due to pressure from groups that did not understand or intentionally misrepresented what had happened, Howell was reinstated. The University was well rid of him, and, although the importance of avoiding any appearance of discrimination based on religion and any infringement of free speech and academic freedom is understandable, he should not have been rehired. He is committed to proselytizing discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people, using “morality” as a weapon to humiliate and degrade. Let me be clear: I have no personal grudge against this man. I do not know him. In fact, I am sure he is a perfectly harmless old man that may even do some good in this world. He has demonstrated an admirable ability to do what he thinks is right even when it causes himself significant inconvenience. I am, however, opposed to him as a social factor, as an influence within the University community.

This raises the question, What sort of role did this man adopt? Was he not a professor of religion? No, that may have been his title, but Howell was performing the role, not of a teacher, but of a priest. A teacher educates; a teacher helps students to entertain many ideas, but without undue judgment or attachment, objectively, from all sides, lingering over them, setting them against each other, experimenting with them, teasing out their hidden properties. He who would educate another must have an interest in allowing a student to recapitulate the history of conflicting human thoughts within a certain area of inquiry. On the other hand, a priest indoctrinates, imprints, freezes the mind in a posture of orthodoxy and righteousness; the catechist is interested, not in a journey, but in a destination. All teachers bring their own knowledge and backgrounds into the practice of education. There will, of course, be bias. Nonetheless, Howell celebrates his bias in an indecent fashion, luxuriating in his narrowness and dogmatism as if it were a desirable virtue. Although he should be using his knowledge to guide the explorations of his pupils, he instead uses his wider experience to overwhelm them with his own position. His Catholicism has gotten in the way of his teaching Catholicism.

What is his position? He claims that his ideas about sexuality are rooted in natural law, but he demonstrates a profound ignorance concerning the diversity and creativity present in nature. Howell would have us believe that each bodily organ has but one purpose and meaning, and that one purpose of morality is to conserve the single meaning of each structure. Innovation violates the natural order; evolution is immoral; human interference in nature, although few things are more grounded in human nature than the impulse to manipulate the world to suit our purposes, always verges on the illicit. This man’s doctrine of “reality” is utterly opposed to the real world. He would impose on the body and its members specific meanings, without respect for context or environment. He does not consult the world and learn from it the variety of uses to which biological structures are put, for, indeed, evolution is conservative, adapting the same organ to countless purposes in innumerable organisms. No, before even entering into consideration of a question, he has received its answer as dogma from our often ignorant and superstitious past.

That the man has a background in linguistics and literacy in several languages makes his claims all the more amazing. Words have very little meaning apart from their contexts, and, in different contexts, different senses are invoked. And words are mere shadows of reality. The different shades of meaning present in a word’s semantic field are (and even this is a simplification) remnants of the diversity of impressions, experiences, purposes, and meanings individuals have found by living with and experiencing the real objects to which the signs point. What is water’s meaning? In cold weather, it means a harness-that-shatters, a slipperiness-that-causes-one-to-fall, a crystal-lace-from-heaven, a blanket-for-the-weary-earth, and so on. In warm weather, it is the humid air, the terrible sea, the gentle but strong river, etc. To a chemist, it is a distinct arrangement of atoms; to a fisherman, it is his means of livelihood. Insofar as the world is endlessly knowable, the elements of the world are endlessly significant.

One of his first substantial claims is that “right or wrong does not depend on who is doing the action or on how I feel about those people.” This sort of acontextual, universal morality is most unnatural. It is not how ordinary people engage with moral questions, and it betrays a hatred of the material world. Let me illustrate briefly the moral significance of personal identity. I may not kill someone, but, within certain ethical systems, a duly appointed executioner may. Whether or not one judges execution to be one of the powers that can ethically (legality is another question) reside in a person or state, this case should serve as a dramatic example of my point. Moral judgments about people’s actions are and should be based on how we feel about them--their honesty, their intentions, their unique conditions, etc. Howell’s insensitivity to others’ experiences and conditions, his conviction that there should be one universal moral law for all, his moral imperialism, accounts in part for his inhumane bigotry. Howell want to divorce people from their acts, but it happens to be the case that, with respect to questions of sex and gender, actions that are natural and moral for one person would be exceedingly unnatural for another person. For Howell to engage in gay sex would be for him to do something contrary to his nature that violates of his sexuality. (This assumes, of course, what none but he can know for certain, namely, that he is in fact straight.) If, however, Howell were a gay person, the act of gay sex would be a fulfillment of his nature.

I do not want to weary your patience, Good Reader, with an account of Howell’s slippery misrepresentation of utilitarianism, whose rough treatment at his hands he seems to justify by claiming that he is only talking about “Utilitarianism in the popular sense.” Apparently, the utilitarians have abandoned seeking the greatest happiness for all and have settled, instead, for private, selfish, subjective happiness in wilful abortion, adultery, molestation of children, bestiality, and, of course, homosexuality--which is, in Howell’s mind, probably the moral equivalent of these other acts. Such, it seems, is the consequence of a morality that accepts the individual responsibility of subjective moral agents to determine what will promote the general happiness. How he reconciles his opposition to “subjectivity” in moral matters with the Catholic doctrine of the primacy of individual conscience is a mystery beyond my powers of understanding.

In his discussion of utilitarianism, Howell dismisses out of hand an interesting moral question. He suggests a scenario in which a dog has been elevated to the point where it can give consent to sexual intercourse with a human. If the dog desires and consents and the human desires and consents, if the happiness of both is promoted by such an act, if no other party is harmed, then in what way is the act vicious? Imagining canine and human natures that mutually desire and satisfy each other and that both have equivalent understandings of their actions is, indeed, an astounding act of the imagination, but the thought experiment does support the sorts of consequences one would like to see in a moral world. That is, these dogs that have been granted human-level consciousnesses have also been given the dignity of conscience. Their volition and consent has been respected. On the other hand, in Howell’s world, those super-intelligent canines who desire human partners would, it seems, be morally (and perhaps legally) restrained fulfilling their “immoral” desire. But why would it be immoral? One suspects it is wrong simply because the idea of it makes Professor Howell uncomfortable. One further suspects that the criterion of it-makes-Howell-uncomfortable would exclude most things.

Howell urges us to look at reality. Let us recall that at the beginning of his email he mentioned those who base their moral evaluations of homosexual relationships on their knowledge of gay couples and individuals. Are these people not consulting reality? Do they not there find couples who display psychological compatibility? I can assure good Professor Howell that, whatever his unnamed physician has told him, gay couples also find themselves physically fitted and complementary to each other, and are deeply and happily aware of the fact that, as Howell states, “Men and women are not interchangeable.”

But let me respond with equal delicacy and discretion--for, “I don't want to be too graphic,” to Howell’s claim that gay sex is “deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men” (I, like he, but with more self-awareness, will pass over lesbian sex without comment). Let us consider, for a moment, the nature of pregnancy and childbirth. If entered into consensually, a woman allows her body to host a foreign organism for a period of months, at the end of which, it experiences a biological crisis, one of the most dangerous periods in a human’s natural life cycle, and ejects the foreign organism from itself. Pregnancy measurably lowers life expectancy. As I stated above, this injurious act, which harms the structure of the woman’s body, is often performed consensually. Indeed, for many women, it is the consummate act of their life. Howell has written against the use of birth control (in fact, he opposes it within the body of the very email that caused him all this trouble) and abortion, so he is even willing to impose on women against their will a harm far more significant than any resulting from consensual anal sex. In any case, this reveals, I think, something about the nature of life. Life is injurious. Almost every activity does some harm to our body, and sometimes harm is beneficial. Exercise rips muscle tissue in order that it may grow back stronger; the virgin’s hymen is broken that she may cease to be a maid; we strain our minds with tests and labors in order to gain knowledge and jobs; our innocence is lost that we may become wise. Sex is somewhat violent, yes, but if one finds himself to be as abnormally squeamish, excessively sensitive, hygienically obsessed, and hyperspiritualized as Howell seems to be, one would do well to avoid not only sex, but also all strong foods, drinks, and emotions.

I now want to object to the most loathsome part of Howell’s most execrable email. He claims that transgendered people, who seek surgery because their physical bodies do not align with their psychological gender, in fact get surgery because they “think that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning.... We can manipulate our bodies to be whatever we want them to be.” In other words, Howell would correct Jesus: “None may make himself a eunuch for the Kingdom; if your member causes you to stumble, you may not cut it off and cast it into the fire; man was made for the Sabbath [i.e., the body], not the Sabbath for man.” How horrifying it would be to be a transgendered student in this man’s class! He would find nothing Christlike here, no compassion and understanding. Just piggish judgement and proud ignorance. This man’s thought is theorizing-without-evidence par excellence. To say that each biological structure and organism has a "meaning" and that you know what that meaning is (because you have received it by hearsay from our often foolish and illinformed ancestors) and that deviation from it is immoral, is to reason unscientifically. Such a method does not involve consulting nature itself to determine what is natural; rather, it knows what “nature” is a priori and imposes its idea of what is natural on the world. This professor's transphobic comments indicate that he is not aware of how the gender binary is often insufficient to deal with the diversity of genders present in nature. Likewise, his ideas about the functions of sex (limiting it almost exclusively to procreation and ignoring its role in promoting the communal cohesion and bonding of social animals, etc.) again point to a willful biological ignorance. He could certainly profit from reading works such as those by Joan Roughgarden, Bruce Bagemihl, Alice Domurat Dreger, and Anne Fausto-Sterling. That organs have no one "meaning" and that transformation is part of their nature can be illustrated by the fact, for example, that the slit we now use to hear was once a gill with which we used to breathe.

All of the above having been said, my problem with this man's behavior as exhibited in his email and as reported to me by others who have taken his classes is not that he is teaching an erroneous philosophy that claims to be derived from fidelity to nature when it is, in fact, utterly opposed to the natural world. My issue is that he is passionate convert that uses his position as a scholar and professor to proselytize his faith. It distorts his teaching beyond the bounds of ordinary bias into the realm of propaganda. I stand firmly on the side of the weaker party in this situation: the LGBT student in his class that looks up to him as a trusted and authoritative source of knowledge.

We can never have all the information, so dogmatic positions are always dangerous. I do not know what motivated Howell to write, for example, the unfair things he has written in some of his “Step by Step” articles for This Rock. They are not scholarly articles, so I shall not say anything about them as scholarship. But, as devotional/religious works, they have surely done mischief in the lives of people that sincerely want to do what is right and good. I do not know what motivated him to write that e-mail. He seems to have become caught up in his own rhetoric.

The Department of Religion, of course, had the right not to renew his contract for whatever reasons they might have--he was certainly never “fired,” and, given the bad scholarship exhibited in his email and his apparent interest in writing almost exclusively devotional, as opposed to scholarly, works, the University really should not have rehired him. The University has limited resources and does not need to waste them on harmful rubbish. However, censorship is a tricky thing. When libraries select good books and discard bad ones because they have limited space, they are engaged in a sort of censorship, a sort of censorship that they would not perform in an ideal world of infinite resources. When departments hire good professors and let bad ones go, they usually do so for similar reasons. This is not a question of academic freedom; it is a matter of economics. I had the pleasure of attending a Catholic college for my undergrad, and I had many great Catholic teachers. Nonetheless, I also had a few that let their role in their church get in the way of their role as scholars and teachers. Since Howell has his job back, one can only hope he will learn from his experience and gain a more “thorough understanding of natural reality.”

Link to Howell's original e-mail

Guest post by N. Fredrickson

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