Arkes’s defamatory statements are deeply offensive

Edited version of message sent by Eric Patterson, ’70, to Class of 1970 Listserv on Saturday, June 8, 2013, 1:54 p.m., regarding Hadley Arkes’s published statements about sexual minority and gender minority people.

A note on the context of my message: In the recent 1970 class listserv discussion of Hadley Arkes’s repeated public statements defaming sexual minority and gender minority people, two members of the class dismissed the concerns that others had expressed, advising them to “just forget about it.”  Another member of the class who shared the concern about Arkes’s defamatory statements pointed out that to make sweeping negative generalizations about groups of people based on sexual orientation, as Arkes has done, was as inappropriate as to make them about groups of people based on their shared participation in a religion, such as Roman Catholicism.  In my message, I agreed with this point, but also observed and explained in detail that a different analogy, making negative generalizations about heterosexuality, might be more accurate and useful to consider, in order to understand how deeply offensive Arkes’s defamatory statements are to many sexual minority and gender minority people.

The particular statements made by Arkes to which I referred were published on March 26, 2013, in his article “The Supreme Court Hears the Cases on Marriage,” in “The Catholic Thing”  The article reiterates yet again the defamatory statements about sexual minority and gender minority people that Arkes has published numerous times in the past.  Regarding the term “sexual orientation,” Arkes states:

“…[T]he key abstraction, settling [sic] off ripples of self-deception, is that term ‘sexual orientation.’  The term is broad enough to encompass sex with animals, pedophilia, even necrophilia.”  Later in the same article, Arkes returns to the implication that same-sex attraction and relationships are comparable to such depraved, brutal, and criminal forms of abuse, asserting that “…

[T]he notion of ‘sexual orientation’ is quite unstable: Many people shift back and forth across a spectrum that may now include the bisexual, fetishistic, transvestic, zoophiliac (sex with animals.)”

He concludes the article with a rhetorical question, which he “answers” by citing what apparently are implied to be instances of the supposedly possible consequences of adjusting marriage laws to legalize same-sex marriage:

“How is anyone’s marriage affected if two men or women are allowed to marry?  A while back, a 42-year old woman was barred from living in Stafford, Virginia with her 19-year old son as man and wife.  And Philip Buble in Maine was denied a marriage license for himself and his 37 pound dog Lady.  Now how would anyone’s marriage be impaired if these people were allowed to marry as they wished?”

 At its close, the article states that “Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.”

My message below was a direct response to Arkes’s profoundly disturbing and offensive insults.  I have edited it slightly to clarify some points and to make it accessible to a general audience which was not part of the original Class of 1970 listserv discussion.

Eric Patterson, B.A. Amherst, summa cum laude; M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D. Yale.

Dear Classmates,

During our recent discussion of the public statements defaming sexual minority and gender minority people repeatedly made by Hadley Arkes, one member of the class who is critical of Arkes drew an analogy comparing Arkes’s broad negative generalizations about homosexuals to the hypothetical case of a faculty member making broad negative generalizations about members of a religion, using the example of the religion to which Arkes presently subscribes, Roman Catholicism.  Certainly if a prominent academic at an institution like Amherst made degrading generalizations about Roman Catholics, it would be deeply offensive to anyone who participates in that religion, and to anyone who cares about freedom of religion.  Yet the generalizations that Arkes makes about same-sex relationships in his publications are about an element of human identity– sexual orientation– that is even more profoundly a part of who human beings are than their religion.

Heterosexuality is a more apt analogy than religion.  Those who casually dismiss Arkes as irrelevant might find it useful to consider what effect it would have on them if someone with Arkes’s position and influence attacked heterosexuality in the ways that he has attacked homosexuality  An almost unimaginable thought for those who treat Arkes as trivial, I suppose, but perhaps a way to begin to think about what it’s like to be one of the targets of what he says.

Arkes implies that feeling sexual and emotional attraction to others of one’s own sex, and building mutual relationships on those feelings, is comparable to imposing oneself sexually on children, to forcing oneself sexually on animals, and to sexually desecrating dead bodies.  All of these constructions attack what many believe to be one of the deepest and most important parts of a person’s being– his or her ability to love others emotionally and physically– by comparing it to conduct that is filthy, disgusting, violent, and destructive.  In all of the situations to which he compares same-sex attraction and relationships, the object of attraction is helpless and vulnerable and is subjected to the selfish and depraved will of another, with the aim of horrific acts of domination and exploitation.  Child molestation coerces children and does infinite emotional and physical damage to them, which then can continue throughout their lives.  Animals deserve to be cared for in responsible and humane ways, and so imposing oneself sexually on them would be brutal and destructive in much the way that forcing oneself sexually on a child would be.  Sexually violating the dead is so profoundly repugnant and offensive that there are almost no words for it– that someone could compare it to a mutual physical and emotional attraction between two people is shocking, and says nothing valid about the attraction between people, but tells much– disturbingly much– about the extreme feelings of contempt and hatred in the mind of the person making the comparison.

All three disgusting situations to which Arkes compares same-sex relationships are fundamentally violent, and are predicated on a complete lack of respect or consideration for the object of violence.  The perpetrator of violence considers only selfish, disturbed desires and subjects vulnerable others to the domination of personal will.  Arkes’s construction of same-sex relationships thus negates all aspects of mutual attraction and compassion between men who love men and women who love women.

The three brutal, criminal situations to which Arkes compares same-sex relationships also fundamentally imply that he is largely, perhaps only, considering male homosexuality, since all apparently presume an aggressive sexual actor engaged in penetration of the object, whether child, animal, or corpse.  The fact that female-female attraction and relationships appear to be relatively invisible to Arkes indicates on his part a notable lack of awareness of female sexual agency as well as suggesting that the sources of his anxiety have much to do with a personal perception of penetrative male sexual activity as threatening.  In relation to this indication of lack of consideration of women, it must be noted that Arkes also has been instrumental in propagating the bizarre allegation, refuted by professional organizations of obstetricians and gynecologists, that rape seldom results in pregnancy; according the Arkes, “the number of pregnancies resulting from rape in this country is miniscule” because “…the fear induced by rape may interrupt the normal operation of hormones in the body of the woman which in turn may prevent ovulation and conception.” (Hadley Arkes, First Things: An Inquiry into First Principles of Morals and Justice, Princeton, 1986, pp. 403, 404.)  Politicians influenced by Arkes, such as Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) and Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), recently have been widely condemned for repeating these pseudo-scientific fantasies (Tim Townsend, “The Roots of Todd Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Remarks,” USA Today, August 8, 2012; Catalina Camia, “Remark Made During Discussion of Abortion Bill Remind[s] Some of Controversial Comment Made During 2012 Senate Race,” USA Today, June 13, 2013.)  Arkes’s allegations about sexual matters not only falsify lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender experience, but also female experience.  The false ideas that he disseminates thus impose a double burden of damaging misrepresentation and prejudice upon women who identify as lesbian or bisexual, slandering female-female relationships and also trivializing the possible consequences of rape.

As I see it, the most accurate parallel, if a public intellectual were to attack heterosexuality through implied comparisons of the sort that Arkes has constructed for understanding homosexuality, would be to equate heterosexuality with the male rape of women.  Certainly we all know that there is a shockingly high incidence of rape in this country; all decent men are disgusted by this, and support efforts to prosecute rapists and to provide support for rape victims.  How would decent heterosexual men, who are disgusted by men who rape women, feel if their relationships with their wives or female partners were compared to rape?  How would they feel if the mutually loving and caring relationships which many of them have with women were publicly degraded in writing as being equivalent to rape, by an intellectual who held a prestigious position at the college that they had attended?  How would they feel if the relationships with women that they, their fathers, brothers, and sons had with women were described as rape by prominent politicians directly referring to that public intellectual?  How would they feel if that intellectual publicly complained that he had “suffered” from unjust criticism for having publicly described their loving relationships with women as rape?  And how would they feel if that public intellectual had played a central role in formulating federal laws which defined their relationships with women as being inferior and undeserving of the legal status and benefits of marriage, using rhetoric which presented those relationships as being like rape?

In considering the analogy that I propose, and trying to imagine the impact that statements similar to those made by Arkes would have on the heterosexual majority if they were made about heterosexuality rather than about homosexuality, it is important to recognize the very wide public visibility of Arkes’s statements.  They have been made repeatedly in major journals of political conservatives, have been widely circulated in the media, and have influenced many with great political influence and visibility.  A highly publicized presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator “Rick” Santorum, speaking in a 2003 interview which was widely quoted in newspapers, on television, and on the internet, explicitly referred to Arkes’s repeated argument that same-sex marriage would promote pedophilia and bestiality (or zoophilia.)  According to Santorum: “in every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality.  That’s not to pick on homosexuality.  It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”  (Hendrik Hertzberg, “Dog Bites Man,” The New Yorker, May 5, 2003;  Max Blumenthal, “Rick Santorum’s Beastly Politics,” The Nation, Nov. 13, 2006.)  Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has echoed some of Arkes’s hate rhetoric in legal rulings in which he suggests that same-sex relationships are comparable to polygamy, incest, bestiality, and murder.  When Scalia spoke at Princeton on December 10, 2012, he was challenged by a courageous first-year Princeton student, Duncan Hosie, who cited Scalia’s comparison of “gays to people who commit murder or engage in bestiality” and who then came out as gay before the eight hundred people present, rebuking the judge: “Justice Scalia, I’m gay, and as somebody who is gay, I find these comparisons extraordinarily offensive.”  (Amy Davidson, “The Animus of Antonin Scalia,” The New Yorker, December 12, 2012.)

The courage of Duncan Hosie points to one of the most troubling effects of the hate rhetoric propagated against sexual minority and gender minority people by Arkes, Santorum, Scalia, and others who share their hatred.  Such rhetoric fails entirely to recognize the loving and committed relationships between partners of the same sex, and functions instead to negate the humanity of those who experience same-sex attraction and thereby to legitimate hostility, discrimination, harassment, and violence against them.  All sexual minority and gender minority people are affected by this climate of hatred, but it is those who are most vulnerable, young people in the process of understanding their sexual orientation, who are most at risk.  Many adolescents who may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender must endure continuous hostility from peers, teachers, coaches, and from their own families.  Some are so tormented by this hostility that they are driven to suicide.  Reliable estimates are that, in the United States today, approximately 30-40% of adolescents who identify as sexual minority or gender minority have attempted suicide.  (Suicide Prevention Resource Centre, Newton, Massachusetts, 2008; www.sprc.org.  Research in coordination with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)  For specific instances of the cost in human lives exacted by  this hate rhetoric, one need only consider the recent series of tragic, heartbreaking suicides of young sexual minority or gender minority people that have been widely reported over the past several years.  Just as racist rhetoric legitimated lynching, just as anti-Semitic propaganda legitimated the Holocaust, so rhetoric suggesting that same-sex orientation is similar to the crimes of raping and murdering, and particularly to targeting helpless children and animals and to desecrating the dead, functions to legitimate homophobic hatred– and to cause the destruction of the lives of young people such as Lance Lundsten, 18; Samantha Johnson, 13; Justin Aaberg, 15; Jeanine Blanchette, 21; Chantal Dube, 17; Raymond Chase, 19; Haylee Fentress, 14; Paige Moravetz, 14; Asher Brown, 13; Seth Walsh, 13; Jack Reese, 18; Jeffrey Fehr, 18; and Tyler Clementi, 18.  The names of these young people, and of the many, many others who have killed themselves because of unendurable homophobic hatred, may mean nothing to Hadley Arkes, but they mean a great deal to me, and to anyone else who opposes the climate of hatred that Arkes and those that he influences perpetuate.  The fact that someone engaged in the teaching of vulnerable young people contributes actively and directly to the climate of hatred that damages and destroys many young lives is shocking and deeply disturbing.

Thus, an accurate analogy through which to understand the significance of Arkes’s attacks on same-sex relationships is one that, rather than comparing his statements with attacks on a particular religion, compares them directly with what it would be like if he had attacked the sexual feelings and relationships of the heterosexual majority.  How would the straight men in our class feel if he said about them and their loved ones and families what he says about me and mine?  Or my gay classmate, Robert Nathan?  Or any of the other gay men in the class?  Or the many gay men who have graduated from Amherst before and since our class?  Or the many lesbians who have graduated from Amherst since our class?  Or the millions of gay men and lesbians in America and around the world?  Or, indeed, the members of their own families– sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, in-laws– who are gay or lesbian?

My partner, Terence Forbes, and I met twenty-five years ago this Memorial Day; we’ve rarely spent a day apart since, except when he has gone to visit his sisters and brother in California.  He has been chronically ill for nearly two decades.  He never has made a trip to the doctor for treatment of his illness alone, and when he has been hospitalized at Upstate Medical Centre in Syracuse, I have visited him every day, even during the teaching semester, although our home and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where I teach, both are fifty miles from Syracuse, in opposite directions.  I love him, and he loves me.  But we had to go to great lengths with lawyers and hospital administrators to assure that I had the same access to him, and ability to make decisions to help him, that married couples had automatically.  That’s finally changing, but there is intensely hostile resistance from those who slander same-sex couples by equating them with depraved, brutal criminals.  The Defense of Marriage Act, which Hadley Arkes played an important role in formulating, and public figures who repeat his defamatory rhetoric against same-sex couples, such as his friend Antonin Scalia, his friend “Rick” Santorum, and many, many others who share the belief that Terry’s love for me, and mine for him, are comparable to child rape, animal rape, or corpse rape, have treated millions of same-sex couples as inferior and undeserving of all the rights and benefits that heterosexual couples take for granted.

Some may tell me to just forget about it, and others may claim that they can’t understand in what way Arkes’s statements possibly could constitute hate speech; I do not have the luxury of their indifference.  Neither do the thousands of others driven by such hatred to take their own lives.

The necessary requirement of empathy is to be able to put one’s self in another’s place, to think about what it must be like to be him or her, even if he or she is much different from one’s self.  Empathy is one of the most fundamental elements of literature, and one of its greatest powers — whereas minor writers are limited to the confines of their own personalities, great writers have the ability to imagine what it is like to be someone other than themselves, even someone with a different sexual orientation– and to show others what it might be like.  It’s fundamental to any religion worthy of the name.  It’s fundamental to being someone’s friend.  And I think it’s fundamental to trying to have a relatively civilized society.

I remain deeply grateful to Tito Craige, Warren Mersereau, John Greenberg, Ron Battocchi, and the many other straight men in our class who have done that, who have made the effort to put themselves in the place of their gay classmates, and who haven’t just forgotten about what it’s like for them.

I also remain very grateful to Robert Nathan, for helping to educate me and many others about the significance of Arkes’s destructive influence.

I invite other members of the majority to try to imagine what it is like for sexual minority and gender minority people to witness their love and relationships being repeatedly traduced and defamed in print by someone who continually invokes the prestige of Amherst’s name.  As one who has been engaged in college teaching for the past thirty-nine years, I am well aware of the importance of the principle of academic freedom, and I accept that this principle assures that any faculty member, including Arkes, may publish what he or she believes.  But I also am well aware that Arkes’s defamatory statements about sexual minorities and gender minorities are in stark contradiction to the equally important principles of inclusion, respect, and equality publicly affirmed by enlightened academic institutions, such as Amherst claims to be.  Thus far the College shamefully has failed to make any comment about the glaring contradiction between the progressive values that it claims to uphold regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and the dehumanizing, demonizing rhetoric being directed against them by Arkes in the College’s name.  I believe that it would not fail to do so if a faculty member were publishing analogous defamatory falsehoods against African-Americans or Jews, or any other group that has been attacked with hate speech.  Why does the College not do so when one of its faculty publishes such falsehoods against sexual minority and gender minority people, explicitly associating these falsehoods with the College’s name?  Amherst has a profound and urgent responsibility to inform the public that the hateful falsehoods propagated by Arkes in published statements identifying himself with the College are in explicit contradiction to its values.

Best,

Eric Patterson, ’70

About Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart, a 40-year journalism veteran, is publisher and an editor of the "Erasing 76 Crimes" and "76 Crimes en français" blogs. More profile information on Google+. Colin Stewart, un vétéran du journalisme de 40 ans, est éditeur et rédacteur en chef des blogs "Erasing 76 Crimes" et "76Crimes en français." Plus d'informations de profil sur Google+.
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2 Responses to Arkes’s defamatory statements are deeply offensive

  1. Pingback: Petition to the Amherst College board of trustees | Amherst Against Homophobia

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