We can’t ‘cure’ homosexuality; can we forgive the scientist who said we could?

In 2003, the highly regarded Dr. Robert L. Spitzer published what purported to be a study of the success of “conversion therapy” which said that it was possible to change one’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. This study is the foundation of a very great deal of anti-homosexual propaganda and programs. Nonetheless, it and its publication were deeply flawed. For one thing, such is Spitzer prestige, it was not peer reviewed by the journal. In addition, it relied on self-reports, some of which asked for data from the distant past, as one criticism said. Many experts in the field think it is worthless. And now so does Dr. Spitzer.

With descriptions that may seem designed to win sympathy for Spitzer, the NY Times reports:

Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, considered by some to be the father of modern psychiatry, lay awake at 4 o’clock on a recent morning knowing he had to do the one thing that comes least naturally to him.

He pushed himself up and staggered into the dark. His desk seemed impossibly far away; Dr. Spitzer, who turns 80 next week, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking, sitting, even holding his head upright.

The word he sometimes uses to describe these limitations — pathetic — is the same one that for decades he wielded like an ax to strike down dumb ideas, empty theorizing and junk studies.

Now here he was at his computer, ready to recant a study he had done himself, a poorly conceived 2003 investigation that supported the use of so-called reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality for people strongly motivated to change.

And certainly there are praise worthy facts here. Spitzer in fact is largely credited to getting homosexuality off the DSM’s list of mental disorders.** And not that many people are happy to confess to errors in public.

On the other hand, the supposed study has done a great deal of harm. Some of it is recounted in comments on the Times’ article. Here is one:

My mother died of Parkinson’s disease but I never got to see her in her waning years because she and my father cut me entirely out of their lives — because I’m gay. They refused me entry to their (formerly our) home. They wouldn’t respond to emails or take calls. All of this was after I “failed” reparative therapy — instead (in their minds) “choosing” a suicide watch in a mental hospital and “continuing” to be gay. They relied heavily upon this man’s “research” in their analysis, assessment, opinion and rejection of me.

I’m sorry to hear of this man’s illness. But his illness, and his apology, make his use of gay people as pawns in his game of professional status-seeking no less reprehensible. I, too, only have one regret — it’s this man’s “work” and contribution to my life. He made a very difficult road all but bitterly impossible.

No letter he ever writes will negates what he did.

A large number of the responders praise Spitzer’s recanting, and recommend he be forgiven for his study. That may be very facile. Should the people harmed, even demonized by those using the study forgive him. “It’s time to move on,” some people are saying. Unfortunately, there are things that one cannot simply move on from. The damage may be permanent, written on one’s mind and body in ways impossible to ignore. Ask victims of torture, among whom some commenters regard themselves. A successful life may be the best revenge, but the harm done may make success unfairly very much harder.

So how should we think about forgiveness in such cases? What do you think?

**A number of commenters on the article claim that the forthcoming DSM and psychiatry more generally is still very hostile to sexual differences.

61 thoughts on “We can’t ‘cure’ homosexuality; can we forgive the scientist who said we could?

  1. I’m sorry but I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. There are certainly a few places where being gay is unacceptable, and where that leads to all kinds of vicious bad stuff. But these aren’t places in which I, or I suspect, most people who read this blog, live. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being gay and of course there’s no serious possibility of changing sexual orientation–and no reason why anyone should try. But amongst us, the educated upper middle class, sexual orientation isn’t a problem. And eventually the lower classes and people in the third world who disagree will come around. Why bother fighting this fight?

    Who cares! There are issues that are more important and less divisive to promote. Give it a rest. Sexuality is trivial. And frankly I find it difficult to sympathize with gay people or other invisible minorities, and their concerns about being in the closet. As a woman I wish I had a closet to get into! I can’t pass for male, and neither can most black people pass for white. I find it hard to sympathize with complaints about pressure to be closeted by members of disadvantaged groups that can pass.

    Zipping up my asbestos suit…I leave you with that.

  2. In Houston, the estimate of homeless kids on the streets is about 1,700. A lot of them have been thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation. From a 2006 article in the Houston Chronicle:

    In 1984, Los Angeles opened the first shelter solely for sexual and gender minorities; it was followed shortly thereafter by one in New York City.

    Only recently, however, have nonprofits and government agencies begun recruiting gay or gay-friendly foster care parents, said Marksamer, also a staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights youth project.

    Washington, D.C., started a program to pair up mentors with gay and lesbian foster kids, and New York City and Philadelphia child welfare agencies have issued public appeals for gay-friendly foster parents, Woronoff said.

    “There is a huge need for families to take (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth,” said Jill Jacobs, executive director of an Oakland-area organization that works with gay and lesbian foster parents, “because there are many families that don’t want them.

  3. Yes. And how many of these throw-away kids have been kicked out of their homes because of sexual orientation? Data please: what is “a lot.” And how many people do YOU know who would kick out a kid because they were gay? This is a class issue.

  4. Regardless of this, I am intrigued about the issue Harriet brought up: is it easier to be a non-visible minority? In many situations where the people you interact with don’t know you, perhaps. But if they do know you it’s different.
    A friend of mine has a visual disability that is not immediately evident, but she has suffered discrimination for decades from a man who was her direct superior (preventing her from getting a permanent position etc) because he thought she could never be a good lecturer because of this disability (it’s illegal but still). Christian friends of mine get discriminated and their academic credentials are being questioned because they are Christians (this is perhaps less of a problem in other jobs).

  5. Hello Harriet:

    When Obama endorsed gay marriage, there were others who said to themselves that that’s a good way for him to guarantee the support of the left without taking on the banks and Wall Street about economic inequality, outsourcing, bad jobs, lack of social mobility, etc. . Endorsing gay marriage did not cost Obama a cent in campaign contributions, as speaking out about the concentration of wealth would and as I said, it assures him the vote of the left. A smart guy, Obama.

    Now if that kind of thing is what you’re getting at, well, it takes courage on your part. I congratulate you.

  6. swallerstein, I don’t know. There are a whole lot of people who are really rabid on the subject of sexuality – witness how Santorum took the whole prelim debate off to the sexual conservative side. Further, the African American community is said to be very anti-gay; certainly, voting patterns in my community, which is now minority white, suggest that being pro-gay is not going to make some major minority groups happy. Hispanics, of course, have the Church advising them.

    The NAACP came out in support of Obama’s decision re gay marriage a few days ago, but they were explicit about not expecting support right away from their community.

    He has, btw, spoken out about the concentration of wealth. Googling gives one some of the references, along with others that claim it has gotten worse under him:

    My gay son tells me that in his community (NYC) there’s a status to being able to pass as straight; that suggests being gay is less invisible than one might think.

  7. Houston, by the way, now has an openly gay mayor, so it isn’t as bad as it feels. But the marriage act failed everywhere in the state except for Austin and the east beach of Galveston.

  8. Helen, visibility is a matter of degree–the likelihood of your being found out. Disabilities and invisible ethnicity may get found out even if they aren’t immediately apparent at job interviews, and put you at a disadvantage down the line.But being female or being a member of a visible racial minority is immediately apparent and means that you won’t get the job in the first place. Being Christian in academia is certainly a disadvantage but you’re unlikely to get found out. And in my case people never even asked because they simply assumed that, since I wasn’t a raving brain-dead fundamentalist loony, since I actually had a PhD, that I must be an atheist. And I know someone who tells me that s/he intends to “stay in the closet” as a religious believer until tenure. Being a member of a non-visible minority is certainly much better than being visible providing that one can remain invisible, that is, providing the closet is secure.

    swallerstein, I agree. The debates about sexuality and social issues is an easy win for liberals because popular opinion is trending in that direction. It’s the economic issues that matter, and are being ignored as the ongoing noise about abortion, gay rights and other “lifestyle issues” goes on and on and on.

  9. Having attended two Catholic universities, and having come from a religious, educated, upper-middle class family I don’t think sexual orientation is no longer a big deal amongst the well-off educated folk. Certainly it is in some circles, but definitely not all. As to whether or not it’s easier to be a minority that can pass as something else, I tend to think unless one actually knows what that’s like, one isn’t in a position to accurately assess whether or not it is really easier. Regardless of that though, if there are bigger and easier issues, does that mean we shouldn’t sympathize with those who are subject to vicious bad stuff, to whatever degree or in whatever locale?

    I think I’d like to live where Harriet lives anyhow!

  10. Dr Harriett Baber: please rethink your initial post.
    I am one of the people you seem to think do not exist.
    too outraged to say more at the moment –
    Kate Abramson

  11. Anne:

    First of all, let me make my position clear. Everyone should vote for Obama.

    Second, I think that Obama already has the African-American vote. Whether they agree with his position on gay marriage or not, they will vote for him.

    He knows that.

    What he needs now is money, lots of money and that comes from liberal Wall Street democrats or from Hollywood democrats or Silicon Valley democrats, none of who are likely to donate large sums of money to someone who threatens their bank accounts, their class privileges or their power (which comes with money).

    Obama also needs volunteer infantry, the self-identified leftists, the people who do the day to day campaign work, who even if they are less than enthusiastic about his postures towards Wall Street and the banks, not to mention Guantánamo, the drones, etc., are charmed by his courage on the issue of gay marriage.

    As the campaign progresses and when he is sure that he can cover all expenses, then Obama can start to hit at wealth concentration with more force, fighting for swing voters and for those voters with less political identification, who are more concerned with paying their own bills and mortages than are his donnors.

  12. Well Harriet Baber, certainly because it isn’t a problem in your well educated, upper class community we should check equal rights off as “mission accomplished”, and obviously the views of the well educated upper class will trickle down to the poor and ignorant along with economic prosperity.

  13. As it happens I teach at a Catholic college. We have a LGBT student organization funded through the university. Being gay is not an issue. Now economic equality, social safety nets and redistribution are an issue, and we do have some students and faculty who lean toward libertarianism. But I do not know of a single faculty member or student who thinks that there is anything wrong, weird or socially unacceptable with being gay. I say “I do not know”–there may be some, but they wouldn’t dare admit it because it would not be acceptable in polite company at the Catholic college where I teach.

  14. Harriet: I know very few gay people, and those I know seem to be well supported (for instance, my cousin has had great support from her family and friends when she outed herself as a lesbian a couple of years ago). So I’ll revert to the earlier analogous situation of invisible minority I sketched. You say “Being Christian in academia is certainly a disadvantage but you’re unlikely to get found out…And I know someone who tells me that s/he intends to “stay in the closet” as a religious believer until tenure.” Isn’t it problematic that this person feels she has to stay in the closet? When I got the offer to blog at prosblogion, I thought for a moment “Isn’t this a bad career move, seeing that I don’t have tenure, even not a TT position?”
    I can imagine that being gay, even in progressive academia, one might similarly worry about throwing around clues that might devastate one’s chances and relationships with other people. That’s not a healthy situation.

  15. Still way too angry to speak to my own many, many, experiences of discrimination (among the well educated upper class as well as my less than upper class upbringing– I went to college as an emancipated minor, Dr. Baber)
    But as for the claim that “being gay is not an issue” among the philosophical, well, , let’s start here:
    (Though, of course, those of us who are actually opposed to discrimination did win that particular battle, with roughly 1500 signatures on the document that opposed, rather than favored, discrimination against gay folks in the hiring, tenure and promotion of philosophers]
    –someone get me a Martini–
    Kate Abramson

  16. I didn’t claim that being gay wasn’t disadvantageous–I simply suggested that it was not as bad, in fact not nearly as bad, as being a woman or a member of a visible minority. And I didn’t say that being closeted was unproblematic. The question is how likely are you to be discovered, and if you are discovered, how bad will it be for you–to what extent, if at all, will you be professionally disadvantaged? socially excluded or marginalized or whatever? My impression is that it’s easier to hide being a Christian than it is to hide being gay because in socializing with colleagues there is the question about families and partners. But that in Academia if you are ‘out’ being gay is far more acceptable than being a religious believer.

    The question is not bad or not but how bad it is to belong to various disadvantaged groups. I have just suggested that being gay isn’t as bad as being female or black–or fat, or old. It isn’t as bad because it’s easier to hide and because even if found out it isn’t as disadvantageous as other disadvantages. For example, it isn’t nearly as stigmatized as being fat, at least for women.

    So let’s get real. There is a problem for gays. There is discrimination, particularly when you get outside the charmed circle of the urban-coastal elite. But it isn’t nearly as bad the the problem that women and members of visible racial minorities face and amongst high prestige groups isn’t nearly as bad as being fat.

  17. Well, at my undergraduate institution, there was a GLBTQA student group funded through the university. However, at every annual forum where the students were able to express their views/goals to the administration, hundreds of students would go with the expressed intent of letting the administration know that they did not want the university to continue to fund the GLBTQA student group. I was a member myself as an ally, and for my entire senior year of undergrad, representatives of those students who did not want this group would attend our meetings (which were open to all) to “keep watch” and see if we did/said anything “anti-Catholic” enough that they could complain. This is not by any means an unusually conservative Catholic school. It’s located in a generally liberal state, in a large metropolitan community. I could tell you story after story of how I was negatively treated just because I was an ally– never mind how GLBTQ students themselves were treated, nevermind the healthcare situation for the partners of faculty, nevermind the policies related to travel and parental leave, never mind how it affected the tenure process for some, and nevermind the conservative Catholic groups that would protest just off our campus and hand out pamphlets about the moral decay of the university given the allowance of a university-sponsored GLBTQA student group and gay faculty.

    Now, at my graduate school, they won’t allow the formation of a university sponsored GSA, the healthcare situation is the same (actually a bit worse), and though I don’t know if this has ever actually taken place, our graduate student policies allow for students to face punishment, lose their funding, or even be kicked out if one engages in certain kinds of “immoral” sexual behavior.

  18. After reading your last comment Harriet, I can’t help but wonder– do you think it’s possible that just as it seems that discrimination against GLBTQ folks is worse outside of the charmed circle of urban-coastal elite, that discrimination against fat women is worse in circles you’ve been exposed to?

  19. When someone writes: “…Who cares!…”

    And when someone then writes: “There are issues that are more important and less divisive to promote. Give it a rest. Sexuality is trivial.”

    And when someone writes before the first quotation above, “And eventually the lower classes and people in the third world who disagree will come around. Why bother fighting this fight?”

    When someone writes these things, I think it is part of a very serious problem. I am regretfully/sadly glad that a few people, such as Katy Abramson, began to express outrage and anger about such claims and the broader attitudes/beliefs expressed along with them. Outrage and anger seem entirely appropriate. Of course, dialectic aimed at identifying reasons for disagreement and the scope/seriousness of (alleged) relevant problems (and in at least some if not many cases their interconnectedness) seems especially appropriate and important too. If I expressed the analogies that come to mind to communicate why I do not wish to engage in such discourse/dialectic/polemics, I suspect it would not help matters in any constructive way.

  20. I happen to be fat, gay, female, and from a working class background. And I’m totally, amazingly appalled at the comments Harriet Baber is spewing on a feminist blog. There are so many things wrong here I need to number them!

    #1) Are we seriously having an oppression olympics issue here?

    #2) Perhaps for *you* being fat or female is harder than being gay. But why would you think your experience holds for everyone? (I assume you MUST be glbt right–otherwise you would know better than to assume that you know what the experiences of other minority groups are like and that you are capable of determining what sort of minority status is easier or worse to deal with.)

    #3) I have no idea why you are focusing only on how hard it is to be gay *in academia*. That is not what the original post was about. But even so, gay academics do have lives outside of academia, like everyone else. (Insert 1000+ rights associated with marriage and parenting that same-sex couples do not have federally or in most states including the state I live in.)

    It appears that it has not occurred to you that the lives outside of the office can play a HUGE role in one’s academic/work choices and therefore one’s success. This is something I have been struggling with for years on the job market. In most of the country my wife and I are not legally recognized in any way (insert 1000+ rights again). In most of the country any child either of us gives birth to will be a legal stranger to the other of us. Thus every time I apply for a job I ask “is this job worth moving to a state where one of us will have absolutely no legal rights whatsoever to our children?” Then there is the health insurance issue–an amazingly large percentage of colleges and universities in the U.S. do not offer domestic partner benefits and so (when they are in states that don’t offer second parent adoption or same-sex marriage) don’t offer health insurance to one’s non-bio children either.

    I am just amazed that these issues are “trivial” to you and so it is supposed to be just completely obvious that it is harder to be fat or female than gay (in the U.S.? in academia?) Where’s your data for this? How many lesbian/bi, fat, women did you ask about this–because this one vehemently disagrees with every fiber of my being!*

    #4) Why are you assuming that since “we” are all middle-class or that none of us know anyone who is the sort of person who would throw out a child for being gay? First, less educated working class people are not the only haters of gays. (But even if there is a class association–which no doubt there is–so what? Is it less bad when gay kids are treated horribly when they are working class? I am totally confused.) Second, how many gay people and the details of their family background and choices about coming out do you actually know? If it’s been all roses and acceptance you must live in an amazing bubble. I am lucky to have a very rosy and accepting family myself, but I know an awful lot of less lucky gay people who I’m sure would like to move to your bubble land.)

    #5) I am surprised that you have never had any student/faculty express disapproval of homosexuality. I have experienced this in every single class in which I have taught about same-sex marriage or same-sex families. One student even suggested in a paper on the problem of evil that HIV is a punishment from God against gays. I teach at a top public university in a liberal city in a moderate state. And this, of course, is just the students who are willing to openly express their opposition to homosexuality and equal rights. I have to assume that others share these opinions but don’t express them for fear of what other students will think of them. (For this reason, I would expect that the real prejudice is not going to be of the form “I hate gays” said openly in class, but the less conscious or purposefully hidden attitudes. Similarly, while I certainly think sexism and androcentrism have made the path of doing philosophy harder for me as I am female, never, ever has any student or faculty member expressed any overt sexism toward me or in my presence. But of course, the fact that I have never been groped and no one has ever openly expressed the thought that women are less talented at philosophy than men doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of sexism and androcentrism under the surface. Nor has anyone ever overtly made any anti-fat comments in my presence, though I have no doubt these prejudices also exist throughout academia.)

    #6) The closet—I don’t even know what to say. Have I been transported backward 20+ years to a place where it is acceptable suggest that staying closeted is such a decent alternative that it’s not worth bothering to fight against anti-gay oppression. Seriously? And on a feminist blog of all places?

    * I don’t believe in engaging in the oppression olympics. Honestly I am shocked that anyone interested in or knowledgeable about feminism and social justice is so blatantly engaging in them. I thought this was Women’s Studies 101 stuff. There is no scale of oppression and even if there were some scale people also do not fall into just one category.

    Each of my own “minority” statuses have brought about very different kind of challenges. I honestly cannot see how I would put them on a scale or determine which is worse. I have no doubt that being female has made the philosophy much harder. But absolutely, 100% SO has being gay. *Currently* particularly the issues of family recognition, rights to children, and health insurance, far, far, far, far outweigh any concerns about gender *for me* right now.

    The idea that someone who doesn’t share all of those identities would assume that she or he knows what my scale (or the objective scale) would look like is amazingly offensive.

  21. Anon 21 here. Two additions #7–most Americans, most philosophers, most colleges/universities, and most college students being taught by philosophers are not part of the “coastal elite.” So even if it were true that among well educated, middle class people in Connecticut and California there is NO prejudice or discrimination against gay people,most gay people (probably including gay philosophers) do not live on the coasts.

    #8–You don’t know how hard it was to write this comment in a civil tone. Unsurprisingly it is very hard to not react with crazy anger when someone tells you, essentially how you are mistaken about your own oppression and that they (who do not even appear to share the social identities in question!) no that your problems are simply trivial and not worth fighting against!

  22. Dear commenters, Like many of you, I find it hard to believe HB’s comments are well grounded, though I guess it might be possible to have a rosy view from a particular socio-economic niche in San Diego.

    Many of you have spoken very vividly of different experiences, ones that are too familiar to me, in so far as I’ve seen some of the problems faced by my gay son, including life-threatening situations.

    Still, that’s not really what the post is about. The questions raised by the repudiation of highly influential research are important, as is the – for me, at least – the very vexing issue of forgiveness.

    I’d certainly also be really interesting in seeing discussions of topics that are just now arising, such as invisibility. But I think we should move on from HB’s comments. I would hate to find violations of our ‘be nice’ rule.

  23. Anne: surely the expression of entirely appropriate reactive attitudes doesn’t violate the relevant ‘be nice’ rule, nu? Otherwise, ‘be nice’ runs the danger of turning into ‘be a doormat’. I’m kinda over that. ;)

  24. Katy, the imputation of bad motives, along with other mental faults, count as being against the rule. I think we might be getting close.

    Anyone on the blog can remove comments, so I’m thinking in part of others’ judgments in the past.

  25. Anne: thanks for turning the discussion back to the original topic.

    I believe when a person recognizes a wrong they have committed and seeks forgiveness, regardless of how heinous the wrong, forgiveness should be given. It is important that the offender acknowledge their actions, and Dr. Spitzer has done so (though he could have done so a lot sooner). We are all vulnerable to committing acts that have horrible consequences we did not foresee. Consider all the traffic accidents caused by bad judgement, and no one is a perfect driver. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable or that reparation shouldn’t be made if possible, but to quote a few words of wisdom “There but for the grace of God go I”, and “judge not lest ye be judged.” Thinking that you could never commit so bad a sin is hubris.

    Forgiveness isn’t easy, but it is a cleansing act for both the sinner and the sinned against. There have been and will continue to be many times in our lives when we are one or the other and let us hope we can both give and receive forgiveness when needed.

  26. I agree that forgiveness is the right thing here. That is not to say I might be able to do it. I have taught various courses on the nature of evil in which we looked at philosophical and religious views as well as historical examples. In my readings, the most impressive of all of the writers I’ve encountered is Bishop Desmond Tutu. I recommend his book No Future Without Forgiveness. You can find various quotes from it here: http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5943.Desmond_Tutu. Forgiveness is very often conceptualized within a religious framework, and there are religions that are not big on it, Judaism among them. Tutu, obviously, comes out of a Christian framework, but he also emphasizes in his book an African concept of “ubuntu.” He explains this as follows: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

  27. I take issue with the claim that forgiving is a moral requirement. And I am in good company philosophically. Peter French has written a book called The Virtues of Vengeance and it’s worth a read for anyone interested in the topic: http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/frevir.html

    Another interesting book is Simon Weisenthal’s “The Sunflower.” It presents a diversity of opinions on the matter and I highly recommend it: http://www.amazon.com/The-Sunflower-Possibilities-Forgiveness-Paperback/dp/0805210601

    Whether or not to forgive is a right that a victim has and should exercises it as s/he sees fit (maybe never). Victims owe perpetrators NOTHING. Further, I am very uncomfortable with the claim that victims find “cleansing” through forgiveness, as if the victim is filthy in some way. Broken, yes. Filthy, no. Of course, cleansing can also refer to letting go of hurt, but this is incredibly idealistic when we’re speaking of moral wrongs that violate a person’s basic human rights (including the right not to be tortured). I am not a big fan of positive psychology. It can do more harm than good. Moral wrongs against identity are like accidents wherein one loses limbs: victims live with the psychic version of phantom limb pain for the rest of their lives (and yes, some harms push people beyond the point of resiliency and they can break irreversibly). I understand that the Christian perspective on forgiveness includes the notion that forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks a person may ever face, but this is simply wrong. Picking up the pieces of your life and attempting to move on as a whole person is much, much harder than forgiving. As a victim you have to stand face-to-face with the brutal (and often very lonely) reality that people can violently degrade you, publicly humiliate you, and reduce you to a thing unworthy of moral consideration, while an unfazed public stands by doing nothing to help, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. As for platitudes like “but for the grace of god, etc.”: it seems to me that this is nothing more or less than an appeal to moral luck and I find it out of place in the present context. That I didn’t run over a child who was whisked out of my way at the last minute is a bit of moral luck. That I didn’t propagate mass violence against a group of people because of their race/religion/gender/sexual orientation etc. goes way beyond moral luck. With that said: I strongly suspect that more often then not, in cases like this, all forgiveness accomplishes is making everyone else around the victim feel more comfortable (i.e. sanitizing by sweeping that ugly pain out of sight).

  28. On the “very vexing issue of forgiveness” (thanks Anne for going back to the topic), I have an issue with thinking of it as a “we” issue. Communities cannot make emotional decisions for their individual members, can they? Unless you’re framing forgiveness morally?

    But we can certainly talk about “negating” and “scapegoating”. The idea that this study acted in complete isolation to have a negative impact on some people’s lives seems to me ludicrous, but “erasing” the fact that it participated in an oppressive system is no better. I would say that we cannot forget, I would tend to forgiveness myself (for similar reasons to Merry’s), and as for others, I would let them free to choose whether they want to forgive or not…

    Now if the question is “shall one affected seek reparation”, my answer is still that it is an individual’s decision. I don’t see that as having much to do with forgiveness either (justice and forgiveness… different concepts), though. I incline to think that society “as a whole” should not seek reparation, because as plaintif, “society as whole” is looking a little too guilty itsef (see: scapegoating). I could be convinced otherwise on this last point, though, I can feel that my quick thinking on the subject is quite shabby…

  29. I tend to think forgiveness is almost always the right thing. Of course, that’s not to say that transformation isn’t required, reparations aren’t required, or that we shouldn’t expect these things even once we’ve forgiven– but I think larger cultural and political transformation can only be accomplished once patterns of violence, hate, exclusion, fear, etc. are sufficiently disrupted. As cheesy/corny as this all probably sounds, I think forgiveness is part of that (though, I don’t see forgiveness as much else than renouncing hatred, anger, or bitterness; if we mean forgiveness in the sense of pardon, then my answer would be different). The concept of ubuntu reminds me of a recognition of the Buddhist concept of non-duality; recognizing that the well-being of each of us is tied up in the well-being of others. I’m sure it’s easier to say this though, given that I haven’t been directly harmed by his work.

  30. “I didn’t claim that being gay wasn’t disadvantageous–I simply suggested that it was not as bad, in fact not nearly as bad, as being a woman or a member of a visible minority” @Harriet Baber you don’t know what you’re talking about. I suggest you educate yourself first before throwing around baseless opinions. Furthermore, it’s not an oppression Olympics.

    As for forgiving Robert L. Spitzer, I’m not sure there’s anything to forgive. He made a grave error that affected a not-insignificant number of GLBT people, was responsible for some odious social policy, and simply by engaging with the ‘conversion therapy’ rubbish in the way he did, he granted it a certain legitimacy. These aren’t things you can simply say, “I made a mistake,” about and we all go, “Oh, well, that’s alright then!” Personally he would have to do a commensurate amount of work to undo the damage, that is to say demonstrate through his actions that he understands the gravity of his error.

    More generally, and with the DSM, I think this is an important issue in feminism (and the everywhere else) with the horrific anti-trans (and anti-sex work) attitudes of certain people that claim to be radical feminists. Daly, Raymond, Dworkin and others’ codified legal, social, and medical discrimination against trans people – especially trans women – and this is continued today with Jeffries, Bindel, even less obviously Grosz among others – just have a read of #radfem2012.

  31. I’ve thought quite a bit on psychiatry and feminism (and especially DSM categories), and I’m not sure there’s anything quick to be said here.

    As far as Spitzer goes, his main mistake is that he gave a too-short and glib treatment to a very complex topic. One problem is that he failed to adequately distinguish between engaging with “conversation therapy” nonsense (which is bad) and engaging with the question of whether sexual orientation is malleable (which is really interesting, and far from obviously answered). The former issue concerns a bunch of homophobic hacks, while the latter involves asking interesting questions about how people are labeled and how labels interact with our nature. I think Spitzer may have tried to engage the latter through the former, but failed rather spectacularly. It’s no shock. Conversation therapy homophobes do not deserve engagement in respectable literature. Beyond this, anyone addressing the issue of whether sexual orientation can be changed needs to be able to confront the possibility that our terminology for sexual orientation is simply inadequate for addressing the full range of actual sexual orientations in the population. Once you start thinking about some of the sexuality spectrum approaches (people like Kinsey and Klein, etc.), it’s far from clear that the terminology folks are working with is even adequate to getting at what people are really like. That greatly complicates the issue of changing orientations.

    As far as sexual orientation and the DSM is concerned, it’s complicated. Homosexuality was “taken out” in the early 1970s, but it kept reappearing in different forms until well into the 1980s. Some activists have argued that the DSM’s current classification of gender identity is really homosexuality in disguise. I heard that case made somewhat convincingly at a conference last November, but I’m not completely on board. I suspect that classification is only pathologizing certain forms of homosexuality, but it’s a complex issue.

  32. Let me start with a terminological note: I meant the “we” to be understood the way it would normally be with “should we forgive our parents?” The plural doesn’t mean we should act a a group or society.

    One problem I have with forgiveness is understanding what it means. Kathryn remarks, “I don’t see forgiveness as much else than renouncing hatred, anger, or bitterness…” In practical terms, that seems to me to sound healthy. It leaves out something, though. That is whether we have anything to do with the person any more. One could think of this as plural (should we a society of scholars object to further publications from this person), or singular: Do I have to associate with this person any more? Have I forgiven if being around the person makes me feel queasy?

    Reparations seems to me a separable question, but more and more I’m inclined to think my life is healthier if I stay away from people who have tried to injure me, even if they cannot see themselves as doing that. So I personally might want reparations in the case of serious material harm, but I’d otherwise probably prefer to be left alone.

    In the present case, though, I’d very much would want reparations, and perhaps for the reason that his actions have helped make the society less just, and in a way I particularly care about. I’d want Spitzer to write to various organizations to challenge their practices; I’d like to see him on those religious networks. Perhaps he could request interviews with influential publications. And so. Plenty of people with serious communication problems still manage a public presence on very important issues, and one would hope he would too.

    In this respect, Kudos to the NY Times for making a big deal of his retraction.

  33. Matt, thanks for bringing up the issue of the varieties of sexuality. It’s a very important component.

  34. Anne, I was thinking about just that after I commented. I’m not sure what I think. I can’t remember where I read this, but someone once described agape as the kind of love that refuses to make reciprocity a condition for care. That’s sort of what I tend to think forgiveness should involve– but I don’t know that giving up on bitterness, anger, etc., and caring for someone involves requiring that we continue to associate with them in a certain sense. I actually think caring for someone might manifest itself through refusing to associate with someone, if you think that their behavior is egregious enough, and they are oblivious enough, that the only way to help them see the extent of the harm they’ve done is to make it clear that folks to not want to be around them, work with them, publish with them, and so on, until their behavior changes or until they’ve made reparations.

    I’m not committed, really, to any of this–this is more just my first thoughts…

  35. Kathryn, thanks for these reflections. I think a lot of every day perpetrators probably would not feel forgiven if they were, as it were, no longer allowed in one’s society. E.g., a person one hangs up on probably doesn’t feel forgiven. But it might be that one has no option, given an obligation to avoid harm to oneself and, perhaps, one’s family. Also, as you point out, they shouldn’t be encouraged to think these things don’t matter.

    I’ve thought quite a bit about Read Montague’s work on borderline personality disorders, supposing that is a genuine and legitimate diagnosis. His fMRI work suggest that, contrary to what one would think, borderline people recognize fully when they break norms in treating others, but they are poor to recognize when others are offending against them. That sounds just wrong, but its occurred to me that what has happened is that they haven’t register the disapproval that blowing up at others and attempting to hurt them tends to generate. So they don’t learn to moderate explosive, vindictive, etc., behavior.

    Anyway, some random thoughts.

    These are very difficult issues and, as women in philosophy, we have probably had way too much experience of them.

  36. Oops. I just realized that above I had written “conversation therapy” where I meant “conversion therapy.” Of course, I have no problems with conversation. Conversation is great.

  37. I live in the Houston area and teach philosophy to first- and second- year college students. I am a minority in terms of sexual orientation and class and, to a certain lesser extent, in relation to disability. I am also, visibly, female. As I philosopher, I am also a member a good number of under-represented groups. I don’t come out to my students re: sexual orientation, but I have had the distinct privilege of being complained about to my superiors for being a lesbian and thereby an abomination before god (again, I don’t come out to my students). I hear this complaint went all the way to the top administrators for my campus. In addition, a student was recently assaulted for having a pro-gay patch or button on his/her backpack on my campus, and a year ago our LGBT dance was almost cancelled because at the last minute an administrator realized that a predominantly hispanic ceremonial event was scheduled at the same time on the same campus as the LGBT dance. Eventually they decided the dance could go on, but only if no-one “cross-dressed”. How is that for conflict of interest? In this case, LGBT students and the LGBT campus faculty and staff continue to be asked to take the “hit”, but what does this say about the perceived worth of LGBT individuals? What kind of harm is being done?

  38. I’m sorry that I hadn’t read through all the comments before posting my last post. A few comments on forgiveness:

    1) Forgiveness is perhaps not the predominant issue here for me. What this teaches me is how deeply ingrained some of our foundational beliefs become that we also become convinced that their truth is “self-evident”. It is a truism among many under-represented philosophers, I believe, that it is difficult, sometimes, to tell the difference between what is claimed to be “self-evident” and what appears to be someone’s or some group’s tradition. There is often a good reason for this difficulty. Hence, whenever a claim to self-evidence is made, I am wont to think immediately as well to scrutinize the claim for the fallacy of “appeal to tradition”.

    2) Another issue that this brings up for me is how we are all so willing to condemn another for making a mistake, or for harming another, but not so well trained at discerning the many ways in which our own unconscious actions may have unwittingly “harmed” another in ways that are not obvious to us merely because we have not lived their lives or experienced their particular form of social oppression. Many questions come to mind from this: How important is intention? To what extent do we take into consideration the human tendency to grow and change, and to what extend are we willing to see the courage to do so as an admirable character trait, despite the harm that was once caused? What is the purpose of consciousness-raising? Who will want to go through this process if the outcome is outright condemnation despite one’s growth? To what extent do we harm another human being when we “fix” them into a picture of what they were at a particular time in their lifespan? What types of action are unforgivable, or are such that we have to say that a human has no hope of truly changing? Do we want to hold someone responsible for actual harm or forseeable harm? Forseeable to whom? And there are others, but this is getting long.

    3) Finally, do we need to make a distinction between forgiving and not holding one responsible? If we forgive, is there a possiblity that we also acknowledge that with that forgiveness comes a responsibility on the part of the forgiven to act in accordance with what they have learned as a result of their action and the subsequent effect it has had on others? Or is there a different type of “holding responsible” that needs to be looked at as well?

    Okay. That’s about all I have for now. Thanks for the discussion and all of your reflections.

  39. Oh, damn. One last thing. Now we do have some amunition to use when confronted with someone who is still under the spell of the idea that conversion therapy is an option. Cheers!

  40. Forgiveness seems to me to have to do with blame, with no longer blaming someone, with wiping the slate clean.

    However, in the case of borderline people, whom Anne mentions above, they are not to blame. They do not consciously and willfully harm others, although they do a lot of damage to others.

    So I do not forgive borderline people, simply because I do not blame them.

    Now, since borderline people do a lot of harm, I try to avoid them as much as possible, to steer clear of them.

    In fact, in general, most people who harm others do not it willfully or out of “evil” intentions, so there is nothing to forgive, although there are lots of people whom I watch out for.

    As for anger towards those who do one harm, anger is actually at times a useful emotion because it movilizes one’s alertness, defense mechanisms and one’s willingness to hit back, verbally or otherwise.

    Anger seems to have little to do with blaming others and more to do with defending oneself.

    I’m less concerned with judging whether others are to blame and with protecting myself (and those I care for) from those who do harm.

  41. Thanks, Rob. WW, thanks to you also for these confirming accounts. I’m about to close down for a while, but I hope others will pick up your remarks and questions. A few last comments, though:

    I think someone else also noticed that there are plenty of injurious acts performed by people who do not realize just what they are doing, or to whom, or …etc. Maybe I should say that when I’ve been addressing these questions, I’ve been thinking of pretty large and significant harms, the sort done with intentionally and with awareness of at least some of the harm that will come.

    As for others, I am sure I’ve done my share, and I also hope I find forgiveness for those easier. E.g, it isn’t really my business to track down the motives of the person who pulls out at the last minute from an arrangement and leaves one stranded for a dinner companion at some official function. I think that if we’re going to kill friendships for these small things we’ll be deservedly lonely. Not that my track record here is so good…

    For people who insist conversion is possible, maybe one could distract them with the question of climate change or, better still, get them interested in finding out the real cause of the 9/11 towers collapsing. That is to say, they may not be people who will change their minds.

  42. SW: I agree with much of what you say. I’m perhaps not so clear about the line between nuttiness and evil.

  43. I would like to recommend yet another great piece of work that specifically addresses the question of when people are culpable for moral harms: http://www.amazon.com/Facing-Evil-John-Kekes/dp/0691020957/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1337654456&sr=1-7

    I tend to agree with Kekesm, though am not sure that all of his arguments succeed. In any case, people are still responsible for moral harms even if they didn’t *intend* to cause them. Of course, this point is debatable and one’s view is going to depend largely on what normative theory of ethics you tend to favor. Kekes’ view is an interesting blend of consequentialism and virtue ethics.

  44. harriet baber – This I guess is the problem with upper class White feminists – self-absorbed to a point where it is harmful. Heterosexual privilege must be a lovely thing to have to be able to call sexuality – trivial.

    Quote “There are issues that are more important and less divisive to promote. ” if the issue is trivial, why is it divisive, is that not a rather glaring error in logic.

  45. Thabo, many people here have expressed negative reactions to HB’s post, from dismay to outrage. We are often privileged white women; your opening generalization does not fit the facts.

  46. Also, I should say that, sadly, academia is often plagued by bitter, divisive battles over incredibly small issues.

  47. Since this is Feminist Philosophers, I’m going to go ahead and advertise my work. There’s only one book on forgiveness from a feminist perspective, and it’s my book, _Forgiveness from a Feminist Perspective_. It’s been very interesting to read the comments on this thread, and I suggest that it is in the interests of people of many genders and many perspectives that we retain the possibilities of forgiveness when there’s not clear blame, forgiveness by groups and communities, and forgiveness as a speech act, or a change of heart, or an endless recommitment which must remain open-ended.

    So much to say! I’ll forbear from going on and on.

  48. While the discussion has rightly moved on from Baber’s comments, and while almost all of what I would have to say about it has already been said very well, I think there is one more misleading point that really should be answered (although WickedWitty hints at it):

    Contrary to what Baber suggests, it is simply not the case that “gay people” are an invisible minority. For various reasons, some can pass, but many others cannot. For one thing, I know from my own experience, as well as the reports of many others, that teasing (and worse) often starts well before talk of being in our out of the closet makes any sense at all. To get a sense of this, one need only watch any number of the videos collected on http://www.itgetsbetter.org/ — as Dan Savage notes in his video, “I was obviously gay and some kids didn’t like that and I did get harassed.”

  49. Jmsytsma, you’ve made a very important point. I think the monitoring of behavior can start very early; that is, there’s a lot of scrutiny for signs of sexual orientation even with very young kids.

    I had once again when I was back in England the sense that small children there are under less pressure to monitor their own behavior and fit gender stereotypes – which isn’t to say that there are no pressures on them. In any case, when there’s pressure the kids will have an early sense of that dimension of appraisal. It can be very hard for people with even very slight differences.

  50. jennysaul: Golly, thanks!

    jmsytsma, yes, what you said. The visible/invisible distinction between minorities seems to me both oversimplified and question-begging.

  51. Children are incredibly cruel towards other children who manifest the slightest difference in sexual orientation or gender role behavior.

    However, they are equally cruel towards all other children who are too fat or too thin,
    whose faces deviate from the norm, whose clothing is old-fashioned, whose parents behave “weirdly”, who are inept at sports and games, who know “too much” or “too little”, who are shy or introverted, who don’t watch the right TV programs or listen to the right pop music, who misuse childish slang, etc., etc.

    I honestly do not understand why the CIA does not hire more children for its Guantánamo operations.

  52. I think Harriet’s comment represents wishful thinking. Hauling out a mood from Latin class–would that it were true! I will say, though (on her behalf) that it’s more often true than you might think. My kids go to a high school in a conservative, religious Texas suburb. People do and say the weirdest things — they wear purity rings, talk about whether Obama is a Muslim, and the like. It’s amazing that in that setting, gay kids do not seem to have a hard time. A friend of theirs is the daughter of the most stereotypical conservative Christians you can imagine. She is a happy, popular, “out” lesbian with a girlfriend, “out” even on facebook. If you’re not cool with it, you’re regarded as an idiot. So the times they are a-changing — which is not say they’re changing everywhere, or fast enough. There are plenty of anecdotes that show that some gay kids (just think of Tyler Clementi) still have a tough time.

  53. I agree with the points others have made about sexual orientation not being nearly as invisible as it is sometimes thought to be (at least for a significant proportion of gay, lesbian, bi people).

    But I also think the focus on closeting and visibility and the costs of “being out” are problematic in another way. This sort of talk seems to assume that the main form of anti-gay oppression is anti-gay prejudice and associated discrimination that occurs on an *individual* basis–i.e. your supervisor, your colleagues, your students, the administration doesn’t like you or is uncomfortable around you and so rate your work, your teaching, etc. lower than they otherwise would or don’t include you in the reading group or give you the worst committee assignments, etc. Of course, if the individuals around don’t know you are a sexual minority they can’t commit these sorts of acts of discrimination against you.

    But this focus on *individual* attitudes of prejudice and *individual* acts of discrimination ignores entirely institutional and structural discrimination–i.e. the lack of recognition of one’s family as a family for the purposes of all sorts of employee benefits at the university level. How does staying in the closet help one get health insurance for one’s partner and child if the university in question does not offer domestic partner benefits/domestic partner’s child benefits? (Or maybe having the audacity to even have a partner and a child in the first place–even if one hides their existence to colleagues–is itself a form of coming out of the closet?) It just doesn’t make any sense to talk about being an “invisible” minority and thus being able to escape oppression when you think about institutional discrimination of this sort. One can’t avoid the cost of not being able to give insurance to one’s non-biological child in a same-sex partnership through one’s employer by “staying in the closet” about having the partner and child! Whether one stays mum about the child’s existence or screams it from the rooftops, either way at probably half the colleges/universities in the country the kid is not getting insurance through the college/university.

    I have noticed a tendency amongst progressive, even feminist academics to see the importance of thinking about structural/institutional oppression when it comes to race and gender, but not nearly as often when it comes to sexual orientation. For instance, a few years ago I was once a finalist for a job at a religious institution and only at that point in the process did I deeply investigate the gay-friendliness of the institution. The university offered no benefits of any kind for domestic partners or one’s non-biological child with a domestic partner. In addition, the administration at this university had repeatedly rebuffed efforts to add “sexual orientation” to the anti-discrimination policy and explained, essentially, that it wanted to maintain the right to discriminate against those who “practice” homosexuality. It refused to officially recognize lbgt student groups for the similar reasons.

    I expressed significant hesitation to continue pursuing the possible opportunity after learning about all of this to colleagues and a number of them immediately think that my worries were about how individuals in the philosophy department would treat me as a gay person–i.e. will they devalue my work, give me bad teaching assignments, fail to properly mentor me, etc. At one point I also talked to a member of the department about the issues and she also immediately assumed I was concerned about day to day interactions with colleagues in the philosophy department. She assured me that she had never witnessed any anti-gay discrimination. Now of course, in being charitable in interpreting her words I am sure what she meant was that she had noticed any *individual* acts of discrimination or overt prejudice amongst colleagues and administrators; and expressing this is compatible with recognizing the problems at the institutional level (which she clearly did). It is interesting to me, though, that when I brought up treatment of lgbt people and discrimination issues at this university these folks all seemed to immediately think about the day to day issues in the department rather than about the institutional issues, whereas I prioritized them in somewhat the opposite way.

    As an analogy, it was somewhat like if I discovered that a university refused to offer any maternity leave for its employees because it did not approve of working mothers (clearly an institutional problem) and so allowed women to go unpaid if they needed time off and for the time off to be held against them in future reviews of their work. And suppose when expressing my worries about this policy and thus my hesitation to pursue the job, was told by others about how the members of the philosophy department do not agree with the policy and are perfectly approving of working mothers. Of course, it would be reassuring in a sense to hear that the members of the department do not themselves have or express sexist attitudes, but that fact doesn’t undo the institutional injustice nor prevent its very serious harm. Having nice non-sexist colleagues doesn’t get you maternity leave if the university itself does not provide leave. Similarly having nice non-homophobic colleagues doesn’t get your child health insurance if the university refuses to recognize the child as yours.

    Focusing on visibility vs. invisibility and passing or strategically staying in the closet–all of this talk seems to situate the discussion squarely within the individual prejudice/day to day discrimination arena rather than the institutional arena, which in my view at least is the more important arena. And that just seems like a huge mistake. We know from thinking about racism and sexism how damaging this over-focus on individual overt prejudice/discrimination can be. It’s easy for people to reason from “I–and my colleagues, my friends, my family, most people I know, most Americans–am not a racist or a sexist. Therefore, racism and sexism do not exist.” It’s very easy to reason from the fact that there are no or very few individuals expressing overt race/sex prejudice in the form of discrimination to a conclusion that there is no racism/sexism if you think the only possible sort of racism/sexism is the individual form. Let’s not make a similar mistake in thinking about lgbt issues as only a problem at the individual level.

  54. Anon, the institutional factors are heartbreaking.

    When I think of obvious cases of sexist vs homophobic institutional injustices, some of those hard on women – such as many career expectations – are not held in place by hatred/fear of women. E.g., the tenure system in higher ed is still in place because it is going to be very hard to reworked all that stuff. At least I NEVER hear anyone say, “if we change the tenure system, we’ll have too many women.”. In contrast, all the support for institutional factors that hurt gay people seems to me to come down to anti-gay feelins and beliefs.

    Is that right, or am I being too simplistic? I don’t think this contradicts what you’ve said, but it might explain the sense that individual attitudes are more foundational in negative things gays face.

  55. And I can’t resist remarking on one kind of absurdity. E.g, the argument that legalizing gay marriage opens the door to legalizing beastiality. Whose fantasies are on display with this one?

  56. Perhaps they are not fantasies but revealed heinous prejudices, instead. If one thinks of individuals who are not heterosexual as “below the beasts,” as some sort of hideous animals, then it’s not a leap at all.

    (It’s funny to teach Kant’s phrase “below the beasts” to students, and then supply to them the information that Kant was woefully underinformed about the varieties of sexual behavior in the animal kingdom. This always gets a surprising amount of eager help from the audience, as they contribute examples!)

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