Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Where the Danger Really, Really Lies

Commenting (indirectly ) on Carlos Ball's allegation that Villanova University refused to hire him on account of his status as an openly gay man and his writings on LGBT rights, Robert George posts the following hypothetical under the heading "Where does the danger actually lie?"
On the more general point, let me put a question to everyone, Let's imagine that Joe is a candidate for an entry level law teaching position at Villanova, Georgetown, Boston College, and Loyola of Los Angeles. He is a secular person who self-identifies as gay and is living in a sexual partnership with a man. He has thought carefully and read widely about issues of sexual morality and marriage, and has arrived at the view that any sexual act can be morally good so long as it does not involve coercion or deception and the parties performing the act find it mutually pleasant and fulfilling. He has also formed the conviction that state marriage laws should recognize same-sex partnerships as marriages. Sam is a candidate for a law teaching position at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. He is a Catholic who has thought as deeply and read as widely as Joe has about issues of sexual morality and marriage, but has arrived at different judgments. He believes that fornication, adultery, and sodomy are immoral acts and that the law ought to define marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

Now, as it happens, Joe and Sam, despite their differences, have some things in common. Both are summa cum laude graduates of Williams College. Both were Rhodes Scholars who earned D.Phil. degrees in philosophy from Oxford. Both were law review editors at Harvard Law School. Both were Supreme Court clerks. Both are outstanding young scholars and promising teachers. And one more thing: Both are good friends of yours, and have sought your advice on the same question: How big a risk would I be taking if I decided not to conceal the facts about myself and my views having to do with sexual morality and marriage?

Does anyone think that Joe would be taking a bigger risk than Sam? Indeed, does anyone think that the risk is equal? What would you tell Joe? How would you advise Sam?

The problem with this hypothetical is that it blurs together two different things: personal status and political/moral/academic views. But these are obviously separate, and disentangling them makes the story far more complicated than George would admit.

Joe, we're told, is an openly gay man living in some form of sexual partnership with another man. We are not told of Sam's relationship status (itself rather revealing), but the true hypothetical parity would have Sam happily ensconced in a heterosexual marriage. That covers both of their personal relationship status. Separately, there are their political, moral, and academic views on matters of LGBT rights -- Joe in favor, Sam, opposed.

It may be true that on the policy side, it is more "risky" on the academic market to be opposed to LGBT rights than to support them. But George cannot plausibly maintain that Sam should be "advised" to hide his heterosexual marriage in the same way that Joe very plausibly might want to cover his gay relationship. We might dispute whether the academic risk of outing yourself as gay is minor or significant, but surely we can agree that the academic risk of outing yourself as straight is non-existent. And this doesn't even get into the other ways which being gay circumscribes one's choices aside from who is willing to hire you; as anyone who has been to Carleton knows, there are other barriers to being a gay man in Northfield other than whether the school itself is welcoming.

Moreover, by blending together the personal and the political, George (and, to be fair it seems, Ball) elides the fact that the two are descriptively detachable -- there most certainly are straight men who support LGBT rights, and, while perhaps uncommon, there are definitely gay men who oppose them. There are four potential permutations: (1) Personally gay and politically pro-gay rights (Joe), (2) Personally straight and politically pro-gay rights (for example, me), (3) Personally straight and politically anti-gay rights (Sam), and (4) Personally gay and politically anti-gay rights (Larry Craig?).

I think it is fair to say that holding the other variables constant, being personally gay is disadvantageous. While all those who work on LGBT issues in the academy have to deal with the notion that their work isn't "rigorous" or "real law" (this is true regardless of the content of the scholarship), if the author is gay him or herself then s/he has to deal with the added burden of his/her work being dismissed as personal pleading or emotional attachment. And whatever disadvantages anti-LGBT rights positions have on the market, I have to think they'd be magnified for a gay or lesbian adherent of it.

But even acknowledging, as I think George must, that being gay is far more "dangerous" than being straight on the academic market, this still leaves us with the other half of the equation: the assertion that holding the political or academic position against LGBT rights is more dangerous on the market than its pro-LGBT equivalent. There's some truth to this as far as it goes, though I'm not sure it extends to candidates who are not just pro-LGBT in some abstract sense but actually devote their scholarship to it (see above regarding the generic presumption that such work is trivial and unserious -- this is definitely a sentiment I've run across, and I have been told before to at least soft-pedal my scholarly interest in these topics). But even granting the point generally, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from it.

Being a law professor is an academic, policy-oriented position. The question of LGBT rights is a normative, political question. It goes to the heart of what a professor does. If someone gets that question "wrong", is there any reason why I can't evaluate them more harshly on the merits of their candidacy? How else is one supposed to evaluate it? This gets to the deep tension within academia: academic freedom means letting people take whatever position they like and pursue any line of inquiry they desire; academic merit necessarily requires judging those positions and inquiries as good or bad. I don't mean to discount the possibility that somebody can take a position that I think is wrong while conceding that they argue for it in a powerful and sophisticated fashion. I do mean to say that the deeper ingrained a particular commitment is, the less likely that one will believe the dispute to be one of reasonable disagreement, rather than simply the other side making a profound moral error.

Gays and lesbians are disadvantaged compared to straights on the job market because of who they are and who they love. If it is true that anti-gay politics are disfavored in academia, that still means only that adherents of that position are being "punished" for holding an ideology that their fellows think is in grave error -- and being in that situation is likely to have negative impacts on a job candidacy no matter what the field is and no matter what particular dissenting view one holds. The real danger, in other words, is in being an academic whom most other academics think has gotten an important element of their research wrong.


Joe said...

Homosexual partnership signals a moral position on sodomy; a heterosexual marriage does not signify a moral position on sodomy.

Rebecca said...

The question that George avoids: Will Sam treat his gay students fairly?

joe said...

Fox News will make hay out of hypo-Joe arguing any sexual act can be moral to suggest he's for pedophilia and bestiality and this has nothing to do with him being gay, honest, because some of their best guests are (repressed) gay people.

The real danger, in other words, is in being an academic whom most other academics think has gotten an important element of their research wrong.

Yes, but I imagine it's possible for the view on wrongness to be influenced by (and I hate to use this term) institutional political correctness when it comes to hot-button issues. So "getting it wrong" on gay marriage could be treated as worse than "getting it wrong" on something like originalism, even though being an originalist will probably be dispositive on all sorts of policy questions.