30 July 2009

The Paradox of Thio Li-Ann's Anti-Gay Stand

(Disclaimer: this post is not a writeup arguing for gay rights. Neither is this an opinion concerning Thio's withdrawal. It won't even be a rebuttal of her arguments. Any attempt at these is merely a repetition of what many others have written. Also, what is argued below is my own guesswork, and anyone with a better idea are welcomed to correct me.)

One of the recent news that has been hitting the headlines online is Thio Li-Ann's withdrawal from New York University as a visiting professor due to two reasons: low enrolment for her class and a hostile environment, both of which probably stemmed from her public anti-gay stand. Her arguments against gay rights were often ridiculed by many netizens for their gaps in logic. In fact, her parliament speech regarding the repealing of section 377A were so flawed that even the conservative Straits Times, often accused of filtering forum letters in favour of opponents of gay rights, has an editorial which lambasted her (here is an article commenting on this).

Yet, she held on to them and insisted on her opposition to gay rights. I find this situation rather curious, because she, being a professor of law, ought to either have an excellent argument for her case, or see that she is wrong. This paradox has baffled me for quite some time, but I think I've figured out why she stuck to her weak arguments: it is a consequence of trying to argue in Singapore's secular setting but retaining her stand that comes from her personal belief (and interestingly, she has attacked Singapore's secularism recently with a straw-man argument).

I remember reading an editorial at the start of this year in either Science or Nature (can't remember which) - considered by many as the top two journals in science - in which the author argues that the Obama should appoint scientists in his administration because they are trained to make "correct" judgements. His point is that a proper science training should teach the scientist not to favour, assume or even expect a particular conclusion before the experiment. A scientist, in positions of power, will therefore analyse the situation objectively based on all avaliable data and make a stand based on his analysis. This will ensure that the decision made is the best possible for the country. He contrasts this with lawyers, which are trained to pick up a particular stand and construct arguments to support it. This is, of course, rather an unfair opinion against lawyers because there is a difference between one's derivation of his stand and one's academic training, but his underlying assumption about decision-making is clear: in choosing a stand, we should analyse the arguments before making a conclusion.

There is also the joke that puts economists in the same bad shoes. It goes like this: a mathematician, a statistician and an economist were at a job interview. They were asked what two plus two is. The mathematician says, "four", and the statistician says, "on average, four". The economist, on the other hand, surreptitiously asks the interviewer, "well, what do you want it to be?" The punchline is about the wrong way of making a stand: choose the conclusion you want, before finding arguments to prop it up (and ignoring evidence that contradict that stand).

So are the arguments of the opponents to gay rights formed as such? Assembled top-down from the conclusion instead of constructed bottom-up from basic principles and evidence? Are these people like the accused lawyer in the editorial or the economist in the joke? Not necessary: they may have a different premise. Gay right proponents may have the premise that there ought to be no discrimination based on sexuality. But opponents to gay rights, such as those who have been in the spotlight recently like Thio, may have the premise that goes: "the Bible is right". If we start from this premise, it is naturally a conclusion that being gay is wrong.

Now, all this is fine and good if one applies that conclusion to oneself, but the problem comes when one tries to apply the conclusion to others, on a society-wide setting. There will inevitably be contradictions which springs from differences in premises. So in a country like Singapore we practise secularism - meaning all arguments that are forwarded in society must either be independent of system of belief or applies to all systems of belief. As a result their arguments will no longer work, because not everyone can accept the premise that "the Bible is right". Consequently, these opponents try to find an argument that is founded upon secular premises to support their stands so they can push their ideas upon the society.

But that is precisely what the economist did.