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.


Donaldson Tan said...

Haha.. You are more direct than my piece on TOC.

The Fool said...

I still cannot understand how a fellow human being can stand up, and forcibly deny some others their rights, namely, in this instance, gay rights, which include amongst other things, the right to have sex, in whatever ways gays deemed sex to be.

Now of course humans being social, are themselves bounded, at least notionally, by the greater rights of the society. So if she have argued how gay rights to their notions and practice of sex somehow curbed, cause loss or damage, or obstruct the rights and the exercise of these rights, of the society at large, then it is worthy of a listen, and we have some evidence to say she is an intelligent lady.

(So what if someone wants to drink through a straw through their noses? Is is none of her business.)

On the other hand, as it is, it is obvious that whatever gays do, she is totally free to hold any view, opinion, and to say anything, even that gay sex is immoral and a perversity.

That is not a problem. That is her rights, that is her freedom. No one is denying her the rights to believe, think and say whatever she wants, feel and so on.

But she cannot deny, in the same voice, others the very same rights. For such rights must be reciprocal and mutual, unless she is an imperalist herself.

And another can be totally opposed to her, even to say that her brand of Christianity is but the religion of the devil in sheep skin. Again that is another's total freedom and right to believe and say such a thing.

Then it shall be left to all the intelligent and discerning members of society to discern who is the fool and who is wise, who speaks nonsense and who has a glimpse of the deeper stuff of life, and so on.

Finally, it is shame, that one of Singapore's presumably top academics is found wanting, weak, and academically cowardly, when it comes to performing on a truly level playing field on the international stage.

And it is now hard to believe anyone who says we are world class in this and that anymore; and it is now suspect whether all the self proclaimed good performance here and there will really stand up and be repeatible when the playing field is truly leveled.

Jackson Tan said...

Donaldson Tan:

Haha! Was I? I thought yours were more pointed... But then, I'm not really rebutting her arguments or subsequent letters. I'm just trying to figure out why a professor would forward such potholed arguments.

The Fool:

You're quite right in saying that gays ought to have their rights. I have presumed right from the start. To me, it is a logical inevitability from the freedom of religion (or more appropriately, freedom of system of belief, so as to include atheist and agnostics).

And actually, from what I've argued, she can impose her anti-gay opinions upon gays, but only if our society operates on the assumption that the Bible (or her interpretation of the Bible) is always right. Screw secularism, screw other religions, screw science, screw fairness; if at all, they can only come in second to that first assumption. But that is far from the case. Our society assumes secularism and freedom of religion.

The whole point of my argument is that she recognises this. But she sticks to her stand and tries to build an argument that our society can accept (as opposed to unacceptable assumptions such as "the Bible is always right").

On a side note, it appears to me that Singaporeans are more disagreeable to arguments that leans on the Bible as compared to the US.

The Fool said...

Jackson, she is from a church which attempts to draw no go lines for the state. So this is just one of those lines.