Response to an anti-TLR Crimson editorial

Some people find it easier to let hostility carry their writing rather than honest criticism, as Silpa Kovvali did in her Crimson editorial against True Love Revolution last Wednesday, October 21st.  If I had to distill her piece, it would run: “I interviewed the co-president of a group I disagree with, I misconstrued her statements, and thereby showed the whole group is irrational.”  Kovvali makes no real attempt to understand and counter our claims and substitutes caricaturing our views for argument.

I can only presume that Kovvali thought her audience shared her distaste for TLR and so wouldn’t question her tactics. She levels the charge of “ignorant intolerance” at TLR, which is strong indeed.  Since the only cardinal sin on a college campus is being intolerant, if you can make that label stick to a group it becomes shunned.  Kovvali is not the only one to make this accusation, so it’s worth responding to.  TLR makes a stand for objective truth in sexual ethics and marriage and isn’t shy about claiming to be right, but is it fair to call it intolerant?

First of all, moral claims are difficult to defend when directly attacked; even a shoplifter could spin out a dozen rationalizations for why they “really don’t hurt anyone” if they wanted.  And when you do defend moral claims, you run the risk of being criticized for imposing your views on others.  Since many people view sexuality as a purely private choice, they don’t see the point of taking moral positions on it.  An analagous private choice fraught with moral issues is recreational drug use.  As a side note, the moral arguments are different from pragmatic arguments about effects on society and individuals, although these can certainly illustrate negative consequences.  But just because no immediate damage is evident does not mean a choice is morally justified.

So, imagine that you had a strong moral stance against recreational drug use. If you really felt that it was a serious enough problem, you might write an article in a campus journal.  If your friends complained to you about the intolerance of your views and said you were arrogant for thinking you knew what was best for others, how would you respond?  Would you back down and say: “Well, it really is just a personal decision and my moral philosophy doesn’t apply to others,” or would you stand by your beliefs out of personal integrity and concern for them?  However the conversation went, it’s clear there’s a huge difference between arguing against drug use and condemning individuals.  If you couldn’t convince your friends, you would just have to acknowledge your differences and live with the tension.  This is TLR’s position on campus.

Secondly, the reality is that everyone has views about objective truth, and no one is “tolerant” of conflicting views.  So when two people of good-will disagree sharply about a moral point, it’s all the more important to argue honestly. For instance, Kovvali unfavorably compares TLR with the Queer Students and Allies (QSA) and says that queers don’t demand that everyone else be like them.  However, their philosophy has real implications, to which a fair comparison would point.  The QSA shares the supposedly “neutral” liberal position on sexuality that sex is morally value-free and can be engaged in as one wants.  This gives a strong bias toward sexual experimentation and relations because it uncritically gives free rein to desire.  An extreme example is the recent article on gay Craigslist hookups in the Yale Daily News.  This moral position, which is prescribed for the whole campus, is a direct threat to students who are committed to abstinence because it undermines the reasons for waiting until marriage to have sex.

On another philosophical issue, the QSA clearly advocates gay marriage, as evidenced by their recent phone bank effort to change the vote in Maine.  Their position says that the definition of marriage should be between two unisex partners, and they’re quite willing to “impose” that definition on everyone else.  So please, let’s not pretend that TLR is the only group on campus with strong views.  Our philosophical and moral positions provide the framework for our lifestyle, and we’re not afraid to make the case for views that have universal import.  We invite the campus to think about these issues, see why we hold them, and argue in kind.  The last thing we’re interested in is compelling anyone to agree with us or change their sex life.  What could be more counter-productive?

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6 thoughts on “Response to an anti-TLR Crimson editorial

  1. Silpa Kovvali says:

    Hi Leo,

    I appreciate your taking the time to read the article & comment. Hopefully I can address some of your concerns.

    I do want to clarify that I set up the interview by e-mailing trueloverevolution@gmail, the contact information that was provided on your site specifically for press inquiries. Rachel happened to be the one who responded, so she was the one I met with and spoke to, but she was speaking on behalf of TLR, and not as someone who just happened to be co-president of the organization. Therefore, I felt justified in referring to her arguments, and their contradictory nature, when making larger criticisms of the organization as a whole. I don’t believe this makes my article hostile, and it certainly doesn’t make it an ad hominem attack.

    I’m sorry you feel that Rachel’s words were misconstrued and that TLR’s beliefs were caricatured. I can, of course, provide direct citations (either to the interview with Rachel, since you weren’t present for it, or to TLR’s blog or web site) for all of my references to the group’s ideology and mission. I will happily do so if you let me know what you think was a misrepresentation of TLR’s views, preferably using quotes from the article itself.

    The charge of “ignorant intolerance” is indeed strong, but I didn’t make it in the hopes that your group would be shunned by the student body. I made it because I believe that it’s an accurate representation of your views. When a group claims to stand for “objective truth,” cannot provide an airtight justification for its claims, and degrades those who don’t share its beliefs, that is grounds to call it both ignorant and intolerant. Moral claims may be difficult to defend, but since TLR readily makes such claims publicly and passionately, it’s not unreasonable to expect that representatives of the organization be able to rise to the challenge.

    There are many aspects of my lifestyle that I consider to be personal preferences, no objectively better or worse than those of others. My sex life is one of them. I acknowledge that the decisions I make in this realm are based on what is healthiest for me, and that these decisions are influenced by a variety of personal, non-generalizable characteristics, and not objective truth. Because of this, I would never write a column arguing that others should adopt my habits and passing judgment on those who don’t. This tolerant attitude might be a threat to the purported superiority of an abstinent lifestyle, but is by no means “a direct threat to students who are committed to abstinence.” However, to cling to my lifestyle choices as superior when they are merely different would certainly exhibit a lack of “personal integrity.”

    To clarify, the QSA comparison was one initiated by Rachel during the course of our interview, and not by me. However, in the organization’s defense, I do believe that you’re unfairly conflating sexual liberalism with the group’s mission. (I don’t believe there is anything wrong with sexual liberalism, as explained above, but I wouldn’t be justified in dragging the organization into this disagreement.) The QSA does not promote sexual liberalism. There are many members of the gay community who do not engage in casual sex and find their viewpoint to be perfectly in line with the mission of QSA. Unless you mean to say that homosexuality, by its very nature, is merely “sexual experimentation” that “gives free rein to desire,” I don’t believe your criticism is logically sound.

    You must recognize that attacking other people’s sexual choices as inferior to yours is not simply agreeing to disagree. At best, it means that you hope that people will hear your arguments and change their habits, and I agree, wholeheartedly, that this couldn’t be more counter-productive.

    I would also love to continue this conversation in person, either in a private or public forum, but in any case look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Best,
    Silpa

  2. Laurence Holland says:

    What she said, with one addition:

    Leo, you write (emphasis mine), “The QSA clearly advocates gay marriage, as evidenced by their recent phone bank effort to change the vote in Maine. *Their position says that the definition of marriage should be between two unisex partners, and they’re quite willing to “impose” that definition on everyone else.* So please, let’s not pretend that TLR is the only group on campus with strong views.”

    While like Silpa, I do not claim to speak on behalf of QSA, this is surely an egregious distortion of their mission. TLR believes that sexual liberalism is harmful to society, and it argues that everyone /ought/, morally speaking, to adopt the lifestyle that its members have chosen. If QSA’s members “advocated” gay marriage like you “advocate” abstinence, and if they wished to “impose” their views like you would like to “impose” yours, they would be arguing not only that gay marriage is a permissible lifestyle, but that everyone /ought/, morally speaking, to be gay. If it is not immediately obvious how patently absurd that comparison is, something is seriously wrong.

    On the other hand, if TLR were to adopt QSA’s definition of “advocacy”–that is, of “advocating” for the recognition and tolerance (rather than the universal adoption) of a particular lifestyle–I think it would have far fewer critics on campus.

  3. Leo Keliher says:

    Dear Silpa and Laurence,

    There’s been quite a bit of activity in the Crimson and on our blog in the last week—especially relevant is Rachel’s post about the necessity of moral judgments for trying to lead a good life. I made the same point in a much briefer way in my post, but since I was obviously misunderstood by both of you, maybe her post will help. Also, a shortened version of this post and a letter from the Republican club were published in today’s Crimson in response to Silpa’s editorial. I appreciate the defense of Rachel that the other letter attempts, but they overstate their case and don’t offer honest criticism. In this comment I’m not going to respond to every point you raise, but I will cover what I think are the most important.

    1) Silpa’s tactic

    First of all, Silpa, when I say that you didn’t make any effort to understand our positions and caricatured them, I wasn’t saying that you were mistaken about interviewing Rachel as a representative of TLR. Where you went wrong was assuming that each and every statement she made in the course of a conversation represented the whole of TLR’s views. Everyone knows there’s a difference between what an individual can articulate in an interview and the more developed positions an organization can put together over time. In TLR we’re still imperfect representatives of our views, but small mistakes are not the same thing as overall incoherency.

    So in short, your assumption that the skewed synopsis of one interview would refute an organization’s whole philosophy was wrong, repellent to many readers (many of whom let Rachel know this), and unmistakeably represents sustained hostility. It was clear you were not actually looking to understand our philosophy in a meaningful way, but to find flaws in it. Just compare your editorial to Lena Chen’s and you’ll see what a more thoughtful and civil critique is, one that takes the adversary’s views seriously.

    2) Caricature of TLR’s view about being used in sex

    When I say you caricatured our views, I’m not saying you misquoted the blog or Rachel. Rather, you drew the wrong conclusions from our statements and made it seem like she said what she didn’t. Case in point: when discussing the TLR blog about oral sex, you drew out the underlying assumption that: “engaging in sexual activity places a woman in a vulnerable and subservient position.” Vulnerable, yes; subservient, not necessarily. Throwing in the word “subservient” is your own bias, since the vulnerability and harm described in the blog entry doesn’t imply that a woman is always in a lesser power position than a man. We think it’s perfectly possible to have egalitarian sex where both spouses are equally vulnerable to each other in marriage. We couldn’t hold this position if we really thought that sex always made women subservient like you say. A fair-minded critic would have been able to see that in the oral sex blog post, it was the hook-up and short term dating culture that was being discussed and not all sex everywhere. But many women are indeed used or become subservient to the sexual desires of men in hook-ups: try browsing through Harvard FML and you’ll see this exact regret expressed by multiple women. Now, their regret isn’t proof of our position, but it does show we’re in touch with reality.

    I’ll take a moment to anticipate a counter-argument. You hold that women can make such sex “empowering,” but subjective judgments aren’t a justification for behavior. If you’re really interested in responding to our position, I would challenge you to show how giving oral sex in a hook-up is not degrading personal dignity by making it subservient to a man’s sexual gratification. If the goal of sex is not to bring two hearts closer but to just have physical pleasure, human dignity always suffers. Have you ever thought about what the proper ends are in sex, and what the proper means are to achieve them? Unless you do, I don’t think it’s possible to understand why so many people are emotionally bruised and abused by sex in hook-ups and short term dating.

    3) Caricature of TLR’s view about the negative effects of casual sex

    Another caricature of our views was that we “blame” the hook-up culture for divorce, suicide, and sexual assault. The way you paraphrase Rachel’s position makes it seem like casual sex is the only cause of these problems, when in reality they just contribute to them. Contributing and being the cause are very different. You were especially off-base when you said that Rachel was arguing that casual sex is “making rape socially acceptable.” Rachel didn’t claim that rape is made “socially acceptable” by casual sex! What she said in your quote is that men have less respect for women because of the ready availability of sex, and it’s perfectly logical that this would contribute to date rape.

    4) Caricature of TLR’s inconsistency

    In your penultimate paragraph you flatly stated that Rachel’s views were all inconsistent or illogical. I grant that her statement or at least your paraphrase of your conversation about traditional marriage being “best” but not “better” was illogical, and I’m happy to tell you that we do think traditional marriage is better than same-sex marriage. The other statements she made were perfectly consistent, and I don’t see why you construed them as contradictory.

    Rachel said TLR’s views were in line with mainstream America but we experience stigmatization on campus. Our college campus, like many others, is far more liberal than mainstream America. So it’s consistent that we don’t find the same support here that we would in an average American town or city.

    You also found a contradiction between the sexual surrender of spouses in marriage and not letting sexual desire play a role in deciding to marry. The first statement describes the total self-giving that characterizes marital love, which of course includes sexual attraction. Any couple looking to wed would have a serious problem if they didn’t have any attraction to each other, but that’s hardly ever a problem with dating couples. As long as sexual attraction is present, that particular requirement for marriage is satisfied. What Rachel obviously meant is that the desire to have sex with your future spouse should not be a driving factor in your decision to marry, since it could lead to distorted judgements and a failure to take much more important factors into consideration.

    5) Liberal sexual philosophy’s opposition to TLR

    Once again, please read Rachel’s recent post for a much longer explanation of this point. Here, I just want to reiterate the points I made and how neither of you understood them. I said that the moral position of sexual liberalism is prescribed for the whole campus. You describe this position accurately, Silpa, when you say that you consider your sex life to be a matter of personal preferences and that none of your sexual choices are generalizable. Quite simply, this is where we disagree. I argued in my comparison to recreational drug use that it’s coherent to make moral arguments about “personal choices,” a position which you reject. What puzzles me is that you don’t understand how your “tolerant” position is not neutral at all. The very fact that you wrote your editorial and took the time to write a long comment shows you are very commited to promoting tolerance as the only acceptable approach to sexual ethics. The problem with this liberal sexual philosophy is that it actually makes a very strong claim about sexual ethics, one that’s in conflict with my own and TLR’s. If I were to accept your standard that moral judgements about sex aren’t possible, then I would have to drop judgements not only about others’ choices but my own as well.

    6) My comparison of TLR and the QSA

    I was dismayed by how you read my comparison of TLR and the QSA. When I said the QSA shares the liberal sexual philosophy about sex, I meant what I described: the supposedly “neutral” position that you also share. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the QSA holds that one should place private sexual choices in a morally neutral zone, and part of my point is that they’re in the majority on this campus. I juxtaposed this philosophy (which it certainly is) to TLR’s because that’s where the comparison between our groups should be made. One group thinks moral judgements apply, the other doesn’t. Saying that the latter is superior because it’s philosophy doesn’t prescribe any sort of sexual behavior (which I do recognize—I never said they were actively promoting promiscuity) while TLR does, is to use the very rubric of liberal sexuality that’s in question. You think promoting a lifestyle is bad, but you don’t question the assumptions you use to make that judgement.

    I hope this makes it clear that simply saying the QSA doesn’t advocate being gay misses the point. The question at stake is whether advocating a lifestyle at all is right: you both share the view that it shouldn’t be, so you find the QSA amenable. The QSA would never promote being gay to other students because that’s not a philosophical position, whereas TLR’s sexual ethics are. TLR is objectionable to you because it thinks a good lifestyle, which includes morality and virtue, needs to be promoted.

    Laurence, I hope it’s also clear that the question is not whether the QSA argues that gay marriage is the only way for everyone. Rather, by promoting gay marriage they are making basic assumptions about the nature of marriage that will apply to all copules, straight or gay. Gay activists assume that others share these assumptions about marriage, which is why I put “impose” in scare quotes. They’re not trying to impose, but they think it’s a matter of objective truth and want everyone else to accept this unisex idea about marriage. Because you agree that gay marriage is acceptable you find their advocacy perfectly natural, but when a conflicting philosophy is advocated you think it should be dropped. We’re advocating for different kinds of philosophies, but we are both advocating. So in short, what you, Silpa, the QSA, and many others applaud about advocating for “recognition and tolerance” is actually part of a broader philosophy. You already assume that lifestyles shouldn’t be promoted (like waiting for marriage to have sex and being faithful to your spouse for life), so when TLR argues otherwise you find it objectionable. Does this make sense?

    Sincerely,

    Leo

  4. […] the TLR blog posted a “Response to an anti-TLR Crimson editorial,” in which Keliher wrote, “If I had to distill [Kovali's] piece, it would run: ‘I […]

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