Tit for tat, or the Vicar of Bray

By skepticlawyer

We are going to have to get better at managing difference, people.

I learn via Catallaxy that one of the anti-gay signatories to the ‘Doctors for the Family’ senate submission has resigned from his position on Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. I carry no brief for ‘Doctors for the Family’; fellow Skeptic Chrys Stevenson does a splendid job documenting their dishonest use of social science research. However, it seems that there is some quite serious complexity here, in that Dr Kuruvilla George’s views are being excluded as being ‘not part of the properly moral’. Jonathan Haidt would no doubt have something thoughtful to say on that point.

Now, for what it’s worth, it seems one can argue any one of the following (these positions are conflicting, and I am truly at a loss, the whole situation is such a mess):

1. Entrenched Bills of Rights (of even the softest, fluffiest sort) don’t work very well and should be scrapped, leaving aside arguments as to whether people actually have inherent rights. I don’t think they do, for the best Humean reasons, but I suspect I am in a minority. People tend not to realise how bad arguments for inherent rights are until they encounter them in the form of Catholic natural law doctrine. Because most people do not accept either the reasoning or conclusions reached by Catholic natural lawyers, only then do they apply their minds to the identical reasoning used to justify Bills of Rights and international human rights instruments. This is something worth bearing in mind.

2. That said, if one is going to have entrenched Bills of Rights administered by bodies funded by the taxpayer, they should be facially neutral: the State, which we all pay for, cannot be partial. That is something about which people on all sides of politics agree. Libertarians and classical liberals will often be kinder when a private body is partial in some way (we draw the line between public and private in different places), but every modern western political tradition, and certainly every modern Australian political party, accepts the case for the facial neutrality of government. That is why we have things like Civil Rights Acts, which always applied to government first. Only later were they extended to the private sector and the private sphere.

In this case, that means two things. First, Dr George is not allowed to treat gays partially while he is a public servant. Second, religious people’s complaints about discrimination have to be taken just as seriously as other people’s complaints about discrimination. Dr George is thus in the awkward position of both discriminating against and being discriminated against. It is the kind of scenario one imagines a 19th century equity draftsman inventing entirely for his own amusement.

3. If you play the game of moral exclusion, don’t be surprised if the culture shifts and suddenly the same moral exclusion is applied to you, as Lorenzo points out in his excellent piece. It’s a weaker version of the argument in favour of secular government: historically, religious people of different persuasions spent a great deal of time trying to lay their hands on the levers of power and then using that power against their opponents, only to lose power and have the coercive powers of the state applied to them (often fatally). That is why the weathervane Vicar of Bray is so funny and still carries real satirical bite:

In good King Charles’s golden days,
When loyalty had no harm in’t,
A zealous High Churchman I was,
And so I gained preferment.
To teach my flock I never missed:
Kings were by God appointed;
And they are damned who dare resist
Or touch the Lord’s anointed.

And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.

When Royal James obtained the Throne,
And Popery grew in fashion,
The Penal Law I hooted down,
And read the Declaration;
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my constitution;
And I had been a Jesuit
But for the Revolution.

And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.

When William, our deliverer, came
To heal the nation’s grievance,
Then I turned cat-in-pan again,
And swore to him allegiance
Old principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance.

And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.

When glorious Anne became our Queen,
The Church of England’s glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory.
Occasional Conformist Face!
I damned such moderation;
And thought the Church in danger was
By such prevarication.

And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.

When George in pudding-time came o’er
And moderate men looked big, sir,
My principles I changed once more,
And so became a Whig, sir;
And thus preferment I procured
From our Faith’s great Defender;
And almost every day abjured
The Pope and the Pretender.

And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.

The illustrious House of Hanover,
And Protestant Succession,
By these I lustily will swear
While they can keep possession
For in my faith and loyalty
I never once will falter,
But George my King shall ever be,
Except the times do alter.

And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.

We don’t do that any more, the killing part (I don’t think anyone seriously argues that PC kills), but the same attraction is still there — put one’s hands on the levers of power and then engage in moral exclusion. And people have to learn to give it up. Now I don’t know how to do that, but until we do learn to give it up, this kind of go round will become endless: people sacked for being gay, people sacked for being Christian, people sacked for being Muslim… and then running off to a Human Rights Commission that will only take some of their claims seriously (the moral exclusion problem again), depending on who has their hands on the levers of power at the time. Sheer tit-for-tat. Is this right? No. Is it fair? Arguable, depending on where you stand when it comes to the idea of righting past injustices (gays were the huge losers historically, but the Christians who dislike them now are not the same Christians who killed them in the past). I’m skeptical of the ‘let’s put it right’ argument (because it leads to tokenistic crap like Rudd’s Apology, for example), but there are genuine arguments in the opposite direction, too.

I must admit I’m waiting for a Muslim employer to sack a gay employee (or vice versa). Yes I will break out the popcorn while everyone plays the Oppression Olympics, but underneath the amusement will be a sad recognition that we are incapable of leaving dangerous things alone (in this case, the coercive powers of the State), much like a child poking cutlery into a power socket to see what it does.

[My apologies for the unformed nature of this post; I have an exam on Thursday, then two more next week, so I have not worked the ideas through. I only know that I find the whole business troubling on many levels].

16 Comments

  1. Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Hypothetical:

    A Muslim Psychiatrist is on the Human Rights committee, with an obvious brief to combat Islamophobia – a genuine problem.

    He then makes a public statement about Jews being disease-ridden perverts whose existence endangers society, mentioning his medical credentials, and not making it clear that he’s speaking in a private and religious, not official, capacity.

    I feel that the public at large might be justified in having considerable doubts as to his suitability

    He would also be in direct violation of the code of conduct for the EOHRC, section 11, which states that while such statements may be made, they must be a) Cleared with the president of the commission beforehand and b) Accompanied by an overt statement that this is a private view, and not that of the EOHRC.

    In this case, as with the hypothetical above, Dr George broke not just the spirit, but the explicit letter of the terms of his employment.

    I would have initiated proceedings to remove him from office, due to breach of section 11, as a matter of duty.

    While i would like to have refused to accept his resignation “due to time constraints and personal reasons”, I could not, as it might possibly be true.

    I would not have allowed him to resign for saying what he did – I’d fire him.

    As for the doctors – had they revealed that they were a Christian Front organisation, then I’m with Voltaire : “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. “

    Those who are deliberately dishonest, though, forfeit that right.

  2. Davoh
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth. Yes; self, in my youth, played with sexuality. Males, females. At some point, decided that preferred females. Not a ‘judgement’ about who prefers who, only me.

    However, in my now ‘old age’ – look at sexuality somewhat philosophically. What is the primary purpose of us? Mmm, reproduction.

    While yes, as a ‘humanitarian’ concept, can see that “love” between two humans may well be valid …. (and ‘overpopulation” of this planet – is a concern)… am more than happy to allow … carefully phrased … same sex couples.

  3. Movius
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    I was pleased to see this “doctors for the family” pseudoscience thoroughly torn to shreds in the media. I’m hoping this ushers in a new age of ridicule for unsubstantiated scientific claims in the media…

    What’s that? Mars will be as big as the Moon you say…

  4. kvd
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    Well I read that Catallaxy piece and comments and came away disappointed. It very quickly degenerated into nazis and incest and bad language. Same old, same old. Two things did occur to me however:

    The seeming agreement that the Victorian government has been less than effective; I feel the same way about the present NSW government, and it might be too early to tell but the Qld lot appear headed the same way. So I wonder what if anything that says about the arrival in Canberra of a conservative ‘new broom’?

    Secondly I continue to be disappointed that any discussion of marriage, in whatever form, seems always to resolve itself into what’s best for the kids. There is more to marriage than its role as an incubator for the next generation. I’d simply ask: what aboiut the parties to the marriage? Don’t their hopes and dreams and feelings come into it BEFORE you start considering issues such as children? Of course children are important, but to make them the central (sometimes the only) issue seems a little off to me.

  5. conrad
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    SL — as I pointed out to SD at Catallaxy, it’s really not clear why he resigned. If he doesn’t want to sign something he is essentially obliged to, then that’s very honourable of him to leave. The fact of the matter is is that the panel he sits on is going to be contentious and it is going to cop criticism from whatever groups don’t like the outcomes. In the end, it’s a-priori clear when you sit on those panels that this is going to happen, and this is something you have to put up with. If you don’t like it, don’t sit on them. A more extreme version of this happens every time the US supreme court makes some decision, but I don’t see the judges that go against the majority (and losing) quitting because of it and I don’t see all the lower level people enforcing the decision (who may well disagree with it also — I imagine many police have this problem sometimes) quitting even if they don’t agree with it either.

  6. Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Dr George was not fired – he resigned. The government and the HREOC made it clear he had not breached the terms of his employment by expressing what was, essentially, a personal opinion.

    But, I would contend that George did more than that. By appending his name to Dr Dunjey’s despicable drivel (the Doctors for the Family Senate submission) he also implicitly approved the material that was used to support that position. This was a huge mistake as the submission is misleading and the sources woefully misused. It is an academic travesty.

    My ‘gut feeling’ is that Dr George agreed to his name being added to this document without giving it proper scrutiny. That, in itself, shows remarkably poor judgement. If I am wrong, then he has shown remarkably poor skills for someone whose position requires him to be able to read and assess the accuracy and relevance of complex academic papers.

    I believe that what Dr George has done is to allow his personal prejudices to cloud his professional judgment. He has obviously not considered the academic literature on gay parenting on its merits, and he has developed a ‘blind spot’ for the weaknesses/bias in arguments against homosexuals from those whose work is not well regarded by the mainstream.

    Accordingly, having Dr George hold a public position which requires him to exercise any kind of professional judgment involving homosexuals and their families is tantamount to employing someone who is colour blind to recreate Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Victorian Parliament.

    That is why he should lose his public positions. IF he had been able to support his position with a reasonable body of peer-reviewed, mainstream literature, then I would hold the opposite view – even if I disagreed ideologically with his position.

  7. Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Sorry, should have said VEOHRC not HREOC.

  8. Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    All civil communities require rules regarding citizens’ behaviour towards each other. While these rules need not be entrenched, they have to exist or the community becomes unstable.
    I agree that humans have no inherent rights, being merely another product of evolutionary processes, but without some communally imposed rules, communal existence would be intolerable and probably impossible. In that respect we are no different from other social animals such as termites and bees.

    I agree that everyone may express their private opinions, but if someone is speaking for an organisation, then it must be made clear whether the opinion is the policy of that organisation, or only the private view of the speaker.

    You say that PC doesn’t kill any more, and that is probably correct, but it is equally correct that representatives of religious organisations speaking ill of homosexuality, have been, and remain the cause of thousands of suicides, bashings and murders.

  9. Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t thought it right through, but at face value it seems extraordinary for someone who held what looks like a quasi-judicial appointment to engage in vulgar political lobbying or campaigning. If he’d expressed a nuanced view in a speech or an article in a journal, it might be fine, even if I radically disagreed with it. But signing off on a document like this produced by a lobby group like that – no, I don’t think that’s appropriate for someone in such a position, and I’d think the same if the view he was supporting was one I agreed with. Such people should maintain a certain level of gravitas, decorum, and aloofness from vulgar politics that doesn’t apply to the rest of us, and if he doesn’t understand that in his bones I don’t think he deserves our confidence. I realise that he tendered his resignation, but it was after his position became untenable, which was as a result of his own naive actions.

  10. Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Russell: it’s that ‘Doctors for the Family’ submission, isn’t it? Really academically shoddy, and really difficult for the academics quote mined in it – they’ve had to spend a huge amount of time defending themselves thanks to other people’s silliness.

    Also, there is the ‘justice must not only be done but it must be seen to be done’ issue, which LE flagged above.

  11. conrad
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    like Chrys, I’d be less scathing if the argument had been better made.

    There’s no real better argument to be made — the position is already twisted. If you’re worried about children, then the correct argument is whether married gay parents do better than unmarried gay parents. If you believe this and are most concerned about children, then you should support gay marriage.

    The bizarre thing is that I think that these people are so ridiculously conservative that they seem to believe that gay people wouldn’t have children if they wern’t married. The only group their arguments could possibly apply to is whom should get IVF, but children from IVF are only ever going to be a minority of kids born to gay people unless there is an IVF explosion, which is unlikely given its invasive nature. As it happens, most children with two same sex parents are probably born to bisexual females who once had sex with men — and the reason is obvious in case you don’t know the stats — bisexual women are relatively common compared to either bisexual men or purely lesbian females (although no-one has any really good reason why this is, although there is speculation and dodgy theories).

  12. Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Did he sign the petition as Dr George ‘senior member of the EOHRC’ ?

    If so, there is definitely an issue. A medical expert in a senior public role should be offering health advice (and it was “health”) based on real evidence.

    What if a government policy medical expert started writing letters which indicated vaccines cause autism?

  13. Mel
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Some quick responses:

    1. I support a Bill of Rights having been influenced by Geoffrey Robertson’s arguments. I’m not sure why SL is saying they don’t work well and hopefully she will elaborate in a post after Examination Hell (may the Gods bring you good fortune, btw).

    Altho a Bill of Rights may be flawed, I would like to see constitutional protection from the excesses that we’ve seen from western governments in recent years- for instance rendition, torture, winding back of double jeopardy protection and in Australia racially targeted laws (the NT intervention). I’m prepared to wear some yucky outcomes from a constitutionally enshrined BoRs if that’s the price that must be paid for protection from draconian government and the worst instincts of my fellow citizens.

    2. Of course we don’t have inherent rights. Rights are things we make up because we think life would be nice if we had them. Nonetheless, the right not to be tortured by one’s government is no less compelling just because it is made up.

    3. As I’ve said before, a distinction can be made between discrimination based on “what one is” (gay, black, female etc) and what “one believes” (Marxism, Christianity etc). I think discrimination based on the former category is vastly more serious than discrimination based on the latter and I’d like to see that reflected in any BoRs.

  14. kvd
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] could you please provide a reference for GR’s particular thoughts which influenced you? I checked out an article by him on The Monthly, but stopped when I read Most serious is the plight of those who “fall between the cracks”

    I mean, how is that even physically possible? Wouldn’t you hit something solid? Like, maybe, reason.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*