Monday, February 13, 2012

Privlege, or Don't ask don't tell me about what I'm entitled to

I saw an interesting video clip where the American politician, Rick Santorum, was discussing why the American government and legal system should treat homosexual citizens differently from heterosexual citizens. The point of his discussion was that marriage and serving openly in the army were "privileges" rather than "rights" and, as a result, no moral harm was done by the government in enforcing the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) or the Defense of Marriage Act.

Of course, the issue isn't whether or not any citizen's rights were being trampled on but whether the government is allowed to make distinctions between citizens based on the citizen's sexual orientation (as the government is not allowed to on the basis of the citizen's ethnic background or religious affiliation). But ignoring that distinction, Mr. Santorum simply makes nonsense of the word "privilege" even if we just look at the issue of serving in the armed forces.

First, of course, the issue is not whether homosexuals can serve in the forces but, under DADT,  whether homosexuals can advertise their sexual orientation in the same way that heterosexuals can. That, presumably, is the real "privilege." But, accepting Mr. Santorum's view that it's the right to serve at all that is the "privilege", it's a radical redefinition of military service--something that used to be called a "duty" or an "honour" or a "sacrifice."

Of course, it's only remotely possible to make Mr. Santorum's claim at all when the country has an all-volunteer army. It be almost impossible to even think about making claiming that serving in the army was a "privilege" were the draft still in place. It's an interesting "privilege" that's forced upon citizens and done so at random--and that so many struggled so hard to avoid. Avoiding the draft was possible because it came with so many exceptions: for those pursuing higher education, those who were providing the sole support for their family, and so on. The tone of those exceptions is that military service was a burden, taken on by some, that interfered with the development of the typical person awarded this "privilege." It's more often that we hear the word "sacrifice" used for those who volunteer to defend us than "privilege."

But, again, let's assume that military service is a "privilege". If so, an extraordinary number of American citizens have been awarded this "privilege" through no effort of their own--all heterosexuals have this "privilege" and they are assumed to make up 90% to 97% of the population. Even if you don't assume that sexual orientation is set at birth, most heterosexuals Americans do not recall a moment in their lives when they struggled with their sexual orientation and, in the end, came down on the side of heterosexuality. Instead, for most, they were always attracted to members of the opposite sex and that was just the way it was. If that's the typical experience, this is a "privilege" that is granted through no effort of those who've gained it.

And it's also a privilege that is completely divorced from merit. Homosexual citizens who volunteer to serve, pass basic training, serve in the military (perhaps, even with distinction and with physical harm to themselves) would, under DADT, have the "privilege" removed if their commanding officers discover that they are gay. Whatever merit that soldiers accrue by serving their country/putting their bodies in the line of fire has no bearing on this "privilege." Heterosexuals, who never volunteer and have shown no merit, retain this "privilege" to serve even if they choose not to exercise it.
Mr. Santorum is using the word "privilege" as it was once used to describe the "privileged" classes: those who inherited wealth and power through no effort or merit on their part. Generally speaking, in that sense, "privileged" is considered antithetical to a classless, democratic, "fair" society because it creates "privileged" and "second class" citizens. And, as is always the case when defining a new
"privilege" or "right", Mr. Santorum is obviously a member of that "privileged class": he declares the "privilege" in order to claim it for himself and others like him while excluding those who are "not like him." Mr. Santorum has never earned the merit that serving soldiers have earned but, yet, as a heterosexual, he claims the privilege.

But, by classifying serving your country openly as a "privilege," Mr. Santorum wants to perform a bit of verbal legerdemain. By redefining this as a privilege Mr. Santorum can claim that citizens are not being denied anything, they are simply not being given something that they aren't entitled to (though he is as are others like him). The same claim is made about driver's licenses: it's a privilege and not a right and, as a result, the government can withhold them or grant them at will. The problem is that, even with a driver's license, you have to earn it and you gain it by showing merit in passing the tests. Everyone has the right to apply to earn a driver's license, only some are granted the privilege of having one. Mr. Santorum's "privilege" is granted without effort and without merit and only to those like him.

Presumably, if some American citizens are granted some "privilege" through no effort of their own and in the absence of any merit on the part of those claiming the privilege, other citizens should be granted some compensating "privilege." I still like my idea: that the tax form include a box for sexual orientation, labeled "gay" or "straight". Those who check off "gay" get to take 10% off their tax bill to compensate for the unearned privileges that those who check off "straight" get (presumably, taxes will have to be raised on those who check off "straight" to compensate).  I would be interested, after a few years, to determine the impact on tax revenues and the proportion of homosexuals in the population.

There may be good arguments against the range of topics currently under discussion in regards to homosexuals. There's no need to damage the language to make them.

Reading or read

No comments: