NYU invites an opponent of equal rights of homosexuality to teach about human rights in asia
NYU LAW -- MEMO -- DR. LI-ANN THIO
Dear Sirs and Madams,
1. I am a little tired of the torrent of abuse and defamation that I have been receiving, and blatant emotive misrepresentations of my position. I was going to stay above the fray but given this insidious attack on my academic reputation (aside from many ad hominem insults), I feel I must cast some clarity on certain issues.
2. Let me clarify some issues. I do not know if Mr Graves-Pryor is trying to be incendiary by suggesting I am racist or if he is trying to lump all forms of what he calls "discrimination" together and so to incite hatred towards me. As a woman and a person of colour, I find this incredibly offensive. As an Asian, I find this bullying and rage makes me wonder about the state of both academic freedom and civil discourse in the US - I was unaware that you had to subscribe to a certain orthodoxy before one could be welcomed into a certain academic community, as Mr. Graves-Pryor seems to be insinuating. As a scholar, I would point out that the norm prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is one that is (a) very much depends on the issue at stake i.e. which right is being contended for and (b) is not universally accepted as a matter of law, though it is probably universally contended for as a matter of politics. It is neither an "Asian" nor "Western" issue,
it is something contested within all societies, including the US, though admittedly, a minority opinion in most law schools.
3. I am tired of the insinuations that I am in favour of oppressing any community in Singapore or elsewhere. I think an appreciation of the context of Singapore and of the truth of things is needed. The law on sodomy is a law on the books and was kept on the books after full free and very robust democratic debate. It has since been exercised a few times, to my knowledge. The government applies it with restraint and has adhered to its policy that it will not be pro-active (for example, in the 1980s there used to be police operations in public places where homosex activities were known to be taking place). In Singapore, people do not really care whether someone is homosexual or not, as we tend to look at the merit of a person, for example, in the workplace. I would be the first to oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or ideological persuasion in the my own academic environment. It is the truth or strength of an idea that counts in scholarship and teaching,
and we teach, we do not propagate one ideology. Perhaps things are done differently in a foreign land. My own view, and the way I conduct my classes, is to subject any topic to scrutiny, presented as an object of analysis rather than one of allegiance or affection. People will have their own opinions as opinions are cheap and easy to have. But my task as a professor is to subject things to academic interrogation and let people draw their own conclusions.
4. I have colleagues and students who identify themselves as homosexual. Some are hostile to the views I have expressed as a politician, some are hurt (and I have had really difficult conversations with such students whom I greatly liked as individuals, who expressed their disappointment at me for my views but I had to point out that everyone is entitled to their convictions which are complicated things. Some understand and know I respect them as people and some do not want to have conversations with me anymore. That is their prerogative)
5. That said, there is in Singapore a great concern when activists campaign to change social norms and to equate heterosexuality with homosexuality as a basis for changing policies and cultural understandings. If you wish to enter into the free marketplace of ideas, you must contend with opposing views. As must I. What I object to is the colouring of any principled moral opposition to homosexuality as "bigoted" and ignorance or "hatred". What I find ironical are the tactics of those who call themselves "oppressed" to oppress. Some activists have no qualms in destroying reputation, insulting, slandering those who do not agree with their political agenda.
6. I have friends who identify as ex-gay. They point out to me that the homosexual community is the most vicious when they try to speak out. What about this oppressed minority group? One of them said to me: If they have a right to sexual orientation, do I not have the right to sexual re-orientation? All they get is vilification and abuse and charges that homosexuals are 'born that way' and it is a fallacy to believe they can seek to mute unwanted same-sex attractions if that is their choice. I appreciate this is a controversial matter, but that is the point. It is controversial and unsettled. What I see as a scholar is an attempt by one side to censor another out of ideological preferences. That is intolerant and totalitarian. It is the attempt to impose a dogma about a theory of human good and nature in the name of a fake 'liberal neutrality' which is in fact a substantive and contested ideology, even if it is the ideology of preference to many in western democracies.
7. I trust that members of the academic community appreciate that in matters of public morality, as oppose to commercial legal frameworks, one is apt to find the greatest divergence of values on a global level though there are convergent trends as well. The Singapore government takes a pragmatic stance towards the issue of homosexuality. While I do not think anyone should lose their job because of sexual orientation (as this is irrelevant to the performance of the job), I would not support for example, same-sex marriage which is also based on a discrimination against sexual orientation paradigm. Sexual orientation is relevant to the institution of marriage. What A sees as an equality issue (and that is a substantive argument masquerading as a formal one), B see as an issue the definition of 'marriage' or 'family.' It is a substantive issue. Is there only one view in relation to moral controversies? Or, may only one view be taught at a law school while competing views are sni
ckered at on the basis of a false intellectuality?
8. Homosexuals in Singapore are by and large affluent and literate; building developers target high quality residences for their consumption. They have space to lead quiet lives which is what most of us want. They are basically left alone in practice. However, when you enter the public arena and demand to change social norms, which others resist, do you expect a walkover? When reasoned arguments are presented against the homosexualism agenda, which any citizen in a democracy is entitled to do, what happens? Homosex activists hurl abuse, death threats. They have demonstrated nothing but abuse towards their detractors. This is not the way to win respect. This is not conducive to sustainable democracy in the long-term. I argue it is a horizontal chilling of speech by the most malicious of methods. Homosex activists may see it as a "rights" issues (and I have academic friends and feminists who disagree "sharply" with my viewpoints but refuse to vilify me because they know who I
am and respect me as a scholar), others see it as a matter of a "goods" issue, about the nature of public morality and social norms. And these debates are played out on a global basis.
9. I appreciate I am in a minority in the context of US academia for holding this view, but does this then disqualify me as immoral (let me say what Mr. Graves-Pryor considers immoral, others recognise as highly moral, principled as well as the need to have moral courage to articulate views which elicit vicious responses) and "unfit to teach human rights?" That's libel. Mr Graves-Pryor is wrong to assume that expressing viewpoints that attract vitriolic attacks is an opinion held "without repercussion." Does he appreciate the repercussions I have sustained to my academic reputation for my political views expressed in the context of parliamentary debates in an independent country? I have paid the cost for my convictions and principles. Is he now wanting to be my debtor?
10. Now, as a scholar, I have not written about homosexuality and the law in any direct sense. Simply because it is not a research interest of mine, or has not been up till now. It is also an area which attracts a great deal of personal attack, which no sane person invites, as this current furore shows. The only time I can think of where I indirectly referenced it in a law review article was in relation to issues of definition and how one identifies a 'human right.' That is, is a human right natural, is it a subject of political preference, an object of political capture? If human rights are meant to be universal, why is there so much local resistance? Is same sex marriage, for instance, a human right? Some may like it to be as a matter of personal conviction or politics, but it is not a global right, certainly not a customary international law norm, though there have been treaty-based interpretations of it e.g. ICCPR and ECHR jurisprudence. That is how I teach the subject.
I see it as a regional legal right, a contested one at the UN (though as a scholar, I will observe that the dominant view is to see sexual orientation as a right without defining the broad term) and a constitutional/ civic rights issue in many countries, particularly those in western liberal democracies (though not limited to the 'West'). For example, the Delhi High Court recently interpreted a sodomy law as unconstitutional, but that is limited to the state of Delhi and the next day, a famous guru took out a motion to challenge this. This shows that it has become a politicised issue of significance in India but it also shows the sharp divergences of views in that country. This is how I teach. I examine views of both sides. I let my students make up their minds. I do not evangelise my students into one way of thinking as I know some professors do, perhaps because they hold different views about teaching and the role of an academic. People will disagree. As a scholar, I adhere
to the principle of audi alteram partem (hear the other side). As a Singapore citizen, I will defend my right to speak to my domestic politics. As a politician, when I was in the House, I did. I may have opinions about the US but I do not have the standing to speak to American politics. I do not presume to. Do Americans then presume to speak to Singapore politics? Of course they can express opinions, an the internet age facilitates the free spread of ideas, but I would say, butt out, let Singaporeans debate it amongst ourselves. We have brains. We do not wish to be neo-colonised. And if you think that the homosexual community is oppressed in this way, you speak from ignorance. The government of Singapore may be politically controlling in many areas pertaining to actual political power, but it takes a fairly hands off view on matters of public morality.
11. I am deeply offended at Mr. Graves-Pryor characterisation of me / my views as immoral. I disagree with his views but I do not threaten his job. I am offended by the insinuations of some that I am unable to teach in a manner which reflects both intellectual integrity and basic courtesy to colleagues and students, particularly those with "sharply disagreeing" views. Perhaps this is a function of American law schools where classrooms become political platforms rather than venues of academic enquiry. I do not know, I have no first hand experience.
12. I am disappointed at the basic lack of reciprocity. When some NYU professors come to Singapore and articulate views which may be disagreeable to official policy of the government, or the views of academic colleagues, we afford them the basic courtesy in the interests of authentic intellectual exchange, to express their views. We do not allow a song and dance and vicious attacks to be made on them. Perhaps, (some) Asians are more polite after all.
13. I was invited to NYU by the Law School. I was honoured by this recognition of my academic scholarship. I looked forward to meeting a new community of scholars of a respected institution. Now my 'colourful' political views have been "outed" so to speak (it is old to me, I have already gone through a local round of abuse in 2007, death threats and other acts of viciousness) and I have been roundly insulted and attacked. This is how you treat your visitors? Do you mean only those with acceptable political views or those who keep their political views personal for fear of such vicious responses are to be entertained? You will breed academic cowardice and a paralyzing homogenisation if this is the case. I am not suggesting that NYU in fact does this, I am merely pointing out the logical consequences of this kind of action / reaction / inaction.
14. I am tired of this obsessive and narcissitic obsession with ONE of the speeches I made during my 2.5 years tenure in Parliament. Perhaps my detractors would like to review the range of my speeches, from organ donation to foreign workers to women's rights to by-election motions to the right to vote, before they so readily condemn me. Perhaps they would like to review my academic record before sitting in judgment, with such hubris and incivility. Perhaps they need to reflect that the 'culture wars' are called 'wars' for a reason but that they can model reasoned and civil discourse rather than perpetuate a culture of vulgarity and violence.
15. What seems to be getting activists in a twist is my speech in support of the government's stance to retain the sodomy law. Please note, it was not even up for discussion until another MP raised it in a specific targeted parliamentary petition, full of fine sounding rhetoric and little substance. This matter was debated in Singapore for months. I played my role in the democratic process by uttering the views of the majority of Singaporeans. Most MPs who spoke to it supported the retention of the law. They recognise Singapore is a socially conservative society and were faithfully expressing the views of their constituents, to rebut the homosex activist campaigners who also had their mouthpiece in Parliament. Anyone concerned with the democratisation of Singapore society should view this as a progressive step. Anyone only concerned with their agenda will of course only seek to attack their detractors. But then, is politics about the common good or just partisan agendas? Is
this not a fit subject to academic enquiry?
I had the support of the vast majority of the House as well (though of course, it may surprise you, there are dissenting voices in Parliament and even within the ruling party). After the debate, many were grateful that I had not bowed down to the intimidatory tactics of the homosexual community and been their voice. Many within and without the House came to thank me personally. Some weeping. Many were concerned with my welfare after the flurry of vicious attacks I received after the speech, as they recognised how vile many were. I am sure Mr Graves-Pryor will say: serves you right for speaking such bigoted views. I wonder whether he sees the bigotry and intolerant 'tolerance' in that kind of reaction and the double standards rife in this type of discourse? I am against physical violence towards all people as a fundamental norm, but ironically, those who paint themselves as advocates of personal liberty have no hesitation in squelching mine. Lets be tolerant but not tolerate
whom we consider intolerant. That is totalitarianism by any other name
16. Now, I do not expect you to agree with my views. But does Mr. Graves-Pryor expect me to conform with his? What bullying. But that is something I have come to recognise as a common tactic of some activists. This is in fact a threat to a free society, whether to equality of citizenship, religious freedom and free speech.
17. Mr Graves-Pryor and I am sure, many in the NYU community may dislike the tenor of my speech, but it boils down in substance to differing conceptions of the common good and the good life, over epistemology, ethics, morality. And let me put things in context
a. I am not a member of the Singapore government. I am not in the position to "oppress" anyone. I am in the position as an individual, to be oppressed. Which is what has happened.
b. My support for what you sir may consider an oppressive law is a function of my right to speak to matters of law and policy as a Singapore citizen and as I was then, a member of Parliament.
c. My objection is not to gay people; it is towards the nature of the homosexual political agenda and the vicious and degrading tactics of some activists. I say "some" because there were gays in Singapore who (a) agree that homosexuality should not be mainstreamed or coercively taught as having moral equivalence with heterosexuality as a social norm) (b) disagree with me but reject the tactics of insult and death threats.
d. Does Mr Graves-Pryor believe that someone should be fired because they are gay? Or that someone should be subject to heterosexual sensitivity training to 'cure' their 'deviant' beliefs? Of course not. Now, does Mr Graves-Pryor believe that someone should be fired because they believe heterosexuality and family values (yes, we can debate 'family') should be socially supported and the social norm? Or that someone should be subject to homosex sensitivity training because they believe heterosexuality to be the norm?
e. One reason I spoke out as clearly as I did was because that was my constitutional function, to bring forth an alternative view. I am not a professional politician. I am interested in the soundness of argument rather than perception. I am aware of how politicised this issue is and how emotion drives most of the argument, particularly on the side of those who denigrate their detractors as emotional, while manifesting that same trait. That comes from my training as an academic.
f. Another reason is frankly, a tiredness with this sort of bullying towards anyone who opposes the gay agenda. (And I know gays who oppose the gay agenda). One of my colleagues, an untenured professor, wrote an Op Ed supporting the retention of the sodomy law and the policy of non active enforcement. An argument raised was that law has an educative function in signalling social mores. Removing the law would signal a different set of values that colleague was opposed to. What happened? That colleague received a torrent of abuse. People wrote to our dean demanding that colleague(a) be removed from her job (b) be subjected to homosex sensitivity training (c) be required to teach pro-gay cases from abroad (which in fact were referenced in lectures while not celebrated). We do not tolerate such self-righteous intolerance in Singapore. At stake is genuine academic freedom and civil discourse. Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor in this context? Or does an unrelenting hu
bris occlude the ability to see the truth of things in different contexts?
18. I wonder whether Mr. Graves-Pryor bothered to read the entirety of my speech and to appreciate the context and the fact that I will not let any of my junior colleagues be bullied by intemperate activism if I can help it. I also wonder whether Mr. Graves Pryor saw the bottom line in my parliamentary speech which was and remains this: "As fellow citizens, homosexuals are entitled to expect decent treatment from the rest of us; but they have no right to insist we surrender our fundamental moral beliefs so they can feel comfortable about their sexual behaviour." I am sure it will not go far enough for him or those who share his views in this politics of identity. This disagreement is socially magnified many times.
If the NYU law community is unable to welcome me because of my convictions, they should say so. I am sure many faculty members are doing some soul-searching, perhaps regretting their original invitation. I am not naive. But just reflect on how this makes me feel. I do not feel welcomed as a person; I feel unfairly treated and greatly disrespected. Would any academic (who is reasonably sane) want to go into a situation where hatred of a person, as oppose to "sharp disagreement" with their views, is the order of the day? Mr Graves-Pryor and those who share his views have succeeded in communicating their extreme disapproval of me / my views. They may rejoice in speaking freely, as the US Constitution protects, while seeking to intimidate others from exercising that same right through intimidation and abuse. I maintain my disagreement with their views and the viciousness of expression but this is perhaps to be expected, given the intractable nature of law and profound moral dis
agreement where an overlapping consensus is not possible or elusive.
If NYU Law as an institution is committed to a genuine diversity of viewpoints and respectful interlocution, it would be an institution I would be honoured to be given the privilege to teach at. If not, then be frank and say so.
Dean, if you wish to circulate my views and clarifications to the faculty, that is your prerogative. I have no desire to come into a hostile working environment where people believe half truths and false insinuations about me. If they wish to dislike me or my views, let it be for the views that I actually hold, not the ones maliciously imputed to me.
I remain respectfully,
Queerty (Includes a speech she made) / Straits Times / Feministe
Edit More previous unfunny with Thio, linked to and written by t_boy here
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