Don’t Judge A Baldwin By His Outburst?

Wes Alwan responds to the hand-wringing over Alec Baldwin’s “cock-sucking fag” controversy:

These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever.

The fourth, implied premise here—one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post—is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it. That they might associate it with weakness and submission on the one hand, and on the other with the strength and courage required to face discrimination and disapproval. That they might be personally repelled by homosexuality yet be ashamed of that feeling, and meanwhile an ardent supporter of gay rights.

These are all good points. But my calling the man a bigot is not meant to be some cosmic, eternal or simple statement about the guy. It’s a simple inference from repeated threats of violence – often including anal rape – toward other men, coupled with classic homophobic slurs. If used against any other minority, we would not be having this discussion. And my post was motivated above all by a sense that Baldwin’s public support of gay equality is somehow reflexively used by him and other liberals to excuse this classic homophobic behavior. It wasn’t him so much as his liberal enablers that got my goat as I wrote at the time.

Is Baldwin insincere in his support for marriage equality? Almost certainly not. Does he reflexively use homophobic slurs and imagery – and then near-hilariously lie about it even when caught in the act? Absolutely. The lies are particularly strange, as Anderson Cooper has noted.

The idea that a 55-year-old intelligent person only just found out that “cock-sucking” is a pejorative adjective alluding to gay men is preposterous. Ditto the notion that he had no idea at all that the word “queen” as in “toxic little queen” had homosexual connotations. The lies in these cases – instead of a candid admission that he brought up phrases from his own less enlightened past to lash out in anger and now regrets it – do not help his case that he is not guided by various forms of homophobia. Subsequently dragging his gay hairdresser out in front of the paparazzi he supposedly disdains doesn’t help either. Nor does making cringe-inducing jokes about his love for another man in public.

David Sessions agrees with Alwan. He finds irony in the liberal moralizing, arguing that “for so many liberals, the words are everything” and that, for them, there is “no bigger sin than using the wrong term, or revealing that you haven’t completely purified your inner life of unapproved sentiments”:

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a devastating mentality for the left to embrace. I left behind the religious conservatism I grew up with partly because I saw, over the first 20 years or so of my life, the self-defeating absurdity of movement orthodoxies and the obsession with moral shibboleths. There is some basic part of humanity that resists imposed conformity, especially when it claims the authority to judge even one’s individual inner experience. I became a liberal because I believed in the fundamental sovereignty of the individual to determine their existence as they see fit, free from totalizing legal or religious regimes; I became a leftist when I understood that systemic economic conditions impose even greater constraints on that self-determination. If all liberalism is about is policing the state of one’s soul, entirely apart from what one does to tear down those restraints, we might as well give up politics and go back to church.