The World is in Flames

“Even though you didn’t give a direct answer I think your response did speak volumes,” Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii scolded Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. “Not once, but twice, you used the term sexual preference to describe those in the LGBTQ community. And let me make clear, sexual preference is an offensive and outdated term.”

Amy Coney Barrett apologizes in exchange with Sen. Mazie Hirono for 'sexual  preference' comment - The Washington Post
Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono scolding Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett over her word choice

What was Hirono responding to? “I have no agenda, and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not ever discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” Barrett said when asked about her stance on preserving protections for members of the LGBTQ community. Correct answer, right? Wrong. Lambda Legal tells us why:

After being confronted by Hirono, Barrett apologized. “I certainly didn’t mean and would never mean to use a term that would cause any offense in the LGBTQ community,” she said.

Shortly afterward, John McCormack of the National Review asked an obvious question of Hirono: “Senator, last week at the hearing you mentioned that you thought it was ‘offensive and outdated’ when Amy Barrett used the [term] ‘sexual preference.’ It turns out that Joe Biden said it in May. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it in 2017. Some of your colleagues on the Judiciary Committee said it maybe in 2010, 2012. Do you stand by that criticism?”

Mazie Hirono: Well, of course.

McCormack: Do you think Joe Biden should apologize for saying that in May?

Hirono: Well, look, it’s a lesson learned for all of us. But when you’re going on the Supreme Court and you’ve been a judge, as one of my judge friends said, you should know what these words mean.

McCormack: Should Joe Biden apologize, too, like Amy Coney Barrett did?

Hirono: Joe Biden is not up for the Supreme Court.

McCormack: He’s up for the presidency. So, he shouldn’t apologize?

Hirono: People will decide.

McCormack: You don’t want to call on him to apologize?

Hirono: Oh, stop it. The world is in flames.

There are lots of problems with Hirono’s response. For one thing, telling another person how they are supposed to talk about complex and unsettled matters is arrogant and obnoxious. What does Hirono know about this? Somebody tells her something and she becomes a walking truth scold? Now she’s everybody’s mother? That’s the left these these days. The authoritarian impulse is off the hook with these people. They think they have the right to cancel, bully, hector, and shame others into their ideological frame.

But at its core, the argument misunderstands the idea of preferences at a fundamental level. It is to admit to a profound ignorance of everything we know about the nature of human character to suggest that preference indicates choice. The truth is, we don’t know very much about how people acquire references. 

As a professional sociologist, I may have something to contribute here. Those of us who study these things, if we’re honest, admit we really don’t why human beings prefer one thing over another. We know that preferences may persist or vary over time and place. Preference is frequently contextual. It can be shaped by mood. Some days, a person prefers one thing over another thing. On other days, that same person prefers the other thing. Humans navigate their lives via an often ever changing constellation of preferences. All this is observable. How humans come to have preferences? That’s a hard problem. But I do know this: Lambda Legal doesn’t have the answer to this question.

Choices are something different. Preferences shape our choices. But they do not always determine them. We often choose what we do not prefer.

I am not so arrogant as to presume to know why I have the preferences I have. Humans prefer all sorts of things and they have no idea why they prefer them. We didn’t choose them. We cannot presume that being more attracted to blue eyes, blonde hair, and fair skin is genetic. That would presume that people are born with racial preferences. I don’t think that’s true. Maybe it is. I don’t know. Neither does Senator Hirono. Or Lambda Legal. Or GLAAD. At the same time, attraction is not a choice. A person does not choose to be attracted to one thing rather than another. They discover they are. A person makes them feel a certain way. To be sure, they can catalog the characteristics that makes them feel that way, but they cannot explain why those characteristics work for them and others don’t. Or why they persist. Or why they change. It mysterious. And that’s okay.

Because a person doesn’t know why he prefers this over that—or that over this on Tuesdays—does not mean the preferences are innate or that he chooses them. That is a false dichotomy. Genes may be involved. Hormones may be involved. They may not be. If genes or hormones are involved, they may not be all that is involved. Very likely they aren’t all that is involved. Socialization is a powerful factor in shaping preferences.

The argument Hirono is making is an extreme oversimplification of the human conditions that presumes that an open matter is a settled one. The Senator is operating within a frame that holds that something like sexual preference is either totally determined or must be a matter of free will. Determined by what? Is this a genetic model? A behavioral model? Does it matter?

A person may believe that homosexuality is a choice. But to say it is a preference is not to say that it is a choice. It doesn’t even suggest it. Lambda Legal wants to hector people into using words it prefers. It’s on a power trip. It’s the same power trip that lies behind the habit of presuming to speak for others or demanding utterances avoid offending abstract people. But Lambda Legal is wrong. To say something is a preference implies nothing about the origins of the preference. The way those who work in that office hear things does not determine the truth of the things they hear. They aren’t in charge of the meaning of words. Or their usages.

If somebody asks me, “Why do you prefer this?” perhaps the most honest answer I can give is to say, “I don’t know. I just do.” And that should be good enough. It’s not like I did something wrong. I don’t have to explain myself. I’m not a bad person. As long as what I prefer does not hurt anybody else, then it’s an entirely acceptable way of being and behaving.

We really don’t have to accept a master explanation about the constellation of preferences that informs our choices. Not from Mazie Hirono, Lambda Legal, or anybody else. For sure Senator Hirono is unqualified to lecture anybody on such matters. Judge Barrett should not have apologized. Never participate in another person’s effort to humiliate you—or to force into you their newspeak.

Finally, to Hirono’s remark about the state of the world. This is typical of the progressive movement. Barack Obama says Joe Biden has the character to lead us through these dark times and heal us. Child oracle Greta Thunberg, the movement’s climate scold, warns us that she is watching us. Hirono says the world is in flames. What does such apocalyptic rhetoric signal? It’s not obvious?

Of all the reasons to vote against Joe Biden (and there are plenty), the quasi-religious zealotry of the progressive movement is arguably the main one. The faux-moral language signals the core belief of the technocracy: that the elite are called by providence to treat a disease called the common man. Senator Hirono sees Judge Barrett, because Barrett is a conservative, as one among the deplorables. Hirono could not miss an opportunity to lord over Barrett self-assigned moral superiority.

I am very impressed by how intentional this SARS-2 virus is. It has clearly made a choice of comrades and that choice is the same choice progressives make: the downtrodden and oppressed and their allies. There is no uptick in SARS-2 cases associated with the Black Lives Matter protests, the women’s marches, etc. The high priests of the establishment make this very clear. The awokened are magically spared. It’s like the lamb’s blood mark on the doors of Jewish slaves that deterred the creeping death. But the virus follows Trump rallies around the country infecting thousands. Like frogs and locusts pestering Pharaoh. Have you noticed how disproportionately white Trump rallies are? You know, the descendants of the slave masters? The deplorables. They had it coming. This is a virus with a definite tribal preference. Black people and their allies? Off limits. White conservatives? Death to their crippled and elderly. As an old and often tongue-tied man told us, if it wasn’t for Trump, a multitude of people would still be alive today. As legend has it, Moses wasn’t a gifted speaker, either.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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