Friday, May 6, 2011

Crusading Obscurantists attack a social studies textbook

Obscurantism and theocratic tendencies, never far in the background in Latvia, are raising their heads again as a virulent debate rages over the inclusion of psychologist's views on homosexuality in a 9th grade social sciences textbook. The psychotherapist Jolanta Cihanoviča is quoted in a reprinted interview as saying that homosexuality is not an illness, that this has been acknowledged by medical and psychiatric organizations around the world, and that it is a “normal aspect” of human sexuality.
Religious organizations, including the archbishop of the Latvian Lutheran Church Jānis Vanags, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Latvia, Zbigņevs Stankevičs, representatives of Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist congregations, signed a letter to the Latvian government demand that the textbook be withdrawn because of what they deemed unacceptable views on homosexuality. Interestingly, the letter was also signed by a nationalist member of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, Imants Parādnieks, who, according to press reports and his own statements, maintains long-term, affectionate relationships with two women and has been called a “polygamist” by some media.
Latvia's Ministry of Education and Science has now caved in to the demands of the ultra-conservative religious factions (mainstream Lutheranism is tolerant of homosexuality, Latvia's church does not even ordain women) and hinted that the views of “the church” would be included in the next edition of the textbook. Presently, it looks like the “church” is considered to be only those religious leaders that vehemently denounce homosexuality as sin and depravity, and also reject the views of medical science and psychology that different sexual orientation is not an illness or disorder.
I wouldn't object to a social science textbook that illustrated contemporary trends by examining the debate in society and within world religions on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. That could very well include quoting the condemnation of gays as depraved sinners by some Latvian religious leaders and the acceptance of gays and all other people by such ministers as Harvard-trained Juris Cālitis, who has held religious services ahead of Latvia's controversial “Gay Pride” events a few years ago.
However, the danger in the present turn of events is that the education authorities of a formally secular democracy are caving in to the demands of obscurantist religious movements and their political supporters. If they make gains on the “hot” issue of gays, other attacks on the secular teaching of science are not far behind. After all, as recent polls show, this is a country where 35% of the population believe that the sun revolves around the earth.
Media stories about the controversy, as always, generated hundreds of reader comments, most of them vehemently homophobic, supporting the censorship of the textbook, and referring to various conspiracy theories about why most medical and psychiatric organizations in the world, including the World Health Organizaition (WHO) do not see gays as Satan's agents sent to deprave the young and to destroy Latvia in particular.
Cihanoviča, an experienced psychotherapist who has been published internationally, was denounced in violent, hateful language in many of the comments, something that has almost become a norm in Latvian internet media. It yet again affirms my observation some time ago that Latvians hate free speech and love hate speech or something to that effect.
To be “fair”, or at least to explain why the endemic witches' kettle of ignorance, xenophobia, paranoia and twisted national inferiority complex was set a-boiling again, Cihanoviča used the word “normal” (normāls) in Latvian. It became a red flag to a herd of intellectually blind (or disabled) raging bulls, because to many Latvians, normāls is seen as meaning “this is what you MUST accept” or “this is what you MUST go out and do”. In other words, in the narrow, scared and information deprived mind-space of many Latvians, it mean that “we are turning your kids into gays and they better obey, because it is normāls.” In fact, normal simply means that it is something that is out there, that doesn't go away, that is part of nature, life and society. In Latvia, snow is normal, but I don't have to affirm that I love it or to run out and buy skis or a sled.
The whole issue is interesting, because it falls squarely across the themes of two of my blogs – one on free speech issues, because text book censorship by religious groups is a major free speech issue in many countries, It also addresses the issue of Latvia as a failed state of sorts, whose failure is partly rooted in the persistence of ignorance, xenophobia, authoritarianism and the populist appeak of crusading obscurantism or, as Latvians put it karojošā tumsonība. The warriors of intellectual darkness have made the education authorities blink, which is a very bad sign.