Saturday, May 07, 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Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist congregations, signed a letter to the Latvian government demand that the textbook be withdrawn because of what they deemed unacceptable views on homosexuality.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.


kalvis.apsitis said...

School textbooks are not exactly an issue of free speech. First and foremost they are meant to be used for everyday training in a certain subject (thus they must conform to a standard for this subject set by the Ministry of Education). Nobody needs an approval for a supplementary book on any subject - only for these, which teachers may require the parents of their students to purchase.

The main problem with including Ms.Cihanovica's comments is - they are fine as an opinion in an entertaining Web portal, but they do not represent any scientific facts. FACTS about homosexuality can and should be included in Social Studies textbooks - but then we cannot simply state that some condition is "norm", because "doctors think so" and anyway, "8-10% of the society are homosexuals". This is not how science approaches any problem. Such vague statements cannot even be verified or refuted. We cannot check this knowledge in an exam.

So the minister of education, Mr.Broks took the unusual step of pointing out, what other opinions should be included in the textbook. Of course, this is not perfect - as Mr.Kaza pointed out, there is hardly a uniform opinion about this among the various Christian denominations in Latvia; and why do we ask the church? The radical nationalists, the neo-pagan movement Dievturi, some political parties (Visu Latvijai, TP, LPP/LC) also are critical of homosexuality.

And more opinions do not make the textbook more scientific. On the other hand, it now passes something like Wikipedia NPOV test (if there is no one consensus view about some topic, Wikipedians should tell several interpretations). This is marginally better than a textbook serving as a mouthpiece for the subjective views of one person (Jolanta Cihanovica), who has long been an activist supporting gay pride events, etc.

Anonymous said...

"This is a country where 35% of the population believe that the sun revolves around the earth."
Is this a joke pointing out Latvian general ignorance or a fact?

Anonymous said...

Jens Zvirgzdgrauds
I never saw such a virulent attack by a Latvian against his own people and country, as this article. It is full of disinformation and by trying to defend a sexual minority it attacks everybody else - Christianity, the sun for not revolving around the earth, the whole world and his wife, in short. If a minority is so aggressive in its utterances against the majority, small wonder that Latvians are feeling an increasing irritation at their homosexual's onslaught against the education system, family values and even free speech and religious freedom. In the light of this article, its unintended consequence may be that the public opinion will see the homosexual campaigners as the real crusading obscurantists. Moreover, the self styled expert authority on this issue, invoked by the author, has clearly failed to prove her point either statistically or even contentwise.

Wannabe Sorosieši said...

Kalvi- so what you are essentially saying is that we should/could dismiss most current sociaology, anthropology, economics etc. ? These are all based on such research that comes up with statistical ranges rather than absolute values. And yes, the numbers and conclusions cited are part of a scientific consensus in much of the west. Please check the shifts in the DSM, where homosexuality is no longer considered to be a pathology.

And poor 12th century Jens. How in the heck is this minority "virulently attacking" the majority. I got on my trolleybus this morning, drove to the centre and didn't notice a single gay person assaulting anyone.

Kārlis Streips said...

@ Kalvis: So you think that at the World Health Organization, they sat down one day with sparkling eyes and said "Hey, without any investigation or science at all, let's remove homosexuality from the list of disorders"? 'Fraid not, dude. The fact that homosexuality is not a disease is unquestionable fact, and it has been attested by serious health care organizations all around the world. There are gay people of every stripe, star, polka dot, triangle, square and rhomboid in this world of ours. There have always been gay people in this world of ours, because if there hadn't been in the past, the authors of the Bible would not have had anything to write about in this regard. There have been gay people when they were burned at the stake, when they were locked up into psychiatric hospitals, etc. Homosexuality exists in other species of animals, too, lots of them. That's another fact. And what do you mean by refuting the concept "doctors think so"? Does that mean that students shouldn't be taught geology or physics because "scientists think so" and there are some "Christians" who believe that there ain't no such thing, because the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Free speech? Absolutely. Let the book contain a statement that despite the findings of the WHO and many, many, many other organizations, there are some people who persist in believing that homosexuality is in some sense wrong. But leave Jolanta's statement there as is, because that is a matter of free speech, as well.

Asehpe said...

Kalvis, it's very easy for you to claim Ms Cihanovica's opinion is "just her opinion": you can always say that it's "just the author's opinion" whenever you consider a given claim. Just go to the last person to make that claim, associate it with that person's name, and then forget about anyone else who's said the same. It's just that person's opinion, so it can be dismissed, right?

Of course that's not how it works. Ms Cihanovica's opinion is the majority opinion among doctors, psychatriasts and other health specialists in the world. It's cited in medical manuals, it's defended by a long, long list of different authors -- all saying things pretty similar to what Ms Cihanovica says -- and an even longer list of academic articles with all kinds of evidence and argumentation.

You can't just dismiss it as "her opinion". You'd have to dismiss the opinion of all these people, plus their arguments, their evidence, their articles... and so on.

In other words: to ignore that homosexuality is no longer considered a disorder by most health specialists in the developed countries is simply wrong. To avoid mentioning this fact in a textbook is tantamount to ignoring all those authors, all that research, all that evidence -- in short, it is tantamount to ignoring what social science is all about.

A textbook on social science that ignores some of the most clear consensus among social scientists in the Western world cannot be considered a good textbook. It's not simply Ms Cihanovica -- it's much, much more than that.

Asehpe said...

Or, to summarize, Kalivs: it's not an issue of free speech. It's an issue of ignoring results and the widening consensus in a large community of health researchers and practitioners. That is very bad for a textbook that supposedly wants to inform children about what is known (or believed to be known) about our society by social scientists.