Steve Ralls

Italians Do It Better

Filed By Steve Ralls | October 24, 2007 1:21 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Europe, italy, steve ralls, tolerance

2r46fid_th.jpgYes, it's true: Italians do everything better.

Take, for example, the latest ad campaign from Tuscany's regional government. It's tagline, Sexual Orientation Is Not A Choice, appears alongside a new-born infant with "Homosexual" written on its hospital wristband. Thousands of the posters will begin appearing around the city. Walls, offices and other public spaces around the largely Catholic area will unabashedly promote a uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality.

It's all part of an anti-discrimination campaign launched by the Tuscan government to promote tolerance, acceptance and understanding. And the last time we saw something like this out of the United States was, well . . . never.

Even in forward-looking Europe, though, the campaign is not without its critics. Conservative politicians - no surprise - are condemning the posters.

"Exploiting newborns to suggest that homosexual tendencies are innate is a misleading and shameful act," said Lucio Volonte a leading parliamentarian for the Union of Christian Democrats.

Ignoring science, though - which long ago concluded that sexual orientation is innate - is, maybe, the "Christian" thing to do?

No wonder it took these people a little longer than the rest to get on that whole "the earth is round" bandwagon. And goodness knows, there have never been any gay boys in the Vatican . . . have there?

In Italy, a gay baby's first words are "Gimme the Pope's Prada," after all.

But wait, wait! There's more. It's not just the anti-gays who are in a tizzy about tolerance. In true Italia style, somebody had to drag a philosopher into the middle of it . . . and a gay philosopher at that.

Gianni Vattimo, who is also a Member of the Italian Parliament (what kind of crazy people put deep, philosophical thinkers in public office?!), called the whole thing "excessive." The slogan "is too biology-centric," he said.

But biology-centric excess is, in my experience, exactly what the Italians do best!

The debate, nonetheless, is at least a bit more entertaining than the top-volume, ear-splitting debacles Americans tend to find themselves in when it comes to things like this.

Philosophers, gay babys and tacky paper bracelets! Even when it comes to right-wing rants, the Italians do it better.

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | October 24, 2007 3:00 PM

Steve, it's not just the Italians. "Old Europe" is, for the most part, light years ahead of the US when it comes to government-sponsored tolerance toward LGBT folks.

Look at posters from a recent high-profile campaign that was done in part with Irish government funding:

Yep, the Irish government—another Catholic country—isn't afraid to address the fact that high school students are sexual--and lesbian or gay!

They're a bit slower when it comes to trans. But they’re moving in the right direction!

This reminds me of this old we ran by Wendell Ricketts. He says quite the opposite about Italy.

I'm thinking the truth is somewhere in between, that each is better in their own ways, respective to their own cultures. Or I don't know what I'm talking about.

Ignoring science, though - which long ago concluded that sexual orientation is innate - is, maybe, the "Christian" thing to do?

This statement is absolutely not true. Science has not definitively determined whether sexual orientation is innate.

Good point, Nick.

The closest that we know at this point is that sexuality is caused by multiple factors, some innate, some environmental, that affect different people differently. And I think that's what that philosopher is partly referring to.

Oh, well. It's not like it should matter, even though it does to a lot of people.

Steve Ralls Steve Ralls | October 25, 2007 9:32 AM

In fact, the most well-respected scientific groups agree that sexual orientation is not a choice.

From the APA:

"human beings cannot choose to be either gay or straight . . . Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice ..."

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation:

"Sexual orientation is innate and unchangeable."

And the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Assocation's (though not a scientific group, admittedly) style book defines sexual orientation as "innate sexual attraction."

I recognize that the 'nature vs. nurture' argument is one that still goes on, but in terms of science - and the way the LGBT community increasingly defines itself - 'innate' is a word that seems to work.

And why are all of my posts now turning into arguments about terminology suddenly?! It causes everyone to miss the larger, truer point of the topic at hand.

I don't think it's all that sudden - your last two posts turned into debates about Donnie McClurkin, which was exactly what you posted about. And I don't really think this is a debate about terminology, but about ideas. "Innate" or "not innate" isn't the same thing as "choice" or "not a choice". The APA doesn't say anything about genetics being related to homosexuality, and the Palo Alto Med Found'n's thing there was from a "Teen topics" pamphlet and was used to show the difference between the terms "sexual orientation", "sexual identity", and "sexual behavior". I don't think it was meant to be taken literally as a synopsis of current science on sexuality.

I don't know, I kinda like that it hasn't been pin-pointed to one cause or labeled as "innate". It makes the whole experience that much richer.

And I think it's also good that people get "off topic" in comments on this site. It shows that people are making connections and reading your posts carefully. It seems like a compliment to me. :)

It may please Steve Ralls that I'm not going to comment at all about his terminology. With respect to the nature/nurture argument, I'll say only this: Whether queers are made or born is an "angels on the head of a pin" argument that has virtually nothing to do with the way people actually live their lives. More importantly, it has no impact on theology: if it were proven tomorrow that sexual orientation is 100% genetic or, conversely, that it is 100% created by "environment," those who seek religious justification for discrimination or hate would be content in either case. If we’re born, we simply have to live celibate lives. If we’re made, we can be unmade. Either way, their bases are covered. It is intellectual folly to think that the “average bigot” cares one way or another (or that his or her opinions are significantly influenced by “science”), and it’s a strategic mistake to focus major attention on this question when there is no evidence that large-scale efforts to discriminate are or would be attenuated by “proof” of a sole and exclusive biological cause for sexual orientation.

What I really want to comment on, though, is Steve Ralls’ journalist style (let’s call it a style), which could stand a bit of reflection. As writers and journalists—but primarily as intelligent human beings and thoughtful citizens—perhaps one of our principle duties is to discipline ourselves against the temptation to write universal truths. Writing requires especial rigor because assertions committed to “paper” organically conjure their opposites, and because the meta-context of writing for publication (even web publication) demands the definition of terms and the clarification of premises.

Let’s examine, then, just a couple of lines from Ralls’ response to comments on “Italians Do It Better.” Ralls writes, “In fact, the most well-respected scientific groups agree that sexual orientation is not a choice.” But let’s “unpack” the premises. To begin with, Ralls cites “well-respected scientific groups” without defining what he means. Respected by whom, other than by Ralls? And what does “scientific” mean? Psychology is only arguably a science in the sense that neurobiology is a science but, even if we consider psychology a full-fledged scientific discipline, the members of the American Psychological Association aren’t really in a position to comment authoritatively on biology (in fact, they speak of what they “consider” to be true, not what psychology “proves” to be true). The Palo Alto Medical Foundation, meanwhile, is only arguably a “well-respected scientific group.” Further, Ralls indicates that “most” such groups agree, but then only cites two. Has there been some national or international survey of “respected scientific groups” regarding their positions on the matter? Finally, Ralls chooses the verb “agree,” which is intriguing on the face of it. Does “agree” mean “provides hard scientific proof”? Or does it simply mean that spokespeople for such groups have an opinion, too?

A few paragraphs later, Ralls writes that “I recognize that the 'nature vs. nurture' argument is one that still goes on….” So which is it? Is the biological source of sexual orientation and object choice a settled scientific fact, underscored by evidence gathered by respected scientists, or is it a question still open to debate?

I go to such lengths here because the way Ralls writes is, unfortunately, the way a lot of people think—it’s slippery, it’s superficial, its leaps to unwarranted conclusions, it rejects a priori what is inconvenient to the argument, and it elides the vast continent of possibility that lies between “may be” and “is.”

If it is true, as Ralls writes, that “innate” is the term with which the “LGBT community increasingly defines itself”—leaving aside what the “LGBT community” is, how Ralls knows how “it” defines itself, or the fact that I don’t define myself this way—perhaps the only thing such an assertion demonstrates is that it has become politically expedient (and socially trendy) to view gender- and sexual-orientation related questions as “innate.” (The approach isn’t new; Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs came up with the same argument in the 1860s to defend those arrested for homosexual sex—if they were “inborn” homosexuals, they couldn’t help themselves and deserved leniency.)

More to the point, the problem is that members of the “LGBT community” are no more intelligent than anyone else, are no more rigorous in their thinking than anyone else, and are certainly no less hypnotized and lobotomized than anyone else by the mass media. Indeed, to the extent that we rely mainly or solely on advocacy media for our information, we actually risk being LESS well informed regarding the wider contexts or the opposing points of view that surround issues of concern to us. “Italians Do It Better” is a case in point.

What is more, at the level of the “LGBT community,” the complex issue of sexual orientation and object choice is frequently reduced to an absurdly simplistic formula, which smacks more of advertising slogans than it does of human experience (and here, I refer to articles in queer media, to blogs, to the kinds of things people write in response to articles like Ralls’): “I didn’t decide to be gay.”

Which is both slightly false and entirely beside the point. Whether sexual orientation is WHOLLY biologically determined or WHOLLY environmentally determined or WHOLLY a combination of the two, we cannot outrun the question of choice. By the time an individual is old enough to speak about “decision-making,” she or he may no longer have a choice to desire, to want, to fantasize, to be aroused by, but the choice to act (or not to act) on those desires and fantasies ALWAYS exists. Thus, every person makes a conscious choice whether to behave in accordance with what s/he experiences internally—that is, a choice to pursue a particular relationship rather than another, to be physically intimate, to seek out (or to continue to seek out) one kind of partner rather than another, to adorn or modify his or her body in specific ways, to expose him- or herself to certain kinds of reading materials, to frequent particular environments or individuals, and so on. All of which carries us right back into the territory of the Christian right and their arguments for the primacy of choice.

More useful, then, than wasting time on the essentially insoluble puzzle of “nature vs. nurture” might be to agree with them: Choice is an indication of humanity and the prerequisite of morality, for there is never an issue of morality without there having first been a matter of choice. To the extent that behavior reflects choice, it justly calls into account our dignity and morality, but morality is—always—complex and contingent, defying black-and-white proscriptions. (And that is true even in the case of murder, to cite the extreme case: Taking a human life is morally wrong, many would certainly agree … except in self-defense, or during war, or in the application of the death penalty, or in the case of abortion, or when relieving the suffering of a terminally ill patient, and so on.)

But let us come, at last, to the subject of Italy. Here, I can only sigh. Poor Italy, that so many people who’ve either only visited briefly or have never even been here feel entitled to pronounce on its nature, on its culture, on its political situation, on its social realities. And poor anyone who wants to try to understand something about this country, because you have to wade through a hundred books and articles breathless with ten-cent philosophy and tourist epiphanies to find one that contains useful information. I’ve lived in Italy for more than two years, and all I can say for sure is that the longer I live here, the less certain I am about what Italy “is” or how it works.

The only other thing I’m sure of is that one of the tortures of living in the United States was encountering “Italo-philes,” those always-smiling, always sure-of-themselves, always expert individuals who love to eat in Italian restaurants so they can wink knowingly and allow as how in Italy they would “never” eat something like that; who once sampled good coffee at a café in Rome and so now know that in Italy ‘they’ make the best coffee in the world; who correct your pronunciation of “bruschetta” or who insist on saying, when they’re speaking English, “Milano” or “Roma” instead of Milan and Rome; who once saw a group of wealthy and well-dressed Italians and now insist that Italians have the best fashion sense of anyone; who love to hear themselves utter sentences that begin “The Italians are….”

That’s where we get headlines like “Italians Do It Better,” which is the kind of thing I’d expect to see on a T-shirt on the Jersey shore and not above an article that purports to talk seriously about anti-discrimination efforts in Italy.

A couple of things might be important to know about Tuscany’s Sexual Orientation Is Not A Choice campaign. First and foremost: that the idea isn’t Italian at all. Rather, the concept, along with the graphic of the newborn wearing a hospital ID bracelet, was created in CANADA by a group called Emergence and was used in a public-education campaign in Quebec in the Spring of 2007. The Tuscany Region copied the campaign wholesale (with the permission and participation of Emergence). So, I dunno … maybe “QUEBECOIS DO IT BETTER”?

In addition, it may be true that “thousands” of copies of the poster were printed as Ralls reports, but the majority of them were displayed, sold, or given away at the Festival della Creatività, a convention dedicated to the graphic and visual arts that was held in Florence in October, where the campaign debuted. Certainly the Region of Tuscany has made the posters available for display in public places, but so far as I’ve been able to determine (and someone may correct me), there has been no regional, governmental effort to distribute “thousands” of the posters or to display them across Tuscany.

To assert, then, that “posters will begin appearing around the city. Walls, offices and other public spaces around the largely Catholic area will unabashedly promote a uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality” is uninformed, inaccurate, and just slightly hysterical. (What “city” first of all? Tuscany is a region, not a city.) Moreover, I’m not sure what that “uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality is,” but here Ralls is either in the thrall of some semi-pornographic “Italian stallion” fantasy (“biology-centric excess is, in my experience, exactly what the Italians do best!” Ralls shrills) or has been brainwashed by the racist mythology of the savage, primitive Italian. Or he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Ralls, in short, is in no position to write objectively about Italy or about the social reality of living or being queer here (in any case, he doesn’t write about it; his source is evidently an October 25, 2007 MSN wire-service report which, at least, provides some information about the extremely mixed reaction that the campaign has provoked in Italy; if Ralls read Italian, he might have spent some time scanning online message boards such as the one sponsored by ARCI-Firenze, where 57% of Italian queer respondents approve of the campaign but 42% don’t—not precisely a mandate).

What’s worse is that Ralls apparently doesn’t even possess the instinct to ask himself whether what he says about Italy is accurate or whether it is colored by the racist stereotypes and the Hollywood imagery that he apparently imbibed with his pabulum. And it’s precisely that lack of instinct—speaking of characteristics that it would be useful to be born with—that makes what he writes superficial.

All of that aside, the most galling aspect of Ralls’ article is that he purports to argue that this small gesture (for that is what it is) demonstrates that Italy—the entire country and its entire social and political structure—is somehow far ahead of the United States on some measure of social acceptance or political equity.

Would that it were so. But let’s think about it in demographic terms. The population of Tuscany is around 3.6 million, or almost exactly equal to Los Angeles (though the population density of Los Angeles is FIFTY-TWO times greater than that of Tuscany!). Are we prepared to say, then, that a pro-gay education campaign undertaken in Los Angeles or an anti-discrimination law enacted in that city is an indication that the ENTIRE UNITED STATES is pro-gay, either as a question of government policy or social condition? I think we’d consider such an assertion absurd.

When it comes to Italy, it’s no less absurd. What reigns in Italy with respect to homosexuality is prime-time television where fag jokes get a guaranteed laugh but where recurring gay characters are few and far between (last May, one of the most beloved Italian series, Un Medico in Famiglia A Doctor in the Family) gave its long-running gay character, Oscar, a partner; though the relationship is born in a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment of exaggerated blandness, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, nonetheless ferociously accused the show’s lead actor, who has appeared in other films with a gay theme, of “irresponsibly” promoting homosexuality). What reigns is homophobic bullying in schools on an alarming national level—and parents who militantly defend their children when school officials try to discipline them for such bullying. What reigns are murders committed to avenge being called queer, and newspaper commentators who defend such murders as justified. What reigns are right-wing politicians who refer to “asshole bandits” or who make headlines with such quips as “better a fascist than a fag.” What reigns is a Catholic hierarchy that cannot shut up about homosexuality and the threat it represents to the Italian family—and which makes such pronouncements virtually every single day. What reigns is a “center-left” government that briefly floated the idea of joining the majority of the countries in the European Union in recognizing “de facto” couples, got its hand firmly and repeatedly slapped by the Church and the right wing, and retreated into an utter and contrite silence on the topic. What reigns is a level of queer political clout so inconsequential that even in Milan, Italy’s second largest and, arguably, most “queer-friendly” metropolis, the mayor refuses to allow the city to sponsor the International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Festival Internazionale di Cinema GayLesbico e Queer Culture), held each summer since 1986. What reigns is a country with very, very few gay bars that aren’t directed primarily at tourists and a tiny, scattered handful of LGBT centers that are often disorganized, understaffed, and in fundamental disagreement with one another about national or grassroots strategies; a level of day-to-day “street” visibility that approaches zero; and a widespread belief, among LGBT persons themselves, that coming out is unnecessary because homosexuality should remain private. What reigns is an enormous amount of silence.

That is the “uniquely Italian sensibility about sex and sexuality.” And you’re welcome to it.

I take issue with Steve Ralls for what strikes me as a trivial article about Italy, but the issue is much greater and much more worrying. The expansion of web “journalism” encourages writing in which facts are not checked and in which the difference between “personal take” and “objective news” is dangerously blurred—and especially so when the topic is information that readers may not be readily able to check or experience for themselves (because of geographic distance or language barriers, for example). If people want to blog, I’m all for it (I’ve got several). If Steve Ralls wants to write a satire column, he should go for it; there’s a lot to laugh about in Italy. But if we’re going to grant writers the status of journalists, we need to hold them to higher standards.