As nobody in particular, I object to Dominic Foo’s so-called arguments

Jaxe Pan’s Facebook note here. Dominic Foo’s response here. This piece responds more or less point-by-point to Dominic Foo’s piece, so read it before coming back here. Better yet, read them side by side, since that’s how I wrote this piece.

Background: as you know, last week the NLB withdrew and destroyed some children’s books for homosexual and non-pro-family themes. I’ve been looking desperately for some intelligent defence of the NLB’s actions so I can engage meaningfully with people who disagree. I thought Dominic Foo’s piece might be charitably read to be such a defence. I believe that in a pluralist society, dialogue is important, and I have sought to keep this post civil. Where it does degenerate (in the last paragraph), it does so because I ran out of patience reading convoluted arguments that didn’t add up. I’m publishing this piece not because it’s good writing, but because I spent 6 hours on it and found some interesting evidence on adoption and gay parenting—and evidence is always good.

Criticising Jaxe Pan’s use of her personal background is inconsistent with the structure of Dominic Foo’s own argument

Dominic Foo tells us that his parents divorced when he was a teenager. Therefore, as a child of a single-parent family, he asserts that Jaxe Pan does not speak for all children or parents in such situations. (Not that she ever claimed to do so.) Nevertheless, in the very next paragraph, he points out that “the invocation of personal credentials and background is merely a rhetorical move.” First, this is not a criticism: rhetoric can be used to persuade, but the use of rhetoric itself does not disqualify an argument that is otherwise logically sound. Second, if the “invocation of [one’s] personal credentials” weakens an argument, this applies equally to Mr Foo as it does to Ms Pan. In paragraph 1 of Mr Foo’s piece, he did exactly what he calls Ms Pan out on in paragraph 2.

The books are for the sake of the children, not the adults

Mr Foo tells us that his mother, a single parent, “does not herself wish for any special help, recognition or ‘affirmation’.” This may well be true, but it misses the point. There are children out there who are being brought up by single parents through no fault of their own. Among these children are some who would benefit from positive portrayals, in fiction and the media, of other children in families like theirs. Even children who come from cookie-cutter two-parent families must learn that some of their friends come from families with diverse structures, and insensitivity or misplaced curiosity (however well-meaning) can come across as hurtful. Ms Pan’s note makes clear that her concerns are for her daughter, not herself. Mr Foo’s use of his mother’s perspective to refute Ms Pan is therefore misplaced: the books are for the sake of the children, not the parents.

In any case, Mr Foo criticised Ms Pan for her presumptuousness in using her experience to (allegedly) claim to speak for all in similar situations. But I read her note as pointing out an unmet need that undoubtedly exists among a segment of the population. It is a point of view that is eminently worth hearing. The very fact that his mother does not concur with Ms Pan does not in any way discount Ms Pan’s view.

In sum, I don’t get it: we often refer to the views and insights of stakeholders when making decisions about public policy; Ms Pan is a stakeholder, given her circumstances; her view is worth considering, not as a representative of a group—nor indeed as someone who “contributes to the nation” to a greater or lesser extent—but as someone who will be affected by a particular public policy. Mr Foo’s para 3 about “individual contribution to the nation” is irrelevant.

Ceteris is very much not paribus

Mr Foo asserts that we would “prefer that children be raised by their own biological parents rather than an adoptive one or a blended family.” Yes—but the relevant set for comparison is not that set of all children (which Mr Foo refers to by using the unmodified group name “children”), but rather the set of children who are potential adoptees because of circumstance. That is to say, Mr Foo should not be comparing all children to adoptees, but rather within the set of potential adoptees, actual adoptees and non-adoptees. Mr Foo’s preference implicitly contains an irrelevant hypothetical; it would only make sense if someone had suggested assigning all children to random parents at birth.

Even if Mr Foo is correct in his choice of comparison, the scientific evidence is not quite so clear-cut as regards who ‘should’ raise kids. Behavioural and developmental outcomes for adopted children are generally in the same range as non-adoptees. A meta-analysis (i.e., summary of multiple studies) by Palacios and Brodzinsky concluded that “although adopted children may have greater psychological and academic problems than their nonadopted counterparts, the vast majority of these youngsters are well within the normal range of adjustment” (2010, 273). In other words, there are more adopted youth with adjustment issues, but most adopted youth are as well-adjusted as non-adoptees. Besides, it is not clear whether adoption itself, or the circumstances which make children liable for adoption, is responsible for their difficulties. This is admittedly difficult to disentangle, but the fact that these two factors are enmeshed suggests that those ill-effects that we see and that we could attribute to adoption are actually an upper bound that combines adoption and unavoidable circumstances.

As for gay parenting, the best evidence we have is that it does no harm to children. Another meta-analysis tells us that “scholars have achieved a rare degree of consensus that unmarried lesbian parents are raising children who develop at least as well as their counterparts with married heterosexual parents” (Biblarz & Stacey 2010, 5). Lesbian parents are more involved parents and closer to their children than heterosexual married parents (ibid., 11); children of lesbian parents are also closer to their mothers, show fewer behavioural issues, and display less aggression (ibid., 13). They were more tolerant of gender nonconformity in peers, which I think is a positive attribute (but readers may differ!). It’s likely that researchers have concentrated on lesbian parents because gay male parents were till recently comparatively rarer. Nevertheless, the conclusion from multiple studies is that families headed by “two committed, compatible parents” of whatever gender are best for children (ibid., 17). They do face more stigma, but is that their fault, or society’s? (You can guess where I stand.)

The single largest study to date is Crouch et al (2014), who compared 315 Australian same-sex-attracted parents (with all possible combinations of parental gender, representing 500 children) to a population sample of children in Victoria. The researchers used two standard questionnaires to study a variety of physical and mental health and adjustment outcomes, and found that in only three areas were there significant differences between gay-parent and straight-parent children—and in each of those areas, children of gay parents did better (2014, 6). The authors particularly highlight better family cohesion in gay-headed families (2014, 9). Moreover, they achieved this despite reporting experiences of stigma (2014, 9–10); it doesn’t seem likely that destigmatisation would worsen outcomes.

For me the clincher in the argument is the fact that for most lesbian and gay parents, parenting requires far more planning and resources than for straight couples. They have got to want kids. To the extent that investment in the adoption or conception process predicts commitment once the child arrives, on average same-sex couples will tend to be more committed parents than mixed-sex couples. Or as comedian Jamie Kilstein puts it (Warning: very NSFW language.): “These are people who will raise a child for a better reason than ‘the condom broke.'” Mr Foo refers to an ideal; in the last three paragraphs I’ve sought to provide evidence on the reality.

Mr Foo argues that if “society can arbitrarily decide whose parents one’s child is,” there would be no reason why biological fathers should contribute to the maintenance of their estranged children. First, it’s not true, in adoption, that society is ‘arbitrarily’ deciding which parents to match up with which children; rather, we are recognising a commitment that an adult or adults are voluntarily making to a child. They have stepped up to assume responsibility. In the case of child support payments, the fact that the father has contributed sperm to make a kid (and thereby land the mother in a tough financial situation) suggests that he should also help pay for the kid. There is no analogy, because in the latter case society is enforcing an existing obligation, while in adoption society is recognising a new one. Second, there are what lawyers call “policy grounds” for forcing biological fathers to provide for their children—it discourages the phenomenon of irresponsible hit-and-run fathers. Last, it is not even clear of the conditionals Mr Foo mentions (biological ‘pedigree’ unrelated to parental ability and responsibility, status of child a social convention, society can arbitrarily assign parent-child relation, society can arbitrarily assign responsibility for child, all guardianship arrangements equally valid), which his argument is actually based on. The argument is muddled, and I think invalid.

Mr Foo brings up a scene from Up in which a woman grieves because she cannot conceive. I cannot pretend to know what that feels like. But he uses that to argue that the adoptive parent-child bond must necessarily be lesser than the biological parent-child bond, because if not, this character could substitute biological children for adopted children. I have two responses to that. First, and precisely because I cannot know what it feels like to be told that I cannot conceive, I would be wary of reading her reaction in that way. Why not, instead, blame an unfair society that links the female gender with the function of bearing children so closely that women who cannot conceive feel inadequate or challenged as women? Second, given the unavoidable reality that some women cannot conceive, surely arguments like Mr Foo’s (which de-legitimise adoption) and actions like the NLB’s (which make it harder to educate kids about adoption) actually compound the hurt that they may feel at having to adopt in order to have children?

A vulnerable minority should not be disadvantaged by the majority

This is one of those places where I recognise that my argument will leave a significant number of people unconvinced. That’s because I rely on the premise that children and parents in single-parent families, adoptive families, or same-sex-couple-headed families are particularly vulnerable to stigmatisation and therefore need support and positive portrayals.

Mr Foo argues that because the books have not been banned, only removed from the library, parents can still buy the books on their own. This is true but irrelevant. Given that the library already had the books, to destroy them creates a situation which is objectively worse off for people who wanted access to those books. Meanwhile, people who did not want access to those books could have averted their eyes and refused to borrow them anyway, which is far less onerous to them. The majority, by virtue of being the majority, already has built-in advantages that far outweigh any costs to them of accommodating the needs of the minority. They are married. That’s a huge economic boost in terms of the household division of labour, and entitles them to a bunch of government benefits and favourable tax treatment. The norms of society favour them, and they don’t have to undergo the cognitive dissonance that accompanies the daily life of living in the minority, having to justify one’s identity and answer questions like “where’s your father/mother?” or “why don’t you look like your parents?” or “is that your real mommy?”

Yes, there is the argument that ‘innocent’ children could have come across those books. I have three responses to that. One, the gay threat is overblown. No kid who wasn’t already latently LGBT would turn gay because they read a book about penguins; conversely, if they did, it was going to happen sooner or later! Two, children are surprisingly good at picking up cues about social approval and disapproval, and forming hierarchies and schemes in their mind which make sense of the adult world. There is no doubt that these books were age-appropriate. Besides, many of those ‘innocent’ children are coming into contact with friends in single-parent families or adoptive families every day (and sooner or later, gay friends)—the sooner they learn to deal with these friends sensitively, the better. Last, this is simply an excuse for lazy parents to put off the difficult task of explaining to children why they are prejudiced against non-traditional family structures (or at the most innocuous, why they accept norms which disadvantage non-traditional family structures). Children have a finely-developed sense of fairness from young, and the flipside of that is that teaching them why certain people and groups ought to be treated differently (aka discrimination) is not easy to do. This, to me, is the real reason why they have to be shielded from material like And Tango Makes Three: it’s hard to teach children to discriminate against people! On the other hand, it’s the most natural thing in the world to explain this to a child: “some people are like this… and others are like that… and they all should be treated the same, because if you were in their shoes, you wouldn’t want to be treated differently would you?”

By the way, read a transcript here of a podcast that describes what really happens when you describe homosexuality to children. And meet children of gay parents (and straight, and bi parents) in this video. You can’t help but be wowed at the parenting that went into making those children as articulate, sensitive, and thoughtful as they are.

There are children out there who need affirmation, regardless of whether or not Dominic Foo felt that need

Just as Mr Foo claims that Jaxe Pan cannot speak for all single parents, he can’t speak for all children of single parents. In particular, he can’t equate his experience (being a child of parents who divorced when he was already a teen) to that of a child who grows up without either parent, or a child adopted from birth, or a gay child. They might well need affirmation, and it would be poisonous to withhold it from them, or from their peers. And it is disingenuous to pretend that six- to ten-year-olds can appreciate the fine distinction of affirming an individual while not endorsing his family background (or for that matter sexual orientation among older children); these fine-grained moral distinctions are simply counterproductive and hurtful in practice.

The abuse of the term “bigot”

Mr Foo throws down the gauntlet—Ms Pan can either change her mind in the face of his reason, or be a bigot. It’s puzzling that he does not admit that intelligent people can proceed from different premises about society, and thereby validly disagree. In any case, I have seen no reason why his positive experiences (just one person among many!) of growing up in a single-parent family invalidate Ms Pan’s underlying premise, that children growing up in single-parent families are in need of support, and all children should learn about alternative family structures.

“Uncle Pete” is a straw man

Mr Foo provides a photograph of a book in the style of children’s literature, which depicts child sexual abuse. He then invites readers to consider his imaginary conclusion to that book, which normalises such abuse. I have two problems with this. First: the book itself. The photo is of a book titled Alfie’s Home. It indeed describes sexual abuse of a boy, followed by ex-gay therapy which is described as a success (Full text—trigger warning: everything!). Now, we know that Exodus International, the largest and oldest organisation offering ex-gay therapy, shut down last year and apologised to its victims. We also know that the American Psychological Association considers ex-gay therapy useless at best, and harmful at worse (APA source, NYTimes news article). That book should not be in libraries: it is clearly traumatic to children (undermines trust in family and authority figures, and depicts multiple abusive relationships), spreads misinformation about homosexuality and ex-gay therapy, and has no redeeming literary value.

But the reasons why it should not be in libraries have nothing to do with the hypothetical book Mr Foo wants you to imagine. Setting aside all the issues with the real-life Alfie’s Home, he wants his readers to posit a book (not Alfie’s Home) that praises sexual relations between children and adults. (It turns out that this photo is just a visual aid for your imagination to go wild and get outraged.) This is the structure of his argument:

  1. Imagine an outrageous book that promotes child sexual abuse. Here, have a visual cue for outrage.
  2. It shouldn’t be in the children’s section, should it?
  3. Therefore, there exist some materials that shouldn’t be in the children’s section
  4. And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express shouldn’t be in the children’s section

Up to point three, this makes sense. But Mr Foo completely fails to justify the logical leap from (3) to (4). To my mind, he must either tell us why the stories of those books are just as outrageous as a depiction of sexual abuse, or he must come up with a separate set of criteria which tell us what materials are acceptable in kids’ sections and why those books fail to meet those criteria. He does none of that. Instead, the logical leap he takes from (3) to (4) is covered in the blinding outrage that is generated by the hypothetical book he asks you to imagine.

Set aside the fact that the photo of Alfie’s Home is a red herring. Just like his analogy between adoption and child support payments, this comparison between paedophilia and same-sex adoption is so hopelessly muddled that I cannot follow it. And the fact that he uses an anti-gay book as a visual aid is suggestive of his sympathies and alignments. However you interpret this inexplicable turn in the argument, this should completely shred his credibility.

The interpretation of tolerance is the ultimate difference between the liberals and the social-conservative right

Dominic Foo concludes by asserting that Singapore has a pre-existing moral or civic structure which, by virtue of being a structure that defines a community and a social order, has to include some people and exclude others (that’s basically an implication of being a community). In other words, it cannot be inclusive without limits. But to me, that’s quite easy: include those people who (1) are Singapore residents by birth or choice and (2) don’t hurt others.

Embedded in this inclusivity is an idea of tolerance—people ought to be free to pursue their aspirations and goals, and live their lives as they see fit. Singapore should be a place where every Singaporean citizen can make his or her life with dignity. For some of us, those lives have turned out to include being a single parent, adopting a child, or having a same-sex relationship—the actual harm that each of these does to the rest of society is zero. Yes, men who have sex with men have a higher risk of contracting HIV, and children of single parents have a higher chance of displaying behavioural problems, but that is not an intrinsic or predetermined aspect of being gay or being a single child, just as unbalanced gender roles or unwanted pregnancies are not intrinsic aspects of being a straight couple. Each of these modes of living should be evaluated in the abstract, rather than pointing to the average outcome (or even setting up a straw-man argument and pointing to their worst consequences)—otherwise we should give all our kids to lesbian couples to parent! (Because really, they’re that good.)

Tolerance, then, is about accommodating as many modes of living as can be accommodated—this is what we signed up for as a pluralist, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious society. That’s the difference with a social-conservative conception of tolerance, which they have often accused the (‘oppressive’) liberals of lacking towards them. Tolerance is not an empty value on which anything can be projected, and it certainly does not allow one group to force others to conform to its vision of the life worth living, or to devalue and denigrate other such visions.

Why do I care?

In conclusion, I don’t know why I spilt three thousand words on this pseudo-intellectual drivel. But it’s written like a lawyer (or, given the headers, at least like a law student who had just devoured a mooting instruction manual) and at first I thought it might be worth responding to. It was only when I started responding point-by-point that I realised just how poor some of his arguments were—particularly the Alfie’s Home / moral outrage one. Despite how painful it was, I have sought to take his arguments at their highest, and written off the time wasted on this as a sort of very trying intellectual exercise.

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5 comments

  1. Ditto ditto ditto! Though I tried to unsubscribe from comments from Mr. Foo’s blog but didn’t manage to do so and now I’m so glad I didn’t – it notified me of your post.

    At times Mr. Foo’s arguments were so preposterous I gave up even trying to argue (where got time???), but I was feeling very disheartened and frustrated. Every word you wrote struck a chord with me and there was no way I could have expressed myself as adequately and eloquently as you did. So thank you for your post and the effort you put into researching – now these are actual peer-reviewed citations! I wish you the best in your law degree/career or whatever it is! 🙂

    1. Thank you Nicole, and agreed! It has been disheartening to read the kind of comments from some on the conservative end. It was an issue I cared about, and I felt I had to plunge in when I found a substantive enough argument to tackle. (Maybe after a few more months I’ll be totally jaded; we’ll see.)

    1. Not at all… we should thank you for having the courage to share your message and your story! I’m only jumping on the bandwagon.

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