January 21, 2022

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Joe Biden and the End of Tolerance

Joe Biden’s recently released “Plan to Advance LGBTQ+ Equality” is a collection of ideas, gestures, and slogans that the former vice president (or his handlers) hopes will “advance” the amorphous cause of “equality” for the “LGBTQ+ community.” The plan talks a lot about “equality” — Biden promises, variously, to “resume the march for equality,” support “equality and inclusion,” and “champion global equality” — without once defining what he means by “equality,” or how society at large is supposed to know when we have achieved it.

One of the highlighted sections in the Biden proposal is the former vice president’s pledge to ensure that “the discriminatory lifetime ban on blood donation” for gay men — a ban he claims is “based on stigma” — remains lifted, and promises to implement “regulations [that] are based on science.” The Obama administration first moved to lift the lifetime ban on homosexual blood donation in 2015, and the Trump administration loosened regulations even further, recently dispensing with guidelines that required men to abstain from homosexual sex for at least one year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Biden never engages with the facts that begot the ban in the first place, namely, that gay men, despite comprising roughly two percent of the American population, make up nearly 70 percent of the national HIV caseload. Since post-donation blood tests occasionally fail to detect the presence of HIV, disqualifying would-be donors who have engaged in homosexual sex was a prudential measure designed to protect the recipients of donated blood.

Even if one were to concede that the ban was “stigmatizing,” it is not at all clear that we should value the feelings of potential blood donors over the health and safety of those receiving blood transfusions. Perhaps an argument can be made that the risk is “worth it” — there is a need for blood donations, and maybe narrower restrictions would expand the pool of donors — but there is a tradeoff involved. If Joe Biden — whose proposal makes no mention of this tradeoff — thinks that “equality” demands jeopardizing the health of patients who require blood transfusions to shield donors from the “stigmatizing” reality of their disproportionate rates of HIV, he should say so outright, so the public can debate the consequences involved in pursuing the “equality” towards which we are apparently bound to “march.”

Biden also promises to “decriminalize HIV exposure and transmission,” because such laws — all together, now! — “perpetuate discrimination and stigma towards people with HIV/AIDS.” Perhaps there is a reasonable case to be made that some anti-exposure laws are unduly punitive (some states punish HIV-positive persons who spit in public, for instance, yet spitting poses no threat of viral transmission). But those who could be unwittingly exposed to HIV might prefer keeping “discrimination and stigma” against deliberate exposure in place. Again, if Joe Biden thinks these concerns are irrational or bigoted, he should say so.

A third prong of the Biden proposal suggests enacting measures to change “underlying attitudes” about “LGBTQ+ issues” through “public information campaigns.” What these “campaigns” will look like in practice needs explicit definition. Will the federal government spend taxpayer dollars on a “public information campaign” to remind the masses that not all men have penises? This is left to our imagination. And it is not hard to imagine a “public information campaign” directed at insubordinate churches that cling (bitterly?) to their Bibles and maintain fealty to their bimillennial faith’s dogma on human sexuality. The latter is not much of a stretch when one considers what Joe Biden (or the handlers who drafted his proposal) thinks of the legitimacy of those moral commitments. Biden also pledges to “reverse” religious-freedom carveouts pursued by the Trump administration to ensure “that no one is turned away from a business or refused service by a government official just because of who they are or who they love.” Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop and others who actually believe their faiths to be true and not mere lifestyle accoutrements to be brandished when fashionable figure to be excluded from the regime of “equality” pursued by the Biden administration.

What’s most unclear from Biden’s proposal is its purpose. He does not spell out in precise language how the various interest groups in the “community” in question have yet to attain the “equality” his plan is ostensibly meant to help them achieve. The only thing that is clear is that “tolerance,” in the traditional understanding of that word, is not the plan’s principal aim.

In Biden’s defense, America has not been interested in “tolerance” since the decline of cultural Christianity began in earnest in the twilight of the second World War. Tolerance, as John Gray wrote in 1992, bears the “implication of judgment” — to “tolerate” something is to cast judgment upon it. If society “tolerates” a given behavior or belief, it acknowledges the existence of a moral standard from which the behavior or belief in question deviates. If there are no normative standards, then there is nothing to tolerate — only differences to celebrate.

Under the old regime of tolerance — such as it was — one could acknowledge that a given behavior or belief was vicious, but join the philosopher in recognizing that “human laws do not forbid all vices.” We are all sinners, and while your vice may not be mine, we both are vicious and depraved. No longer — there is no depravity, no category of “vices” which we might choose to tolerate — in the post-tolerance regime of blind affirmation, the only forbidden vice is the recognition of “vice” as such.

In a post-Christian society — a post-religious society, in truth — such moral confusion is understandable. If the Gospels are stories concocted by first-century Jews who had a hallucinatory experience after the death of their cult leader, the moral commands that the New Testament contains are — at best — quaint suggestions. At worst, they are retrograde and capricious fables with nothing to teach a Modern and enlightened people. In neither case are its commands binding, at least in the same way they are to a people who believe them to be actually — not metaphorically or accidentally — true. If there is no God, then there is no natural law, no preordained moral order whose dictates we can divine from the observable world. If we inhabit a universe of ungoverned chaos where truth and falsehood are matters of private opinion, Joe Biden’s reluctance to comport himself as though the Catholic faith he professes were true — indeed, as though there were any objective moral standards at all — should not surprise us.

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