Scandals and Appearance of Evil

Okay, not too much to do with autism in today’s post…or so it appears. Dr. Lovaas was the principle researcher that created both the Feminine Boys Project and ABA at UCLA. ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis, is a popular autism treatment that isn’t exactly appreciated by many of the autistics that went through it, based on the focus of ABA (particularly the flavor created by Lovaas) on indistinguishability of an autistic child from his non-autistic peers (that’s considered success). When Lovaas worked with the Feminine Boys Project, he shared the same goal – to make the “feminine boy” indistinguishable from his heterosexual, non-feminine peers. Similar methods are used in both – behavior that is desired is rewarded, while behavior that is not desired is given disapproval. So, non-feminine mannerisms are rewarded for the anti-gay therapy, while non-autistic mannerism are rewarded for the anti-autism therapy. In both cases, this is damaging to the child’s mental health when they are forced to deny who they are.

Now, I have to give a disclaimer here, because people will read more into my words than I write: I’m not saying all therapy is bad. But I am saying therapy that is aimed at making autistic children look like non-autistic children is bad. There’s a distinction – very important, and it should be very obvious – between therapies aimed at making someone appear non-autistic and therapies aimed at giving someone the tools to navigate the world. You don’t have to make a gay person act straight for the gay person to have a successful life (and trying to make them appear straight is harmful). Likewise, the same applies to autistic people.

As an aside, the research linked above claimed that the victim of this treatment (the research subject, a 4 year old boy who later committed suicide, due in large part to this “treatment”), Lovaas and Rekers referred to the boy as “compulsive and ‘rigid’ in the extent he insisted on being a girl and in his refusal of all contact with masculine-like activities.” (I won’t comment on why they used the phrase “masculine-like activities” instead of simply “masculine activities” – perhaps an unintentional freudian slip?) Interestingly, when Lovaas describes “undesirable” autistic traits, (no, I’m not saying autism is all wonderful – just that I may disagree significantly with people like Lovaas on what the non-wonderful parts are!) he uses similar wordings with lots of phrases such as non-appropriate, rigid, etc.

This week, Rhode Island (USA) legalized same-sex marriage. In other words, the State did the logical thing: they let atheists, Muslims, and Jews marry – why should the State be bound by what some Christian sects think is religiously proper for marriage? Of course you’re probably asking, “How did you get from ABA to gay marriage? This is a stretch, even for you, Joel!” Just wait. There is a connection.

Obviously, the Catholic hierarchy disagrees with Rhode Island (as do the leadership of many other religions and denominations). Bishop Tobin, in a pastoral letter, told Rhode Island followers about his disagreement. It’s pretty offensive on several levels. For instance, the phrase “same-sex attraction” is used in the letter, not as you might expect “gay” or even “homosexual.” Same-sex attraction is a code-word for a belief that people experiencing this attraction need not act on it, and that they can live happy, heterosexual lives – it’s a belief that gays don’t exist, only people with “same sex attraction” and others who wrongly act on that attraction. In fact, the letter asks for prayers for families impacted by same-sex attraction, particularly for parents (another view of this crowd is that same-sex attraction is an immature sexual development during teenage years).

Don’t believe me? Read a same-sex-attracted individual talk about his same-sex attraction and why that’s different than being gay or homosexual. Among other things, he says:

I’m not very sensitive about the word “gay”, but some of us in the Gay Catholic business prefer the phrase “same-sex attraction,” or SSA. I find it more accurate than “gay” or “queer” or any of the others, just because it suggests that homosexuality is something I have rather than something I am. That’s the way I think of it. So the idea of gay culture, gay rights, gay marriage, gay anything really, is foreign to me. You might as well talk about gluten-intolerance culture, or musician’s rights.

Or, read about the definition uses, which provides this pseudo-warning (albeit one not based at all in research): “Whether or not sexual orientation (in the sense of an underlying same-sex, opposite-sex, dual-sex, or other spontaneous attraction) exists, and whether or not it can be changed is a matter of some controversy.” On this anti-gay website, which includes other sections like “How to resolve Same Sex Attraction”, their FAQ page says:

Some same-sex attracted people do have memories of early experiences of sexual abuse, reactions to breakdowns in family relationships, exclusion from same-sex peer groups, or early exposure to pornography. Others are not used to thinking about predisposing circumstances and have no idea how their homosexual orientation developed, just as most heterosexuals have no idea how they became heterosexual. There are many paths that could lead to homosexual attractions, each relatively minor in the overall picture, but in the aggregate very important to those individuals whom they affect.

But, beyond the de-gaying code words, the Bishop goes on to talk about how you may be causing “scandal” by attending a gay wedding. Scandal isn’t necessarily what you might think (the common definition would make the catholic hierarchy excellent at understanding the word scandal). Instead it refers to an act which, in and of itself, is not intrinsically evil, but someone less mature than you (isn’t that nice?) might see as encouraging or allowing sin. Thus, someone who sees you seemingly approving of or allowing sin may think you, the mature believer that you are, believe it okay. And because you believe it okay, now they will sin and not be perfect. Or something like that.

That’s the reason for the focus on outward sin instead of inward sin. Even Jesus was criticized for this idea of scandal – see Luke 7:33-35. Meanwhile, Jesus focused on inward sin. For example, in Luke 16:14-15, you can read:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”

Okay, enough Bible verses here. I’m not trying to preach to anyone or convince anyone of the Bible, Jesus, or my theology. But it’s relevant in the sense that the very idea of scandal would have condemned Jesus just as much as anyone attending a gay wedding – and it isn’t apparently what concerned Jesus most, at least according to a book the Catholic Hierarchy accepts.

In the pastoral letter, Bishop Tobin says,

Our respect and pastoral care, however, does not mean that we are free to endorse or ignore immoral or destructive behavior, whenever or however it occurs. Indeed, as St. Paul urges us, we are required to “speak the truth in love.” (Eph 4:15)

This is the essence of the issue. In the conservative Church I used to attend, rather than referring to this as scandal (endorsing or ignoring immoral or destructive behavior), it was referred to as “giving the appearance of evil.” That was taken not necessarily from Eph 4:15 (although that verse certainly was used), but also from 1 Thessalonians 5:22, which was poorly translated in some translation, namely the King James Version, to say “Abstain from the appearance of evil.” Most other translations used instead something along the lines of “abstain from all evil” (NRSV), but that didn’t stop some from believing that avoiding the “appearance of evil” was almost more important than actually not doing evil. This was used to justify all sorts of craziness, such as throwing away secular music (“Nothing wrong with it, but someone might think you don’t just listen to praise music all day and then think they can listen to it when it’s not okay for them!”), not being in the same car as someone of the opposite sex (you might not be one of those sex-starved Christian guys who will rape the nice Christian girl in the ankle-to-chin covering, but someone might think you are), or other craziness (I’ve seen more than a few children’s ministries who are more concerned that someone might accuse them of child molestation, and thus they take all sorts of precautions to avoid being accused but don’t spend nearly as much time actually making sure kids are safe).

And this appearance of evil thing is exactly what gets us back to Dr. Lovaas and both his Feminine Boys Project and his UCLA Young Autism Project. It’s not about appearance. It’s about being true to who you are. Whether you are gay or autistic (or both). It’s not so much about gays not getting married as it is about gays acting as if they aren’t gay. A wedding puts it too much “in-your-face” for the Bishop, thus it’s important to protest it somehow. I’m sure telling the couple they look lovely or that you are happy for them would be an even bigger sin than attending. You have to apply good, old behaviorism: make sure the joyful couple knows you disapprove of their actions. That’s apparently called love by some.

Yes, everyone needs to learn how to work in the world, including autistic people. But true success doesn’t come from avoiding appearances of autism, homosexuality, or (gasp!) attending gay weddings! As for me, I’ll avoid the appearance of avoiding the appearance of evil any chance I get, particularly should any gay friends or family get married.