Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Abnormality [II, 2]

Nowadays the link has frayed, but at one time educated opinion firmly held that homosexuality was abnormal. In fact it was a prime example of that state. The conventional division of psychology into “normal” and “abnormal” has nourished this perception. It was generally accepted that abnormal psychology addressed itself to various types of pathology. This assumption opened the way for psychiatrists to attempt all sorts of phony "cures" of homosexuality.

To be sure, if one uses the term abnormal in the statistical sense of “diverging from the middle range; unusual in terms of frequency," there is no doubt that homosexuals are abnormal in our society. But then so are opera divas, arbitrageurs, and United States Senators.

When it is said that homosexuality is abnormal, a negative value judgment ensues. For this reason the term abnormal is particularly insidious, as it enables the user to glide (usually unconsciously) from a statement of fact to a statement of value. It is precisely this impermissible slide that the philosopher David Hume warned us about. But the misguided effort of trying to derive an “ought” from an “is” persists.

Two historical curiosities may be noted. In a harangue against sodomites, the French thirteenth-century poem Le Roman de la Rose (ll. 19619-20) refers to those who practice such exceptions anormales. In 1869 the Hungarian homosexual theorist K.M. Kertbeny coined a word normalsexual (corresponding to our “heterosexual”) to contrast with homosexual (which by inference is not normal). Kertbeny’s first compound, in striking contrast to his second, did not catch on. Even so, today one sometimes finds the term “normals” casually deployed to designate straights, as if the assertion presented no problems.

In the recent debate over gay marriage some participants keep insisting the marriage is “the norm,” seeking once again to bridge the gap between is and ought. Some fallacies never die.

A close cousin of abnormal is anomaly. In modern times this term seems to have been first used in a sexual sense in the German form Anomalie by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1877. Etymologically, the noun represents the opposite of the Greek “omalos,” meaning “even, level.” (It is not derived from “anomos,” “unlawful,” though a link is often perceived.)

In 1927 a guilt-ridden British homosexual chose the pseudonym “Anomaly” for his book The Invert.(The writer's real name is not known.)

Other related terms are aberration, perversion (with pervert), and degenerate.

In ordinary language queer probably comes the closest to the core idea of abnormality. (For some reason freak and weirdo, the latter now a quaint survival, are not commonly applied to gay people.) In the case of the word queer the most relevant predecessor sense is probably the eighteenth-century usage regarding money. Queer money is counterfeit. (The term counterfeit sex has sometimes been applied to homosexuality.)

Recently, the word queer has been the object of a concerted reclamation project; hence queer studies and queer theory. Generally restricted to academic circles, the popularity of these terms seems to be declining even there.


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