I am in Hawaii today because I am trying to illustrate to myself that I am no longer teaching at Portland State University–or anywhere else. That being the case, be alert for present tense verbs that have to do with my teaching–“what I try to emphasize for my students…”–and convert them all to past tense verbs. Please.
One of the wonderful advantages of teaching there is that they let me teach a course in political psychology, which I have studied, practiced, taught, and cared about intensely since 1972. It is articles like today’s in the New York Times that help me remember why I like it so much and how really valuable it can be. It shows quite a few people pushing and shoving to place their own view of what needs to be done right in the center of the debate. Fine. In the process, they obscure and distort views that really ought to be taken into account.
It is the “taking into account” that matters to me. I really don’t have a horse in this race.
Here’s the background. California passed a law last year banning “gay conversion therapy” for minors. Gay rights advocates celebrated and they should have. But there are some other sides that their celebration overlooks. Here are several.
One. This ban separates willing buyers from willing sellers. Libertarians ought to hate that. Capitalists ought to hate it. Our experience of that strategy in our prohibition of alcoholic drinks and of drugs and of prostitution ought to make us wary. People who want a product and people who want to sell a product will find each other. Preventing them from finding each other is onerous and expensive. That is not to say it should not be done. Some transactions are so costly to everyone that trying to prevent them is a proper task for government. Is this one?
Two. You would think that the parents of those minors would have views the government should take into account. There is no question that the legislature of the state of California thinks its views about “curing gay children” are better than the views of their parents. The truth is that parents have a way of influencing their children that is hard for governments to catch or to prevent. Having said that, it is also true that “therapy” can be an awful experience for the “patient.”
But so-called gay cures are notorious among gay men, with many saying they suffered deep harm when their parents pushed them into counseling that left them filled with anguish and guilt.
These gay men were children whose parents had a theory about the gender orientation of their children. They certainly thought it could be changed. They probably thought it was “sinful.” These children had not much say about being forced into “therapy” and their view as adults is that it cost them and continues to cost them a great deal. That means that the legislature has to protect these children from their parents if they are to be protected. It means that government has to say it should trump the values of the parents in this case. Neither of those is very attractive.
Three. Is homosexuality “natural?” I touched on that a week or so ago in a post called “Unnatural Acts.” And here it is again. One side wants to establish that sexual orientation is “largely inborn” and therefore cannot be changed. That describes the current consensus among scholars. On the other hand, no matter when you grew up there was, as you were growing up, a vigorous debate about whether “what children are like” is a result of factors that are “largely inborn” or “principally cultural.” It was called “nature v. nurture.”
I haven’t heard a scholar argue for a long time now that some behavior is the result of one rather than the other. Our view of “what children are like” has come to grips with the fact that there is no “nature v. nurture.” It is nature and nurture–always. Sometimes more of the one; sometimes more of the other.
That’s fine for scientists, but it doesn’t hold up very well in policy debate. The people who are against “gay therapy” argue that it doesn’t work and that it can’t work because it is “natural.” It’s like trying to talk someone out of being a mammal. The people who are for “gay therapy” argue that it is “cultural,” the result of some kind of disordered background. Each side is arguing what you would expect them to argue. Both leave behind the scientists who know that nature and nurture are always part of the same equation.
I offer the example of “identical twins raised apart,” which has been studied so much that some now refer to it as ITRA, as if everyone will know what that means. These studies show that there is a genetic component to whatever trait is being studied and an environmental or “parenting” trait. Of course there is. Who would think there would not be?
Four. The role of the state? I’ll just give you these two paragraphs from the article.
In its brief to the court, Liberty Counsel said: “The state has gone far beyond regulation of the profession to taking sides” in a scientific dispute.
Arguing for the law to take effect, the California government called it “an unremarkable exercise of the states’ power to regulate professional conduct.”
Five. We come, finally, to the question of whether a therapy “works.” I know it is important to ask this question, particularly given the state’s responsibility for licensing therapists. Still…there is the question of why placebos work. When you do a careful study, one group gets “the treatment” and another group, also randomly chosen, gets “a treatment.” This second designation means that the second group gets treated exactly like the first, except that the real intervention is withheld. If “the treatment” is effective, we will see substantial increases in what we are studying: more concentration, more discipline, more self-affirmation, and so on.
But the placebo group, who went through the routine but didn’t get the treatment is often found to be substantially benefitted. It is not unusual to see substantial improvements in 30% of the group who, according to the protocols of the research, was not treated at all. But something worked for them. What was it?
I offer this well-known conundrum as a question worth asking when the state is trying to decide what therapies “work.”
The proponents are arguing their cases, as they should. But a lot of us are not proponents and we need to see what each side obscures as well as what it highlights. No reason for us to be duped just because we were not paying attention, right?