More than just white vs. pink

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When the Wear White campaign, organised by Islamic religious teacher Ustaz Noor Deros, was unveiled, it saw unlikely supporters in the Faith Community Baptist Church and LoveSingapore church network. The campaign ostensibly protests homosexuality and defends ‘the natural family’, a stance common to faith-based anti-LGBT activists. It is also a stance that alienates everybody who does not share the same convictions.

The Exclusion Chamber

Ustaz Deros and his Christian comrades are framing the issue as one of faith against LGBT people. By defining an in-group and an out-group, this approach would appeal to people of similar beliefs and draw them together against the outsider. By extension, it excludes everybody else.

This approach would fracture society into squabbling tribes. More accurately, members of the in-group would see themselves in conflict with a designated enemy in the service of some higher cause, never mind what the out-group really thinks.

Singapore’s LGBT movement has not sought to trample upon the rights of the religious community to worship in peace; they ask only to be recognised as fellow human beings and to enjoy the same rights as everybody else. Should the LGBT community succeed in attaining equality, it would not take away from the religious their right to practise their beliefs as they please.

Conversely, religious organisations that adopt homophobic ideologies seek to tamp down on the LGBT community, relegating them to the status of second-class citizens—or sub-humans—for the crime of having different sexual preferences. This so-called deviancy harms no one, nor does it reduce the rights and opportunities enjoyed by religious folk.

Religious organisations that practise the politics of exclusion pit themselves as the defenders of morality against the embodiment of perversion. Yet there is no zero-sum game, no winner-take-all scenario, no struggle between good and evil. There is no conflict between the religious and the non-heteronormative but that in the delusions of ideologues.

There may be merit for religious organisations to use religious arguments when communicating to fellow believers on matters of faith. When dealing with matters of the public interest, which by necessity encompasses people of multiple faiths and none, such an approach cannot possibly have any weight. No number of religious arguments can hope to sway an atheist or adherents of different faiths. They need a different approach.

Common conduct in the market place of ideas

Individuals and organisations wishing to be involved in public discussions must abide by a common set of standards to attain fruitful results. Arguments that appeal to insiders and exclude outsiders have no place in this market place of ideas. The point is to bring people together, not drive them apart. Arguments that do advance society should ideally satisfy at least three criteria.

The first is to do no harm. If implemented as policy, it could not be used to unjustly harm or oppress minority groups. Religious groups that want to keep the status quo regarding LGBT issues would be furthering harm, since men can still be arrested and charged with homosexual activities. Conversely, recognising LGBT people as fellow citizens would remove legal avenues for discrimination without harming others.

The second is the use of reason. Arguments from ideology appeal only to fellow believers and exclude non-believers. Arguments from reason are universal. By being founded on empirical research and objective studies, arguments from reason apply to everybody regardless of their position on the ideological divide. Arguments from reason should be supported and analysed, while arguments from religion ignored in non-religious contexts.

The third is to seek win-win-win outcomes. People should wherever possible aim to maximise gains for both parties, so society ultimately benefits. Concerning LGBT issues, a win-win-win scenario would have religious organisations retaining their freedom to worship, LGBT citizens being recognised as equal citizens under the law, and society benefiting as a consequence—or, at least, not harmed.

Society as a self-correcting organism

This is not to say organisations of any given faith or ideology must be automatically excluded from participating in the public discussion. Sometimes they can bring unique perspectives to a given issue that would otherwise be lost. The beauty of the market place of ideas is that it is a self-correcting organism. When allowed to function properly, the best ideas rise to the top while the worst are shunned.

This is already happening. The Wear White campaign has attracted disdain from activists and ordinary Singaporeans. The government has stepped in, cautioning against being caught in the crossfire. There is no need for more drastic action: supporting people who advocate the politics of inclusiveness and ignoring those who advance the politics of division would entrench the common standards outlined above and marginalise the groups that aim to divide society.

There is no place for the politics of division. Rejecting them in favour of the politics of inclusion would bring greater benefit to people, regardless of ideological, religious, or any other affiliation and identity.