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That’s just not natural

2009 February 11
by Hannah Mueller

Since I’m taking two gender courses this semester (the other is the English class Women and Law in the Middle Ages), I knew they would start speaking to each other eventually.  Our reading for that class for today was from John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, about how gay people lived and were treated in Europe during the Middle Ages.  The part that stuck out to me was his very clear breakdown of the words “nature,” “natural,” and “unnatural,” especially in relation to how they’ve been used in prejudiced ways against gay people.

First he points out that the meanings of the words depend on which socially constructed concept of nature you’re referring to.  He points out three different “natures” and their respective explanations of what constitutes “unnatural”:

  • Nature as ‘realistic’ or related to the physical world, e.g. “human nature.”  So “unnatural” would be “uncharacteristic,” as in “It seems unnatural that she would give away her car to a stranger.”
  • Nature as the observable universe, e.g. “the laws of nature.”  This “unnatural” would refer to ghosts or miracles.  He has a great footnote here that explains the words “supernatural” (more than, better than nature), “unnatural” (not “natural” and thus feared; the uncanny), and “nonnatural” (no value judgment).
  • Nature as opposed to humans and what we make, aka nature vs. technology, which is the most obvious Nature for this class.  “Unnatrual” in this case either refers to something only humans do (read and write), or something artificial, e.g. synthetic fibers and ‘artificial flavoring’.

According to Boswell, then, the argument (prejudice) against homosexuality as “unnatural” is totally unfounded in reality for two reasons:  1) Some animals do practice homosexuality, so it’s not “unnatural” in the last sense, and 2) Even if humans were the only species that practiced homosexuality, why would that make it wrong?  We don’t consider literacy a sin, and that is arguably what most makes us human.  I think the same explanations for prejudice have been applied to transgender people, and can be broken down in this same way.

Since we’re trying to deconstruct the categories of “normal” and “natural,” I thought these observations would be really useful for thinking about exactly what we mean and want to say when we refer to nature.  Overall I think the words “nature,” “natural,” and “unnatural” can be hugely misleading, and they should always send up red flags when we read or hear them, especially when they “naturally” (unthinkingly) come out of our own mouths.

3 Responses
  1. The Doctor permalink
    February 11, 2009

    This reminds me of the Wikipedia stance on weasel words. Weasel words are those that sound good and like they have weight to them, but upon closer inspection actually mean absolutely nothing. On the one hand, I think the three versions of natural that you bring up can definitely be used knowingly to influence perception, especially when people start tossing around claims for/against the “naturalness” of a behavior or identity. On the other, I know that I (unknowingly!) abuse the ambiguity of “nature” all the frickin’ time.

    On the other-other hand (I hide the extra one under my hoodie), the confusing complexity of human language helps us to put very abstract concepts into (comparatively) concrete words. When someone says “Being trans [or gay or straight or a Red Sox fan] is in my nature,” that person is trying to explain something very deep and personal. What words do we really have to describe things, concepts, identities that well up from within ourselves, that we don’t purposely plant, that have lives of their own? Part of the reason weasel words exist (besides swaying opinion; let’s give some people the benefit of the doubt) is to bridge the gap between what does (or doesn’t) make sense in our mind and what the other person needs to understand. This brings us back to our talk on Monday where Ryan (I think!) mentioned his dislike of labels because there’s no way to ever get the other party to understand exactly where he’s coming from.

    The only way to fix a sub-par language system: telepathy. Until then, weasel words and misunderstanding ahoy!

  2. Karl Van Der Meer permalink
    February 11, 2009

    This is a good breakdown of naturalistic fallacy. Thanks!

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