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Quod licet bovi, non licet Jovi

June 18, 2012

According to my old Latin book at school, the old Romans had a proverb “Qoud licet Jovi, non licet bovi“* (Jupiter can allow himself things that oxen may not), meaning that there is a double standard in life, and if you’re poor and powerless you’d better not try to imitate what the rich and mighty are doing.

I’ve been thinking that in our society, a better form of the proverb would be “Quod licet bovi, non licet Jovi”. Because there are several instances where somebody considered powerful or privileged had better tread carefully, but somebody considered at a disadvantage can do what they want. An immigrant in Sweden** may claim that all natives*** are racist, but a native may not claim that all immigrants are lazy. Both are statements true for some but not all members of the described group. A woman may say rather horrible things about men and not be marginalized, the way society marginalizes men who say horrible things about women.

Or all these “homosexuals only” spaces! **** Saw a flyer for a concert by the local gay men’s choir the other day. In one way I can understand it. Heterosexuality is more common, and thus tends to be the default assumption. And having to correct the perception of every new aquaintance you meet is weary, even assuming that they don’t react badly, which you can’t assume in this case. I can pass for German these days, and sometimes I do. When people find out I’m actually Swedish, the reaction is always positive and usually enthusiastic. Ohh, Sweden! Astrid Lindgren! Beautiful nature! Or, if they don’t feel like saying anything positive about Sweden, they say “wow, your German is really great! How long have you been here? Not even two years? Amazing!”. It’s not a bad conversation, but I have to have it with absolutely everyone. I can only try to imagine what it would be like if a plausible reaction would be “Oh.” (turns away, doesn’t seem to want to talk any more). And my imagination says I’d want social events where I didn’t have to go through that with everyone. Where all already knew and accepted.

And still there’s an immature part of me stomping her feet and angrily declaring that if they get to socialize without us, it’s not fair that we don’t get to socialize without them!

Let’s see if I can explain in a non-immature way what I mean. Take an activity where sexual orientation is irrelevant – why not singing in a choir. You could then imagine having a homosexual-only choir, a mixed this-is-for-everyone-and-you’d-better-work-together choir, or a heterosexual-only choir. Now, traditions and power dynamics and lots of stuff I don’t know the name of means that if you just have a choir, without comments, it will in practice be assumed to be heterosexual-only. People will react with surprise (and sometimes with disgust) upon finding out that Karl in second tenor is actually living with a man. This is clearly not fair.

One possible solution is that Karl leaves the choir, joins with other homosexuals who like to sing, and starts a homosexuals-only choir. The previous choir is now explicitly heterosexuals-only. This is toxic and also rather stupid.

One possible solution is to harshly educate everyone, the way it’s done with groups of little kids. You have to let everyone join in and play! This choir is for all who like to sing, and it’s not okay to judge others based upon who they like to have sex with, ’cause that’s irrelevant to singing! I’m fine with this solution.

What I’m not fine with is how it seems like people want to implement both solutions at once. I don’t know if there are any individuals who actually want to do both, or if it’s different individuals in the non-homogenous group of gay rights activists. But at the same time, we have both loud voices proclaiming “a standard group is a heterosexual-only group, so we need our own groups” AND loud voices proclaiming “we have a right to be here too, sexuality is irrelevant to this activity, if you don’t welcome us you’re a horrible person”. See, I don’t think you get to do both. The motivation for having a separate group was that the standard group doesn’t contain you. If you’re changing that, there’s no reason for separation any more. If there were all three kinds of groups – homosexual-only, mixed, and heterosexual-only – that would be fine with me again. But that’s not the situation we have.

Of course, the above reasoning applies equally to feminists wanting both to write “female history” and to squeeze more women and female perspectives into ordinary history. It would apply to various immigrant ethnicities too, if they tried to pull the same type of stunt, but I can’t think of any European instance of that.

* According to Wikipedia, the actual form of the proverb was originally “Aliis si licet, tibi non licet” (They can do it but you can’t). The rhymed form wasn’t invented until the Middle Ages. I feel like I should have realized it on my own; after all, I knew before that rhyming wasn’t a part of antique Roman poetry.

** Don’t know if this is true in Germany, although I suspect so.

*** Better avoid the phrase “ethnic Swede”, it seems to make people upset somehow.

**** Is “homosexual” a bad word these days? I hope not, but it’s difficult to keep up. I don’t mean anything bad with it, I’m just using it as a counterpart to “heterosexual”, and I use “heterosexual” because I don’t want to call people who sleep with the opposite gender “normal”.

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From → Our society

3 Comments
  1. mmmm, i think the whole gaychoir vs. heterosexual vs. everybody’s choir is a matter of descriptive vs. prescriptive definitions. as a gay singer you might want it to be ok to join in the – let’s say – mens’ choir (i don’t think they have that much of a problem with sexuality in the women’s department), and that’s the prescriptive reality. but in real life, however, you might find that the conservative gentlemen already singing in the choir don’t accept your pink collarshirts and your latino boyfriend (prejudice, what, me?), and that’s the descriptive reality.

    it’s a bit like if you’re a socialist you wouldn’t agree on voting for the leftist party, because obviously the only party that’s actually allowed to exist is the proletarian dictatorship, and then you don’t need to vote. but people usually don’t get descriptive and prescriptive mixed up like that in real life, they know that dreaming of an ideal state and living in the real world are two different things.

    and actually, what you’re writing about – who’s allowed to say what, has been quite heavily in the media in finland recently, as a rightwing populist called jussi halla-aho wrote about muslims calling them – amongst other things – “a pedophile religion”. he got sentenced to pay a fine and delete those parts of his blogtext. his point in the text was that if it’s ok to write things like that about the finnish majority, then it should be ok to write the same thing about the minorities. in a way he’s wrong. minorities need protection in a way that majorities usually don’t, for the simple fact that they have the power in numbers…

    now it seems like i’m totally opposed to everything you’re writing but i’m just rapping away here (boring day at work).

  2. I agree that minorities need a bit more protection than majorities. I don’t agree that minorities and majorities should get to play by different rules. What makes me angry is the (percieved) hypocrisy in, on the one hand, saying outrageous things about the majority and justifying it with “I’m the underdog here”, and on the other hand, screaming loudly that if the majority says outrageous things about you it”s mean and hurtful and discriminating.

    It’s only a percieved hypocrisy in that I have yet to encounter a single individual doing both. They might exist, but maybe they don’t. I still percieve a hypocrisy, because I largely percieve groups I don’t belong to as groups, faceless collectives. All opinions coming from somebody representing that collective gets assigned to the collective, and sometimes the collection isn’t internally consistent. Oh yeah, and when I write “representing” I mean representing, not belonging to. There’s a world of difference between me writing as a woman and me writing as just me.

  3. i don’t know if they exist. and sometimes, at least in the debate concerning the xenophobes in the “true finns”-party, the xenophobe – like jussi halla-aho – takes a member of the majority attacking the rest of the majority (let’s say a multiculturalist leftist reporter writing that “finns are so intolerant to other ethnic groups”) as an excuse for attacking both the leftist reporter and all other ethnic groups. as in “well, they started it”. and then, technically, “they” didn’t start it, it was actually a ethnic finn who did it (“a native”).

    but then again, i’ve never lived in sweden and don’t read swedish media, so i don’t know what it sounds like over there. one thing i’ve heard, and find a bit annoying, is that it’s “ok” to call natives “svennebanan” as a kind of reversed insult. looking at it globally, the native nordic ethnic groups are really tiny compared to most other nationalities that come to stay here, and there’s really no motive at all to accept derogative names for the majority. except for the minority within the majority that act silly, and them we can call things like “nazies” or “racist bullies”, but that’s a different issue.

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