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Abstract

It is written in a Chinese encyclopedia of the Middle Ages that animals are divided into fourteen categories:

1. belonging to the emperor

2. embalmed

3. tame

4. suckling pigs

5. sirens

6. fabulous

7. stray dogs

8. included in the present classification

9. frenzied

10. innumerable

11. drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush

12. et cetera

13. having just broken the water pitcher

14. appearing to be flies from a long way off.

Western societies have deployed a variety of strategies to create standards of the "good" to direct human conduct and enforce notions of civic behavior. The nature and sources of these standards as well as their relationships and interactions reveal (and determine) much about the ability of societies to tolerate diversity. A striking example of this is provided by analysis of the effects of such standards on the well-being of two minorities present in nearly every Western society since the Roman Republic: Jews and gay people.

It is now "normal" (i.e., within the accepted range of variation) to be Jewish in the United States; it is not yet "normal" to be gay. Although for nearly 1600 years, the two groups have met the same fate at the hands of majorities in Western culture, Jews have achieved "normal" status in most of the modern West more rapidly than gay people. The reasons for this are many and complex, and I will here address only a few bearing most directly on the way modern social consensus about the "good" and the "normal" is formulated and employed, especially by comparison with previous Western systems.

Standing within the modern framework one might, of course, posit that the reason Jews more often meet modern standards of public and private good ("normality" and "loyalty") is that they are normal, while gay people are not. It would be jejune to argue that simply because they have notably similar histories there are no differences between Jews as a group and gay people as a group. But as a historian I am not prepared to comment on who is "normal" or "good" or "orthodox" or "moral" in relation to any absolute truth. What I can do is to raise questions about the etiology, formulation, and internal consistency-particularly the extent to which they actually represent the consensus to which they lay claim-of three historical systems of determining and enforcing notions of human "good," and use this to approach the question of why Jews achieved "normal" status before gay people.

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