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Monday, October 04, 2010  

Dan Savage: Proving the Other Side's Point

NB: I have made a few stylistic edits to avoid giving unnecessary offense. For one urging a little patience and charity in discourse, I need to be more scrupulous about those things myself.

Dan Savage has developed a curious punditocratic specialty. When mainstream advocates for gay marriage or anti-bullying laws are claiming that they won't start us down a slippery slope of officially-sanctioned polyamory or restrictions on free speech, Savage is busy strapping on the Rossignols. Here he is going after a politely disagreeing Christian correspondent:

The children of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy. And while there may not be any gay adults or couples where you live, or at your church, or at your workplace, I promise you that there are gay and lesbian children in your schools. You may only attack gays and lesbians at the ballot box, nice and impersonally, but your children have the option of attacking actual real gays and lesbians, in person, in real time.
The dehumanizing bigotries that fall from lips of "faithful Christians," and the lies that spew forth from the pulpit of the churches "faithful Christians" drag their kids to on Sundays, give your straight children a license to verbally abuse, humiliate and condemn the gay children they encounter at school. And many of your straight children—having listened to mom and dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to the family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry himself to sleep—feel justified in physically attacking the gay and lesbian children they encounter in their schools. You don't have to explicitly "encourage [your] children to mock, hurt, or intimidate" gay kids. Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit. It's here, it's clear, and we can see the fruits of it.

The wild free-associating Savage is doing here--between traditional views of marriage and Christian sexual ethics, children's attitudes, bullying, and suicide--surely sounds plausible to his apparently quite credulous readership. But plug in just about any other religion or group and see how it sounds to you. Would you want to see some evidence for the bolded statements above? Are the bullies who cause so much high school trauma devout and practicing Christians? Are average churches writing licenses to abuse gay kids? If so, I'd sure like to know. They may well be! For all I know, Savage is merely describing statistically robust correlations between youth church attendance and high school bullying. But when you claim that defining marriage as a heterosexual institution = bullying = gay teen suicide, one would like to see the facts of the case.

Needless to say, any church, however "traditional" its theology, that gives aid and comfort to the bullying of gay students (or adults) is sinning gravely. I am not, however, persuaded that there are enough such churches to account for the prevalence of bullying. Unlike Dan Savage, I know some conservative Christians socially, and I can no more imagine them taunting a gay kid than defecating, Diogenes-style, on the courthouse lawn. Mainstream Christian teenagers (including white evangelicals of only ordinary kookiness), in my limited experience, are indoctrinated as fiercely into niceness as into any ideas about dancing and erections. Savage's calumny is something I could only have learned from the papers and the Armani-clad charlatans who populate them, not from my actual experience with American Christians.

Now that's not to say that there aren't plenty of exceptions. Maybe I'm even wrong, and the people I know are the exceptions and the Joel's Army black-belt level haters are ruling the hallways of America's secondary education institutions. In any event, notice how the whole point of Savage's polemic is to lump a respectful, if wayward correspondent together with the most vitriolic people who share his religious identity and, as if that weren't bad enough, pour all the blame for gay teen suicides on this person's head. It would be trite (and most certainly wrong) to say that the savvy of this approach is reflected in gay marriage's stunning lack of success at the ballot box, but it most certainly does not help. Here Savage has a quarter- or even half-ally in the struggle to de-legitimate the vicious bullying of gay kids, and rather than hold them to their stated commitment--as in, encouraging this person to think critically about what they hear and hold negative Christian voices accountable*--Savage demands nothing short of complete surrender, throwing in some insulting language about Christianity for good measure. At the end he expresses the hope that he's hurt the writer, who gives no indication of writing in bad faith, because Savage imagines this person to be responsible for all the gay teenage suffering anywhere ever.

This slakes the hate-lust of Savage's commenters, but it's hard to see what other purpose this sort of thing can serve. And in fact it's worse than useless, because Savage has illustrated with striking clarity the only meaningful argument anyone has against anti-bullying laws: that they will be used to limit the freedom of speech. It is not a very liberal, democratic attitude that makes no distinction between casting a ballot and giving a beating, or between holding (and expressing) a peaceful opinion in respectful language and hurling a cruel epithet. And yet Savage argues just so, that we need anti-bullying laws to stamp out certain opinions and their expression.

Now I get that this is very personal for Dan and that his It Gets Better project is a more constructive approach to a serious issue. But giving a verbal thrashing to a good-faith correspondent is a dangerous form of therapy. And the thing is that we see this so clearly when the other side does it. Like Matt Taibbi, we get huffy when porcine Medicare-scootering Tea Partiers call us Communists because we don't think food stamps should be cut. Not only are we not convinced by all the hate, we're usually energized by it. Why, do you think, would those on the other side be any different? Do we think that they, unlike us, only speak the language of rhetorical force or that we need to make examples of them online to rally our own troops?

If so, we're just obnoxious. And worse than that, we'll be losers.

*For what it's worth, I have clean hands here. I've been holding my fellow Christians, bigoted and non-bigoted alike, to account for explicit or implicit tolerance of verbal and physical abuse of GLBT people for many years now. See here, here, here, here, and lots of other places if you get through those.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:29 PM

Your experience is a fortunate, if not universal, one. I suspect and fear that more often then not, Savage is correct.

J. Green, "Modest Holdings"
So Christians don't do the bullying? Just go to any town meeting that debates gay rights ordinances and you will see plenty of very ugly statements about gays.

Just get to know any gay person -- most of my friends have at least one self-professed Christian relative who refuses to talk to them, or have Christian parents who kicked them out of the house and refuse to talk to them.

Instead of just assuming that Christians are all nice, why don't you actually do a little research and talk to real actual gay people?

Oh, gosh. Can't do that. That might mean you would have to engage the real world, instead of the fantasy one on the internet.
I think Dan has a hard time choosing between most Christians are gay bashers and most gay bashers are Christian. The second is definitely true, in the US at least. The more religious you are, the more likely you are to teach your kids that homosexuality is evil or, as someone told me the other day in an attempt to really sell me on Christianity, "no worse than murder".

I agree with him, Christianity and the religious right in this country are absolutely complicit in making it OK for kids to say horrible things about homosexuals. I think he's also responding to things like the Prop 8 campaign, which made a point of never explicitly saying that gays will fuck your children, but heavily implied it and was funded by the Mormon and Catholic churches. As long as Christians think that it's OK for their faith to allow them to treat homosexuals as less than human (and yes, refusing to support gay marriage is treating them as less than human) they are supporting bullying. They ARE bullying, just in a less personal way.

He wasn't pissed at that woman just because she was a Christian, he was pissed because she doesn't support gay marriage but thinks that Dan should be nicer to people like her. Why should he be nice to someone emailing him saying "Dear Subhuman, please be nicer to my cult of homophobes!"?

Dan will stop accusing Christians of being bigots when they stop acting like them.
As a pastor I've had untold well meaning parishioners in my office who cannot abide the church's movement toward openly affirming gay and lesbian relationships, and more often than not I've wanted to respond to them in the way Savage responded in his post. Sometimes I get sick and tired of being sick and tired and I'm tired of the "nice" conservative argument. There aren't many nice ones out there and the havoc that the wreck on innocent people is unconscionable. Amen to Savage.
Well, you certainly spilled a lot of words without actually addressing Dan's point. His point is that "hate the sin, not the sinner" is just a euphemism for "I hate gay people." You've done nothing to address that point.

Not to mention, your entire post is based on argument from incredulity. What inane pap.

Maybe these "nice" christians aren't doing the bullying themselves, but they've working hard to create situations where the bullying will take place.
Well, I don't know for sure how it is in the USA, because I'm in the UK, but I'm prepared to state that in the UK during my school years I was bullied and victimised by well over half of all the evangelical or other exceptionally religious teens in my school. I'm also prepared to state (under oath if necessary) that I received practically no harrassment from teens who identified as atheist. Further, those who victimised me who did not themselves identify as evangelical christians still took great pleasure in citing the Bible as a justification for their physical, verbal and emotional abuse.
Finally, one of the worst offenders wasn't a pupil, but a school chaplain who has subsequently become a notably intolerant bishop.
I very much doubt that the situation in the USA is better, and I strongly suspect it's worse.
"in my limited experience, are indoctrinated as fiercely into niceness "

To the extent this is true, they are indoctrinated only into niceness to each other. It takes a serious misunderstanding of human nature to argue that the kind of rhetoric routinely coming out of evangelical churches and organization will not inspire their followers and others to enforce it with violence. It's what dehumanization does.

In a number of discussion about this and other "moral questions" with evangelicals, it became pretty clear that for many of them the very existence of someone who doesn't buy into their positions is some combination of an affront and a threat. "Live and let live" is beyond their comprehension.
You call Dan Savage's commentors idiots? So typical for a Christian to pretend that your religion isn't an evil force working against basic human rights for your fellow Americans.

Fundamentalist Christians are doing everything they possibly can to ensure that gays and lesbians are second class citizens. Here in Arizona, the Christianist "Center for Arizona Policy" applauded when Gov. Brewer took away insurance benefits for same sex domestic partners and their children. Cathi Herrod tried to prevent the City of Tucson from giving out household library cards to same sex partnered families. Fundamentalist Christians like Tony Perkins and Lauri Higgins are pushing against anti-bullying laws. And where are the major main stream churches in all of this? Silent. You wonder why so many gays and lesbians hate Christianity? Personally, I have come to believe that people with strong religious beliefs are either mental cases or liars in it for the money.
In case anyone's interested in the actual argument Savage made, and to which I was responding, I'd point out that he didn't just say that lots of Christians are bigots, but specifically that the people responsible for the bullying that accounts for gay teen suicides are devout, church-going Christians. He presented no evidence for this, which is a bad practice when characterizing whole groups of people. My own experience does not sustain Savage's allegation, so I'd like to see an actual argument for it.

Ashley, does the president consider gays and lesbians to be subhuman? Would you speak to him as if you thought he did? Just curious.

As for Anonymous 8:07, I'd point out that the role of Christianity in all of this is quite ambivalent. Are there countries that approve gay marriages that don't have a historic connection to Christianity? Very few, I'd guess. There are plenty of bigots, but I'm not one, and I haven't been silent, and neither has my denomination, which now allows for partnered gay clergy. I can't offer any evidence that I'm not a mental case or a liar in it for the money (truly, the tolerance of the secular population is touching), but I would point out that you bothered to leave a comment on my blog, so who's really crazy?
I'd point out that the role of Christianity in all of this is quite ambivalent.

Are you serious?

Since the first centuries of Christian domination of the Roman Empire, the Church -- and later the churches -- have systematically outlawed, imprisoned, and killed us.

As Christian countries became empires, they imposed their law on societies which, until the arrival of Christians, had tolerated and even celebrated us.

YOUR denomination may have changed in recent years, but do not whitewash its history and the history of Christianity as a whole.
This polemic suffers from an acute case of epistemological amnesia. It has become so commonplace that the public conversation hinges on some untethered notion of ‘tolerance’ that we become blind to our culturally sanctioned bigotry. The notion that homosexuality is an equally valid lifestyle choice, however popular, is misguided at best. Human nature is not infinitely malleable. Simply put, gender does matter. It is not a cultural construct, and the attempts to claim the contrary end in nihilistic & existential despair. Thankfully, Jesus saves.
Mr. Dueholm:

Interesting blog post. I am new to your site (I'll explore more when I have time), so I am unfamiliar with your particular Christian denomination. I am glad that your church shows some limited tolerance for gays. You allow for partnered gay clergy. Woo-hoo. Get back to me when your gay clergy are treated as full members of your Christian community and are allowed to be married. Then I will feel all warm and fuzzy for you. Unfortunately, the large majority of the Christian churches in this country are not as progressive as yours. The Mormons, Catholics and Baptists actively work to deny us even any basic respect as people, much less any sort of equality. The Methodists have been mostly very silent on the issue. The Presbyterian and Episcopal churches have shown some progressive tolerance, but not without great division and rancor among their churches. Only the Quakers, Unitarians (not really Christian) and the United Church of Christ have actually show any real acceptance of their gay members as full participants.

The multitude of voices of Christian hate are loud and well-funded. I am sure that there are many Christians that quietly believe in some form of equality for the homos, but they are mostly strangely silent on the important civil rights issue of our times.

What Would Jesus Do, indeed? Sit quietly on his hands in the pews of the churches or tear down the curtains from the temples of the Pharisees?

Finally, I'll be happy to answer the question you posed to Ashley. I don't know whether the president considers gays and lesbians to be subhuman. It is impossible to really know what is in another's heart. And I really don't care. What I care about are actions. And by his actions he shows that he doesn't care if we gay men and women are TREATED as subhumans.

That is what matters.
YOUR denomination may have changed in recent years, but do not whitewash its history and the history of Christianity as a whole.

The whole notion of same-sex marriage as a civil right is dependent on a concept of individuals and individual rights that has so far emerged only in societies that have a Christian heritage. This is not a debate that is happening in China, or India, or Pakistan. Neither the Christian right nor the more strident atheists seem to grasp this essential dialectic in the history of Christianity.

Part of my point in calling out Savage's post is that there was really no point to what he was doing. It was a rage-filled ad hominem attack, quite understandable given all the oppression and so forth but trite and pointless. Strangely enough, the other side is typically unpersuaded when you treat them as an undifferentiated mass of murderous bigots. That doesn't reflect my experience, and I don't like seeing people maligned by association.
Savage does not say that all bullying kids are Christians. He does not say that all Christian kids are bullies. What he does say, with his usual passion, is that people who openly support policies of discrimination against a certain group are complicit when members of that group are victims of violence.

Taking religion and sexuality out of the equation, would it be wrong to say that advocates of anti-miscegenation laws are sending a message to their kids that people of other races are inferior? If some of those kids bullied racial minorities, would it be that ridiculous to point to the views of their parents as one of the causes of their actions?

If you believe, like many Christians, that gay people do not deserve the same rights and protections as you do, how can you say that such a belief is not going to impact how your children treat gays?

The truth is that kids do not need much excuse to bully. High school can be a very cruel place. Kids that do not fit into what society views as "normal" are a target of bullying. Anyone that promotes a view of homosexuality as an abnormal, unnatural sin is sending the message that gays, or those perceived as gay, are inferior. When kids treat them as inferior and mock and taunt and bully them, why is it so wrong to point to the message they receive from their parents as part of the problem?

I moved around a lot as a kid and attended many high schools. One of the schools was about 90% Mormon, while the others were less Christian and less fundamentalist. I can say without a doubt that the anti-gay bullying at the predominantly Mormon school was far worse than any of the other high schools I attended. Of course, this is purely anecdotal and proves nothing, much like the assertion by this blog's author that he knows plenty of nice Christians.

While remaining completely oblivious to the irony, evangelical Christian "pro-family" groups like the FRC proudly oppose anti-bullying campaigns that discuss bullying on the basis of sexual orientation. Meanwhile, kids are dying as a result of anti-gay bullying.

As for same-sex marriage putting on a slippery slope towards polyamory, couldn't the same be said of interracial marriage? Or marriage after divorce? Or any of the other currently accepted forms of marriage that expand upon the "traditional" view of marriage?
"Unlike Dan Savage, I know some conservative Christians socially, and I can no more imagine them taunting a gay kid than pooping on the courthouse lawn. "

Give me a break. I'm not gay, I can only imagine what it's like for people who are, growing up in conservative Christian areas, but I do know conservative Christians. I grew up with them, and I know how they talk and think about homosexuality. I lost friends when I came out as an atheist, and they were relative moderates.

I don't know how the president really feels about gays, but his actions show that he's comfortable with them being treated as less-than.
Mr. Dueholm,

Speaking of ad hominem attacks, where did Savage call them all murderous bigots? The problem with the fundamentalist Christian form of intolerance towards gays is that its presented as good. Fundy Christians love gays, they just hate what they do and who they love and how they choose to live their lives. Such insidious forms of hate and intolerance need to be called out for what they are.

As for Savage going after the hearts and minds of the fundamentalist Christians, I don't think that is what he is trying to do. Savage states in stark terms how he believes that many anti-gay, god-fearing Christian parents are complicit in the anti-gay bullying that occurs in schools throughout the country, bullying that sometimes leads kids to take their own lives. I don't believe he does this to convert fundamentalists to his way of thinking. I believe he is doing this to encourage action from those that support his views but have never really thought about just how damaging the intolerant views of "good-hearted Christians" can be. Kids are dying. Dan used to be one of those kids. Of course he feels anger and sadness and fear for the plight of these kids. And of course those emotions come out in his posts. Far from seeing it as pointless, I see Dan's impassioned voice as a necessary one, just as more calm, focused and policy-driven voices are also necessary.
As someone that has traveled to countries like India and China, I can assure you that "same-sex marriage as fundamental right" is something that is being discussed and debated fervently. There are also may other non-Christian societies throughout history that have promoted and encouraged same sex marriages as well as non-traditional (from the Judeo-Christain perspective) views on gender identity. Try visiting the south Pacific sometime.

Sorry, but Christianity does not get to take credit for all the civil rights advancements of the western world. In fact, the less religious countries in Europe are leading the way on human rights and individual rights while more religious countries like the US are falling further behind.
A quick Google search indicates that somewhere around 80% of Americans identify as Christians. But you suspect that self-identified Christians are somehow *not* the majority of gay-bashers? Most Christians aren't gay bashers, so I'm not suggesting a causal link. But to claim that Savage is making some crazy generalization that gay bashers are Christians, and therefore are exposed to anti-gay, if polite, rhetoric is ridiculous.
When someone makes a sweeping generalization about the culpability of a particular group in a particular offense--most often gays, Muslims, and Latinos nowadays, but also Christians in Savage's argument--it is customary for fair-minded people to want to see some evidence for the generalization. What Savage wrote could, with some minor changes, have come straight from Sean Hannity. Teen bullying and suicide are pretty complicated phenomena, I'd guess, and reacting with moral panics, as we've seen with goth culture, video games, and the like, is usually uninformed.

But even granting the premise of Savage and most of his commenters that Christians are as a group hateful, stupid, and horrid beyond all comparison, I don't see the rhetorical strategy involved in this sort of thing. Someone comes to you and says "I agree with you on issue A, but not on issue B; please don't call me a bigot." You have several alternatives for answering this particular speech act. Savage chose to say, "You are stupid and evil." This is not a winning rhetorical strategy.

Neither, for that matter, is essentially calling for the criminalization of viewpoints, which is what both Tony Perkins and Dan Savage seem to think is the whole point of anti-bullying laws.
Also, to make it easier for trolls who don't want to actually read the post, I am an advocate of gay and lesbian equality and I have never preached and do not believe that gay people are sinners. I would have voted against Proposition 8 if I'd had the chance, and I've been a consistent advocate in my own denomination and within the wider world of Christianity against hate speech and in favor of inclusion of LGBT Christians in every aspect of the church's life.
I am not a troll. I have read your post and your follow-up comments. Savage is not claiming that there are Churches preaching from the pulpit that gay children should be bullied. And whether or not the Christians you know socially would taunt gay kids is equally beside the point. Have you read Savage's original post or did you just skim through it?

Savage is making the case that the conservative Christian view of gay people as sinful and dangerous promotes the sort of fear and intolerance that allows anti-gay bullying to exist. Do you disagree? Who do you think is more likely to bully a kid for being gay, a kid whose atheist parents teach him that all human beings deserve to be treated equally or a fundamentalist Christian kid whose parents teach him that homosexuality is a sin against nature?
In my experience, if you want to say "many of the people in group X do this" or, more specifically, "the people who did this particular thing are members of group x" you tend to be believed if you present evidence that such is actually the case. Dan didn't do that. If he knows of such evidence and it's solid and convincing, I'd take that part of the post back right away.

Now does the anti-gay theology of many churches contribute to the atmosphere in which bullying happens? That's a good question, though probably not answerable in the absence of actual evidence on the previous question. Does the generally critical view toward U.S. foreign policy among American Muslims promote terrorism? Did the sexually liberated environment of Catholic seminaries in the 1960's promote priestly abuse? Well, I don't know. Maybe.

You can insinuate anything, and you can make all kinds of associations that will ring true in the ears of people negatively disposed to whatever group you're associating with bad behavior. That doesn't make it true or right. All I was arguing was that the conservative Christians I know wouldn't do the things Savage is assuming are being done by conservative Christians in schools. If he wants to tar people I know and admire (though I do not share their views) with the guilt of bullying, he better at least produce some evidence.
Like so many "good" Christians, this writer fails to accept the fact that the persistent and adamant denunciation of homosexuality that is so prevalent among evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon leaders has an impact in the pews and in the wider culture. Unfortunately, many believers take to heart the vilification of gays but pass right over the parts about compassion and "niceness." To ignore this fact is to blink reality and to absolve religious leaders of responsibility for the fact that negative religious messages about homosexuality lead directly and proximately to bullying, violence, self-doubt and even suicide. It is no answer to say that the bullies and the criminals are "bad Christians." The problem, at the end of the day, is the message of stigmatization, not the audience who dutifully carry it out by stigmatizing people.
How can you keep saying the writer was speaking in good faith? They opened up by saying they don't support gay marriage.
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