What infuriates us the most about our friends is often the flip side of what makes us admire them.
April 10th, 2014
I love Box Turtle Bulletin. I owe Box Turtle Bulletin.
Long before I was a contributor here, I had (and still have) my own personal blog. My work there prompted a “Christian” blogger called Heteroseparatist to write a post tying homosexuality and pedophilia, calling it The Tisinai Formula. The rarity of my last name made this seem all the more despicable, more personal than if my surname were Williams or Smith.
I used the sordid happening as a chance to make a video, one that debunked the alleged connection in as much depth as I could manage in a youtube timeframe. It’s not my most-viewed video, but it’s the one I’m proudest of. People wrote to say they’d made their parents watch it, that it had calmed their parents’ fears and made it easier to have frank conversations with them. Of all the things I may have accomplished a blogger, that has to be the best, and if I sound a bit prideful about it, that’s why.
Two things made that video possible.
- Heteroseparatist had laid out his case in detail.
- Jim Burroway, the founder of Box Turtle Bulletin, had already written a long, footnoted (!) post debunking the supposed gay/pedophile correlation.
Both of those elements had to be in place for me to make the video. No, it’s not good that so many people believe these slanderous claims, but since they do believe them, it’s very good when they’re stated publicly and clearly, so that people like Jim Burroway can demolish them piece by piece. This is all in accord with Jim’s stated mission for the blog, which is to engage our opponents’ arguments and provide reasoned responses supported by evidence.
That’s not universally valued. When the Regnerus study came out, for instance, I did my best to expose its flaws, an effort that another blog dismissed as “blah-blah-blah,” and as having fallen into the “trap” of discussing the details of what the study actually says. That stunned me. I respect the work done at that blog, but it wouldn’t be a good home for me. That’s why I’ve been so happy to have Jim welcome me here.
I really do believe it’s a very good thing when our opponents make their position clear, and that’s occasionally gotten me into trouble. I baffled (infuriated?) some readers not long ago when I chastised Stanford for defunding an event featuring anti-gay speakers, one of whom was cited in a Supreme Court Windsor dissent. In particular I mocked a student, Brianne Huntsman, for saying the event should be cancelled to keep the university a “safe space” for gay and lesbian students (more on that mockery a bit further down).
Since then, another school has issued a statement that’s quite relevant and that I wish I had written:
To target funding for a particular program because it doesn’t align with certain beliefs and judging it in terms of specific content instead of the discussions the content promotes is perhaps a bit shortsighted. Indeed, controversial issues are essential in creating levels of discussion and student engagement that cannot be generated otherwise. We see such engagement as essential to the educational process.
That wasn’t in response to anti-gay speakers, though. That was the University of South Carolina reacting to State Representative Garry Smith (R), who wanted to withhold $17,142 in university funding because the school had assigned first-year students an LGBT-friendly book without balancing it with — I don’t know — an LGBT-unfriendly book.
One key difference between the Stanford and USC cases is that Stanford didn’t involve a First Amendment violation. That only occurs when the government takes action, which is precisely the situation with USC. It’s all the more striking, then, that USC didn’t invoke the First Amendment in its defense. It appealed to more demanding standards: academic freedom and the mission of the university.
Yes, I called those more demanding standards. I revere the First Amendment, but we should never forget: The First Amendment is a minimum requirement.
People sometimes defend the private stifling of speech by pointing out that no First Amendment rights were violated, and while they’re correct, that doesn’t mean all is well. USC reminds us that other standards exist, standards that go beyond what the government can do, standards that guide our own non-government actions. Academic freedom is one is one such standard, but there are others.
This means we can have a huge debate — among people who are otherwise allies — about the appropriate response to legal speech that we find offensive or appalling. This happened over my Stanford post and again the other day, when Jim expressed misgivings over the resignation of Brendan Eich. As everyone here knows, these debates can be heated, even rancorous. I hate that, because though I may go trolling on anti-gay sites, I have a childish hope (need?) that everything I write here be received with great joy and admiration. Now that ain’t gonna happen, and that’s a whole growth opportunity for me. But when the criticism comes down like a hammer, that same need eventually forces me to take it seriously, even if I don’t end up changing my mind. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the debates over Duck Dynasty and Stanford and Brendan Eich — actually not so much about those cases per se, but about the issues underlying them.
Here is what I’d like critics of Jim and Timothy and me to keep in mind — and just as importantly, what we need to keep in mind in return:
Quite often, the most infuriating aspects of another person are simply the flip side of the things you most admire.
In recent days, we’ve seen two admirable sets of values collide. First,
A free and open society works best when all positions are argued clearly and explicitly, along with their rebuttals. This climate of open debate, whatever its bumps and pitfalls, is the best way to try and secure a culture free of ignorance and superstition. It’s important to do as little as possible to discourage such debate because when an orthodoxy is imposed through legal or social pressure, it opens the door to tyranny and corrodes the human spirit.
A free and open society can only work when it recognizes the humanity, the dignity, and the equality of all its citizens. Movements that stigmatize entire swaths of the population, that declare them to be inferior, that try to rob them of their rights, have no place in such a society. They open the door to oppression and tyranny, and corrode the human spirit.
It’s hard, for me at least, to oppose either of those positions. Gay people have suffered in the past when either one was discarded. They overlap, they reinforce each other, but they can also contradict each other. And when that happens, long-time allies flare at each other and demand to know, How can someone I’ve respected hold such a view?
For instance, some people react to Jim (or me, or Timothy) by wondering, How can you be a defender of, and an apologist for, such anti-gay bigots? But that’s not his intent at all. He’s defending a legal and cultural climate of open and unchilled dialog for everyone, even our most vitriolic opponents. And his critics here, if they’ve ever found this blog valuable, must understand that Jim’s commitment to that ideal is what made the blog possible. It inspires him to devote hour after hour to smacking down the flawed arguments and outright lies of the other side. And the most baffling aspects of what you see in him now are simply the flip side of what you admire most.
On the other hand, I can look at someone like, say, StraightGrandmother — whom I respect and admire — and wonder, How can you subvert the ideals of a free society by deliberately chilling speech? But that’s not her intent at all. She’s defending the humanity, dignity, and equality of an oppressed group of real human beings, a group that she herself doesn’t even belong to! And I have to understand that her commitment to that ideal is what I so respect and admire. It inspires her to devote hour after hour to smacking down the flawed arguments and outright lies of the other side. And the most baffling aspects of what I see in her now are simply the flip side of what I admire most.
This debate isn’t going away anytime soon. It will only intensify. But keeping these things in mind will make that debate more productive. I’m not just talking about tolerance for each other’s views, or an attitude of Can’t we all just get along? No, I’m hoping we can remember that when we hurl contempt and derision at each other in this debate, we unintentionally spatter the very things we respect about each other.
That’s a lot to ask. I know this, because I’ve failed at it.
When I consider my Stanford post, I have to say I stand by my position but I regret the way I mocked Brianne Huntsman. USC has shown there are far better ways to make the same point, and mocking her won’t persuade her or her supporters to change their minds. It can only polarize the debate further. As I read some of the comments to that piece, with their condescending psychologizing and often outright scorn, the little kid in me wondered, Why y’all got to be so mean? Then the adult in me recalled my own mockery and realized, Oh, well, yeah. I committed a major violation of the Golden Rule right there.
But that still leaves open the question of how to respond to legal, offensive speech and to political activity that we fiercely oppose.
This hit home few days ago when I expressed concern on Facebook about the Brendan Eich controversy. A friend asked me, But what would you have done differently? The short answer might be: Nothing, because it’s possible we didn’t do anything. Yes, there was a petition with 70,000+ signatures calling for his resignation, but some have convincingly argued that he had to go because many of the Mozilla’s employees weren’t willing to accept his leadership, and that makes a sound business case for his departure.
But what if this had happened at the company I work for?
I can’t argue that a person’s private beliefs are irrelevant to their work. I remember collaborating with a tenured University of Chicago professor to create an online course, and one day he confided in me that he got a pit in his stomach every time a black student walked into his clasroom because, “I know they just won’t get it.” And I thought, You have no business being a teacher.
Even so, I wouldn’t have called for Brendan Eich’s resignation, partly because I don’t think opposition to same-sex marriage (as opposed to, say, membership in the KKK) is proof positive of hatred and bigotry. I have too much direct experience to the contrary to make that assumption. Still: based on the ideals set forth above, what would I do?
I’d push to open a dialog with the CEO.
I don’t just mean an hour-long chat with a photo opp at the end. If we’re strong enough to achieve the CEO’s resignation, then we’re strong enough to win an extended, well-publicized public conversation. This would be my homosexual agenda for that dialog:
- We’d make it clear how many of the company’s employees are LGBT.
- We’d bring the CEO into our homes to meet our families and see how we live — see that we live.
- With the CEO having dinner with our families, we’d detail the harm that banning same-sex marriage does to gays and lesbians, to our children, even to straight kids in opposite-sex homes as they struggle through the fears and insecurities of adolescence.
- We’d listen to the CEO’s objections to marriage equality and address them point by point. We know we can do this.
- We’d discover the CEO’s core values, some of which likely involve dignity and fairness, and show how marriage equality fulfills them.
In short, we’d engage the CEO through both reason and emotion, by making a logical case and by expanding the CEO’s personal experience with gays and lesbians and our families. I see two possible outcomes, and ultimately we would win no matter which prevailed.
We change the CEO’s mind. Can you imagine how powerful it would have been for Brendan Eich to announce: After meeting with Mozilla’s gay and lesbian staff and getting to know their families, I’ve come to recognize that they deserve all the rights and dignity traditionally afforded to opposite-sex couples, and I now voice my support same-sex marriage. This could happen.
We don’t change the CEO’s mind. We still win. We’re helped by any public conversation that focuses on gay people as actual human beings and undercuts the terrible stereotypes we’re subjected to. And in this scenario, the conversation would be about us and our families instead of what’s happening to Eich. There would be little question among the general public — and especially the undecided middle — about which side is the champion of freedom and dignity.
Many of you, obviously, will disagree with me. And as I said, this debate isn’t going away. But we can make much better progress if we remember that it’s not a debate between apologists of anti-gay bigotry and tyrannical haters of liberty, but between two noble, often complementary sets of values that occasionally collide.