The project of persuasion on LGBT issues is so fraught with difficulty that it’s no wonder so many people abandon it.
Even engaging in the process can seem like a weakness, since we need allies and the objects of our persuasive attempts may not need us at all. It can be one-sided, since they may feel they gain nothing–or perhaps lose something–from seeing our point of view.
Every step seems distorted by longstanding prejudices, social pressures, and willfully misleading rhetoric from the well-organized, well-funded master orators who oppose our equality. Those distortions are so well-woven into our environment that they’re hard to see, even when you’re willing to see them.
It’s like leading a friend through a funhouse–a funhouse LGBT people know all too well, having wandered there for years, perhaps, on our own slow, perilous journeys toward self-acceptance. We know the way through, but our friend does not. We’d like to get through it quickly, preferring not to linger overlong, but our friend may not want to get through it at all, preferring to stand enthralled by a particular illusion.
Even if the friend wants to follow, he has his own eyes, and not much in his life has prepared him to believe that this current point of view is based on distortions.
Such is the case, it seems, with Washington Post opinion columnist Dana Milbank, and a with few of the respondents to my weekly blog. Milbank’s Sunday piece illustrated many of the distortions, forced perspectives, and “up is down” illusions that make discussing these things so difficult, and a few of the responses to my blog posts share his mistakes.
So let’s walk through the funhouse of his argument, point out the illusions, Penn and Teller style, and show how they apply to some of the responses we’ve all heard when discussing these issues.
Hours after police took lone shooter Floyd Lee Corkins II into custody for injuring a security guard at the Family Research Council headquarters in Washington, D.C., leading Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) advocacy groups issued a joint statement underscoring their longstanding opposition to violence.
By contrast, the Family Research Council (FRC)–whose spokesmen have called for “criminal sanctions on homosexual behavior” in this country and supported the death penalty for gays in Unganda–chose not to stand in solidarity with LGBT groups against violence. Instead, they issued a statement pressuring the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to end its practice of designating the FRC as a “hate group.”
Milbank agreed that the FRC’s hate group designation should be removed, since “we all should be careful about hurling accusations that can stir up the crazies.”
Milbank went on to remind us that “persuasion and example” have accomplished a great deal for the LGBT movement, while “sticking inflammatory labels on…opponents” gains us nothing.
In his column, Milbank uses one older, rather innocuous FRC statement as an example of the evidence SPLC used to justify the “hate group” designation. He then declares that he finds no reason for the SPLC to put the Family Research Council into the “same category” as the military-funeral-picketing Westboro Baptist Church of “God Hates Fags” fame.
And that was his first fallacy: the dismissive double-standard.
The FRC, though 29 years of media and Congressional appearances, has made its slanderous views on LGBT people a matter of public record. A quick search of the SPLC website reveals many outrageous FRC quotes, like:
“One of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age of consent laws and to eventually recognize pedophiles as the ‘prophets’ of a new sexual order.”
Additionally, FRC has issued multiple statements using junk science to associate gay men with pedophilia and sexual abuse, despite the American Psychological Association’s conclusion that “homosexual men are no more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.”
If FRC’s slanders sound too dispassionate to be hate speech, imagine a steady drip of such falsely clinical comments, week after week, for decades–comments like:
“…relative to the size of their population, homosexual men are more likely to engage in child sexual abuse than are [other] men.”
Still not convinced? Then replace the word “homosexual” with the word “white.” If FRC’s lies were about white men—or any ethnic group—would the hate group designation even be a matter of debate?
Of course not.
And there’s your double-standard. Offense to groups with which Milbank identifies is simply weighted more heavily than offense to groups with which he doesn’t.
That habit of thought is reflected in this rather pithier statement from one of the commenters on my blog:
“Everyone wants to be a victim. Why don’t you grow a pair and stop complaining?” – Name Withheld
I’ll ignore the question of exactly what it is that I’m supposed to grow a pair of. My first thought was “testicles,” but a person so concerned with my victimhood can’t possibly mean those most easily victimized organs in the human body. He must mean something else; perhaps a pair of nunchuks.
You know, actually, everyone is a victim sometimes, to a certain extent. But that doesn’t make everyone’s victimization equal, everyone’s claim to victimization fair, or anyone who’s been victimized justified in victimizing others. Pointing out the exact means by which you’ve been victimized doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a whiner, or that you think of yourself as a perpetual sufferer.
This dismissive tossing of everyone who complains into the same bin of “pair lackers” is the result of a failure of empathy. It’s the same lack of ability to identify with the victimized party that Milbank seems to have.
Maybe it only feels like hate when it hits a little closer to home, but it’s like my Cajun brother-in-law says: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck–make a roux.
And perhaps this general lack of empathy that leads to Milbank’s second fallacy: false equivalency.
Not content to be merely blind to the double-standard funhouse mirror that makes ducks into chickens, Milbank goes on to suggest that the “hate group” designation was, in itself, just as potentially dangerous as such FRC classics as: “[Homosexuality]…embodies a deep-seated hatred against true religion.”
Calling a hate group a hate group is not at all equivalent to decades of ongoing, systematic slander of gays as sex-crazed rapists, child molesters, and security risks.
Milbank’s rhetorical framework, where he deems the act of calling out hate speech just as bad as the hate speech itself, is a further slight we who are victimized by FRC’s decades-long slander campaign.
Calling a hate group a hate group is not at all equivalent to decades of systematic slander of LGBT people as sex-crazed rapists, child molesters, and security risks.
Through national media appearances and grassroots level “outreach,” FRC has been “stirring up the crazies” for years, contributing to a culture of fear and loathing of LGBT parents, soldiers, teachers, and everyday people like me, and it’s necessary that we be able to call a duck a duck or there can be no real debate.
This sort of false equivalency is common in the responses I see. For example, I got a lot of this in response to my Aesop sequel post:
“Aren’t YOU being a supremacist for thinking your way of thinking is better than theirs?” – Name Withheld
Well, no. What I’m talking about is inherent value. Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) is a better marathoner than me. He is right to think so. That doesn’t make his existence, his soul, if you will, any more valuable than mine. Calling out someone’s supremacist habit of mind is simply pointing out a problem, not a judgment about that person’s inherent worth. Trying to make it into one is simply a flippant way of trying to silence criticism. But you know that, don’t you?
False equivalency is a mechanism for shutting people up.
Milbank’s “I don’t care who started it” neutrality punishes bully and tattler alike. That isn’t a formula for a peaceful playground; it’s a formula for a peaceful Teacher’s Lounge. It’s a means of procuring not peace but silence, and we already know from our own hard histories that silence persuades no one.
Finally, Mr. Milbank casuistically generalizes unlike things together. He confuses both Christianity and Conservatism with anti-equality positions. He says that the Hate Group designation should not apply to opponents of LGBT equality because many are “driven by deeply held religious beliefs,” and that the AFA supports “a full range of conservative Christian positions.”
Leaving aside the fact that the Westboro Baptist Church, whose designation as a Hate Group Milbank apparently favors, is also “driven by deeply held religious beliefs,” let’s remember that there is nothing in the Christian faith requiring anyone to support the FRC.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I get lots of email quoting scripture at me, but a handful of Bible verses doesn’t make a moral argument any more than a handful of flour makes a cookie.
To the authors of these emails, it seems a given that the Christian position must be an anti-equality position. No care is given to crafting a real argument, since it is assumed to be self-evident.
But it is far from self-evident. To believe that the Christian position must be anti-equality, you must believe each of the following things:
- That the Bible is incontrovertably anti-gay.
- That these incontrovertable teachings should be applied to secular law, so that the government applies its protections based in part on what we do in the bedroom.
- That many other other Biblical teachings should not be applied (unless you want to abolish shellfish, banking, haircuts for women, etc), so that LGBT people are singled out for specific legal sanction.
None of these three things are necessarily so, even for a Christian, or even for a conservative. Taken together, they are far from Christian or conservative, in any but the most distorted understanding of the two. They come not from Christian ideals or Conservative ideals, but from other, harder-to-understand places.
But that’s a discussion for another time.
For now, it’s enough to say that neither Christianity nor conservatism requires the complete buy-in that the FRC demands to anti-LGBT positions or ideas. The FRC’s conservatism on other issues does not excuse its ongoing slander of LGBT people. Likewise, conservative Christianity has no earthly leader, not even Tony Perkins, and it is by no means a given that conservative Christians must uniformly oppose LGBT adoption, LGBT military service, or even same-sex marriage. To suggest that the FRC and conservative Christianity are identical is an offense not only to many LGBT Christians, but also to conservative Christians who repudiate the FRC’s graceless bigotry.
Mr. Milbank, I want to address you directly because I think there’s a chance (slim as it may be) that you may read this piece. If so, I hope you get this far. You said that “persuasion and example” are what work for LGBT people and that may be. But the problem with your statement is that it would force us to be far calmer, more rational, and better behaved than our political foes, lest you withdraw from us your support or respect.
This is another problem with leading you through the funhouse. You can hold your approval hostage, placing the burden of proof on the victimized party. We cannot be too frank or too arrogant. We can’t condescend. We can’t use descriptors that may be offensive. At any moment, you may pull away and go back the way you came.
I agree with you that persuasion and example are our finest tools, but a persuasive writer of your stature should know that persuasion requires not just common ground, but level ground.
Despite the apparent progress we’ve made, or perhaps because of it, violence against us is an epidemic. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, last year’s rate of hate crimes against LGBT people was the highest on record. LGBT groups have continually denounced violence and will continue to do so, but if the task of persuasion requires that we only use words prescribed to us as acceptably gentle, then how do we find the words to describe a reality that is all-too-harsh?
Your column is a well-intentioned attempt to return civility to a contentious debate, and I understand the desire for cooler heads to prevail in a summer that has been as heated as a fast-food chicken fryer.
But if we allow you to remain unaware of the funhouse you’re in, if we hew to unexamined double standards, withhold truth for the sake of politeness, or let you make broad assumptions about who is informed by “religious beliefs” and who isn’t, then it isn’t persuasion we’re engaging in, but delusion.
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Cartoon by Ben Moss.
Wayne Self is a playwright and composer whose current project is a musical tribute to the 32 LGBT and allied victims of the 1973 arson fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, LA. Considered by many to be the largest hate crime against LGBT people in U.S. history, the fire is sometimes seen as a lesson in the perils of silence. ”Upstairs” will give voice to the victims of the fire–many of whom self-identified as Christian–and is scheduled to premier next year, in time for the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. For more information about the Upstairs fire, please visit http://tinyurl.com/8g6lr8j. For booking or production information, contact ewayneself via email at owldolatrous.com.