Monday, August 27, 2012

A Ramble List: the Dinner Table Debate, Religion, Bigotry, and Monkey Brains

As they agreed last spring, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage and Dan Savage of the Savage Love column et al. met recently at Mr. Savage's home to debate same-sex marriage. I was fascinated by their conversation, learned some stuff, and think it's worth watching through at least the two opening statements (which would take about twenty minutes). Some observations on this dialogue:

1. They are working from fundamentally different and incompatible definitions of the word "marriage" here. Paraphrasing, Mr. Brown says "Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman"; Mr. Savage says "Marriage is a gender-neutral package of civil rights and privileges." Mr. Brown does not acknowledge that his covenant includes that civil package -- rights that all same-sex couples are being denied -- while Mr. Savage obviously does not agree that marriage is dependent on differing genders.

2. They're also working from fundamentally different ideas of the purpose of marriage -- though here I suspect Mr. Brown of double-dealing, or maybe just being a bad debater. He says repeatedly that marriage is for procreation, thus subscribing to the only point of marriage that truly excludes gay people . . . but then he also repeatedly fails to address the issue of why heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to have children should then be allowed to marry, or whether their marriages are any less valid than those of couples with children. Mr. Savage, for his part, asserts that marriage is for the pleasure, companionship, and support of the two adults involved. I wager Mr. Brown would have agreed with him on this (as at least one aspect of marriage, anyway) up until gay marriage became a major issue in the United States, when he had to retreat to procreation to keep his position at least somewhat intellectually coherent.

3. And in general with language, truth, Scripture, legal and romantic relationships, academic studies, love:  There are so many sides to each jewel, and each debater turns the stone in a different direction. Whenever the Regnerus study comes up, Mr. Savage asserts its methodology was flawed; Mr. Brown asserts the methodology was fine, and the only reason it hasn't been repeated was because Mr. Regnerus was so brutally attacked for his study's conclusions. It seems as if there ought to be a scientifically sound way to determine whether the methodology was flawed, but according to the Times article in the link, there are only more things to weigh:  whether the child lived with the parents, whether the parents truly lived as gays or lesbians or only had had a same-sex relationship at some point in their lives, the economic status of all involved, the funding of the study — all of which nuances both Mr. Savage and Mr. Brown bring up as evidence for their respective sides. So many facets to every human story.

4. The most irritating thing about this debate for me: In almost every statement Mr. Brown makes, especially his opening one, he comes back to how he and other Christianists* have been called bigots and how much this upsets him -- making this endlessly about himself and his pain. It was the same dynamic that played out in the Chik-Fil-A controversy a few weeks ago, where Christianists bought chicken sandwiches in order to practice their rights to free speech, which were supposedly under threat. While the Boston and Chicago mayors’ claims that they’d ban the chain were definitely stupid, in both cases, the claim to injury was truly an attempt to level the emotional playing field, both at this dinner table and in the media: Our enemies are in pain (here because of the denial of marriage rights); pain creates sympathy for them—pain sells; we need some pain of our own; let us blow up an insult to us to make our pain as great as theirs. Mediawise, I'd agree, the Christianists don't come off well, because it's hard for the media to portray their position without saying "They think God hates gays." But at the end of the day, the vast majority of marriage laws in this country (and all of them at the federal level) still favor the Christianists, so Christianists pretending that the two pains are equal is rather ridiculous.

* As defined by Andrew Sullivan, “Christianists” are "those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression."

5. Which is not to say that Christianists are the only one who practice this dynamic; Jews and Islamists the world over do it; atheists do it; God knows the Republicans and Democrats do it; Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do it; MSNBC and Fox News; Todd Akin has certainly done it in the last few weeks. And all of them (all of us) get rewarded for it with money, media attention, more support from their side. . . . The “fight” instincts in all our little monkey brains light up at being attacked, and into the arena we go.

6. But as a practicing Methodist, I find this particularly troublesome when Christianists do it—when we jump to be offended at the first opportunity. Because if Christianity is about anything at all in practice here on this earth, it is about imaginative empathy with others, about sacrificing one's own ego to share others' pain and take on their burdens. "Love your neighbor as yourself," repeatedly named as the greatest commandment, means that we must imagine ourselves in our neighbors' positions and treat them as we would treat ourselves. Christ's death on the cross was an act of imaginative empathy:  It was taking on the sins of the world in order to spare humanity the endless suffering from those sins. Turning the other cheek and offering our cloaks also demands that the other person receive all we have. The New Testament calls us to make this our first priority:  to listen, to empathize, to give, to love.

7. This is not to say that there are no limits on this giving, nor that the law does not exist or is nullified; a literal reading of the scripture would certainly make same-sex sex an abomination. But many Christianists seem to see only the law, not the humans behind it, so they don't extend empathy to the genuine pain of a young man who believes passionately in Christ and also falls passionately in love with his male best friend; or to an elderly long-term lesbian couple who cannot be together when one partner goes into the hospital. . . . What to do with empathy when it conflicts with the law is a vexing and vexed question. But in cases like this, where no harm to others has been committed, I believe a Christian's first responsibilities are always to empathy and humility, never to self-satisfaction and simplistic judgment. If we practice these latter things instead, we deny the humble, generous, radically honest and complicated God-in-man we claim to serve.

8. This might sound juvenile, but I keep coming back to this word as the one that best expresses the principle:  Above all, Christians should not be mean. People who have power and use it for their own pleasure in causing pain are mean. People who have power and ostentatiously wave it in the face of those who don’t are mean. On the day of the eat-in at Chik-Fil-A, the Christianists who lined up to buy chicken sandwiches were actively demonstrating their distaste for people who have often already suffered and continue to suffer for being the people God made them to be; and that felt to me like a profoundly mean and un-Christian thing to do.

9. I admit I did not behave well during the Chik-Fil-A contretemps myself. A high school classmate made a remark on Facebook that somehow linked the issue to the Muslim community center near Ground Zero. Non-New Yorkers being self-righteous about Ground Zero is one of the things that stirs up MY monkey brain, and the remark was so completely counterfactual (Mayor Bloomberg did not threaten to ban Chik-Fil-A), and the comments supporting it so obviously equally ill-informed and self-satisfied, that I gave into my worse instincts and wrote a dissenting comment. I then tried to be as matter-of-fact as I could in the comments “discussion” that followed, not to submit further to that monkey brain, but I did not succeed fully, and I regret that.

10. Coming back to the debate:  I eventually got depressed by the conversation, because nobody’s mind is changed and there is nothing, nothing, these men can agree on. (Peter Sagal pretty much nails the reasons why.) So it simply becomes two angry men who feel aggrieved, speaking forcefully past each other in the same room. And the same thing happened for me on Facebook:  I came away from the Chik-Fil-A argument more saddened than anything. In both cases, there was an opportunity for people to meet and talk as generous human beings — over a dinner table, as Facebook “friends” — about differing interpretations of a contentious and deep issue, and that respect, humility, and true conversation did not happen.

11. Perhaps it was overly optimistic even to hope for that sincere conversation on both sides:  As Mr. Sagal notes, the identity issues and principles involved are grounded too deeply within Messrs. Savage and Brown for them to be able to detach from them, even if they were genuinely open to doing so. Merriam-Webster’s defines a bigot as "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices”; and as nobody’s feelings and beliefs are ever entirely rational and proportionate, I imagine there are very few people in the world who are not bigots for something or other. (Or as they sing in Avenue Q, "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist." And yes, readers:  I just called every one of you bigots! Ha!) Mr. Brown is a bigot for fundamentalist Christianity and the Christianist doctrines that he sees as following from that; Mr. Savage is a bigot for the freedom to love and marry who he likes. I will happily proclaim I am a bigot in the obstinacy sense for the novels of Jane Austen, gender equality (often known as feminism), and civil same-sex marriage. Perhaps the best we can all do is to recognize our opinions as opinions, try to keep them anchored in objective reality. and then prevent that obstinate bigotry from extending into intolerance, by treating others with respect and kindness even when we disagree.

12. (I disagree with Peter Sagal on one thing:  I don't want my Facebook friends punished for disagreeing with me or for eating at Chik-Fil-A. I want them to recognize the humanity of gay people and the validity of their romantic relationships and to change their minds about civil marriage. They can keep objecting to it religiously and eating chicken sandwiches for all I care--they just have to accept that their interpretation of religious truth does not govern Mr. Savage's and my civil lives.)

13. But this can be so hard when the other side of whatever argument has fewer scruples and doesn't behave well as we do, and/or when the feelings run so deep. . . . The biggest argument against religion from my point of view (and really the only argument against it I'd make myself) is that it encourages its practitioners to think they know immutable and eternal truth -- to the extent that I'd wager at least one person who just read that sentence is now offended because, as a practitioner of the _________ faith, they DO know immutable and eternal truth, and I have just implied the matter is a little more fungible. And it is near impossible to see outside that particular kind of immutable and eternal truth, to remember that others might have their own immutable and eternal truths that are just as real to them as ours are to us, and just as valid when weighed against objective reality, if we can even determine such a thing.

14. I'm guilty of this too:  Last year, a lovely author and I disagreed profoundly on a manuscript, where I saw it as an X type of book and she saw it as a Z type of book. She did not want to change it in the least toward an X, and I could not make it cohere in my head as a Z. . . . The X type felt immutably right to me, just because of my own experiences as a reader and editor and my bigotry (I'll own it) toward X type of plots. But she was the author; she knew what she wanted to do with her book best; she may well have been right about the whole thing, or as right as one can declare anything when all reading is subjective; and I admired her devotion to her vision, even if I was unable to share it. We ended up mutually agreeing to part ways, with the sincerest good wishes on each side -- which nonetheless left me sad and confused about my inability to help her get where she wanted to go, even as I was relieved and glad that she could now find someone else to do that as I could not. Sometimes we just have to accept that the obstinate, not entirely reasonable opinions are what make us who we are, and live with that, with the gains and losses that follow. And then again remember the "opinions are opinions" thing.

15. I don't know if this kind of separation will work in the same-sex marriage debate, or any of the other religiously based conflicts that roil America, except that I feel sure Brian Brown will never go to Dan Savage's place ever again.

16. And sometimes the monkey brain is necessary and can be used for good. Rep. Todd Akin was simply flat-out wrong about his medical facts, and oh my goodness did he need to be called on them (and now voted out so he can't implement the thinking behind them). When we encounter something that activates the monkey brain, we need to feel and conserve the energy from that; take a deep breath; remember we are never, ever in possession of perfect knowledge or righteousness; weigh the supposed offense against our truths and our principles and our long-term ends (time spent objecting to a blog post can be better spent on supporting an election); and then fight as hard and reasonably and honorably and passionately as we can.

17. I need a conclusion here, because otherwise I can ramble all night and continue to contradict myself into oblivion. Oh, here's one:  conclusion.


  1. Even the dress and body language is interesting to observe, without the sound on.

  2. I wish you wouldn't call us names. We are Christians. Would you call Muslims names, or Jews?

  3. Thank you, Ms. Klein. You said it sooo right! As a Christian I try to practice empathy, not condemnation. Many Christians are Christian-ists, but some of us simply follow Christ and try to live and love as He does.

  4. Hmm, I don't think of the "ist" marker as a name, Anonymous -- I think it draws a useful distinction between people who have a certain kind of religious faith and people who try to impose the beliefs of that religion upon others. And I would gladly use "Islamist" if I had occasion to write about fundamentalist Muslims, though "Jewist" or "Hebrewist" sounds a bit bizarre -- "fundamentalist Jews" might have to do.

  5. Interesting. My thoughts have followed similar lines. My childhood church emphasized focusing on oneself: one's personal behavior, soul, and relationship to the spirit. I have seen a huge shift to watching and controlling others or the "culture" at large, and is one of the reasons I no longer feel comfortable in church. Religion and spiritual study, for me, is profoundly useful when directed inwardly, then out into the world. I continue such study on my own. Every society needs rules, yes, but legislating every aspect of personal morality negates free will and the discipline of applying one's own morality to one's life, that cherished discovery of who I am and what works for me (which may not be what works for others). I hope I am accepting and tolerant of other people's needs and beliefs. I would like such acceptance and tolerance reciprocated.

  6. Huzzah, huzzah!!!!!!!!!! What you said. I've said similar things myself before. Why is it so hard for people to really listen to each other and find some common ground?

    And I appreciate the term "Christianists." I'm another Christian who just feels so completely FRUSTRATED by some of the stuff said and done by people claiming to do it as Christians, and am so sad that so many non-Christians now think the philosophies and actions of the Christianists ARE what Christianity is all about. I try to speak up, but it feels like nobody WANTS to listen.

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  8. While I find at the very least, Dan Savage mildly entertaining, the sad fact is that most people probably won't consider the opposing sides of the gay marriage issue if they are left with two hardline viewpoints to choose from.

    I've found over the years that my position had evolved when I was talking to a supporter who was respectful of my opinion and presented their viewpoints in a civil manner, and at times hardened when someone of the calibar of Dan Savage and his latent myopia of any reasonable opposing viewpoint attempted to harass and bully not only me but others as well.

    No matter what side of the issue you happen to fall on, your viewpoint will never be considered so long as you treat the oppositon with utter contempt and hostility.

  9. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and the description of the fighting monkey brain explains something I've been struggling with for a while. It's incredibly easy to get caught up in arguing in the name of tolerance, which I know isn't very tolerant at all... and is something I've caught myself doing a little more often than I would like to. I come from a fairly liberal town, and have just returned to college, and I've had to remind myself that not everybody thinks the same way I do on the topic of gay marriage.

    It's tough because I always want so badly to convince people that everyone deserves rights and so on, but there's also tolerance and not letting my monkey brain screech out of control... I think everything you've said here is right. (And maybe the best way for people to see the "human" side of things is to give them compassion and understanding anyway. I've seen this happen with the whole "Dream Act" debate, when people who were against it met an undocumented person it affected.)

    Anyway, thank you for this blog post, because I found it really, really helpful. I've made being more tolerant about tolerance a goal for this year, and I'm going to try hard to fulfill it.

  10. I've been trying to decide whether or not to comment. I hope that I can find points of agreement, while stating the areas where I disagree in such a respectful and dignified way that you don't feel in any way, shape, or form as though you've been flamed.

    I'll start off by saying I'm a Mormon. That fact alone makes me "suspect" to people both from the right and from the left: from the right because I believe in a New Testament but not Credal Christianity; to the left, among other things-- but most relevant to this discussion-- because I do believe in protecting heterosexual marriage by law.

    I believe in modern prophets and apostles. In 1995, Gordon B. Hinkley, the president of my church at that time, presented a document called "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," which sets forth the Church's position quite clearly. I was not the only person who, in 1995, raised my eyebrows that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles felt the need to talk about marriage as being between a man and a woman, as well as the need to promote measures designed to maintain and protect the position of the family thusly defined; but now I see the prophetic vision behind it.

    I definitely agree with that we need to be as kind as possible to everyone, always. But being kind does not mean always saying that everything others do is acceptable, nor does it mean giving them something they want-- even desperately-- if by giving it to them, I feel I will give up something which is vital to my own well-being, or even (in this case) to the well-being of the society in which I have a part.

    I enjoy your blog! And I am optimistic that, though the leaders of the debate may have mislaid their non-monkey brains... somewhere... those of us lower down always have an option to try, and try again, to be kind and respectful and listen-y.

    Thank You!