Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Speaking Without a Forked Tongue

Eric makes an extremely important point in his comment to my Huckabee post. Sometimes a label like bigoted is unnecessary. He recalls a conversation:

Had I described this family member's views as bigoted that would have forever ended the conversation.

And we're hoping for the opposite of course. To extend the conversation and find more understanding. Of course I would feel morally discredited by the suggestion that I might come to agree with someone who believes homosexuality is a sin and G-d condemns it and all its practitioners. There is no way that I'm going to move in that direction. None. I'll tell you that right now.

And yet I'm expecting to tell someone that what they hold sacred, what they believe to be piety, is an outrageously backwards belief. That it's contrary to my view of morality. As softly as I state it the conversation is founded on each of us saying this to the other.

Part of Thanksgiving day was ruined for my wife after a phone conversation with her father. It was their first conversation after the election so instead of arguing about candidates they got to talking about issues. He's conservative. Extremely. And when it came to a discussion about Proposition 8 she told him that she would have voted against.

His sermon began with an explanation of the Levitical law and a summary of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. He explained that many homosexuals are sexual deviants in every way. They want kids just so they can recruit them. She told him of friends whose rights she respected and who were good moral kind loving people who could be trusted with kids. He told her she would not see them in Heaven. He told her that she was moving away from the values that he and her mother had tried to instill in her.

She had no time to adjust to this. All she could say was that she disagreed with him. A great response would have been to investigate those values. To plumb the foundation of love and to ask what the point of respect is. To show him that it's because of her mother's values that she respects and loves and trusts her friends. And that it's because her mother was such a generous and protective and supportive and dedicated wife and devoted parent that she now recognizes love so easily. And she sees that any person who loves that way loves correctly. Your goodness is in how you love, not who you love.

What words she tried to get in, her father cut off. No matter what she said, he would have heard nothing. Trying to convince him to step down from his principles was doing exactly what calling him a bigot would have done.

This is why such words, which I don't disavow, end the conversation. Because the conversation is headed to either of two conclusions that will not be shared.

Their conversation ended badly. With no resolution and no reconnection. The next conversation they had was civil. It was about the new cat. And home repairs. Something about the central heating…

Should they not have had the prior discussion? Was there nothing to share there? Of course their was. But on that issue, if I had been a place to offer any response to his accusations it would have been this: that the world is changing. And I like where it's going. And I'm trying to be a part of it getting there sooner.

Regarding the point about words like f-g and n----r I've been a part of many subcultures in which the taboos actually are almost identical. In many conversations I've had, 'The F-word' doesn't refer to fuck. From this experience I feel that bigotry is appropriate because it is just as strong as warranted by a growing sensibility.

I've been told that I come across as arrogant. But that's fine. When I'm loving my values I hold them out proudly. So it was on Thanksgiving evening that I put the new subhead on this blog: Let them be the angry ones

Because that's what I believe has to happen. Until I know someone well enough to know that nothing can stop the conversation, I'm not going to share my judgment of their views unless I'm perfectly happy to see that conversation stop. And sometimes I'm OK with that. In an online community. On the street. In an organized debate. These are conversations I have all the time that I know will end. That the mere acquaintance will end and often be forgotten. (Tho I can't remember my last organized debate on the topic.)

And in those conversations I'm comfortable putting a claim in front of the other voice challenging them to represent their views as something other than my characterization. Because there are some who have not made up their minds and who are still working on their own view of the issue. And I believe that for the sake of those who listen and for the sake of my argument, the ugliest labels belong on the ugliest beliefs. If they see that they cannot shake those labels off, they are more ready to pull for the change I'm hoping to see.

But in those conversations that might die, but that I hope don't end about marriage rights, the connection has to be a desire to understand the facts being used to inform values. I know a lot of them of course. I grew up hearing them and I was taught to use them in the same way we see them used still. But I don't know or understand anyone as well as I can. And that's why the conversations are still worth having. Because with growing trust even the facts can be disputed. And the point can be to understand how values still survive.

I guess my response, Eric, is that I don't have the policy conversation unless I'm comfortable saying to that person you're a bigot. And I've had those conversations. They've been good conversations. And not because my friend thought I was kidding. Because I wasn't. This was the same friend who said to me that G-d gave me a good mind and Satan had taken advantage of it through pagan literature and worldly knowledge. I rolled my eyes and we continued on some other point about the historical accuracy of the Hebrew canon.

I'll share some of those conversations in another post.


Casey said...

Great post.

I wonder if you would have felt this way on the specific issue of Proposition 8 when you were about ten-years old? Fifteen? Twenty?

See it's very easy to say, "Well I've been for justice ever since I was born, and have never erred in my judgment--," and I think a disappointing number of people tend to present themselves that way.

For example, I think I grew up in a racially charged society without really knowing it... I had friends who occasionally muttered the N-word in private conversations; and although I don't recall reciprocating, I don't recall conscientiously objecting either. My parents grew up in an extremely white neighborhood on a golf course, and my hometown is as racially divided as contemporary cities in America get... when I asked my mom at age 9 "Why are all of the people on the East side black?," she garbled out that they liked to live with each other. Yikes.

In other words, I wasn't born holy. My conversion came through a process of critical self-reflection and the slow process of education.

If you do want to get beyond preaching to the choir, I find it very appealing to include an admission that you weren't always on the right side -- if you're seeking converts, present yourself as one. I think the accusation of arrogance is a low-brow critique of "ethos."

Unless you're not one, of course. But if you have converted (or if your wife has) you should be able to explain how you had originally constructed your false undertanding of things and how you reasoned (or "felt") your way to a new, more enlightened, understanding.

Notice that your wife has friends who are gay. I think it's impossible to overstate how important personal relationships are in this process of conversion that I'm talking about... Your father-in-law probably doesn't have the opportunity to know the diverse kinds of people that your wife has had, and the result is that his love is only as big as his social circle.

But isn't that more-or-less true of all of us?

fenhopper said...

very good points.

10 years ago i was where i am. but remember that i'm old and 10 years ago i was in my mid twenties, arguing in private that my employer -- a parochial boarding school -- was a hypocritical institution run by and accountable to xenophobes.

but how do i know i won't change? did i know that ever?

i remember you talking about baseball and religion as what used to be constants in your life. now there are less so, right?

i have some of those. being republican for instance.

(n.b. that even as an undergrad republican i supported roe-v-wade and legalization of pot and gun control and ... well i just wanted lower taxes is all. i also didn't support many forms of affirmative action. even tho i benefited from most of them. i've changed my mind on that last one. boy gotta eat)

but yeah. i've changed and i will change. and i don't know how really.

yes. i've always been pro-justice so it's not that i'm for justice now or even that i'm more for it. nor does my father in law hold his views because he's against justice. he too is for justice and fairness. and for love. and for kindness. and from his perspective he really is arguing for those things. he really is trying to protect them.

this gets back to what i said in the previous post about fear and sentinels. he fears what i don't. and the best way to get rid of those fears is to not attack him for them. not to tell him that his fears are foolish but to show him that there really is nothing there.

so your point about personal experience is key. and i can't argue anyone into an experience. maybe they can come to believe that the comfort in my experience is not foolish. but yes. they need their own place in an experience like that.