Thursday, June 20, 2013

Shield of the Meek and Lowly

I was walking home from lunch yesterday, thinking about Tuesday's post.  I've sometimes wondered if trying to engage and address what other people say might be the wrong approach to handling disagreements, especially in contexts where paternalistic helping professionals are concerned with "protecting" the vulnerable from bad thoughts. Maybe I should adopt the same tactic? So I assumed a trembling voice and began with: "It really hurts me when you say these things.  I'm a survivor of gay-bashing and cultural homophobia, people have often tried to silence me when I tried to express my opinions.  I shouldn't have to deal with your hatred.  Your lack of concern for my feelings is really oppressive.  Your ignorance is killing me!"

I realized I could easily go on in that mode indefinitely, though some of the cliches took a bit of thought and I had to pause now and then to come up with them, but on the whole I was on automatic pilot.  A piece of cake.  My voice not only trembled, it summoned up a wounded soul on the verge of tears at the hurtful, hateful criticisms I've faced.  I craved healing.

I don't mean to imply that I doubt the sincerity of people who talk like this.  I'm sure they mean every word, even though they've been trained, either directly by professionals or indirectly by exposure to the culture-of-therapy mindset in affirmational memes, videos, and literature.  People internalize training, so what they're taught soon becomes authentically Them.  But honestly, I wasn't being entirely insincere either.  I was gay-bashed a couple of times, and though my injuries weren't life-threatening, the experience was scary and made me nervous for some time after the cuts and bruises healed.  I did grow up in a much more casually homophobic time, when there were almost no countervailing voices -- and none in the mainstream media -- to let me know I could see myself as other than a sick, solitary pervert with no future.  I have encountered bigotry outside the gay community as well as inside it, and some people in the community have tried to silence me in various ways.  Why shouldn't I drop one wing and run in circles when people disagree with me?  I've been wounded too.  (Hear that tearful tremor in my voice?  Does it come through the Intertoobz?)  I only mean to imply that sincerity isn't everything.

As the culture of therapy has spread into conservative Christian circles, some bigots have begun using its tactics and language to defend themselves, claiming but that they are victims of intolerance and persecution, but that they are wounded souls.  But the notion that some things should not be said where vulnerable people might hear it and be wounded by it is much older.  It's a traditional part of the culture of bigotry: innocents must be shielded from harmful ideas and people, such things aren't fit to be mentioned or discussed among Christians.  Often those who must be shielded are women and children, but if you listen for a while you'll probably notice that the straight men who are trying to silence discussion are themselves repulsed by sodomy, nudity, pornography, rape, copulation, lady parts.  You might suspect, as I do, that while they also want to keep women and children from hearing about such things, they're using them as a front: first and foremost, they want not to hear about these things themselves.  (A few years ago I read a book about the rise of gay Christianity in the British Isles. The author kept referring to those who tried to suppress discussion of homosexuality in the Church as "old ladies," "maiden aunts," and the like.  But I noticed that the people who were most vehemently repulsed by open discussion were usually middle-aged and elderly men.  That's not surprising when you consider who populates the upper levels of the church hierarchy, but it was interesting that a gay Christian author would casually use such misogynist rhetoric.)

As occupational barriers have come down, however, more and more women have come to occupy prominent places in the culture of therapy, so there are plenty of females (like my friend A, the library worker) who have taken on the burden of shielding the weak and lowly from exposure to any words or ideas that might upset them.  If you challenge their authority to do so, they will accuse you of approving of abuse, delighting in the suffering of children and weak women, even of being an abuser yourself.  (There was a lot of this during the Satanic-abuse witch hunt of the 1980s and 1990s: critics of the juggernaut were accused of being in league with the dark conspiracy of abusers, of approving of the destruction of innocence. and so on.  Critical reason was a tool of the abusers, as were Constitutional legal protections.  The panic has subsided, and few of its proponents want to be reminded of their roles in it, but its methods are still kept at hand until they're needed again.)

I still fantasize idly about turning these tactics around on people who use them, but I know it wouldn't work.  I've mentioned before the time I was on a gay panel speaking to a college class: one students asked whether it wasn't fair to take the children of gay parents away from them, if the community decided that they'd be better off with heterosexual parents.  When I asked her what she'd think if a community decided that fundamentalist Christian parents, or Roman Catholic parents were unfit, and took away their children, she became upset and accused me of religious intolerance.  The scary part was less her reaction, or the reaction of the other students who sided with her (not all did), but the instructor, who complained that I was being "combative."  I still wish I'd tried whining about their intolerance, how they were oppressing me, maybe shed a tear or two.  It would have been fun.  But would anyone have learned anything if I'd done so?  I don't think so.

It isn't easy to listen carefully to those who disagree with you.  It's unpleasant when they're particularly nasty in their rhetoric, though for me that's the least of my worries, especially when I can answer them to their faces.  It's scary to listen to their views for very long -- what if you're seduced into their world of error?  (I admit I felt some fear when I began studying Christian apologetics in the 1980s.  What if I realized they were right and I was wrong?  But I continued anyway.)  It gets easier, though, as you do more of it.  What concerns me is that trying to teach people to do it is so unpopular, and overwrought histrionics are considered more reasonable.  There's a lot of hostility, both inside the culture of therapy and outside it, to "victims."  But the trouble isn't victims, it's those who pretend to be victims in order to stifle disagreement and discussion: whatever may have been done to them in the past, such people want power over others, and too often they are getting it.