Were Dan Savage’s Comments Bullying?

05.02.2012, 3:04 AM

Ever read one of those comments and you’re agreeing with it, agreeing with it, and then the writer yanks the rug out from under you?

So I was reading this comment from Jessica, on a NOMblog entry about Dan Savage’s speech that some Christian teenagers walked out of (more on that in a moment). A teacher implied that Savage’s comments were bullying, and Jessica wrote:

Bullying, bullying, bullying,

He bullies she and she bullies he and everyone bullies and get bullied.

Bullying has become politicized. That is, everyone is accusing everyone else of bullying. It is the latest tin word, thoughtlessly shot across to the other side’s ranks.

And I am so in agreement. (Perhaps because I had just read this post, by a Catholic blogger who is furious at Savage for “bullying” but sees no problem with his charming habit of calling gay and lesbian folks “brownshirts.”)

Jessica continues:

Well, I’ll tell you something, I was really bullied, at school, many years ago…

Again, I’m totally with you, Jessica. I lived your pain. I know where you’re coming from.

…and there only way yo cure it is not to have lectures and diversity meetings and talk, the only way to cure bullying is to hang the bullies from lampposts with a sign around their neck, I am a rotten bully and deserve worse.

Any survivor of bullying can tell you this, if you are willing to listen.


Jessica, please get off my side thanks so much.

Anyhow, about that Dan Savage speech. I’d like to post the video here on FSB, but I can’t; however, you can see a video of the relevant portion of Savage’s speech, plus a transcript, over on my blog.


1) Credit to the videographer: That is a gorgeously framed shot.

2) The thing I found most objectionable, on first listen, was Savage’s use of the term “pansy” — an attack Savage has since apologized for, while standing by the rest of his speech (although admitting that his use of the word “*******” may not have been wise).

3) Is there really a case for calling what Savage did “bullying?” I guess it was rude to use the word “*******” — a common swear word used to be “something that is not true” — when referring to someone’s religion. But the actual content of Savage’s statement is an argument. And I have trouble accepting that disagreeing with (some) Christians is tantamount to bullying Christians.

Although there are many Christians with other, sometimes more sophisticated, anti-gay arguments, you don’t have to talk to opponents of lgbt rights much to see that the “I believe it because it’s what’s in the Bible” comes up a lot. It’s legitimate of Savage to respond to that argument.

4) I can see an argument that Savage was wrong — rude, uncivil, and insensitive — to use the word “*******” three times. Savage isn’t an average man on the street; he’s a professional and seasoned speaker, who was invited to speak to an audience of minors. Under those circumstances, it’s reasonable to hold Savage to higher standards than we’d hold folks to in an average political disagreement in a bar.

5) On the other hand, this wasn’t a school assembly with a captive audience. It was a journalism conference that student journalists chose to attend; and as far as I know, all of the students had the option of simply not attending Savage’s speech. That Savage uses swear words while speaking and writing is hardly a surprise to anyone; and future journalists shouldn’t spontaneously blanch and flee because someone uses the word “*******” three times while making an argument they disagree with.

6) I have some doubt that this was a spontaneous walkout; the walkout starts before Savage ever swears, the students in the video are often smirking, and the video is so very nicely framed. If this was, in fact, a planned protest, that wouldn’t delegitimize the protest, so it’s not an important point.

7) When I was a teenager, I swore constantly, except when I was around grownups. Hearing the word “*******” was not a shocker. Are teenagers now different? Are right-wing Christian teenagers different?

8 ) Although I don’t think Savage’s words were bullying, I can see an argument that they were insensitive. The truth is, Christians in the US are used to having their beliefs treated with a great deal of deference and respect; saying that some of the Bible is “*******” probably isn’t the smartest way to get the point across. Savage’s argument — which I think was legitimate — has been lost, because either out of sincerity or out of opportunism, right-wingers are now shocked (or, perhaps, “shocked! shocked!”) that Savage used cuss words while discussing the Bible. Or that he criticized the Bible at all – it’s hard to tell if people are objecting to his tone or to the argument itself.

9) Although I realize the title of this post could be seen as an invitation for a discussion of Dan Savage generally, I’d rather not go there. Let’s restrict discussion to this one particular incident, please.

13 Responses to “Were Dan Savage’s Comments Bullying?”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Rude? Sure. (although I don’t disagree with his assessment of the Bible. The Bible gets morality wrong more often than it gets it right.) Savage was clearly pointing out its use as a talisman to deflect criticism. Invoking the Bible as a response to homosexuality is intended to stop the critical thinking process—and nevermind that as a society we (including Christians) have decided that the Biblical answers to many questions involving human rights are wrong, and indeed immoral (such as Savage’s quotes on the stoning-to-death of nonvirginal daughters).

    So yeah, cursing is rude (though not unexpected from Dan Savage—and I can’t help but wonder how many of those students would have walked out of a Ted Nugent lecture; Ted says a lot more vile things, even those few times when he doesn’t curse, than the term Savage used). But bullying? No. Not even close. Bullying isn’t mere rudeness, but also a power dynamic. Bullying requires a certain amount of power being held over the target, and neither Dan Savage nor anyone else has the power to oppress Christians in the United States. Savage is the one on the short end of the stick here—religious beliefs are federally protected, whereas in most states of the union there are no legal protections for LGBT people; it is perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBT people in employment, housing, healthcare, you name it….in a way that it isn’t for Christians.

    Also: it’s worth noting that evangelical Protestants aren’t the only Christians, although in the media those two things get conflated (or maybe I’m sensitive to it, living in an area where evangelicals consider Catholicism a different religion from “Christianity”). See, I suspect that most of the audience that was cheering in favor of Savage’s comments also identify as Christian—but this incident is phrased as Christian teenagers walked out, not some Christians walked out while others cheered him on. The word “Christian” here is being used to indicate a specific sociopolitical outlook, and not an actual religious identity.

  2. Matt says:


    A couple thoughts.

    1. Firstly, while I don’t think the comments are bullying, they are rude and show a lack of civility on Savage’s part which undermines his broader efforts to end bullying against the gay community. He loses credibility with the people he needs to be reaching out to (Christians), and ultimately does a disservice to the “It Gets Better” brand.

    2. Second – Savage is making an argument here, but it is a highly simplistic and clumsy one. It is easy to bash the Bible because some of its views (on slavery, or stoning of unvirtuous women) are harsh and ghastly. But to do so, one must completely neglect Christian hermeneutics and the traditional understanding of much of the New Testament, which radically alters our view of the law of the Old Testament.

    Savage is an intellegent guy, and he is fully aware that he is setting up a straw man to browbeat his opponents into silence. Who wants to defend their faith after its described as “pro-slavery?”

    The students walking out understand that Savage is not interested in actually engaging them on this issue, that he is rudely and wrongly characterizing their faith, and that he’s set a tone where their views will be rejected, not because the content is truly hateful or ridiculous, but rather because any “Christian” view must be inherently “B*****t.”

    There is an reasonable argument to be made that the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is wrong and that it can be expanded to include loving gay couple. Let’s just be clear, Savage is not making that argument.

  3. There are two fundamental differences between bullying and harassment. One is in the age of the people involved. The second is the legal ramifications of each.

  4. JHW says:

    Matt: Dan Savage didn’t say Christianity was pro-slavery. He said the Bible, interpreted literally, is pro-slavery. That Christianity has evolved to reject the “harsh and ghastly” parts of the Bible he referenced (which, by the way, are not confined to the Old Testament) is precisely his point. His challenge is, if Christians are willing to do this with pro-slavery passages, why can’t they do it for anti-gay passages too? (Some of them, of course, do, which Dan Savage is perfectly willing to acknowledge.)

  5. Matt says:


    1. You are certainly right that there are troubling aspects to all parts of the Bible (Old and New Testament) – I singled out the Old Testament, because much of the Law is radically reinterpreted by Christ in the Gospels. Christian understanding of the Old Testament, even if believed as historically literal, is understood doctrinally in light of the New Testament. Sometimes critics of the Bible fail to note this, and use the Levitical laws to savage modern Christians. This is how I understood Savage’s comments.

    The point I am trying to make is that the modern understanding of the Bible and hard issues like slavery is found in a hermeneutic that comes from the actual Biblical text and a proper understanding of its context. To say that the Christian position on the issue evolved is not entirely accurate – a right understanding of the proper relationships between men, and between man and God is derived from the 1st century texts of the New Testament. In this sense, many Biblical doctrines have been maintained over twenty centuries without substantial reinterpretation. On the issue of slavery, Paul is subtle, but it seems clear from his writings that the Christians ought to treat slaves as brothers in Christ and to treat them with dignity. He does not call for emancipation, but he does create a framework for how Christians ought to view their fellow man which precludes dehumanizing relationships.

    17th-19th century Christians who attempted to justify modern slavery could more accurately be said to have “evolved” their position. They rejected the fundamental dignity of their slaves and treated them wrongly. They were wrong, and abusing the Bible to justify themselves and the evil they perpetuated. This happens often in history, Christians are hypocrites like everyone else, and they often neglect to treat their sacred texts faithfully – with real consequences for themselves and the people they hurt. However continuing a discussion on slavery is getting away from the point of the post above.

    2. What does the Bible have to say about Marriage? And is there room to accomodate Gay Marriage? I think the question we ought to be asking is: What does the bible have to say about the Gay person?

    Christian sexual ethics aside, what does the Bible say about lgbt persons? Very little specifically.

    However, the Bible does speak universally about all men and women. Christians know that all persons are created in the image of God, and have great value. It is from this understanding, that each individual is the image bearer of God, that Christians derive their understanding of human dignity. Christians also know that the plan of salvation is open to all – and that God desires reconciliation with all. Furthermore, believers are called upon to love their neighbors.

    LGBT persons are included in these groups. They have dignity and great value in the sight of God, they are as able as anyone else to recieve Christian salvation and Grace, and they are entitled to be loved as neighbors by every Christian they meet.

    Dan Savage ought to be asking why Christians so often fail in these areas? Christians ought to be asking themselves these questions. It is a scandal that Christian kids are involved in the bullying of gay kids. Christian pastors and parents ought to be teaching their kids to be the voice of love, and courage in the face of such cruelty. The Christian church have failed the gay community. Regardless of the real differences between the two communities – the Christians ought to be seeking reconciliation for their failures to treat gay persons with dignity and love.

    If Christians did a better job of this, then we would be able to have a reasonable discussion about the issues of marriage and Christian sexual ethics (which can be summed up as “only married men and women should be having sex, and only in a way that dignifies their spouse and glorifies God”) and the implications for same-sex attracted individuals without the rancor and rudeness that pervade the discussion today. I think Dan Savage with the “It Gets Better” campaign has created on outlet for this – my worry is he will alienate Christians from participating with his rhetoric.

    Sorry for the longness of this post, the topics are nuanced, and I have tried to treat them as well as this forum allows.

  6. Matt:

    Thanks for posting. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments and your reasonable tone.

    Savage is an intellegent guy, and he is fully aware that he is setting up a straw man to browbeat his opponents into silence. Who wants to defend their faith after its described as “pro-slavery?”

    First of all, JHW is correct — this is a strawman, not an accurate parse of what Savage said. Pointing out that the Bible has pro-slavery passages is not the same as describing Christianity as “pro-slavery”; in fact, Savage’s argument hinges on the fact that current-day Christianity is not pro-slavery. Nor does Savage believe that any “Christian view” is inherently b****** — there are plenty of Christians who are in his camp on the question of LGBT equality, after all, and Savage knows that.

    There are, in fact, many opponents of equality for lgbt people who when you ask them, will say they oppose equality because that’s what the Bible says, as if they flatly obey everything in the Bible. They don’t make the sophisticated distinctions you’re making here; they simply claim that they have no choice but to base their policy preferences on the Bible’s literal statements. Spend any time [talking to ordinary] people about why they oppose same-sex marriage, and you’ll come across that argument again and again.

    Since there are MANY opponents of LGBT equality who make that argument, Savage is not committing the strawman fallacy by responding to that argument, rather than to the alternative formulation you’re putting forward here.

    You could more reasonably criticize Savage for choosing to respond to a weak (but real) argument, rather than seeking out the strongest argument to rebut.

    He does not call for emancipation, but he does create a framework for how Christians ought to view their fellow man which precludes dehumanizing relationships.

    But slavery — even a better slavery than American-style slavery — is inherently dehumanizing to both parties. It’s not possible to treat someone with genuine “dignity,” except on a surface level, while keeping them enslaved. The Bible should have called for universal emancipation, and it’s reasonable to ask why the Bible does not, and how anyone can accept the moral authority of a document that is in favor of slavery.

    Moreover, if we accept the Bible as the word of an a perfectly just, all-knowing God, why be “subtle”? Shouldn’t an all-knowing God have anticipated the 17th and 18th centuries and made His position on the slavery issue clear and overt? (I’m not intending that as a sarcastic question.)

    I appreciate that you’re acknowledging the failure of “the Christian community” to treat lgbt people with respect and compassion. That’s significant. Although I generally agree with that, I also want to acknowledge that there are Churches which treat lgbt people with full dignity and equality.

    I think one question you should ask yourself is if it’s really possible to treat lgbt people with full dignity and maintain that “only married men and women should be having sex.” I think those two views are contrary. Full dignity for LGBT people must include full equality, including moral equality. A view that defines same-sex erotic love as sinful and wrong is a view that would make the overwhelming majority of lesbian and gay people into permanent second-class people. That’s not dignity.

    Another question is, is it fair to base the laws of a country in which not all people share your religious views, on your religion?

    Thanks for your comments, and no worries about the length. :-)

  7. nobody.really says:

    What does the Bible have to say about Marriage?

    “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate [or, let no man put asunder].”

    “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

    Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    When people talk about conforming the law to a Christian view of marriage, I presume they are talking about outlawing divorce except in cases of unfaithfulness – something Christ was quite explicit about. When I find that they’re talking about outlawing same-sex marriage – something Christ never said boo about — I learn something important about whom they worship.

  8. David Blankenhorn says:

    Barry: Nice post. I agree that the word “bullying” has been nearly ruined by politicization and over-use, and I also agree that “bullying” is not really what Savage was doing, or trying to do, in this instance. As someone said in the comments, bullying involves using inequalities of power.

    I think Savage may have simply been trying to attrack attention by shocking these kids and acting like an arrogant jerk; and if so, he certainly seems to have succeeded.

  9. I don’t want to go to far to excuse Savage; in the end, he’s a highly experienced, professional public speaker, and we can reasonably hold him to higher standards than we would an average person, or even Dan Savage if he had been speaking off-the-cuff rather than making a speech.

    There’s no question in my mind that Savage messed up politically, and made himself vulnerable to the sorts of political motivated pearl-clutching response we’ve seen; there’s also no question in my mind that, for the purposes of reaching conservative Christians, Savage struck the wrong tone.

    But I’m not sure he was going for shock. I suspect that for him “b*****” is just typical daily language, just as it is for many ordinary Americans, and the idea that it’s shocking language seems odd. That Savage swears a lot on his podcast and in his column is well-known, and he can reasonably believe that anyone who finds that objectionable won’t invite Savage to be a speaker. To some extent, there may be some actual cultural differences going on here.

  10. Chris Gable says:

    Dan ought to be more careful of the language he uses, if only because many of those same, and broader of course, NOM is one (want the link?) will attack him as a bully for it. He should also be more aware of, and work with the many, liberal loving, equality-minded Christians who are very much on his side.

  11. JeffreyRO5 says:

    I’m a little confused: was Savage speaking at a Christian school or something? On what basis was he supposed to be mindful of a particular Christian viewpoint of the students? I thought it was a public school conference. It seems to me he was addressing the major weapon used against equal legal rights for gays and lesbians: that the bible says gays and lesbians are bad people, and should be punished for being gay. Or should I say, the perception that the bible says these things.

    The student walkout appears to be staged, not inconceivable since Dan Savage is certainly on the Christian’s “enemies” list. I think Dan Savage was giving those students the gift of liberation: you no longer need to fight against equal legal rights for gay people, or otherwise marginalize them, because you think the bible compels you to. He explained that we ignore many concepts in the bible for being immoral or simply out of date. Savage wants to liberate people to think for themselves, not mindlessly follow a book, much of which they already reject.

    Unless, of course, people want to protect their main weapon against gay people…..Gee, I wonder, do “Christians” want to protect the bible because they believe it is inviolable or is it rather that they love its power as a weapon in this particular situation? They rarely castigate fornicators and adulterers the way they do gay people, so I’ll go with the latter reason!

  12. JeffreyRO5 says:

    “There’s no question in my mind that Savage messed up politically….”

    Really? Is he a politician, or running for office? Since when is using a religious point of view an acceptable reason to deny a minority equal legal rights? Until fairly recently, the Mormons considered blacks as inferior and could have easily pursued the same kind of “denial of legal rights” campaign against them as they are running against gay people. Would that be ok with everyone? I doubt it. We continue to carve out exceptions for groups we don’t like, for reasons that escape me.

    This really bugs me, in 2012, that we’re still using religious beliefs to harm people, specifically deny minorities equal legal rights. Ironically, the bible appears to make no effort to deny legal rights to anyone, even as it opposes certain behaviors. The conclusion that something is prohibited or disapproved of in the bible means that legal rights should be withheld is itself bizarre. And if same-sex marriage must be made illegal, based on biblical perceptions, then why on earth are pre-marital sex, adultery and divorce not made illegal? They are specifically forbidden, while same-sex marriage isn’t.

  13. “There’s no question in my mind that Savage messed up politically….”

    Really? Is he a politician, or running for office?

    Among the other hats Savage wears, he’s a political activist. His interest, I think it’s fair to say, is not just in expressing his own view, but in expressing it in a manner that will lead to the change he wants.

    Since when is using a religious point of view an acceptable reason to deny a minority equal legal rights?

    “Acceptable” in what sense?

    If you mean “morally acceptable to Barry,” the answer is, “never.”

    If you mean “an accepted part of American discourse that we have to deal with,” I think the answer is, like it or not, that’s always been part of American discourse.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t respond forcefully to those claims. I’m saying that the choice Savage made to use swear words while talking to teenagers about the Bible was a tactical mistake, because it handed the religious right a line of attack that they’re using to distract from the real issue and to more effectively attack Savage.

    I think that Savage was completely right to make the argument he made. But I think he could have made the same argument more effectively, and just as passionately, while using a different choice of language.