Civilty and Understanding

09.26.2012, 1:10 PM
Here at Family Scholars Blog, I have been engaged in offline conversations about civility and a revised comment policy for the site. One of the main reasons I chose to be a guest blogger here was because I believe that David and Elizabeth are sincerely interested in cultivating a space where civil dialogue could occur among those who disagree, sometimes even strongly, about issues related to family, law, and society.

One of the biggest barriers to civil dialogue is, I believe, the failure to understand those with whom we disagree.  I further believe that this lack of understanding often pertains to what kind of people our opponents are, the intentions of our opponents, and the substantive points our opponents are making.

The first type of ignorance is oftentimes apparent in the language that is used to describe our opponents.  For, the language that is used to describe the other side often determines whether or not dialogue with those on the other side can even productively take place.  I read many blogs written by those with whom I disagree, including, most often, those who oppose feminism and equality for LGBT people. One of the biggest give-aways that I’m reading someone who has no clue about the people whose rights they so strongly oppose is the way they characterize us- “us,” in this case, being feminists and LGBT advocates.

Rather than presenting the other side as nuanced human beings who have good and sincere reasons for supporting our policy positions, I often see feminists monolithically portrayed as man-hating, “hairy-legged feministas,” and “abortion lustists.” (Yes, seriously).  I see gay people widely portrayed as “homofascist bullies,” “predators,” and evil, slatternly members of “the lifestyle left.”

And yes, I also read many blogs by those with whom I agree about feminism and LGBT rights.  There, I sometimes see opponents of feminism and LGBT rights monolithically portrayed as “crazies,” “haters,” “fundies,” and “Christianists.”

These caricatured descriptions, usually based almost entirely on a person’s position on one or two issues, are little like most of the real-life human beings I know and have come to know.  Unfortunately, I learned early on in my blogging career that, oftentimes, my position as a feminist and a lesbian would mean that many people would not see me as a human being, but as a cartoon villain hell-bent on plotting mustache-twirling schemes to enslave men, destroy the family, and Be Super Mean To Christians.

So, when I see people using stereotypical labels and speaking very generally about their opponents, it signals to me that the person uttering such labels is likely not only uninformed, but that they (a) might not have much experience actually interacting with those on the other side, (b) they don’t have much interest in actually learning more about the other side, and/or (c) they want to take the easy, and uncivil, route of acting as though everyone on the other side is a villain with only evil motives for believing what they believe or being who they are.

In relation to this site’s civility policy, I would contend that part of engaging in civil dialogue with those with whom we disagree involves first making a concerted effort to better understand the other side.  This understanding comes from reading their arguments, asking questions to clarify, and also being mindful of the narratives that characterize those on the other side and that those on the other side consequently often have to deal with.

For instance, when one understands that gay men have a long history of being unfairly portrayed as predators, one might better understand why a post calling gay men predators is a signal to gay men and allies that the person calling gay men predators might not have much experience interacting with gay men, that the person might not have much interest in learning about gay men’s histories, and/or that the person wants to take the easy and uncivil route of acting as though one’s policy opponents are villains with evil motives for their beliefs and actions.

Reacting to the recent acts of violence in Libya, religious scholar and civility advocate Karen Armstrong reminded us of the Socratic tradition of strongly questioning every one of our certainties and received opinions.

“Try to put yourself in the position of the ‘other side’ ~ as the compassionate ethos demands ~ and ask yourself  ‘How much do I really know about their history of pain, achievement, oppression, disappointment, fear, idealism, and aspiration ~ all of which, on both sides, have contributed to this violence?’”

In our offline conversations (which I’m discussing with Elizabeth’s permission), my suggestion for a new comment policy included a plea for those engaging here to be mindful of the fact that our words can hurt others even if that is not our intent.  This mindfulness is particularly important for those coming to contentious conversations with varied life experiences and histories of societal abuse and oppression.  I don’t think it’s practical for such a provision to be actively policed by blog moderators, but I do see this mindfulness as a good starting point if a goal of conversation here is to promote civility and understanding.

As a lesbian, for instance, I have an experience of pain, a lifetime of hurt, caused by people in positions of great power regularly telling me and others in society that gay people are fundamentally wrong, immoral, unhealthy, predatory, and/or sick.   For those who do not have his lived experience to treat the morality of homosexuality as a legitimate conversation topic, or to randomly drop inflammatory links from rabidly anti-gay sites just for the sake of presenting some other “equally valid” viewpoint, can, in some gay people, trigger a lot of…. anger, hostility, hurt, fear, and/or resentment precisely because we are already familiar with this hurtful other side and regularly have to defend ourselves against it. It is a hurtful, ignorant, and privileged assumption for non-gay people to think that gay people need to become educated about these “other sides” as “food for thought.”

To be clear, my point isn’t that I think hurtful topics should never be discussed.  If a person is up for talking about something even though it’s difficult to do so, I say go for it.

Rather, my point is that I think a tenet of civil conversation among mixed company would be, as Armstrong suggests, to ask ourselves first how well we truly understand the other side- not only their arguments but their history, oppressions, and experiences.  And, with that understanding, how does our contribution to the discourse further or inhibit both civility and understanding?

30 Responses to “Civilty and Understanding”

  1. Panama says:

    Panthera, thanks for your comments. It’s interesting to hear the perspective of someone not currently living in the U.S. A lot of gays living in Europe express near-disbelief when they read of the hostility directed at American gays by religion. I agree with you on everything except compromising on “marriage”. As far as I am concerned, that is the centerpiece of this struggle for equal protection, and if we lose that, we lose equality. Losing “marriage” means that those who oppose us get reinforced and rewarded for their belief that we aren’t worthy and that our relationships don’t matter. I’d rather have nothing than make that compromise. It’s a matter of integrity for me, and it matters as well to our families and friends. We have made gains over the last 20 years in America and in other countries because we made ourselves known — we came out. We live our lives with integrity and without apology. We must be who we are, and who we are as a couple is MARRIED. It’s not worth compromising.Yes, I know there are Christians (besides those are gay or lesbian) who are welcoming and fully accepting/understanding. Twenty five years ago, I was at the point of my ordination to the Catholic priesthood, and I stepped away because I came to understand who I was as a gay person and that I didn’t have to live celibately (and neither did I want to). These days, I don’t regard myself as Christian, but neither am I atheist. I’ve landed at “agnostic”.

  2. hello says:

    I understand that gay men have been long stereotyped as predators and thus many sensitive people may want to avoid that label. But does that mean that the gay men who are predators can never be called out for it, at least in civil discussions? If “civility” in effect means shielding sexual predators (of whatever gender or orientation) how does anyone who isn’t a predator benefit from that? The only way this can work is if gays police this type of behavior among themselves. I don’t know much about gay male life, so maybe they do.

    If civility means outright lying about certain realities or of stifling those who would portray them honestly, then I don’t see the point of it. You can censor the words but people still have eyes in their heads. That said I think it is fair to ask that people refrain from using epithets and crude humor in serious discussions.

  3. fannie says:

    hello:

    “But does that mean that the gay men who are predators can never be called out for it, at least in civil discussions?”

    No.

    I’m not sure what in my post gave you the impression that I would think that.

    And this:

    “I understand that gay men have been long stereotyped as predators and thus many sensitive people may want to avoid that label.”

    Sensitive is an interesting word choice on your part.

    It’s not an issue of “sensitivity,” it’s an issue of accuracy, the very thing you purport to be very concerned about.

    It is simply inaccurate that all gay men are predators, and thus many people concerned with accuracy want to avoid that inaccurate generalization. People who are predators should be called out as such. People who are not predators should not be categorized as predators or predatory just because some people in the category “gay men” actually are predators.

    It really is that simple.

  4. hello says:

    Fannie,
    If it appeared that I suggested that I thought you were an advocate of gay male sexual predators, it was not intentional.

    My general observation is that gay men are dissimilar to straight men in exactly one area: they prefer men to women. Otherwise they behave in very similar ways to straight men. And if a certain number of straight men will end up being sexual predators doesn’t it stand to reason that a certain number of gay men will too?

    However, over the years I have met many straight women who refuse to believe this. Such women usually have very difficult and unsatisfying relations with straight men and decide that gay men are perfect men who lack all the nasty attributes of straight men. Gay men typically have no illusions about themselves in this regard, but for some reason these women will defend gay men against any criticism (fair or unfair) as though they are little children who can’t handle any kind of disapproval.

    This is the kind of reality-denying attitude I am discussing. You are, as far as I can tell, a rational debater and aren’t like this. For what it is worth, I don’t think sexual orientation, as it is commonly understood, is a very instructive concept in examining predators. I have read of pedophiles, for instance, who will abuse any child they can get their hands on boys and girls alike. Sometimes these men are in what appear to outsiders to be conventional straight marriages. Sometimes they are supposedly celibate priests. Is a man who is married and generally prefers women but who rapes male prisoners of war gay or bisexual? Who cares? What matters is that he is a predator.

  5. Neil says:

    I posted a rejoinder to Hello that was deleted. It was sarcastic, but in my view it did not violate any civility rule. I will try to restate it. Following her logic–that because some gay men may be predators, it is appropriate to refer to all gay men as predators or potential predators–then surely we should be able to refer to Catholics priests as pedophiles. We know that not all Catholic priests are pedophiles, but we also know than many are. So why shouldn’t we be allowed to do that?

    I am, of course, not seriously proposing that we do so. But Hello’s comments certainly invite ridicule. (I am not trying to be mean, just trying to exercise what Elizabeth Marquardt calls powerful social critique in her defense of Alana’s post calling gay men johns and predators.)

  6. Neil says:

    If both gay men and straight men are predators, why not just refer to all men as predators? Why do you, Hello, and Alana want to describe gay men (and not straight men) as predators?

  7. fannie says:

    “Is a man who is married and generally prefers women but who rapes male prisoners of war gay or bisexual? Who cares? What matters is that he is a predator.”

    I agree.

    At the same time, I encourage you to understand and perhaps acknowledge that gay men also have a long history of being vilified by some pretty powerful religious and political people as universally being sexual predators.

    For instance, in the 1970s, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign had the goal of painting “homosexuals” as a danger to children, a strategy that lingers today in some anti-LGBT groups’ rhetoric, some materials opposing same-sex marriage, and ordinances opposing adoption by same-sex couples.

    So, do some straight women think gay men are “perfect”? Sure. I suppose some might. But, like I said, for the sake of fairness, accuracy, and civility, people should not refer to gay men generally as a class of predatory people.

    They should refer to specific, individual gay men as predators only if those specific, individual gay men actually are predators.

    I think you, and any reasonable person, would agree.

  8. Schroeder says:

    Neil,

    I’ll keep this brief:

    Hello did not say “it is appropriate to refer to all gay men as predators or potential predators.” If she did, show me where she did. In fact, what Hello said seems to be relatively uncontroversial.

    Alana did not call “gay men johns and predators.” She did – and I disagree with her on this – say that people who use women’s eggs (a subset which includes some gay and some straight people) are analogous to johns and predators in a morally significant way.

    Feel free free to exercise “powerful social critique” in attacking these arguments. I think Myca and La Luba had an effective point, for instance, when they brought in the issue of consent. But please don’t attack arguments that no one has made. It is not an effective tactic, and it makes it look like you did not read carefully what Alana and Hello wrote.

  9. Schroeder says:

    Fannie,

    I encourage you to understand and perhaps acknowledge that gay men also have a long history of being vilified by some pretty powerful religious and political people as universally being sexual predators.

    I think this is a very good thing to keep in mind, as well. It helps create empathy, which is always a good thing. I think Alana’s post sparked the virulent reaction that it did, because it aggravated, whether intentionally or unintentionally, some of these old wounds. (I also acknowledge that it is way easier for me to look at this situation dispassionately because I am a straight, non-donor-conceived male.)

  10. Neil says:

    Shroeder, Alana wrote in a forboding tone that most resembles the Elders of Zion:

    “But now there are new predators on the scene, for whom we do not have a script. There are new characters eager to exploit our daughters’ bodies, who enjoy unsullied reputations, passing detection even as they blatantly hunt for eggs and wombs with checkbooks in hand. And historically they have been the people women should fear the least.

    These new players vying for access to young women’s bodies are older or infertile women, and gay men—quite often our friends and members of our family.”

    Lustful, exploiters of young women, these “new predators” are coming to get our innocent children. It is a slight variation on the Anita Bryant riff that gay men are trying to recruit (presumably male) children–but it is a vicious and deceitful defamation.

    This is the sort of nonsense that one expects to be published by the Witherspoon Institute, whose entire purpose is to defame gay people and deprive us of equal rights. I, perhaps naively, thought that since David Blankenhorn has announced that he has withdrawn from the culture wars, that FamilyScholars.org would no longer be an arm of the National Organization for Marriage.

    Equally naively, I also thought that with all the recent discussion of a civility policy here, that at least the bloggers would have to be civil.

  11. fannie says:

    Neil:

    “Why do you, Hello, and Alana want to describe gay men (and not straight men) as predators?”

    I don’t think Hello wants to describe all gay men as predators. That’s not how I read her(?) comment.

    At the same time, hello is also responding to arguments no one here has made: namely, the argument that all “criticism” of gay men is off limits, even if it’s warranted.

    That’s not the argument my post has made, nor has anyone else made it.

    In this comment section at least, I would suggest that we should all try to stick to responding to actual arguments made by people actually participating in this conversation, or to at least cite actual people making the actual arguments we are responding to.

  12. Bob says:

    I agree with Alana that anyone “vying for access to young women’s bodies” is a predator, even if they do not themselves use a donor or surrogate. So anyone who advocates for legal surrogacy and sperm and egg donation is participating in the hunt, helping to snare vulnerable people with little or no concern for their health, even if they don’t avail themselves of the spoils.

  13. admin says:

    Neil,

    Your last post included an uncivil reference and was taken down. We ask that you not attack other commenters or bloggers. This is your warning.

    Thank you.

  14. Schroeder says:

    These new players vying for access to young women’s bodies are older or infertile women, and gay men

    As I’ve said, I disagree with Alana on her use of the word “predator” – both rhetorically and substantively. But she is not singling out gay people. She is referring to anyone who uses donor eggs. The reason she brings up infertile women and gay men is because these are groups of people that, prior to the advent of egg donation, would not ever want “access to young women’s bodies.”

    I, perhaps naively, thought that… FamilyScholars.org would no longer be an arm of the National Organization for Marriage.

    It is not now and never has been.

    Of the last twenty posts: eight were by people who are in favor of gay marriage, nine were by people who are opposed, and three I have no idea about. Most of the posts by people who oppose SSM were by Elizabeth and had nothing to do with this issue at all. The most active commenters on the site are pro-SSM.

    I realize that you might think that even discussing this topic from different points of view is beyond the pale of polite society. Fair enough. FamilyScholars doesn’t share that view, though, which, as I see it, puts the website in the broad center. Also, I acknowledge again that I don’t have any skin in the game (as you do).

  15. fannie says:

    Bob (and others who feel compelled to write about Alana’s post), I really don’t want this comment thread to be a discussion about Alana’s post. Yeah, I have my reactions to it as well, but it’s deserving of its own post and entire comment thread.

    Thanks.

  16. Neil says:

    Dear admin: I guess I really do not understand the civility policy at all. Bob apparently is allowed to say that all people who either practice art or advocate for it are predators, but I am not allowed to say that that is not a civil comment. Do I have that right? The principle seems to be that the more people you include in your incivility, the less uncivil it is.

  17. Bob says:

    Sorry Fannie, I got here by clicking on a “recent comment” and jumped in to the conversation without seeing what the thread was about. How uncivil of me!

    Neil, I think that principle sounds right. If you are making a general point and saying a practice is bad, that people who advocate for it are bad and preying on vulnerable people and harm society, it is going to offend people who do it no matter how politely it is phrased. But saying that another commenter is a bad person, for whatever reason, seems to cross a line, no? I don’t say that anyone here is a predator, I say that people who advocate what some people here currently advocate for are predators. People should not take criticisms of a public policy so personally, it makes it impossible to discuss the policy if we are walking on eggshells.

  18. fannie says:

    Bob:

    “If you are making a general point and saying a practice is bad, that people who advocate for it are bad and preying on vulnerable people and harm society, it is going to offend people who do it no matter how politely it is phrased.”

    I think perhaps that part of the frustration on my part, and perhaps others, is that in order for conversations about LGBT rights to happen and be productive with opponents of our rights, we do understand and acknowledge that we have to walk on eggshells around the “bigot” and “hater” label, or else the conversation shuts down.

    And, we understand that even if we believe that someone’s policy advocacy harms same-sex couples, many of us shy away from using inflammatory and divisive labels like “bigot” even if we might privately think they adequately and accurately describe the person or situation.

    My goal in “mixed-company” conversations is not to label people, it is to try to better understand, to express myself reasonably so that I might be better understood, and to maybe cut through some of the stereotypes that some people might have of LGBT people and SSM advocates.

    So, if you (or Alana) want to use the word “predator” to describe people who’s policies you disagree with because you insist that it accurately describes someone, that’s your choice. I mean, a monologue in an inflammatory partisan forum is probably the place for such rhetoric, for the goal in many such places doesn’t seem to be to promote understanding or civility in society.

    But, in a dialogue at a site where people of varying points of view are trying (however imperfectly) to engage in civil dialogue, I think many participants comes to understand that inflammatory labels are not conducive to a goal of having good “mixed-company” conversations.

  19. Neil says:

    Bob, it is a bit cheeky for people to label other people in very ugly ways, and then say, “it’s not personal.” Sorry, that doesn’t work any more. When you work to deprive people of equal rights or say that everyone who supports art is a predator, you are being personal, you are affecting real people, you may even have blood on your hands. But please don’t take this personally. I am not really talking about you, just about people like you who say things like you do. You’re not a bad person just because the things you say are not only intellectually indefensible but also make life more difficult for them.

  20. Bregalad says:

    We are not really a group of men singly engaged in the search for truth, relying solely on the means of persuasion, entering into dignified communication with each other, content politely to correct opinions with which we do not agree. As a matter of fact, the variant ideas and allegiances among us are entrenched as social powers; they occupy ground; they have developed interests; and they possess the means to fight for them. The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige, which not seldom become primary.

    There are numerous well-known examples. What they illustrate is that the entrenched segments of American pluralism claim influence on the course of events, on the content of the legal order, and on the quality of American society. To each group, of course, its influence seems salvific; to other groups it may seem merely imperialist. In any case, the forces at work are not simply intellectual; they are also passionate. There is not simply an exchange of arguments but of verbal blows. You do not have to probe deeply beneath the surface of civic amity to uncover the structure of passion and war.

    - Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.

    I agree with John. Privately, all of us are going to question our interlocutors’ motives and genuineness. Privately, we will all envy the others’ privileges and attempt to construct our own “salvific” privileges. Privately, we might think the other side bigoted, mean spirited, deluded, self-hating, or just plain ol’ evil.

    As long as these beliefs remain mostly private, then I think our collective pursuit of truth can continue with civility.

    Occassionally, we might need to hash out our private fears, but I don’t think we should make a habit out of it. I don’t have a criteria for when or how this should occur; I trust the moderators’ judgement on that count.

    But normally — as in, MOST OF THE TIME — we should aspire to be a group of men (and women!) singly engaged in the search for truth, relying solely on the means of persuasion, entering into dignified communication with each other, content politely to correct opinions with which we do not agree.

    Because the real issue… is truth. Not privilege. Not motive. Not bigotry.

    Truth.

  21. La Lubu says:

    Because the real issue… is truth. Not privilege. Not motive. Not bigotry.

    Truth.

    Ahh…but whose truth? Which one? I take it as a given that there is always going to be diversity in what constitutes truth for everything that isn’t a material fact (ex.: this is a keyboard I am typing on, not a banana). I think our task is to recognize and respect boundaries, so that we can live out our own truths in peace when/where we disagree.

  22. Neil says:

    Many of these posts and comments about civility are high-minded and idealistic. Of course, we should aspire to those ideals, but as the quote from the Catholic priest makes clear, especially as elucidated by La Luba, our ideas of truth may vary and will no doubt be tempered by vanity, privilege, and bigotry.

    Most of the posters and commenters assume that ad hominem arguments or attacks on individuals should be off the table. In general, that makes sense, and certainly it makes sense to forbid “personal” attacks when they are unrelated to the ideas being presented.

    But I don’t think a blanket prohibition on personal attacks is a good idea. After all, character is important. We evaluate what is said by what we know about who said it.

    Is it helpful, for example, in evaluating Maggie Gallagher’s comment defending the characterization of gay men as predators to know that she is the former president of NOM, a group that has also had nasty things to say about gay people? I think it is. Similarly, it is good to know, though not strictly relevant to her post, that Alana on this very blog speculated on the day of Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral that she was not the “real mother” of her younger children. Comments like that and many others tell us a great deal about the poster’s character, as does the information posted by Straight Grandmother about her receiving remuneration from NOM.

    I would hope that people do not resort to insults and that we all strive for the understanding and empathy that Fannie recommends. But comments, and especially posts by bloggers who have the imprimatur of the website, do not occur in a vacuum. In certain instances I think it is quite valid for responders to provide information about the poster’s or commenter’s background and previous statements.

  23. La Lubu says:

    In certain instances I think it is quite valid for responders to provide information about the poster’s or commenter’s background and previous statements.

    I don’t see that as ad hominem or personal attack.

  24. Matthew Kaal says:

    I agree that bringing up someone’s background information isn’t ad hominem, but I think it is important that commenters dedicated to civil conversation not fall into the trap of carricaturing someone based on a few cherry-picked details while entirely ignoring what the person is saying in a particular conversation. If someone is acting in good faith, they will own their associations and past statements, and will clarify them if need be.

  25. Bregalad says:

    Ahh…but whose truth? Which one? I take it as a given that there is always going to be diversity in what constitutes truth for everything that isn’t a material fact (ex.: this is a keyboard I am typing on, not a banana). I think our task is to recognize and respect boundaries, so that we can live out our own truths in peace when/where we disagree.

    La Lubu, you are making a truth claim here that I don’t agree with. In fact, I think the phrase “our own truths” is pretty meaningless and silly in this context. If one is talking about one’s favorite flavor of ice cream, then, yes, it might have some relevence, but “Family Scholars” typically deals with truth claims, not matters of taste.

    Consider this very controversial claim: For all people, homosexual sex is always wrong. This is either true or it is false. It can’t be true for you and not for me. If you tell me that it can, then I’m going to have to introduce you to the law of noncontradiction, which can neither be verified nor falsified, but is necessary for reasonable discourse to exist. I think reasonable discourse just as important as civility, if not more so.

    Now, if you mean that we all have different opinions of the truth, then that’s a no duh proposition.

    As far as boundaries go, I’m all for them as long as we know what the boundaries are. Some folks on this forum have questioned other commenters’ sexual orientation, and I find that highly distasteful. That is crossing a boundary, I think.

    La Lubu, if you’d like to list the boundaries which we should all adhere to, I’m all ears.

  26. JeffreyRO5 says:

    I still say a comment that is true and relevant is inherently civil. It may be unflattering but it is civil when presented in a comment.

  27. La Lubu says:

    Consider this very controversial claim: For all people, homosexual sex is always wrong. This is either true or it is false. It can’t be true for you and not for me.

    I have a better example. There are five people in a room. One is Christian, one is Muslim, one is Buddhist, one is Pagan, one is atheist.

    You tell me: which one of those five people are “right”? Please give some detail on why one of them is “right” and why the other four are “wrong”. Show your work.

    I’ve already provided the example of religious tolerance in a secular society in the other thread: all religions are allowed to coexist. I’ve already provided an example of a societal structure we use to insure that all members of a society (including marginalized persons) can participate in public society: anti-discrimination laws. Both are examples of boundary setting.

  28. La Lubu says:

    In fact, I think the phrase “our own truths” is pretty meaningless and silly in this context. If one is talking about one’s favorite flavor of ice cream, then, yes, it might have some relevence, but “Family Scholars” typically deals with truth claims, not matters of taste.

    Perhaps you can patiently explain to me why religious tolerance (respecting the right of other people to practice their beliefs/traditions, while concurrently not holding the same beliefs) is meaningless and/or silly? Perhaps you can patiently explain to me why cultural tolerance is meaningless and silly?

  29. Karen says:

    Minus the atheist, this sounds a bit like Elizabeth’s religion, Ba’hai
    http://info.bahai.org/

  30. Karen says:

    Type-o: Baha’i