As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil. The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming. If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).
Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not. Most have good intentions – like most people in general. Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends. So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.
When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that. That goes for any major demographic, really. But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.
On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address. In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications. They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to. Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives. Most people don’t set out to do evil. Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.
Fred Phelps hates gay people. He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do. Probably most don’t. Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc.. But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.
When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings. I’m talking about their implications. Their practical, real-world effects.
This is how oppression works. Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction. And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture. We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good. We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.
We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable. But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one. It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.
This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand. Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell. But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does. Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people. This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow. The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.
And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand. Being called out is not a comment on who you are. It’s not a comment on your intentions. It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did. We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil. It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.
This strikes me as a rather typical college prank gone horribly wrong. Unlike Laura Ingraham, it doesn’t sound like the roommate planned out the event in a calculated way. It’s easy to imagine a college kid spontaneously thinking, “Hey, I can see my roommate’s hookup through my webcam, I could stream this live for kicks.” It’s not a nice thing to do, but by the standards of 18-year old kids it’s not exactly Hitleresque. He could very well have done the exact same thing if it was an opposite-sex hookup.
I don’t want it to sound like I’m empathizing with the wrong guy in this story because it obviously is just terrible. The guy should bear the consequences of his actions, but I don’t imagine it occurred to him, or would occur to most people, that the roommate could be ashamed to the point of suicide. Maybe this will be a teachable moment and people will realize that embarrassing someone like this isn’t just fun and games.
Uhhh. I don’t know what to make of the claim that this was a “typical college prank.” Kind of alarming. Maybe I didn’t know typical college students at when I was an undergrad (ok, this is definitely the case, but still!). And I don’t think this would have been as likely to happen if Clementi had been hooking up with a girl – and if it had, the effect would have been much more likely to shame the girl, not to shame or make fun of Clementi. In any event, I loved this response to that comment:
That’s much of the problem. Bigotry (and this *was* motivated by bigotry, I have little doubt) is seldom of the variety where you beat someone to death, burn a cross on their lawn, or similar violent acts. It’s the accumulation of petty cruelties that everyone seems to have no problem with. They don’t feel malicious, so they don’t seem to care that what they’re doing is hurtful, and when they get called on it, they claim it’s all in good fun.
What Tyler Clementi’s roommate did to him was cruel and dehumanizing. It was inexcusable. And in all likelihood, Clementi had probably endured years of smaller humiliations and “petty cruelties” leading up to the violation that ultimately drove him to suicide.
In public discourse we tend to focus our attention on the most blatant and obvious incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – with the notable exception of transphobia, which, sadly, remains a perfectly acceptable bigotry except sometimes in its most violent forms. And it’s right and necessary that we denounce and fight to end obvious demonstrations of bigotry. This is especially true with raising awareness about transphobia, which has led to the deaths of countless trans men and women through suicide, denial of necessary medical services, and hate-motivated murders.
Fighting oppression, though, also means educating ourselves about the more subtle, and insidious ways hatred and bias manifest on an individual and systemic level. It means learning to empathize with the lived experience of marginalized people – the regular, often daily humiliations, jokes, suspicions, ignorant or mean comments, insulting assumptions; the systematic lack of representation or negative representations of people like us in media and entertainment. Things that in isolation might be no big deal, but together add up to a steady stream of little indignities, a lifetime of constant messages that we’re worth less, or nothing at all, compared to the people who really matter.
Being a good and effective ally to marginalized groups requires listening and taking seriously the perspectives of marginalized people when we say, “that was racist,” “that was sexist,” or “that was transphobic.” Those of us who are marginalized in one or another are the experts on our own experiences of oppression. So when a marginalized person says a comment or action was offensive or hurtful, as allies our response shouldn’t be “Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way”/”I didn’t mean it that way” or “It wasn’t that big a deal, you’re just being sensitive.” We should understand that it’s probably far from their first encounter with the behavior they are calling out, and that things might appear to us as minor or isolated incidents because we don’t have to deal with them every damn day.
Good ally work also means learning to check ourselves – to acknolwedge our own bigotries and privilege. When (not if) we’re called out for doing or saying something offensive, are we more concerned with the fact that we’ve caused hurt or offense, or with defending the illusion that we’re incapable of ever doing or saying something offensive? Good ally work requires us to evaluate ourselves not by our intentions, but by the effects of our speech and actions – not so we feel guilty (which helps no one), but so we can do better. We also need to own whatever privilege we might have at the expense of others – whether that’s based on skin color, sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, body shape, mental and physical health or abilities, religion, etc. We need to acknowledge how our privilege has given us access to opportunities and resources that others don’t have, and use our privilege to make those benefits freely and equally accessible to all. We also need to recognize that both privilege and discrimination are intersectional, not one-dimensional. As a woman of color I deal with misogyny and racism, but I have privilege with respect to my class, my gender identity and expression, my body shape, being in a straight partnership, and so on.
My experience, and I think this is the experience of many people who are marginalized in one way or another (or many ways), is that these lifelong petty cruelties add up. They kill with a thousand cuts. If we really want to make our society more just and equal for all people, we need to stop treating these expressions of bigotry as banal or acceptable.