Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sympathy for the

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy F, plate 21 (1794)

When I parse the latest output from the variegated noise channels of cyberspace, I'm often impressed at the intensity of passion shown by people for progressive causes (even if the expression of that passion is too usually limited to commenting, retweeting, and like-buttoning). But sometimes I worry that the zeal of vocal progressives, paired with their contempt toward the opposition, mightn't be unhelpful in the long term.

Let's take an issue like gay marriage (for instance). Say that somebody, maybe pastor, mayor, or congressman out in Wyoming writes an op-ed column for his local newspaper expressing his view that marriage in the United States should strictly be between a male and a female. A handful of outraged readers post a link to the article on Twitter and Facebook, and soon, through the abstruse physics by which a parcel of information is made to "go viral," the column's audience spreads far beyond its usual reader base in rural Nebraska. (Did I say Wyoming first? Shit. I meant Nebraska.)

The comments section of the Daily Tumbleweed becomes a battleground for partisans on both sides of the debate. The article is linked to by all kinds of people on all kinds of digital platforms in all kinds of places. Since most of my friends (and myself) are in the gay rights camp, my various social media feeds will pile up with that particular cut of partisan red meat.

Even though I agree with the general progressivist stance 90% of the time on 90% of the issues, I often hear these twanging notes of righteous smugness in my peers' comments, tweets, and status updates: I know what's right, my friends know what's right, and people who disagree with us are wrong, and they're wrong because they're stupid.

However fun it is to take shots at someone you disdain, and however much a group is energized and fastened together by a communal witch-stoning, the attitude is not productive.

We hold the convictions we do because of the social environments we live in. (In the Internet age, we must also consider the overlapping micro-environments of social correspondence, but the ones in which a person chooses to participate will depend on his offline experiences.) If gay rights (again, just our example) seems like a no-brainer to you, it might not necessarily be because you're a better-hearted or cleverer person than the people in the opposing camp, but because you were conditioned differently.

Suppose you lived exclusively in environment where (1.) there are no openly gay people with whom you ever personally interact (2.) the only openly gay people you observe are the distorted, noisy stereotypes gyrating across the mass media (3.) you, your family, and your peers are deeply involved in a religious community in which homosexuality is demonized (4.) you were inculcated with a value system that identifies the "man-woman-children" family as the very nucleus of a healthy society.

Supposing these things, do you think your worldview would be the same as it is now? Do you think you'd be unreservedly comfortable with the idea of gay marriage? If not, would it constitute some kind of personal failing on your part?

Ideas and beliefs don't spontaneously bloom in people's minds. They are cultivated by time and circumstances (or time within circumstances). We can't blame someone raised in a megachurch-attending family in Kansas (did I say Nebraska?) for not viewing the world through the same window as someone raised in a secular family from New York or Boston.

But if this hypothetical parallel-universe me had any of my brains, you might say, he would have surely have questioned the values of his community and come to the natural conclusion that they are indefensibly wrong.

Would he?

I'm not a psychologist, but I'll venture that the questioning of one's own values occurs as a matter of exigency. If you never had cause to question the beliefs of your parents, your church, your teachers, etc. -- if you never experienced any conflicts or tensions of a sufficient magnitude to trigger a transformative crisis -- would you ever end up questioning them?

(How often do you have cause to sit down and honestly reevaluate your own convictions? I don't have to reevaluate them, I know they're right. Is there any chance you thought that to yourself?)

Obviously I'll take a stance on one side of an issue out of an earnest belief that it's the most logical and just course, even if the basis of that belief might be more arbitrary than I'd like to admit. And I've absolutely said unflattering things about the other camp and felt sentiments towards its members that were much more acidic and gristly than respectful disagreement. But what can I say? I'm as opinionated as anyone.

But we're veering off course.

In any case, in any of these impassioned public debates between any pairs of ideological opposites, what you ultimately want is for those on the other side to change their minds, see the sense of your position, and join you. When you and your allies loudly and routinely pillory your opponents, are they more likely to respond by (1.) renouncing their old creeds through tears of contrition and joy, and thanking you for showing them the light (2.) digging in their heels and pushing back harder?

Since we can't shouldn't can't kill people whose beliefs we find harmful, and since they're not going to go away, what we want to do is change their minds. We're not going to do that by flinging ridicule and scorn at them.

If one were really serious, one might begin by befriending them.

More later.


  1. Ah yes, the ol' Packers vs Bears with socio-cultural issues. I have rules I follow very strictly on social media posts I feel strongly about: I type a reply, read it to myself, ask myself why it makes me feel good, then delete it. Exception: If someone is perpetuating a hoax/misinformation, I respectfully correct them. This comes up mostly with naturopathic stuff (microwave usage, sun gazing, GMO studies, etc). I cringe when people find an exciting new stance they want to try out. There's someone in South Jersey Facebookland who seems to have recently discovered preferred pronouns. She is a cis-female who, by aggressively shaming people who don't instantly understand what she's on about, is setting the movement back by souring people on the experience. I'm not one of those people who thinks the oppressed ought to soften their message and do the heavy lifting around everyone else's privilege, but it is clear when someone is just trying to feel superior/more enlightened and putting that ahead of whatever movement they claim to be apart of.

    I strongly considered deleting this reply, but it's already been a pretty meta day.

  2. ...Also, are looking over my shoulder at my notes?

  3. ...funny, I never thought of that. I work with a sketch comedy group with two trans cast members and several English teachers, and it is always plural. Maybe they are royalty? What is the gender neutral term for King/Queen? Monarch? That's bound to be an issue someday, whether through progress or inbreeding.

    I am flattered that I could remotely approximate your notes. I have been trying to compensate for spending the majority of my twenties completely disinterested in the human condition, getting wasted and talking about how I'll write stuff someday. If my level of ignorance and obnoxiousness during that period has had any benefit, it is that I know how drastically people can change with a little perspective, and how the difference between an enlightened person and fearful bigot is more environment-related than most of us would like to admit. Though I think most of us had the root of that thought in elementary school: "If I was alive during slavery, would I have been OK with it?" And then later, when our older relatives guilted us for being a lazy entitled generation, I wondered if they thought that somehow it wasn't a direct result of the policies of their generation but that somehow we were born morally inferior.

  4. Oliver? The photographer?

    Nah. That's silly.