Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mirrors and "Villains"

Hello readers. Today's post marks the beginning of a short series of posts in which I reflect upon the purpose of my blog. You're invited to read my rambling thoughts and contribute ideas, thoughts, and reactions. (Part II is here).

In addition to celebration, the New Year for me has come to signify "looking into the mirror," reflection, and contemplation. With respect to this blog, I've been thinking about what it means to me and what I want to use it for. In becoming angry at unfairness to and lies about women, people of color, LGBT folks, and others, I have come to see that my angry words on this blog have sometimes contributed negativity to a world already brimming with negativity and aggression. That was never my goal, but like all people do sometimes, I've acted out strong emotions that I've had. Unfortunately, doing so has sometimes prevented me from connecting with those who have angered me. We cannot control the fact that other people lie about us, vilify us, and worse, but we can control how we react to their behavior and words. Not reacting with anger does not mean letting our opposition off the hook for what we believe to be their own misbehavior, it means changing our message and tactics. And that's what this post is about.

When I posted my article "Above the Hate: Below the Propaganda" criticizing the National Organization for Marriage's misinformation campaign against equality advocates, someone left an interesting comment in response over at Pam's House Blend. Specifically, this commenter said "You really don't need to explain this again. We all know the story, and we all know the lies propagated by the professional hate organizations."

While it's true that we "know the story," I think it is crucial to remember that many Americans do not know the story. Yes, most of us know that those opposed to equal rights for LGBT people either purposefully or ignorantly spread misinformation about us and vilify us. However, what is evident to us, is not self-evident to other people. Throughout the blogosphere, leftwing and rightwing alike, there is an insular sentiment in which "wrongs" of the other side are often pointed out without further elaboration as to why particular messages are wrong, erroneous, and/or misleading. Preaching to the choir does serve a general venting purpose. Yet, doing so fails to convince anyone who doesn't already agree with you.

It is impossible to help those who disagree with you see your point of view if you take the position that your conclusions are self-evident. Every day, I make a point to read socially conservative, even extreme rightwing, blogs in an attempt to better understand where people with views different from my own are coming from. To be honest, much of what I read over yonder frustrates me, mostly because I see so many people making really bold assertions about their opposition without first trying to understand why those on the other side feel so strongly about their own positions. The amount of misunderstanding out there, on all sides of an issue, is incredible.

Last week, while making my usual "rightwing rounds," I followed a link to what I believe to be a very unfortunate article vilifying the human beings in the community that I am a part of. Criticizing the "Prop 8 Musical" featuring Jack Black, this particular blogger wrote:

"If this is what passes for comedy now days, I'll have no part of it. It didn't make me laugh; it made me roll my eyes and throw my hands up in exasperation and disbelief. I find it telling that the director went straight for mocking religious beliefs, completely ignoring the fact that there are stacks and stacks of secular research studies which prove that the gay lifestyle is violent, destructive, diseased, and unwholesome (check out the resources section here). In truth, the reality of the gay lifestyle is a far cry from the bouncing, singing, "gaiety" depicted on the "beach" in this insipid musical. The reality that is so conspicuously absent from this supposed "humor" is that of AIDS, violence and domestic abuse, broken homes, confused children, and a genderless, dead-end society, left stripped and scorned in the frigid cold, hugging its identity-complexed, family-murdered, dysfunctional self. [emphasis added]"

Below this message, the blogger posted pictures of civil Yes on 8 protestors and contrasted these photos with a montage of cherry-picked No on 8 protestors who happened to be making angry faces. Below these photos, the blogger suggested that gay people are hateful bullies and sore losers in contrast to "marriage defenders" who are, of course, loving and peaceful.

The propagandistic message was clear: Gay people are very different from and much meaner than other people!

Perhaps what this blogger doesn't know is that any one of us could have just as easily found pictures of happy, smiling gay protestors, pasted them on a montage next to Fred Phelps' God Hates Fags clan, and made the same conclusion about "marriage defenders."

Yet, reading that blogpost as a civil, law-abiding American who happens to be gay, I was angry but mostly saddened. Those words speak neither to me nor about me. It is for an audience of like-minded believers who likely have little or no interaction with gay people and already believe that gays are very bad, dangerous people. The portrait of the "gay lifestyle" that this person paints is not at all the gay community that I know. And I am fairly confident that my experience in the gay community is a bit more substantial than this blogger's. Yet this person seems to believe, relying on some sort of evidence, very strongly that "homosexuality is, at its very core, evil."

I wonder if there will ever be anything we can do as a vilified minority group to convince such persons that we have good intentions and that we are not the monsters they think we are. Given that those opposed to equal rights for LGBT people often base their opposition in religious teachings that tell them that homosexuality is very wrong, I wonder how it is that they really truly are able to love the sinner but hate the sin. For those of us who make no distinction between our humanity and our sexual orientation, it can be difficult to perceive that message as anything other than those people hating us. For me, I do believe that many Christians really do hate us, and do not love us. It is difficult to believe otherwise when our political losses are celebrated, when heterosexual Christians create single-issue anti-gay blogs and organizations opposing us, and when virtually every political action we take is amplified and twisted around into us having Really Sinister McCarthyist Mob Motives.

I'm aware that this is all very easy for me to point out to most of you, who would most likely "get" what I'm talking about and call it a day. "We all know" that the above-cited person's view of gay people is so distorted that he/she makes many claims that just aren't factual or legitimate in the reality-based world. The cited "resources section," for instance, is full of the usual discredited suspects: Focus on the Family, Mass Resistance, and American Family Association to name a few. Why these "resources" are generally discredited is because, contrary to the scientific method, they often start with a conclusion and work backwards from there, compiling sketchy "research" that comports with their already-formed opinions and disregarding everything that would result in dissonance.

I could then take things a step further and vilify this blogger as some sort of ignorant uber-bigot. But in the end, where would that get us? Shaming people we believe to be anti-gay doesn't work since these people do not believe they have to be ashamed of their beliefs. In fact, they are often very self-righteous in their beliefs, truly believing that they are acting in a moral, loving manner. Further, painting our opposition as caricatured villains is not only fruitless, it is unrealistic. It is inaccurate. The world and all of us in it are much more complicated than we give each other credit for. I'm not trying to be preachy here; trust me I know I am not perfect. I maintain awareness of my weak spots and am without a doubt my own worst (yet most accurate) critic. Daily, it is a struggle to quiet the anger that I feel when reading lies about people that I know as fun, compassionate, loving, and kind. It can be unbelievably draining. To lighten things up in my head, I continually remind myself that the path is what's important in life, not "being right." It is in ordinary acts and interactions with others, not in churches and temples, where we show who we really are.

And we rarely show who we really are in interactions with those with whom we already agree.

The challenge, for those in heated political debates, is to not paint our "opponents" as villains, but to treat them as people like ourselves who we merely disagree with. It is too easy, and intellectually immature, to fall back on vilifying our opponents and exaggerating their "misbehavior." It scores you no points and only builds greater walls of separation. The challenge is to give others the benefit of the doubt that they, too, have what they believe to be really good reasons for holding their firm opinions about things. Believing that people are basically good enables us to believe that people aren't out to hurt us.

Doing these things isn't easy. I have seen very few people on the internet, myself included, capable of always engaging in respectful conversation with the other side. Sometimes, in all honesty, it is healthier to bow out rather than to subject yourself to continuous abuse. That's just the nature of the internet, a medium in which non-verbal communication cues are lacking. Yet, I still believe that we can and should use the internet to connect with those with whom we disagree in ways that are healthy, fruitful, and meaningful.

Some spiritualities hold that all human beings are one and that there is an interconnectedness between all living things that cannot be broken. This belief is admittedly different than the dualistic good/evil paradigm that dominates. Yet, I think it is worth considering for a moment. When I first began exploring this concept, much to my annoyance I quickly realized that "we are all one" necessarily means that we are a part of those with whom we vehemently disagree. Those people are us.

What if they are? Would we treat each other better, with more compassion and kindness, if we believed that others were just different versions of ourselves as opposed to beings who were fundamentally different or "evil"?

In the new year I will continue to strive to see those I disagree as variations of myself. It is my hope that they, in turn, will come to view me not as someone who lives an "unwholesome" "family-murdering" lifestyle, but as a fellow human being.

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