Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Milbank Gets It Wrong

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, and in response to the recent shooting at the Family Research Council (FRC), Dana Milbank takes issue with the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) categorization of the FRC as a hate group. He writes:
"I disagree with the Family Research Council’s views on gays and lesbians. But it’s absurd to put the group, as the law center does, in the same category as Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront and the Westboro Baptist Church. The center says the FRC 'often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.' Exhibit A in its dossier is a quote by an FRC official from 1999 (!) saying that 'gaining access to children has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement.' 
Offensive, certainly. But in the same category as the KKK?"
I have to object to Milbank's argument.

By placing a parenthetical exclamation point after 1999, he first seems to suggest that the offensive statement was perhaps made too long ago to matter.

Yet, statements made years ago, do still matter. They still matter, especially as in this case, when neither the person making the statement, nor an official spokesperson on behalf of the FRC, has ever, not once, repudiated the statement or condemned it. Offensive statements do not magically become less offensive just because time has passed.

To gay people who were around in 1999, a never-apologized-for statement doesn't hurt less just because someone said it back then, does? Not to me. Especially when, for all we know, FRC officials and supporters still believe in, agree with, and condone that very statement.

If reconciliation is ever going to be possible in this "culture war," both sides are going to have to acknowledge past wrongs, not sweep them under the rug as though they never happened just because they might have happened years ago. It's going to mean acknowledging that what one said in the past might have been hurtful, unfair, and/or dishonest.

Secondly, I also have to object to Milbank's characterization of the evidence, which he pseudo-summarizes as though it consists entirely of one mere purportedly-outdated "Exhibit A."

The reality is that it's not "just" that "an" FRC official made that one "offensive" statement.

The SPLC, in reality, cites (a) many offensive and dishonest quotes uttered by multiple FRC staff members; (b) the FRC's promotion of "ex-gay therapy"- therapy that implies that gays can and should change; and (c) the FRC's publication of anti-gay materials that rely on discredited studies by researchers like the notorious Paul Cameron and that misuse legitimate studies.

Only by ignoring most of the evidence that the SPLC cites for labeling FRC as a hate group, Milbanks is able to end thusly:
"The [SPLC] said that Perkins should stop putting out 'claims that are provably false' about gay people. 
Yes, Perkins should stop doing that. But even if he doesn’t, the Southern Poverty Law Center should stop listing a mainstream Christian advocacy group alongside neo-Nazis and Klansmen."
A couple things are going on here.

First, Milbank acknowledges that Perkins lies about gay people, but nonetheless scolds the SPLC for listing the group alongside racist groups. One is led to wonder, what exactly does an anti-gay group have to do before Milbanks think it reaches the threshold of authentic hatred? I mean, I can understand the impulse, especially after a frightening act of politically-motivated violence, to say Can't We All Just Get Along? But, it is incredibly unfair to minimize the impact that FRC has had on the lives and marginalization of LGBT people by suggesting that it's unfair or inapt when a powerful tool, the power to name our experience of a group's impact on LGBT people, to call out people who are hurtful.

Secondly, notice how Milbank refers to FRC as a "mainstream Christian advocacy group." Notice too, how he also conceded that the FRC lies about gay people. If it is the case that the FRC both lies about gay people and is representative of "mainstream" Christianity, the morality of "mainstream" Christianity must really be in the gutter.

One also wonders if Milbank has familiarized himself lately with the FRC's position on homosexuality.

Along with 16 "resources" explaining such "mainstream" Christian topics like the "top ten myths of homosexuality" and "homosexuality is not a civil right," the FRC states:
"Family Research Council believes that homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed.  It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects. While the origins of same-sex attractions may be complex, there is no convincing evidence that a homosexual identity is ever something genetic or inborn. We oppose the vigorous efforts of homosexual activists to demand that homosexuality be accepted as equivalent to heterosexuality in law, in the media, and in schools. Attempts to join two men or two women in 'marriage' constitute a radical redefinition and falsification of the institution, and FRC supports state and federal constitutional amendments to prevent such redefinition by courts or legislatures.  Sympathy must be extended to those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions, and every effort should be made to assist such persons to overcome those attractions, as many already have."  
Are these views really "mainstream" Christian views?

I certainly don't think so. And if they are, I think they should be marginalized from the "mainstream." I think such views, views that explicitly advocate for the inequality and stigmatization of gay people, should not be treated with respect just because they happen to be "Christian" views held by lots of Christians.

The analogies between the FRC and "neo-Nazis and Klansman" are imperfect. However, in my opinion, the comparison is apt. The SPLC lays out its case and it's very clear that a mere opposition to same-sex marriage will not place a group on its list of hate groups.

I don't doubt that some do not see the FRC's activities as evidence of hatred. I do think that many people exist who truly think they are helping society and "homosexuals" by telling us how dangerous we and our "lifestyles" are. I'm sure they really think they are defending themselves. I also do not think that everyone who oppose marriage equality is hateful.

At the same time, in my opinion, as a lesbian person on the receiving end of the FRC's rhetoric, the rhetoric feels very hateful, no matter how it is intended. No matter how steeped in love or "mainstream" Christianity the FRC's statements purportedly are, when I read its rhetoric about homosexuality I hear a drumbeat telling me that I'm inferior. Sick. Perverted. Unequal. False. Not real. And that, worst of all, I have to respect and by tolerant of this rhetoric because it constitutes some people's purportedly sacred religious belief.

And, that hurts.

It hurts most of all because the person FRC says I am doesn't resonate with my lived experience of who I am and who my friends and family are. Yet, millions of people somehow think they know my lived experience better than I do myself. Even though I'm happy and spiritually-fulfilled, these people think they have lots to teach me about how to be happy and spiritually-fulfilled. So, my truth is, rather than feeling like an expression of Christ's teachings, the FRC's rhetoric feel to me like a tomb in which their spiritual leader's moral wisdom, love, and compassion has been buried.

It feels like a lot of people being aggressive while patting themselves on the back for being good Christians for sharing their aggression with the world.

So, to end. I have no idea of Dana Milbank is gay. That he is capable of so casually minimizing the FRC's rhetoric would suggest to me that he is maybe not used to being repeatedly told by "mainstream" Christians that he is unnatural, that his marriage is false, and that his sexuality could never be affirmed.

I don't know, and I don't much care, what his sexual orientation is. (See how that works?) What I do care about is that he's just said that a bunch of rhetoric that is incredibly hurtful to people like me is "mainstream" and does not deserve to be called hateful.

I have to object. Rather than mainstreaming hate, I think a far better alternative for groups not wishing to be labeled hate groups is for them to stop being hateful.

[Cross-posted: Family Scholars Blog]

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