Friday, October 5, 2012

The Civility Series

I haven't been totally away from Internet.

Over at Family Scholars Blog, I've been reading and engaging with some of the posts on civility. There, prominent opponent of same-sex marriage Maggie Gallagher wrote a couple and somewhat engaged with commenters.

In her first post on the topic, she suggests that ad hominem arguments are a defining characteristic of being uncivil:
"An uncivil argument is not one that offends. It is one that in its turn does not address a person’s argument but attempts to rule the person out of the circle of civility by presupposing their motivations and dismissing them."
When she opened another comment thread for folks to continue the discussion, she then articulated:
"For me, this debate is not about me. I don’t care about me. Whatever happens, I will be fine.

I didn’t enter this debate to get rich, to be famous, to be remembered, to get a pass, or for any other reason than that my reason for being as a writer is: to speak the truth within the limits of my insight.

No third party can determine for me whether I’ve done that.

You have to guess at my motivation. I know."
I actually agree with the general, non-contentious statement that ad hom arguments are uncivil, and I agree with Maggie's sentiment that the debate about marriage equality isn't and shouldn't be about her. However, as someone who is pretty influential in the equality debates, and is perhaps the most well-known opponent of equality, I was curious to know if she ever gives thought to how her words and actions might be affecting others. So, I asked her:
"You are right that others would have to guess at [your motivations in the equality debate], and would possibly be wrong. So, I won’t go there.
And rather, per my post on civility, I would be curious to know when, if ever, you have tried to put yourself in the position of LGBT people and tried to understand our history of pain, achievement, oppression, disappointment, fear, idealism, and aspiration that have contributed to acts of harassment and violence on both sides of the SSM issue?

How well do you think you understand our position and experiences?

I would suggest that, despite your possible good faith motivations, it is possible for you to hurt LGBT people through your advocacy and writing. And, I would further suggest that if you had a better understanding of our experience, you might possibly be able to contribute to the discourse in ways that promote civility rather than hinder it.

I hope you take the opportunity to respond to my questions, Maggie.

NOM perpetuates an ongoing message that advocates for same-sex marriage are mean bullies to people like you, and I’m sincerely trying to have a civil dialogue with you about an issue you devote your life to and that affects my life in a very personal manner."
To which, she replied:
"What would constitute evidence –either before or henceforth–that someone cared about your pain?

Can someone care about your pain–care about you–and yet disagree with you?

I’m not asking about me–as I said I don’t think I’m that important. I get from you that you need someone to care about what you’ve been through.

If someone cares, can they nonetheless disagree?

How do we demonstrate caring across disagreement?

(I think myself perhaps an analogy to the abortion issue might help. But maybe not.)"
This reply suggests to me a disconnect in our communication. I'm picking up that Maggie perhaps thinks I'm advocating a wishy-washy "can't we all just get along" plea to just "care" about each other more.

But, the point I've been trying to get at is how and whether a person with her persuasive potential, power, and platform thinks about how her words might possibly hurt lots of people even if she doesn't intend to hurt them. And, if she's not doing that already, I further suggest that a good way for prominent opponents of marriage equality to think about the impact they are having on those whose rights they oppose is is for them to try to put themselves on the receiving end of their own rhetoric as though she were an LGBT person.

So, I responded:
"You are one of the most active, vocal, and prominent opponents of same-sex marriage, and given that level of importance, I really do want to know, specifically, whether you have tried to put yourself in the position of gay people and tried to understand our history of pain, achievement, oppression, disappointment, fear, idealism, and aspiration that have contributed to acts of harassment and violence on both sides of the SSM issue?

So, in response to this:

“I get from you that you need someone to care about what you’ve been through.”


To clarify, I don’t “need” people to “care” about what I’ve been through. Sure, that would be nice. It’s not about what I need, it’s about each of us going through a process of trying to understand the other side better. If you go through that process of compassion and end up not caring, or end up weighing social goods differently, then fine.

It would then be fair of you to articulate that though and explicitly say, “I understand that where you’re coming from is x, y, and z, and really, I don’t care, or I think a, b, and c are more important than your pain.” In public conversation, from what I’ve read of you, you mostly avoid talking about gay people at all, let alone acknowledge our struggles and history of oppression- so much so that I really do wonder whether or not your actions and rhetoric are guided by any semblance of understanding of what LGBT people have historically endured.

And consequently, I am led to wonder whether you think about how your rhetoric and what I see as vilification of gay people might be “piling on” to these historical injustices.

Because yes, I do think that if someone cares about LGBT people, and understands our historical pain and oppression, they can still disagree with us about same-sex marriage. A key part, to me, of disagreeing civilly is to oppose SSM while keeping the dignity of gay people and your political opponents intact, which includes not vilifying us and not making sweeping, unfair generalizations about us.

I know that you strongly object to all opponents of SSM being called “haters” and “bigots,” but you and NOM have a tendency to vilify all supporters of SSM as mean bullies. And yes, I know that some pro-SSM advocates and groups vilify and generalize all opponents of SSM. I get that. It’s par for the course in the “culture wars.”

But, change has to start somewhere, right? Be the change you want to see in the world, and all that…
I would add that David Blankenhorn, when he was opposed to SSM, demonstrated very well how to be a (what I would consider) civil opponent of SSM.

When I read his book The Future of Marriage, I disagreed with him from a substantive standpoint, but I did not come away thinking that he was a bigot. When I read his book, as a lesbian, I didn’t walk away thinking, “This guy has no clue about my life, he hates me, and he doesn’t understand where the other side is coming from”- which, honestly, is what I sometimes feel when I read some anti-SSM rhetoric.

The fact that David made a concession about the equal dignity and worth of gay people was a large component of civility. It seemed to me like he had an understanding of the fact that, yep, actual bigotry really does exist against gay people still and is a part of our history. And, he was able to articulate that, yes, gay people and same-sex couples are worthy of respect even though he ended up weighing social goods differently and opposing same-sex marriage."
 I haven't received a response.

Although, I do realize Maggie is probably pretty busy. It's election year and some anti-gay ballot initiatives are coming up. And along those lines, I can understand why Maggie's blogpost on civility denounced ad hominems above all other logical fallacies and modes of incivility including slippery slopes, hasty generalizations, argumentum ad nauseum, circular reasoning, and unfair vilification of one's opponents.

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