Can Civility Cloud the Truth?

The morning after North Carolina voters amended their state constitution to ban gay marriage and civil unions, I posted an angry comment to Facebook:

2008 presidential voting notwithstanding, North Carolina voters are still embarrassingly ignorant. Yet another state that in 20 years is going to collectively say, “Oops. Sorry about taking away your civil rights back there. No hard feelings for the last two decades of second-class citizenship, right?”

I received some hard pushback from some friends of mine:

Those are pretty harsh words, the kind of rhetoric that inflames the political and moral discussion about straight-gay issues from both sides making it impossible to move the dialog forward.

WOW! I would not say that standing up for God’s intended purpose of marriage is “Embarrassingly ignorant”. Pretty harsh.

I won’t assign to anyone an appellation that fits only their worst characteristic if they also have noble ones. … Note, I have not indicated here what I think of the amendment but I’m confident that faithful, intelligent people of good conscience voted on both sides.

Tough to preach tolerance and acceptance amid name-calling those with different beliefs, especially in this case when many on the other side are God-fearing Christians and productive citizens attempting to follow what they’ve read in the Bible.

I defended myself on this basis: The majority of voters in North Carolina opposed stripping gay and lesbian residents of the right to civil unions and indicated they would oppose measures intended to do so – but voted for a measure that did so anyway. Polling indicated this was because they didn’t realize that’s what the amendment would do. Sorry, folks, but that’s ignorance, and it’s embarrassing.

Further, we have no problems applying labels such as that to historical figures on the wrong side of issues on which our society has since progressed. The slaveholding founders of this country were bound by their cultural constraints, but I have no problems considering their attitudes toward African Americans both embarrassing and ignorant (and ignorance assumes the best about them, something that perhaps is unwarranted in some cases). Likewise, governors like Bull Connor and George Wallace, who fought desegregation with state police and racist rhetoric embarrassed entire states with their ignorance – as did their legions of supporters. When we read marriage or sex advice from the early 20th century, with its misogynistic assumptions and patronizing attitude toward women, we are rightly embarrassed by the ignorance displayed in those pamphlets or videos.

It is not considered uncivil to so label the examples of embarrassing ignorance we saw as little as 50 years ago; why is it uncivil to label such examples when they occur in our time? At the same time, does such language stifle discussion and prevent some, otherwise open to engaging in debate about their views on homosexuality and gay marriage, from changing their minds?

It’s a question I wrestle with, and it came up again when I read Fred Clark’s takedown of Halee Gray Scott for attempting to distance herself from the venomous rhetoric of Charles Worley while still opposing gay marriage. The title of the post is, “You can’t deny people their rights and be nice about it”:

Scott wants you to understand that she’s not at all like the infamous homophobic preacher Worley. She’s totally different.

Worley wants to deny LGBT people their basic civil rights and legal equality because he hates them. Scott wants to deny LGBT people their basic civil rights and legal equality for other reasons.

See? See how very different they are? Same result. Same vote. Same fundamental discrimination enshrined in law. But Worley is mean. Scott is nice. …

Scott shares Worley’s hateful goals, but not his hateful sentiments, so how dare anyone compare them? …

That sort of assumption — lumping her in with people like Charles Worley just because she wants the same legal outcome as they do — is hurtful. It wounds her feelings. Being compared to people like that is not nice.

And people should be nice to her, just as she’s being so nice to all the LGBT citizens whose legal equality she wants to nicely deny.

Clark’s implication is that if you share the aims and goals of bigots, then it’s very difficult, no matter how civil you are about it, not to be a bigot. Or, as one of his commenters said: “Don’t tar me with that brush, even though I agree with the color that brush paints on the canvas!”

Sometimes I fear we worry about civility too much. Sometimes civility can be used as an excuse to avoid change. Let’s just talk about slavery a little longer. Let’s not upset the boat too much regarding integration. Let’s tone down our language about gay marriage.

Sometimes strong injustice requires strong words.

I think of Amos, who was anything but civil in his condemnation of the status quo.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on Mount Samaria,
who cheat the weak,
who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring drinks, so we can get drunk!”
The Lord God has solemnly promised by his holiness:
The days are surely coming upon you,
when they will take you away with hooks,
even the last one of you with fishhooks.
You will go out through the broken wall,
each one after another;
and you will be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord. (4:1-3)

He wasn’t winning any awards from the civility police for that one.

I hesitate to simply say Scott and other well-meaning Christians are bigots – and, don’t get me wrong, Clark himself nowhere calls her one – but I think Clark is exactly right when he says she “hasn’t quite thought through what she’s arguing here.” I particularly like the comparison between homosexuality and Mormonism (“Scott doesn’t believe that, for example, Mormonism is ‘God’s intent for human spirituality,’ and yet she’s not arguing that Mormonism should be illegal. So why is homosexuality different?”)

Indeed, perhaps the most striking part of her blog post is the call for a “hermeneutic of grace” – an ironic plea, given if she used such a hermeneutic in reading the Bible, she might find her convictions on homosexuality and gay marriage have less support than she assumes.

Regardless, when it comes to matters of civil rights, there is no excuse to not think things through. But it seems like there is an awful lot of that in the Christian community – the seemingly willful ignorance of scientific findings regarding the genetics and biology of same-sex attraction, the illogical leap from religious belief to state legislation, the refusal to separate the realms of Caesar and God.

In the meantime, millions of men and women are denied the ability to express their love for each other, apart from the more practical benefits conferred by federal and state recognition of their unions. That is injustice. It is perpetuated by bigoted homophobes like Charles Worley, and it is supported by well-meaning but embarrassingly ignorant Christians who have not thought things through.

That may not be civil, but it is the truth.

The question with which I still struggle is whether we should subjugate the latter in favor of the former. It is not clear to me  that civility should be so prized as to weaken our defense of what is right. And while there are certainly ways to be civil while speaking the truth, sometimes there is no purely civil way to describe the embarrassing ignorance displayed by the many Christians who destructively wield their power over others while remaining personally unaffected by the ramifications of their decisions.

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2 comments on “Can Civility Cloud the Truth?

  1. tgb says:

    Well written Paul, as always.
    I have a tremendous amount of respect for you.

  2. It is not considered uncivil to so label the examples of embarrassing ignorance we saw as little as 50 years ago; why is it uncivil to label such examples when they occur in our time?

    Because “you are ignorant” is inherently more uncivil than “you were ignorant” (which is inherently more uncivil than “they were ignorant).

    Incivility may sometimes shock a person to action, but it may also (and more often, IMHO) shock a person into defensiveness, thus precluding the possibility of actually talking about the issue.

    If your goal is to call attention to a situation, then perhaps you don’t want to worry about civility. If your goal is to talk to people and persuade than to do something different, it’s probably better to avoid starting the conversation by insulting them.

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