I seem to get into some trouble when I ask questions about political matters, but here goes anyway. I honestly don’t get some of the online reactions to North Carolina’s Amendment 1 and to the recent outburst by Dan Savage at a recent talk to high school journalism students.
No, that’s not entirely true. Let me try again. I understand both phenomena partially, but the contradictions that arise when I think about either one baffle me.
In one case, I somewhat get the big picture but have no idea why such a tactical error isn’t being blasted, and in the other, I can say perfectly well what’s going on tactically, but I have a hard time saying what the big picture could possibly be.
Neither Bullying nor Nationalism
Thinking about Savage first, I can see why he’s the guest speaker to invite when the topic is bullying: whether it’s people who self-identify as gay or people perceived as “acting gay,” the school actually got that part right. Not just anyone gets bullied, and facing the actual social contours of bullying is a good move. On the other hand, perhaps this is just my teenage-in-the-Clinton-years sense of propriety coming out, but there are better and worse ways to counter a culture that ostracizes one group of people. One way that resonates more with me, and this is coming from someone who came of age before Richard Dawkins became a gigantic celebrity, is to find common ground and try to build on it. When I try to imagine ways to bring larger, socially dominant groups around to welcoming smaller, socially put-upon groups into the larger picture, I imagine various Cosby-Show and Will-and-Grace scenarios in which storytelling convinces people that, after all, there’s not all that much dividing us after all.
Then there are moves that are, at the least, tactically stupid. One such move is for the put-upon group to find some other scapegoat, preferably another numerically small group, and make them the focus of one’s own mockery. That seems to be what Dan Savage picked.
I wouldn’t call his outburst “bullying,” largely because I think that category means something, and not every insult is the same as bullying. I also wouldn’t deny that there are historical precedents: after all, much of Malcolm X’s pre-conversion rhetoric involved mocking the honkies, getting his audience to see themselves as genuinely superior to the dominant social group. But in the case of Dan Savage, I don’t see a Malcolm-X-style big picture behind his move; I just see tactical stupidity, the sort of Rush-Limbaugh-style bluster that gets people-who-already-agree to raise a drink but which does so at the expense of potential movement-together, socially speaking. Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Dan Savage is a bully, because one could skip Savage’s talks or turn off the radio to get rid of Limbaugh. But to say that either figure is doing good things to help people live peaceably together is an assertion that, to me, given my inability to resolve this contradiction, just ain’t true.
This Is what Democracy Looks Like. And I Don’t Like it.
The North Carolina situation bears out a contradiction that rises out of the intersection of sexual-identity-politics and political procedure. Perhaps my own lack of agitation about Amendment 1 is a function of my own naive confidence in actual legislative deliberation, I’ll acknowledge that. But when I look at the vote that NC voters took on May 8, I see a state’s population asserting that, for the time being, questions of legally-recognized marriage should remain the business of elected legislators rather than judicial fiat. After all, if the populace of a state can amend a constitutional document in 2012, presumably the same population could pressure lawmakers to call for another vote on another amendment whenever the next cycle of state elections happens. Thus the proper reaction, I would surmise, would be some sort of educational mobilization, a concerted effort to convince the actual citizens of North Carolina that they should vote differently the next time said cycle cycles.
Instead, for the past several days, I’ve seen hand-wringing, regional Chauvinism, and all the sorts of things that make me think people would rather lose actual legislative battles but strike impressive lament-poses for their digital friends. (I’ll go ahead and note that, so far, I’ve seen nobody post any material praising the legislation, but that could just indicate that people are more inclined to post online complaints than they are to post online celebrations, politically speaking.) I’ve seen graphics calling for the repeal of Amendment 1, but I’ve seen little to indicate that anyone has any concrete plans, or even plans to have concrete plans, to articulate some sort of argument to convince the reluctant citizens of North Carolina (or Georgia, for that matter–our amendment happened a few years ago) that such a repeal might happen.
Another admission: I’m basing this off of Facebook chatter that I’ve seen between paper-grading sessions and year-end-assessment-meetings, so there’s no pretense of a representative sample here. But I do wonder whether all of this really is the jaded partisan hay-making that I fear it might be, or whether there might be something genuinely political on the horizon.
In both of these cases, the reactions I’ve seen, mainly from the right wing in Savage’s case and mainly from the liberals in the case of North Carolina, confirm a fear that I have about online discourse, namely that it’s a pressure-release valve that actually makes people less likely to commit to actual political engagement. I’d like to think I’m wrong, that there’s a quiet, locally-based network of anti-Joe-Kony people still making plans to travel to the Central African Republic and help in the effort to bring him in (if that’s where he still is). I’d like to think that there might be a movement afoot among evangelicals to organize anti-bullying events that acknowledge genuine difference in conviction without engaging in the AM-Radio nonsense of a Dan Savage, just to show folks that it can be done. I’d like to think that there are people in public libraries and coffee shops and public parks and other places where actual North Carolina voters go, getting ready to talk with the folks there, human being to human being, convincing them that political toleration and religious conviction might live harmoniously together. I’d like to think all of these things, and perhaps I just can’t see them happening because I’ve been so busy. But I’m not hopeful.
Give me hope, friends.