I got into an argument last week in the comments of a friend’s FB post. I know, I know, I have been told, don’t read the comments, but I did. The post in question featured a picture of this (strictly FB) friend posing with Dan Savage. Mr. Savage, as you may know, is an occasionally polemic lGbt activist and media personality. He has, in the past, been guilty of making biphobic, transphobic, and sexist remarks. He has since apologized for his past behavior and, for the most has done an impressive, and seemingly sincere, 180 on these issues. That said he stumbled a bit in the past year in regards to his treatment of a trans* minor at a discussion in Chicago.
My problem is not with his use in the abstract of the t-word. Though I have written my opinion about the use of slurs, I do believe that it is certainly OK to use these words in a discussion about them, that refusal to do so does imbue those words with more power than they ought to have. So in that I agree with Dan, and his defenders, totally. Where I diverge is how to handle situations like what came up in Chicago. When someone steps up and says they are bothered, as this student has, I see two very good options. The first, the most obvious, and the one preferred by said student and his friends is “I am sorry, we will consider your feelings and shelf use of the slur for the present.” Note I did not say it was the best, especially considering the nature of the discussion, the best response would have been “I hear you, I am sorry that hurts, because we’ve seen how these slurs hurt, but this is a discussion about that and the power of words and it is important we continue to use these words, so it is best for your emotional health if you step out.” That is not what happened and it is certainly not what happened in the aftermath.
This particular event is not what I want to discuss today though. I only mention it to give some background: man does something problematic, some people get upset, and, most importantly, man’s friends and fans rise to his defense. We are all entitled to speak our minds. If you really see nothing wrong with what happened, I suppose we are going to have to agree to disagree. It happens. I will point out that had this been a conservative, cis-het, white, male Christian making the exact same arguments about slurs many of those defending Dan would not even let it get to the point it did. They would have shut that person down and holding them up as an example of what is wrong with America. We have no problem disagreeing with people we already don’t like. Why should we? It is so easy to do.
Dan is an easy target too, so oh ye detractors don’t think you are getting off the hook. He gets (very limited) sympathy from me. When he screws up, or any famous person for that matter, it is easy to take aim because we will never have to meet him. When our family or friends mis-gender us, use our “real” name, or pry about our medical history, how often do we clam up? No, if it is someone close to us, or someone we admire, like a well-known advocate and media personality, we keep our heads down, or defend them with crusader-like zeal. This is true whether we are talking about lGbt issues, religion, or politics.
It is a shame. We cheat ourselves and the world. We deny honest dialogue but more importantly we deny ourselves introspection. Because, and this is my ultimate point, if we cannot call out the people we like, how can wecall ourselves out? If we cannot stand to see our external idols smashed, how can we smash those we hold inside? When you cannot do those things you cannot truly grow, and you cannot truly fight for the things you hold dear. How can you? If you have not tested your values how can you say you hold them, and therefor wage an honest fight for them? Think about this the next time you jump to defense or attack. Because our enemies are never as evil as they seem, and our friends never as noble, and using those labels, “friend” and “enemy,” labels often printed by the words of others, to determine the merit of someone’s position is dishonest and counterproductive. When our relationship to someone determines our ability to agree with them we put ourselves in contradictory positions, but more importantly we have decided on the conclusion before ever hearing the premises, and that simply will not do.