Dan Savage’s column has always been a sometimes-entertaining example of pandering to one’s audience and earning revenue through controversy. Now, however, Savage seems to have made the leap from occasionally funny sexual entertainment shockster to ideological Doberman. Sure, his narrow-minded bias is employed for only the best of motivations, but isn’t that always the case? The first reply in this column — currently a popular social media buzz-link — is a showcase of dirty rhetorical tricks and blatant bigotry, covered with a thin sheet of popular sentiment (at least probably popular among his regular readers).
“L.R.,” the writer to whom Savage is responding, expresses exactly one opinion that may be taken as anti-gay: “As someone who… does not support gay marriage…” This was apparently enough to justify a very nasty ad hominem, ad your-whole-presumed-social-group-inem attack. Sections of Savage’s reply are reproduced below, with my comments:
“Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: F*** your feelings.”
It seems Savage packed the following assertions into that line:
- Gay kids are dying.
- You do not support gay marriage.
- Therefore, there is no need for me to give even minimally respectful consideration to your words.
Niiice. I wonder if Mr. Savage would agree with this rhetorical approach in some other context, such as justification to invade Afghanistan. “Mr. President, I feel that a full-scale invasion might be an overreaction.” “Mr. Reporter, Americans are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: F*** your feelings.”
What do you think? Is it OK to use a current crisis to completely marginalize the views of someone who is honestly trying to find common ground on the crisis topic? Perhaps just as disturbing is Savage’s implicit assertion (later to be made explicit) that opinions such as those of L.R. are exactly why “gay kids are dying.”
“A question: Do you ‘support’ atheist marriage? Interfaith marriage? Divorce and remarriage? All are legal, all go against Christian and/or traditional ideas about marriage, and yet there’s no ‘Christian’ movement…”
This one’s not as dramatic, but it’s still a dirty trick. No response to L.R.’s request that Savage tone down his anti-religious rhetoric; instead, Savage attacks the consistency of Christian behavior in related areas. Reminds me of the parody of Bush 43, in which someone asks him a question about his policies, and he responds, “Why do you hate freedom?” Perhaps we as a civilization have become so numbed to the tricks played on us by mainstream-media talking heads that we simply can’t see that a counterattack is not the same thing as a reasonable response to a concern. Also, there have been such movements in the past (except, maybe, atheist marriage), but those who iniated them lost the legal and social battles. I would have thought Savage would know that.
“And—sorry—but you are partly responsible for the bullying and physical violence being visited on vulnerable LGBT children.”
As I would write on any of my students’ papers if they used such logic, this is an empirical question and the statement is unsuported. In this context, I think it’s downright irresponsible. It is incumbent on Mr. Savage to demonstrate that people with views like those of L.R. (recap: loves the Lord; does not support gay marriage; heartbroken about consequences of bullying of gay individuals; thinks we are all imperfect, fallible, and in need of a savior; thinks it’s not OK to believe anyone is better or more worthy than someone else; thinks it is OK to take public figures to task for making blanket discriminatory statements about a large, diverse group of religious people based on a small number of observations) are “partly responsible” for “bullying and physical violence” toward vulnerable LGBT children. What is the evidence of this? How strong is the evidence?
As I tell my students, if you don’t have data to support your statements, at least find good reasoning, and reduce the certainty of your statement accordingly. If you don’t even have good reasoning, then why are you writing such a thing? Test it, Mr. Savage. Use your dollars or your influence to support some research to answer your question, instead of simply flinging the accusations around. It’s not an impossible study: get a nice, representative sample of gay kids or young adults who have been bullied, go find the bullies, do some assessments and data collection with the bullies’ parents, and find out if they’re like L.R. You could also test the assertion that people like L.R. are indirectly responsible for gay kids being bullied, though that would take fancier research design; still hardly beyond the scope of good behavioral science. Wouldn’t that be better than simply accusing anyone who disagrees of sharing responsibility for the deaths of children? I don’t know what the actual facts in this area will turn out to be, but until someone does, perhaps Savage should refrain from lambasting large social groups with what must be assumed to be nothing more than his suppositions.
Early on in the mess o’words, Savage begins to express a discerible “logic.” At this point it appears to be:
- Gay kids are dying from bullying
- L.R. says he does not support gay marriage
- L.R. is part of the reason gay kids are dying.
Except actually there seems to be another point, when we read a little farther:
2 1/2. L.R. is Christian
And that’s where it gets really ugly. How ugly? Let’s find out. Note that Savage never clarifies the extent to which his most vitriolic remarks should be applied, but they seem at least to be for L.R., and to include a vague category of people who self-identify as Christians. Here’s my understanding of the not-very-subtle meaning of some of the remarks:
“…even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way…”
(a) “Those people” are a group apart from you and yours, and (b) they are bigots.
“…there may not be any gay adults or couples where you live, or at your church, or in your workplace…”
L.R. lives a culturally restricted life.
“…while you can only attack gays and lesbians at the ballot box, nice and impersonally…”
(1) Voting in ways that limit or redefine legal marriage for people in gay and lesbian relationships is a personal attack on gay and lesbian people.
(2) People who vote like this prefer to hurt others from afar (perhaps they are cowards?).
(3) L.R. is such a person.
“Real gay and lesbian children. Not political abstractions, not ‘sinners.'”
L.R. and/or Christians do not understand the reality of gay/lesbian children, and categorize them as “sinners.”
“Try to keep up…”
L.R. is kind of slow.
“The dehumanizing bigotries that fall from the lips of ‘faithful Christians…'”
(1) Christians who think they are faithful yet hold opinions like those L.R. expressed are not faithful.
(2) Such people say dehumanizing, bigoted things (possibly this means saying they do not “support gay marriage”, though this is not clear).
“…the lies about us that vomit out from the pulpits of churches that “faithful Christians” drag their kids to on Sundays…”
(1) Again with the “faithful Christians” in quotation marks bit.
(2) Children of such people must be forced to attend church.
(3) The religious leaders of such people universally say untrue things about LGBT people.
“…give your children license to verbally abuse, humiliate, and condemn the gay children they encounter at school.”
(1) Children of people like L.R. (or perhaps just Christians with similar views on gay marriage) perceive their parents’ statements (e.g., “I do not support gay marriage”) as license to do all that stuff to gay children.
(2) I think it’s implied that these children apparently actually do such things.
Savage rarely specifies how frequent or common his accusations are, within the outgroup that L.R. belongs to, and that’s another cheap debate trick: leave that kind of thing undefined. The impression is of pervasiveness, but if anyone ever accuses you of that, you can point to your vagueness and claim your comments were only intended to apply to a minority of the target group.
“Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit.”
(1) Holding these opinions is the same as encouraging your children to hurt others.
(2) Such opinions are evidence of personal hate and fear (presumably toward gays or LGBT-related issues).
This is another old trick: characterize opinions differing from yours as being due to some socially-unacceptable impulse (i.e., hate and fear), implicitly ruling out the possibility that they might arise from any rational or positive motivation or mental process.
“…having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry…”
(1) Those who do “not support gay marriage” tell their children that gay marriage is a threat to family.
(2) They also tell their kids that gay sex is displeasing to God
(3) If you disagree with Dan Savage on this point, he will publicly mock your most cherished ideals instead of addressing the substance of the disagreement.
“The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy.”
Since there’s nobody else’s letter being responded to, here, we can only assume Savage is saying that people who say what L.R. said about gay marriage also see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy of full civil equality. And of course there’s another causal statement, though this one at least has some support in the form of research from other areas: children do tend to accept their parents’ opinions in many areas (though Savage might also want to read up on research showing that this doesn’t happen nearly as much as parents might wish it did).
“…we’re seeing the fruits of [your encouragement, hatred, and fear]: dead children.”
At this point, we can sketch a rough picture of the full Dan Savage Theory of How Gay Children Get Bullied to Death:
Step 1: People (possibly only Christians) who do not “support gay marriage” say things like this where their children can hear it. It does not matter what else gets said (e.g., anything about tolerance, acceptance, humility, equality, etc.).
[unclear: The theory may also stipulate that people with these opinions are necessarily filled with hate and fear, are not religiously faithful, force their children to attend churches where the leaders tell blatant lies about gay people, and tell their children gay marriage is a threat to family. Also, the theory may stipulate that such people are less intelligent than those who have different opinions.]
Step 2: Children of such people perceive such comments [again, not clear whether this only refers to the comments in step 1 or to all the comments Savage later atrributes to his ill-defined outgroup] as license to hurt any gay children they happen to know.
Step 3: These gay children experience significant harm (this is a charitable reading of Savage’s comments), and may die as a result.
If supported, this theory might require some serious changes in how we talk and behave toward gay/lesbian issues (not just toward individuals), because–in the “strict” reading of the theory–simply disagreeing on the point of gay marriage rights is enough to cause your children (or your children’s friends) to bully their gay friends to death.
This kind of theory has serious implications for public policy and debate. If the theory Savage has outlined were to be supported, then we might also reasonably expect to find that:
- Atheists expressing contempt for their neighbors who do not recycle will lead children to bully their non-recycling neighbors’ children to death, even if they also talk about what wonderful people these neighbors are.
- Baptists who talk too much about patriotism may lead their children to contribute to the deaths of children who have doubts about American cultural values.
- Classic rock fans expressing disdain of “emo” music may lead their children to bully emo kids to death.
- Voting a Democrat ticket in the next election and telling one’s family about one’s opposition to the Republican political platform may lead children to kill Republican children.
- Muslims who politely express an opinion that they do not support America’s consumerism or Middle-East interventionism are partially responsible for 9/11.
You see where this is going, and how ludicrous it is. I do not in any way condone what has happened to the many children recently reported to have suffered from bullying or violence because of their sexual orientation. I don’t even discount the possibility that a chain of events like what Savage has so viciously outlined could turn out to be real. This piece of writing is not intended to endorse any particular political, social, or even moral position, except one:
Bad thinking and bad logic are still bad, even when they are employed in the service of a popular (or even objectively right!) cause. Prejudice is always the product of faulty thinking, but those who express it always think they’re being reasonable. If cornered on their sloppy (or even directly unethical) argumentation, they sometimes bust out a version of “ends justify means” rationale. But they are wrong. In many cases, their means are all you really need to know about them.
“…at schools filled with bigoted little monsters created not in the image of a loving God, but in the image of the hateful and false “followers of Christ” they call Mom and Dad.”
Does Savage really not see the mind-exploding irony (or hypocrisy) of writing something like this in a popularly-read newspaper column when his entire thesis seems to be that even carefully-phrased disagreements about others’ identities can turn into child violence? By his theory, he should probably be responsible (or, as he puts it, “partially responsible”) for about a thousand juvenile-perpetrated murders of Christian children, by now.
Perhaps Mr. Savage’s real reason for writing his vicious little piece was to generate some controversy in non-readers of his column and some good old moral indignation in the readers. Or maybe his real reason is expressed best by one of the first phrases he wrote to a reader who had civilly expressed a difference of perspective:
“Did that hurt to hear? Good.”