After years of analyzing conflicting narratives associated with this (and other) public conversations, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by how far apart different our understandings are of certain sociopolitical words in the American vocabulary. In the LGBT-religious conservative conversation, for instance, people understand words like “acceptance,” “compassion,” “love,” and “hatred” very differently (not to mention “identity,” “choice” “change,” etc).
I’m personally convinced that these contrasting meanings play out in many important ways – and that a public conversation that acknowledges (and explores) them could be helpful for pretty much everyone. However, rather than having rich, vibrant conversation about what it means to accept or be inclusive or compassionate or loving or hateful, the public conversation has pretty consistently moved in another direction: towards a single-minded focus on something much more black and white:
- Do you accept and love people…or not?
- Are you affirming and inclusive…or not?
- Are you committed to justice and equality…or not?
- Are you hateful and intolerant…or not?
To those asking these sorts of questions, they seem to be a fair and crucial inquiry that brings greater attention right where it needs to happen. In doing so, however, I’ve often wondered why we are so quick to ask questions that overlook the existence of fundamentally different understandings of basic terms. Why not make space for a rich conversation about this first?
In the absence of that conversation, this dominant framing exerts a strong (often unconscious) influence over what we end up talking about (or not talking about), as well as what ends up happening (or not) “in real life.”
Welcome to the New Black-and-White. Once the public conversation about gay rights is boiled down into the sort of dichotomies described above, participants are pressed into endless debates about who deserves the title of “loving” or “affirming” or “inclusive” or “accepting” or “hateful” (or not).
Once again, what these words actually mean – and the fact that we’re not remotely on the same page about basic definitions – gets overlooked with remarkable consistency. Instead, we’ve got important work to do: sorting out who the loving, inclusive and compassionate people/institutions are…(and who are not).
Thus we have church congregations worthy of the title “accepting” and “inclusive” – and those that are not. We have designated “anti-LGBT” and “gay-affirming” schools and businesses, and those that are not. And we have individual teachers, political leaders and citizens who are sufficiently “enlightened” – and those who are woefully, lamentably not.
This is an interesting cultural turnaround, since it’s usually been my side – the religious conservatives – talking endlessly in black-and-white terms. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Demons and Angels.
Now we find ourselves on the receiving end of another parallel universe of striking dichotomies.
To be completely fair, then, both sides in this conversation have their “black and white” and their conception of the public good (and bad). One gay Christian columnist describes the way both communities can dichotomize the world: “When I was a Christian child, I divided the world the way I was supposed to. There were good guys and there were bad guys. There were godly people and there were sinners. There were cowboys and there were Indians. When I was a gay college student, I was guided by this same principle. There were gays and there were homophobes. There were New Englanders and there were Southern knuckle-draggers. There was Anderson Cooper and there was Fox News.”
Welcome to the Black-and-White World. To open up this conversation even more, let’s acknowledge that it’s only natural for human beings to reach different conclusions about “the good” in society. In addition, it’s only natural to want to bring that good (and those views) into the world – and it’s only natural for one group’s view of “the good” to be more popular and more enshrined in law than another’s.
Whereas in the past, the “known world” was carved up into categories of good and bad that generally reflected an orthodox Judeo-Christian worldview, every day there is new evidence of another moral universe taking over. From court-cases to legal battles to front-page newspaper stories, it seems to many religious conservatives as if a “new right and wrong” has arrived in town – and is now dictating the terms of our public conversation.
So are you loving and accepting…or not? In favor of justice and equality…or not?
Depending on which category you land in, a new variety of cultural rewards and punishments are levied: Want a job in academia? Want professional accreditation? Want tax-breaks? Want to keep a high-profile job (anywhere)?
People who hold orthodox Judeo-Christian convictions suddenly find themselves on the “wrong side of history”generally – and specifically, facing real consequences for publicly mentioning their sex and gender-related religious beliefs. Based on my recent experiences on the job market, I’ve almost given up on the possibility of life in academia – simply because I’ve participated in dialogue as a religious conservative. One religious conservative professor told me recently that his opportunities for recruitment by others universities dried up almost overnight as soon as he signed an amicus brief in the Obergefell v. Hodges case.
The point is not to add More Grievance to a conversation already punch drunk with accusation day and night. Nor is it to get paranoid about injustice around every corner – or to start comparing oppression’s (“oh, boo-hoo to the poor religious conservatives not getting their dream jobs…how does that compare to what real marginalized groups face every day, HUH?!”).
That’s not the conversation I want. Things have turned out fine for me – and the frustration I carry today is not personal.
What’s more, the fact that people hold profoundly different views of the “public good” is not only not a problem; it could be a huge benefit to us…IF we could talk about them.
Is that happening?
Vibrant public conversation. Isn’t it about…time? Ancient Aristotle envisioned a public square where people of widely disparate beliefs came together to debate “the public good.” Wouldn’t it be great if our communities, our schools and our universities could become that space – with all voices welcome, and all voices heard?
In order to know the “full truth” of the matter, my brilliant gay Christian friend and co-author Arthur Pena often writes about our desperate societal need for a more widely transparent and vulnerable conversation – one that makes space for not only disagreement, but frustration too.
Despite the many levels of personal, real-life consequences that flow from these different conceptions of “the good,” I would argue that most of these disagreements remain unacknowledged and unexplored – at least in any meaningful way.
Instead of vibrant exploration across our most fundamental differences, public spaces are increasingly becoming polarized and politicized to the point that this kind of conversation stops…or never starts.
Don’t take my word for it. Read anything Jonathan Haidt or Jonathan Rausch or Joan Blades or Liz Joyner or Ralph Benko or David Blankenhorn or Parker Palmer are writing about political conversation these days.
We have no shortage of encouragement to move in the direction of a richer public conversation. And yet people seem to care very little about the possible deepening-of-discourse (even in an age of a Credible Trump Presidency…or perhaps because of that?)
In the absence of a deeper conversation with wider space for disagreement, I predict one pattern will continue.
The Black-and-White Pressure-Cooker. Especially if not examined openly, these dichotomies will continue having profound effects on individual and collective decisions. This is especially evident in personal choices about family life and faith. In each case, the dichotomies reviewed earlier present only two options for those trying to navigate tough personal situations:
- Closeted..or openly gay?
- Staying loyal to my current spouse…or seeking my “true happiness”?
- Embracing my faith…or my sexuality?
- Loving my faith community…or my gay child?
The resulting pressure is huge, especially when no other viable option is considered. Thus we arrive in a place where a mother with questions about her gender/sexuality put it, “I either embrace myself and let myself be truly happy or do what is ‘right’ by my kids.”
Black and white…where’s the choice in that?
Thus we arrive at a place where a youth in our faith community with gender identity questions became convinced his only two options were to stay a part of our congregation and be miserable (due, of course, to our lack of “love” for him) – or leave and become happy (by being “true to who he really is”).
Umm…no brainer, right? Where’s the choice in that?
There is none. Not a real one, at least. As the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci once wrote, when a particular story has become big and strong enough, it “renders other options unthinkable.”
Finding another kind of happiness in your faith community? Seeking greater joy through loyalty to your current family members? Embracing both your sexuality and your faith? Loving both your child and your faith with all your heart?
NOT even on the table for many people. Not even a possibility.
Can we change that?
If so, then we can have a public conversation that would make old Aristotle proud – weighing in the balance our contrasting views of so very many precious questions.
If not, then get in line for your conversion to the New Morality in Town.
The New Right Way. The New One True Path. The New Enlightenment.
Get in line, or risk being scorned as one of Those People…you know, the ones who haven’t yet learned what “love” really is yet?
…whatever “love” means anyway.
Jacob Hess is the author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and socio-political issues. He currently directs the health non-profit All of Life which offers free online classes exploring applications of mindfulness for those facing mental health challenges. Jacob has (co)authored three books: You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong, Once Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore and A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference). Two other projects – Red Blue Dictionary and My Science Can Beat Up Your Science, will be released this fall. His work with Phil Neisser at State University of New York has been featured on This American Life and was recently honored by Public Conversations Project. His many wonderful writing collaborators and dialogue partners disagree in all sorts of ways with Jacob’s religious conservative views, and this essay only represents his own convictions. As a proud partner of Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and a long-term member of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, Jacob’s life work is dedicated to making space for thoughtful, good-hearted people to find understanding (and affection) while exploring together the deepest of disagreements.