Alex Blaze

Sturm und Drang

Filed By Alex Blaze | February 10, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Christopher Columbus, indians, LGBT, oppression, philosophy, prejudice

I posted, elsewhere, a couple months ago, and I mentioned without even thinking about it that there was no guarantee that the US was going to get more queer-accepting in the future, and, if it did, that it would remain that way. That upset a straight person in the comments. He pointed to some statistics about how young people were more likely to vote against Prop 8, and I pointed out that there were several times in history when people were more accepting of same-sex desire or bending the rules around gender, and other times when people were less accepting, and that there is no general movement towards queer equality.

I have little faith in humanity's ability to collectively mature or gain wisdom, and a quick glance at history would show there's little evidence to support such a theory. As critics of the way history is taught have pointed out for decades, history isn't a story about the development of humankind, predetermined to arrive where we are today.

Anyway, this person responded:

why would they [young voters] swing back? Young people grow up today with gay friends and family members. From a young age they see it as no big deal. I see it progressing in a manner similar to interracial marriage.[...]

I agree that many people sacrificed and worked hard to make the progress thus far happen. I think for the most part the war has been won, and all that is left at this point is cleaning up bit by bit state by state. The question is not whether gay people get rights but when. There is just no reason I can see anyhow that young people would start to reject their gay friends and family and try to reduce the rights they are acquiring.

There are definitely many people who think like him. They see the goal of LGBT equality as something that will happen, whether we work for it or not, and our work only makes it happen sooner. It's a bizarre understanding of the world, but, if you think about it, not all that different from other ways Americans, especially progressive Americans, understand the world.

Generally, progressives see intolerance, of blacks, Jews, gays, trans people, etc., as coming from an amorphous "fear of difference." And, like most fears of the unknown, it can be solved with a little education. If people just see how cool gays or what-have-you are, then they won't want to discriminate.

It's a shallow understanding of oppression that doesn't give all that much respect to the oppressors - it assumes that they don't know what they're doing, that they act in "ignorance." But in the real world, if it was all about ignorance and a fear of the unknown, we would have solved these problems a long time ago. For example, slave-owners generally knew many, many black people, but that didn't make them the biggest challengers against that institution. Discrimination against black people happened for many economic and psychological reasons, but ignorance isn't one of them.

Oppressors generally know what they do - that's how they become oppressors. The expression "speaking truth to power" grates on my nerves because of that; power knows the truth about what it's doing, it just doesn't care!

But it's an all-too-easy way to think about oppression, for several reasons. First, it lumps all -isms together: if it's a fear of difference, we understand the prejudice, and, voila, we don't have to analyze it anymore. It makes the world easier to understand, and I don't ever underestimate people's intellectual laziness, especially since issues relating to identity and oppression don't interest most people.

Second, it makes the progressive feel good about her lack of prejudice - she's simply more educated than the average bear. This is partly where progressives pick up the "snooty" label; as much as I hate to admit it, there are people on the left that I've see who come off as terribly arrogant just because they support X, Y, or Z piece of legislation. As if anyone who knew what they did about whatever group is affected by that legislation would come to have the same opinion about it.

Third, it's attractive because it fits neatly into America's history and the our way of understanding the world. That is, people will continue to work hard, the world will improve, and we can constantly expand and improve our collective quality of life. It probably didn't help that this country was started on the notion that this land was empty and that this country had to be expanded westward, always leaving space for development, but we see this mentality manifest itself pretty much everywhere, including in the recent financial crisis, which was, fundamentally, caused by the fact that the housing market was supposed to continue to grow so that those bad credit default swaps would eventually have value.

But, going back to queer equality specifically, there are no guarantees that we're going to get an equal spot at the table, and, if we do, that we'll keep it forever and ever. In many ways, our society has created a space for queer people right now, no matter how small or large a space it may be for some of us, because it works for society's goals. Should the way our society function change drastically, or should its goals fundamentally shift, there's nothing that guarantees the little lot we've carved out for ourselves.

Consider this data from the Patrick Egan study of Prop 8 results (links to pdf), which was discussed in the LGBT blogosphere a month ago because of its racial analysis:


While age affected how people voted on Prop 8 to a moderate degree, knowing someone who was gay or lesbian didn't affect someone's vote all that much. Considering all we hear about how if people just get to know us before voting, that's pretty surprising.

What that suggests is that the age trend on LGBT issues, that is, how younger people tend to be more likely to vote in favor of the queers on ballot initiatives like this or are more likely to support us in general, is mostly unrelated to actually knowing someone who's LGBT.

I would suggest that instead it says more about the changing values of the coming generation and how, because of their beliefs on a variety of issues, goals, and how they understand the world, they're more likely to come to the conclusion that someone being gay is no big deal and that marriage isn't just about a man's power over a woman. But actually knowing us? Jeez, lots of people know us and don't particularly like us. Even Rick Warren says he has gay friends.

Discrimination, as shocking as this statement may be, often benefits the dominant class. And prejudices and stereotypes are often more powerful than mere ignorance that, once exposed to light, vanishes into the shadows. The way people understand the world is a complex combination of disposition and experience, and a lot of it isn't logical. And simply saying to someone that gays and lesbians and bisexuals are just as capable of monogamous fidelity as heterosexuals are doesn't mean that they're going to necessarily believe it, or that they're going to vote against a measure like prop 8.

The most we can do is try to work with the existing value framework we've set up and convince the dominant society that our rights, autonomy, or opportunity is required by their own values, which is very different from thinking that we can just educate away the current problem.

Otherwise it reminds me of something I read somewhere but can't find at the moment, about how Christopher Columbus kept on telling his crew that he wanted to teach the Indians he encountered in the US to "speak." Not "speak Spanish" or "speak Italian" or "speak a European language," but to speak. They had to correct him that the Indians already knew how to speak - they were speaking their own language. But to him, that didn't count.

It's not like all the people who voted against us in California or elsewhere know nothing about us; they just don't think what we'd like them to think about us. And that's much harder to fight against, since there's no reason that Americans can't go back to ignorance if, in fact, it was never ignorance at all, just a different set of values and knowledges.

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 10, 2009 4:09 PM

Very good analysis, Alex!

Just curious: how much does living in France influence your viewpoint, would you say?

I ask because I find France to be a society in which institutions traditionally associated with social advancement remain strong, especially compared to the US where they were never as strong to begin with, and where they have suffered almost catastrophic collapse in the face of decades of Republican attack. These institutions include labor unions, the educational system, the Democratic Party, and the press. In the US, I'd add "progressive churches," but I think that's less a force in France where the Catholic church historically acts as a reactionary force.

Your analysis presents progressive social change as work, rather than as a natural product of history. (And I agree with you!) After 30+ years of dumbing down our public discourse, defunding education, destroying our labor unions, and the constant media drumbeat of Republican talking points, however, Americans have come to see social changes as isolated historical developments that "just happen." Hence, globalization is historically inevitatble, not the result of deliberate decisions on the parts of elected officials and captains of industry. Deteriorating schools are inevitable because government is the problem, not because Republicans (and Democrats) have quit taxing corporations and rich people and thereby defunded education. The media is biased in favor of liberals because all elites are liberal, not as a result of corporate ownership, media cosolidation, and government deregulation.

I could go on, but you get my point. Given this pervasive outlook, is it surprising that young people also see social acceptance of LGBT folks as an inevitable trend divorced from any real world effort or historical events?

In the end, this collapse of our traditionally progressive institutions is what worries me more than any other single historical event of the past three decades because without these institutions, progressives end up operating in a vacuum, isolated, with no structure and often little or no historical memory.

In France, on the other hand, progressive institutions remain vibrant and strong. Yes, they are under attack by reactionary forces but they are fighting back--and more power to them! Look at the strikes over the past two weeks in response to the economic collapse. In America, in the same period, we have had nothing.

Yes, France had a lot to do with this, although more just because their queer activism and the state of queer rights are different, not necessarily better or worse (I do know a couple trans people who generally point to the US as being a country that's much further along than France!).

When everything's so different, it becomes apparently that we're not all moving along in a line. Also, people have a different understanding of history, without constant expansion being a driving theme.

Although it is funny we should talk about the French - the title of the post comes from the name of the German counter-enlightenment, which was a response to French and English philosophy about reason triumphing, rationalism improving society, etc. But one thing the French do have is a stunning fatalist streak.

Oh, yeah, reactionary forces! Sarkozy does want to take away everything here in terms of safety nets and regulation, and turn this place in to a Randian wet-dream. But at least this country is full of fascists like Austria.

Also too, totally about progressive infrastructure. America needs the EFCA!

Truth to power works internally with effective leadership styles because it help guard against "yes-men." Externally it is usually an indicator of self-congratulatory moral superiority.

I appreciate your analysis of discrimination/oppression. Admitting that others actually have reasons for what they do is a giant step toward being taken seriously by those we wish to persuade. It also means that learning the opposition's language and world view isn't the same thing as capitulating.

Absolutely. I got into an argument with someone on this site a while back because he didn't want to admit that there was any reason for homophobia other than fear of difference. It happened just because, and eventually we'd overcome it.

Great, and that might pull some people over who are ambivalent about LGBT people, but we could have a better understanding. Although one thing I don't see us ever really being able to do is fill in the gap for whatever reward they were getting in the first place.

As for speaking truth to power, yes, that works just fine for people who share the same goals. Although if one person has power and another doesn't, then they're not likely to share the same goals, specifically the one about maintaining power. I think trans people and liberal LGB people saw that two years ago (has it really been that long?) with HRC on the ENDA - they spoke their truths to that (relatively) powerful institution, but its goals were to maintain incoming funds, so it didn't turn around.

In the truth to power part I was thinking about way more localized situations - namely office dynamics. For example am I able to tell my boss what he needs to hear rather than what I think he wants to hear. To use your HRC example, are staffers willing/constitutionally able to tell the ED what he needs to hear rather than what he wants to hear. Does the organizational culture demand that kind of dynamic or do they demand sycophants.

You can't expect to eliminate hostility and prejudice - merely reduce the social acceptability of expressing such prejudice and reduce the percentage of people who hold such prejudice to a strong degree.

Language and normalization are important tools for increasing the percentage of accepting or not actively objecting people and decreasing the social acceptability and consensus-making utility of expressed prejudice. If it is considered perfectly ok to speak prejudice about a relatively powerless minority in a relatively mild way, it soon becomes ok to say even more extreme things, and if these statements are not broadly condemned, eventually the minority can be called life unworthy of living, subhumans who want to rape innocent children, and so on. We all saw how that turned out. A very large percentage of people have little ability to resist perceived consensus opinion of their social / work / family group or of perceived public opinion. That's why propaganda works.

Go read this free e-book: The Authoritarians, by Robert Altemeyer. Available here for downloading:

This is a lay summary of social psychology experiments concerning dynamics between leaders and followers, characteristics of the different types of leaders and followers and what each "needs", and relationship of all this to politics. One of the interesting things about (usually religious) authoritarian followers is ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and thus be resistant to intellectual argument that does not directly address emotional need of the follower. These people have an "It's true because I want it to be true" attitude. They don't question their chosen authority until the argument/problem becomes exceedingly personal and concrete, and often not even then.

Also, go check out Orcinus, , a site specializing in study of extremist group activity and methodology.

Thanks for the link. I've absolutely been meaning to read that!

It's always easy to say, "I have gay friends." It's harder to actually act like it.

It's always easy to say, "I have gay friends." It's harder to actually act like it.