Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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How Dyadism Ruined the Best Moment at SexTalk

2013.February.12

Two weeks ago, Southwestern University hosted its annual Brown Symposium in Georgetown, Texas

— wait, let me highlight why this is interesting:

Last week, the oldest university in Texas hosted a symposium on sex, specifically how we communicate about sex.

And with a little help at home, I was able to attend. “SexTalk: A Symposium with Benefits,” was the most-attended Brown Symposium in memory, and the one most attended by Southwestern students. As easy as it would be to snark about how topics like “Discoveries of Inter-relationships in the Circumpolar North” or “The Music of Olivier Messiaen” should have been equally crowd-pleasing, I prefer to reflect on why this event was such a remarkable draw, for students and visitors alike. And that list starts with Dan Savage.

For the two of you who don’t already know (and even that’s probably inflating my readership a bit), Dan Savage is the nationally syndicated columnist behind Savage Love, a bawdy verbal romp that debuted with Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, over twenty years ago. From the beginning, the column has centered on hetero people writing in for sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, who dispenses information and insults with a wink and a “fuck you” toward the stereotype of the sassy gay friend. Along the way, he has sprinkled in political, queer, and non-monogamous content: he coined the term “monogamish” to describe committed partnerships that include threesomes or other sanctioned dalliances and even leads Google searches with readers’ namesake for former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

Many members of the audience were already fans of the column (as well as the podcast, which one friend has described as the only podcast she could listen to due to its superior production values). You know someone has attained iconic status when it feels awkward to only say the person’s first or last name. “Dan” sounds like a person, “Savage” sounds like a witness in a newspaper article, but “Dan Savage” is an entity. If you already knew about Dan Savage coming in, there’s a good chance his Q&A with a nervous SU graduate would only have confirmed what you already believed, good or bad (and depending on how far back you’d been reading). He took the stage second, after a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister‘s presentation on reconciling faith and sexuality, and framed himself as a gay nobody who just happened to become a champion of healthy sex and decision-making for all people. Savage Love, as he describes it, is written in the tone of a group of buddies who are sitting around being drunk and honest with one other (adding that his increasingly frequent appearances as commentator in mainstream news outlets are far less casual).

After the strained opener, the audience was invited to ask questions. They mostly furthered earlier topics (griping about our decidedly sex-negative governor, Rick Perry, for example). Then for the penultimate question, Eli took the mic.

(I should explain here that I know Eli… sort of… in that way that the Internet and huddled interdependence can make it difficult for sex-positive activists to NOT vaguely know one another in this state. I believe we were briefly Facebook friends due to some Austin project that never quite took off. If memory serves — and it may not — Eli identifies as genderqueer, but will accept “trans man” if a label is absolutely necessary; to be safe, I’ll tell this story using Eli’s conveniently short name instead of pronouns.)

Eli was the first questioner to be nervous, but also the first to ask anything controversial. In a rambly, somewhat accusatory tone, Eli braved the room to ask Dan Savage about certain patterns of insensitivity. The points were familiar to anyone who’s already seen sex-positive folks roll their eyes over Dan Savage: transphobia, bi-erasure, and general prejudice against queer identities that are far removed from his own (for the record, Dan Savage is a white, married cismale, quasi-monogamous, and the toppy-er partner). Dan Savage had briefly touched on this reputation already, but Eli’s question was far from moot; Eli even cited an earlier crack about a young lesbian having a Justin Bieber poster on her wall as an example of his disregard for effeminate men.

Dan Savage’s response was more rambly than I would have expected, but still calm and respectful toward Eli. He welcomed the concern and reiterated that Savage Love has the tone of a drunk group of friends at the root of its coarseness and its slang, but also its honesty. (Personally, I think Dan Savage’s detractors might be less critical if this were stated in the column’s header, but I’m sure there would be other drawbacks.) He talked a little about how much things have changed for him and the column over its life, but without many specifics. He rambled about his love of effeminate men (such as his husband), which got a lot of laughs but sounded just a little like, “My best friend is black, so I can’t be racist.”

Now, from this point forward, I must apologize for having an even fuzzier memory than usual, but two separate phenomena were taking shape. Positive debate has been on my mind a lot (and it’s no secret I’m skeptical of confrontational structures and dependent upon a minimal amount of affirmation in my activism), so I chose to focus not on the discussion between Eli and Dan Savage, but on the audience’s reaction to it.

We were in a large auditorium, with several hundred people on the floor and plenty more up on a balcony I couldn’t see over. Eli stood in a side aisle, about three-quarters back from the stage; most of the audience had to turn around to see Eli and did so politely at first. When Eli began to speak again, though, much of the crowd bristled.

Eli pressed further, a little more steady this time, saying something about hostility and dismissal toward trans issues. I felt that Eli’s concerns were better stated, but that the audience was less interested; either the crowd of Dan Savage fans felt Eli had already been rebuffed by Dan Savage’s mere awesomeness, or maybe Eli’s point was hitting too close to home. By the time Eli’s two or three sentences were complete, only a handful of people were still looking directly at Eli, and this is where I bristled. The vast majority of the audience had faced forward, literally turning their backs on Eli: half were looking toward Dan Savage on stage (many incredulous, as if to say “Can you believe this person? Don’t they know who you are?” and others just kind of staring blankly), and the rest looked at their feet, their notebooks, anywhere but back at Eli.

Dan Savage, too, got more articulate in his next response, especially regarding his treatment of trans issues. He assured the audience that over the more than two decades of the column, he has learned and grown with the help of critical readers. He also pointed out that he’s never relied solely on his own opinion and frequently brings in experts to check his work or even do it for him; sometimes they disagree with him, but he prints the full exchange anyway. He pointed out that he was tagging in Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein to comment on trans topics 15 years ago, long before anyone else had ever heard of them.

By this point, I think most of the audience members considered Dan Savage to have “won”, and there seemed to be more than a couple of smug smiles facing the front of the room. I detected that Eli and Eli’s allies (few in number, but easy to spot because they were still looking at Eli) were listening intently, and that some of their agitation had melted away. Unfortunately, everyone else was just waiting for the discomfort to pass like an argument over family dinner.

Dan Savage continued that, as an advice columnist, he must work with the questions he receives and that he sometimes eliminates relevant letters because they include language he knows will be too offensive. However, he emphasized, there are not always polite terms for sexual acts and identities that are bold and controversial to the mainstream. Using existing slang gives Dan Savage the freedom to talk to people where they live; as he eliminates slang from inclusion, he must sometimes also eliminate the perfectly reasonable discussions that could come from that slang. The direct consequence of this is that people who don’t know how to write about trans issues consciously enough to be included don’t get included at all, and fewer trans discussions take place than in the past.

In the end, Dan Savage and Eli agreed that Eli could write in and encourage others to do the same. Now this wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was a good answer, and Eli and Eli’s allies were both heard and attentive; maybe I’m being idealistic here, but it seemed like the exchange closed on a mutually respectful note. I felt some of Dan’s answers were a tiny bit derailing, but then I also wondered if Eli might be spoiling for a fight instead of a discussion. I felt like neither was as articulate as they could have been, but they were both being honest and human and, despite the tension in the room, respectful. Most of the audience missed this moment of subtle peace, particularly those who had already decided Dan Savage had “won” (which he hadn’t). That the conversation ended so well was, to me, a testament to their both wanting not to win, but to find a stronger path forward. Everyone who was still paying attention really seemed to come together during this final point; unfortunately, that portion comprised only a fraction of the total audience. It served as a demonstration of how much tone matters and a reminder of how few of us have the courage to sit through awkward, non-competitive conversations — even when they take us someplace better.

I love this kind of dialogue just for existing. I guess it’s fitting that in the time since the Symposium, I’ve been mulling over this piece, by a prominent advocate for marriage equality who managed to befriend Dan Cathy of hate-nugget fame. Like the discussion between Dan Savage and Eli at Southwestern, it is a bit unfocused and inkblotty, allowing readers to reinforce preconceived notions about the parties involved. But agree or disagree, I don’t see a lot of credit going to people who stand up before their allies and say, “Hey, maybe we need a new perspective.”

Now, I’m not a journalist (repeat after me: “Blogging is not journalism.”), but if I were, I would have followed up the Dan Savage/Eli story with research. I would have talked to Eli over the lunch break or in a subsequent interview to find out whether Eli was happy with the exchange. I would have reached out to Dan Savage for comment. I would have obtained a video of the discussion so I could parse out every word. Perhaps I would have looked for other examples of hero worship getting in the way of good discussion or activists whose messages and methods weren’t always in obvious accordance. But I’m just a part-time writer on a nearly quixotic search for better questions and better communication.

It invigorates me to see people discuss an issue beyond some ideological “victory”, but three quarters of the room at Southwestern had no interest in such matters. When I found not so much as a tweet about the exchange, I started wondering if  there might be some conflict avoidance inherent in red-state progressivism. Since many of us (especially allies with little-to-no queer identity) band together in little bubbles, face-to-face activism is both rare and optional. It’s primarily online or in groups. We don’t have to change anyone’s minds, just sit safely at home, secure in the knowledge that we are right.

We tell one another boogeyman stories about how unsafe we are in this state, but we are given a lot of choices and we don’t choose what is difficult or unpopular nearly as often as we’d like to think. We tell ourselves it’s braver to leave what we know and go to liberal oases (Austin, Seattle, DC…) than to stay and live openly as peace-loving, radically inclusive, judgment-defeating neighbors and citizens. How many of us would call out a stranger for saying something offensive or untrue? How many of us leverage our privilege to challenge others where they live? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making choices to avoid conflict (I’ve made them myself), I just don’t want us to fool ourselves. Engaging the issues is not the same as engaging a person, and I suspect that’s a flaw in the system that everyone is happy to ignore. I want to out that this freedom to choose is a privilege, and that quietly choosing between pre-drawn sides reinforces not only the powers that be, but the structures that cycle that powers without transformation. Change still happens, but it is slow. Can we say we know for certain that participating in a movement is easier and more effective than engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with our worldview until we’ve actually tried? Can we say for sure that there even is a movement if we don’t all take such action?

When we approach any discussion looking for an automatic winner and loser, the question I have to ask is, “Why?” My theory: conflict avoidance so pervasive that we lose the ability to see dialogues at all, that we eventually only see debates. Better to be part of an unpopular throng than standing alone somewhere in the crossfire, I guess.

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On Theism and Anti-Theism, Fact and Anti-Fact

2010.March.31

A good friend (who just happens to hold nearly polar opposite beliefs to me politically and theologically) forwarded me the following story (posted verbatim):

‘Let me explain the problem science has with religion.’

The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand. ‘You’re a Christian, aren’t you, son?’

‘Yes sir,’ the student says.

‘So you believe in God?’

‘Absolutely. ‘

‘Is God good?’

‘Sure! God’s good.’

‘Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?’

‘Yes’

‘Are you good or evil?’

‘The Bible says I’m evil.’

The professor grins knowingly. ‘Aha! The Bible! He considers for a moment. ‘Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?’

‘Yes sir, I would.’

‘So you’re good…!’

‘I wouldn’t say that.’

‘But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.’

The student does not answer, so the professor continues. ‘He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Can you answer that one?’

The student remains silent. ‘No, you can’t, can you?’ the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax ‘Let’s start again, young fella. Is God good?’

‘Er..yes,’ the student says.

‘Is Satan good?’

The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. ‘No.’
‘Then where does Satan come from?’

The student falters. ‘From God’

‘That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?’

‘Yes, sir..’

‘Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?’

‘Yes’

‘So who created evil?’ The professor continued, ‘If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.’

Again, the student has no answer. ‘Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?’

The student squirms on his feet. ‘Yes.’

‘So who created them?’

The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question. ‘Who created them?’ There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized. ‘Tell me,’ he continues onto another student. ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?’

The student’s voice betrays him and cracks. ‘Yes, professor, I do.’

The old man stops pacing. ‘Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?’

‘No sir. I’ve never seen Him.’

‘Then tell us if you’ve ever heard your Jesus?’

‘No, sir, I have not..’

‘Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?’

‘No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.’

‘Yet you still believe in him?’

‘Yes’

‘According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist… What do you say to that, son?’

‘Nothing,’ the student replies.. ‘I only have my faith.’

‘Yes, faith,’ the professor repeats. ‘And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.’

The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of His own. ‘Professor, is there such thing as heat? ‘

‘ Yes.

‘And is there such a thing as cold?’

‘Yes, son, there’s cold too.’

‘No sir, there isn’t.’

The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain. ‘You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We can hit down to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest -458 degrees. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.’

Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.

‘What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?’

‘Yes,’ the professor replies without hesitation.. ‘What is night if it isn’t darkness?’

‘You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaning we use to define the word. In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?’

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. ‘So what point are you making, young man?’

‘Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.’

The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. ‘Flawed? Can you explain how?’

‘You are working on the premise of duality,’ the student explains.. ‘You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought.’ ‘It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.’ ‘Now tell me, professor.. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?’

‘If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do.’

‘Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?’

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

‘Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?’

The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided. ‘To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.’ The student looks around the room. ‘Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?’ The class breaks out into laughter. ‘Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, felt the professor’s brain, touched or smelt the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir.’ ‘So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?’

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable. Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers. ‘I Guess you’ll have to take them on faith.’

‘Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,’ the student continues. ‘Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?’ Now uncertain, the professor responds, ‘Of course, there is. We see it Everyday. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in The multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.’

To this the student replied, ‘Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.’

The professor sat down.

If you read it all the way through and had a smile on your face when you finished, mail to your friends and family with the title ‘God vs. Science’

PS: the student was Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein wrote a book titled God vs. Science in 1921…

My response to him:

Good read. :) Sounds like one of our old discussions, eh? Of course mentioning Einstein got me even more interested. Mind if I respond to it a bit for old times’ sake?

I did a bit of research; unfortunately, it wasn’t really Einstein who said it. (according to Snopes) I’ve read a lot of his non-physics stuff, and he was a secular Jew, not a Christian. He did seem to believe in a creator, and often referred to it as God–one of his most famous speculations about quantum mechanics was “I am convinced He [God] does not throw dice.” I have scoured the Internet of evidence of a book called “God vs. Science”, but find nothing less than ten or twenty years old and nothing attached to Einstein’s name. Several compilations exist that detail his beliefs on religion, including Einstein on Cosmic Religion, but it is also recent.

I like the dialectic style of this discussion, and there’s a terrific effort to reconcile science and faith. I haven’t found a whole lot of scientists who are any more dedicated to proving or disproving the existence of a divine power than exist with the rest of the population. Those who do are rather loud about it, of course, but I don’t think they’re any closer to positing science against religion than before. I have most respect for those who will not let their devotion to one preclude respect for the other.

That said, any professor of science or philosophy who expected to start a class by disproving the existence of God would find himself out of a job faster than I can type a sentence. Any philosophy instructor worth his mettle should teach questions, not give out answers, so colleagues would rush to denounce him. And despite the reputation for colleges being godless and anti-Christian, they still have to answer to trustees and parents. :)

My thoughts on the matter:

At the peak of my friendship with this person, we were each proto-ideologues with only bike-riding, Dave Matthews Band, and a sister-like mutual friend in common. He was a vocal Jesus-freak, a butt-busting B-student, and a popular/pious jock (in that order), while I was a vocal atheist (a label I no longer embrace on technicality), a lazy-but-talented A-student, and a nerdy/lascivious artist (in no particular order). It has only been in the last couple of weeks that I have found the word to describe our connection. (That word is “fearlessness”, a rather important but tangential topic for another time.)

The debates don’t really happen any longer; I am often as hesitant to give too much detail about my explorations of humanist spirituality as my latest adventures in sexual liberation.

More often, if a tough topic comes up, it is political. And not even policy debate or platform nuances; just who are we voting for, who am I campaigning for, and a grudging good luck for us both. Honestly, my compliance in this is more of a necessity of time and energy than it is a pullback from controversy. I believe (or would like to) that if my friend and I had an afternoon with nothing to do, we could hammer out the similarities and contentions between our philosophies without raising a word.

Neither of us would change our minds, but we would learn and grow, just as we did all through high school. He kept me from becoming one of those anti-theists like the professor in the story, who must not only be right but smugly prove himself to each Christian he meets; I kept him from becoming an anti-sex racist who blames everything wrong in this country on gays and godless government.

Even as neither of us is terribly moderate, we’re more moderate than we could have been, and I for one am grateful for that perspective no one else was ever able to give me.

When I worked in DC, our award program similarly liked to talk to candidates’ surprise allies or respecting opponents. Someone who was or had once been opposed to a nominee’s work could give us as much perspective as any collaborator or employee.

How someone fights can be even more important than what they believe. If a certain amount of civility seems lacking in today’s politics, don’t just look at how fucked up the other side’s rhetoric/platform/policies have gotten. Look at how you and your allies talk about “the other side”. Look at the rhetoric that you yourself use, the unforeseen consequences of policies you have supported in the past, and who is providing your best anecdotes. Are they angry? Accusatory? Frustrated? Hyperbolic?

Ask yourself why you get worked up when something upsets you. Are there buzz-words that you yourself might have trouble defining without expletives? Are you letting an unrelated wedge issue (gay rights, abortion, gun rights, righteous indignation over Wal-Mart) color your opinion of entire swaths of people and their opinions? If so, not only are you not helping to calm the waters, but you will find yourself more vulnerable to misinformation, which does no one any good.

Aside from the unnecessary and inaccurate invocation of one of my personal heroes (’cause dude, Einstein was awesome), I actually liked the forward from my friend. It didn’t make me a person of faith, but it did juxtapose faith with science without really demeaning either. It didn’t need the tag-on about Einstein to be engaging and thought-provoking. I hope my friend and I still have many more conversations ahead.

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When Is Sex Not Personal?

2008.November.11

First, check this out. If you or anyone you know has been in this situation, congratulations, you live in a world of postmodern sexuality.

Perhaps the only union more awkward than politics and religion is that of politics and sexuality. And wouldn’t you know, it’s tied to those convenient wedge issues the Dems and Reps love to throw at us: if you have a friend or family member who is gay, you have to vote Democratic or you’re forcing them back into the closet. If you have any hesitations about abortion, you have to vote Republican or they’ll become mandatory and paid for with taxes on your fingernail clippings.

Nope, there couldn’t possibly be such aberrations as pro-life Democrats, or gay Republicans.

The difficulty with sexuality as a political issue is that, like religion, it is next to impossible to divorce from the personal experience of each and every voter. Say you had a homoerotic dream one time, does that make you a Democrat? Say you heard about someone who’s had four abortions and you think that’s just too many, does that make you a Republican? Of course not, but because sexuality is so personal, it inspires intense reactions in both extremes, leaving little room for gray on the issues.

To me, one of the funniest things is how sexual politics doesn’t necessarily correspond to one’s sexual proclivities. The most ardent supporters of abortion rights use protection so as not to need them. Most of the gay men I know struggle with their identity not only because their love is forbidden, but because they don’t feel like they have a complete choice in forming that identity. Do I identify as an athlete first? An artist? A father? Or am I relegated to always being a gay athlete, a gay artist, or a gay father? I recently mentioned how Black Americans are struggling over whether to identify gay rights with civil rights, but both peoples have been forced to experience how one piece of individual identity can so easily overshadow all others – regardless of whether it is your preferred identifier.

Wedge issues cause polarization within the broader American community, but they can even polarize the communities FORMED by the division, by forcing members to fight for mainstream recognition by going mainstream or fight for the fringe since that’s the only place you can be yourself. As gay men have come to a more prominent visibility, they have to struggle to develop individual or even community identities beyond stereotypes and pavlovian associations. Admit it, when you think of gay men, you think of pink clothing, musicals, interior decorating, and BUTT SEX. Where is there room for a personal or political identity beyond that?

Does sex ever get to be personal for those whose own American identity is designated for them based on one dimension of lives that are otherwise no more or less complicated than anyone else’s?

If I may offer a conjecture, it is not solely the responsibility of these individuals to ask such questions. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must each (not in spite of our individual proclivities but in celebration of them) recognize that any sexual act is pissing someone off somewhere, and therefor embrace love itself as an act of rebellion.

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