Occasionally, I think for a moment that I ought to be less of a curmudgeon. Just momentarily. And then I revert to type.
I suppose I will always see too much wrong with the world to ever truly lighten up about it. I suspect that there’s a self-reinforcing cycle at work here: Because I can tolerate acknowledging and listening to what is painful and unjust in life with compassion and with clear, sober vision, I work successfully in the eye of a human storm of illness, misery, trauma, neglect, and loss. And working in the eye of such a storm, I am never far enough from the painful and damaging aspects of life that I can be carefree about the dangers concealed around life’s every bend.
I had fresh occasion to think about this the other day as I got back on the freeway after dropping my son at camp for the day, and tuned in for a couple of minutes to the morning show banter on a popular local FM station. It happened to be the day after Judge Vaughn Walker issued his heartening ruling in the Proposition 8 case, and I had stayed up late to read it in its entirety. The juxtaposition of Walker’s thoughts with the ribbing going on among the twenty-something jocks on the staff at my son’s camp and the repartee of radio personalities was like driving down the highway on a pleasant day and catching a sudden whiff of road-killed skunk: visceral, impressive, timeless.
So here’s my curmudgeonly gripe for the day: I do not wish to lighten up about the generations that follow mine--the one that coaches at my son’s sports camp, for instance--who use the terms “gay,” or “gaywad” and the like, as terms of derision for what is weak, lame, dorky, or otherwise undesirable. And I don’t want to give media personalities a pass when they use the term “retard” to characterize what’s foolish or gauche--even if it’s a term I used myself as a child--and when they engage in sexist rants about women, or men, or vent their spleen about the idiosyncratic ways of recent immigrants. Oh, I know the defense…it’s just joking, not serious; “gaywad” really isn’t about gay people.
I learned from Erik Erikson years ago that a normal part of identity consolidation during development is the forceful rejection of alternate identities; that 8-year-old girls and 8-year-old boys think all things about the opposite sex are disgusting for reasons that are developmentally necessary for gender consolidation, and are ultimately benign, in their place. But I have gradually come to a firmer and firmer conclusion that spiritually we all need to grow--and those who conceive of themselves as spiritual leaders ought to lead us--beyond the collective expression of our 8-year-old selves. There are many objects of scorn that we deride (joking or not) as hated and inferior “others” which qualitatively are in fact merely “other”—not deserving of hate and not in any demonstrable way inferior to or less deserving than anyone else. The luxury of deriding them is a regressive pleasure, and I realize it is possible to be too uptight about this, just as it’s possible to be too uptight about poop and dirt. But I’d like to make the case that not being censorious enough about it, not aspiring sufficiently to an ideal of transcending it, carries the potential for needless harm and sometimes tragic harm. Which is why I think it’s more incumbent on spiritual leaders than say, handball partners in the locker room, to call forth from us our better angels rather than to demagogue our pre-adolescent hobgoblins.
I know I have spent my life especially attuned to the phenomena of scapegoating and stereotyping. I have never readily identified with the pleasure in generalizing about women and men, husbands and wives, breeders and homos, Latinos and Jews and WASPs, lawyers and doctors and construction workers. I realize that the attraction is there. I just found it much more likely, for example when visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum for the first time, that I’d identify with the position of Jews as targets of Nazi propaganda: There but for the grace of God, I thought, go I. The Nazis had their following, and Pat Robertson has his.
I think that especially those who purport to guide us to our higher selves should chastise us for the derision we heap on someone, anyone, whose principal transgression is being unlike us. It’s sometimes the opposite sex, sometimes another ethnicity, sometimes a different cultural group. (If you lack the imagination to think of the particulars, you can always rent Oliver Stone’s film version of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio for a compelling litany.) But too often the purported spokespersons for spiritual enlightenment, the ones who demand and get attention from the media for their supposed representation of righteousness, are those most entrenched in demonizing those outside their own little group.
When these demagogues engage in labeling my set of sensitivities as “political correctness,” my limbic system is kicked into overdrive. It’s in that moment I’m most able to comprehend outbreaks of civil war. I frequently think, but never actually say, that when armed conflict breaks out between threatened white people in America and the brown and black people they see as the enemy, or between those who want a Christian theocracy and the infidels and nonbelievers who resist, I have no doubt that I will take up arms, and whose side it will be for. But in the interest of avoiding a recurrence of civil war, and promoting civil accord, I truly wish that those who self-identify as spiritual leaders of every stripe would embrace the wisdom in guiding us toward the light--which is to say, away from the regressive pleasure we take in deriding the people unlike us as inferior, wrong, ridiculous, and--more than anything else--as a danger and a threat to us and our security.
This was the most welcome aspect for me of Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in Prop 8: He spoke directly about the lack of evidence for the often-repeated assertion that marriage for gay men and lesbians will undermine marriage for heterosexual couples. He puts this fantasy squarely where it belongs—in the realm of imaginary goblins. It is an assertion that belongs alongside the idea that fighting next to black men will demoralize white troops, that admitting women to the study of medicine will destroy confidence in the healing power of the profession, that the afflicted and the damaged should be hidden away from public view in asylums in remote small towns. He clearly articulates that this particular religious dictum is not the basis for distinctions in law. I would go one step further, and say what was beyond Judge Walker’s task in deciding this case, which is that this kind of religious thinking is lacking a mature psychology, and therefore a mature spirituality. It is religion far too ill-acquainted with the better angels of the human spirit. All of us would be better off if CNN, when they went to find spokespersons for people of religious faith, made it their practice to quote less regressive religious thinkers. This would be contrary to their own instinct to find conflict and drama in current events, but sometimes there’s virtue in less conflict, and more conciliation.
There is the famous Martin Niemoller quote that starts, “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a communist. And then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew….” I happen to be of the opinion that Niemoller’s warning is one we need to hear in every time, and every place, as long as there is a human condition. The grownups need to chide the children for their uncivil impulses. In the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." It is no coincidence that this line comes in the middle of a discourse on the nature of love. While it is cited most often at weddings, and therefore has become associated with romantic love, I think it would be a breath of fresh air to hear it cited as a guide for civic life. The planet urgently needs us all to love our neighbor. The idea that “he who is not like me must be derided in the interest of my security” is childish. Understandable, and childish.
I sometimes wonder--has Pat Robertson (or James Dobson or Cardinal George) actually read his own New Testament? If he did, he didn't hear it saying what I heard it say.