My freshman year of college there was a very conservative Christian. He debated with a gay person via facebook chat about the sinfulness of homosexuality. As you can imagine, it didn’t go very well for the conservative Christian. It’s difficult to try to talk about the sinfulness of behavior that’s normal and healthy. In the end, Mr. Conservative became so frustrated that he just said “Whatever. You’re going to hell anyway.” And then he clicked out of chat, with relish. Almost as if he were happy that bothersome gay person was hell-bound.
And, I mean, he was. Because if that person is hell-bound, then that means that anything the hell-bound person says is a lie worthy of the devil. The Evangelical isn’t losing the argument because he’s confused, or worse, really wrong. It’s that he’s fighting against evil. Behold, my brethren. We wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers of darkness that are so going to hell.
Sending people to hell is the only place left for them to go in such debates. Logic fails them. They only have pseudo-psychology. Nobody who’s anybody cares about their arguments, because it’s now in the collective social consciousness that those arguments are bunk. Over 50 years ago, studies showed that the children of gay/lesbian couples were as well-rounded as those of heterosexual couples. We’re done with that topic. Everybody knows somebody who is gay, and can see that they’re leading pretty normal lives. There’s no correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia. There are LGBTQ* folk that aren’t atheist*. There’s really nothing on these fronts that Evangelical Christians can say without living in an alien and foreign world. Hell is the only place left for them to go.
For hell is alien and foreign. It is based on belief. It’s subjective, non-empirical, and virtually anybody can be sent there.The only thing to do is say that LGBTQ* folk are going to hell, and to claim that all hell-bound people sound perfectly reasonable until you realize that they’re going to hell. Luckily, God has shown Evangelical people the hell-bound nature of the gays, and now these Evangelical Christians can be reassured that the real reason LGBTQ arguments are so alien to them is because they’re coming from hell. Logic reigns, so long as it only comes from Christian minds. Wherfore they take unto themselves the whole armor of God, with the mighty spear of damning-folks-to-hell.
Behold! Ad homosexual. It was useful in its natural state, without any modifications or accessories. You could just say that somebody was going to hell because they were gay, and that was that. Being hell-bound, clearly they would mix logic and reason with lies from Satan, so it would sound impressive to anybody who wasn’t Christian enough. No need to listen to those gays! Trying to use logic will just get you all confused in your brain. Unfortunately, as you progress to more intellectual circles, ad homosexual is not really useful undiluted. Hell’s no longer in vogue. It needs something else. Something kinder.
There are more non-traditional ad hominems. You know, the ones that accuse of you something that isn’t technically a pejorative. It’s amazing how “You’re just saying that because you’re black, a woman, gay, trans” can change the entire conversation. No matter how you re-phrase things, conversation now takes place in a limiting dichotomy based on those traits, wherein the victim of said ad hominem must simultaneously state that they did not argue their point because of x, and that there’s nothing wrong with being x in the first place, and further that just as they may or may not be influenced by x, the other person in question may or may not be just as strongly influenced by y. It goes from being a circle, with infinite diameters, to one line. One scale. Black/notblack, woman/man, gay/straight, x/y. Just like that. **
I remember arguing with several sexually repressed gay men on the Gay Christian Network Forums (The place where many gay Christians go to get their honorary straight cards stamped) about my sex life. I’d had sex, and this really bothered them for whatever reason. And then they told me that I only thought having sex was okay because I was young. (Ho boy. How to break it to them that I’d slept with men in their 40’s and 50’s? Maybe those 40-year-old men only disagreed with the GCN people because they were too young as well!) Veering past the irony of receiving unsolicited advise from men who accidentally got married to women and spawned several children before they figured out that being gay was okay, and the psychologically disturbed projection that led some of them to tell me I was driving my sex partners to suicide, the chief annoyance was that I could no longer participate in the discussion in the same way. The more I talked about how not-immature I was, the more childish I sounded. I started doubting myself. Maybe I really was childish. Distance has given me more objectivity, and I don’t doubt myself anymore. I had just suffered from a non-traditional ad hominem. In their mind, I would have made compelling arguments were my arguments not so childish. They made perfect sense to a child, but not to an adult. And there’s no use explaining to a child what adults know, because children are childish and incapable of understanding adult things. And if you try to explain it to them, they get all childish on you. Kids, man. What’re you going to do?
These non-traditional ad hominems are pretty bad. However, there is one more fallacy that is of particular interest. It has a lot to do with Billy. It is a most refined form of non-traditional ad hominem, a specific kind of ad homosexual. It is another fallacy that just happens to be the title of this post: The wounded strawman.
My Sophomore year of College, an old church friend of mine began arguing with a college friend of mine who was agnostic. They were discussing the Bible. After my church friend was presented with some pretty persuasive arguments and facts about the Bible, she accused my agnostic friend of something quite unusual: Being hurt by the church.
“I’m so sorry, Clarice, that the church has treated you the way it has. It’s clear that it’s cut you deep, and if you’d ever like to talk about that, I’m here for you.”
A weird thing happened. As with these types of ad hominems that postulate something about somebody that isn’t necessarily bad, the more the person under attack protests, the more true the ad hominem feels. Clarice responded kindly, but sounded hurt. Not because she was. But because now there was no escaping this dichotomy of hurt/not hurt. The more she argued about how objective she was being, and that she had positive experiences with churches, the more it sounded as though she were emotionally distraught.
And then the magic really started. Because this church friend began re-constructing my friends arguments in the context of somebody who was “hurt.” It was a strawman. And that strawman was wounded. You just felt so bad for the strawman, out there being sad by itself. All of her arguments were tinted with pain and suffering. Of course she said that about genocide in the old testament. Because she’s been so hurt by the mean Christians who didn’t care about Darfur. See, she’d feel completely different about the genocide in the Bible if she had met nice, socially conscious Christians.
If you’ve experienced the wounded strawman, you have my sympathy. It’s one of the most trying circumstances there are in a debate/argument/facebook-thread-gone-terribly-terribly-wrong. However, it’s especially tough to deal with when it’s related to homosexuality. In those cases, once the fallacy is cast, you have to fight all sorts of presuppositions about gay people and how we’re all hurting, and how we need homophobes to wear shirts saying that they’re sorry at our pride events. You have to challenge their notion that their church is the church, the way they subtly imply that your gay-affirming church isn’t part of the real church-with-a-capital-C. And that kind of deconstruction takes a lot of time. In the midst of a debate, nobody wants to confront all this head on.
I do. Let’s sit a while and talk of these things. Of why the wounded strawman exists, and how it’s ridiculous.
It exists in the same way that hell exists. Because facts and logic are not on the side of Evangelicals. Like sending somebody to hell explains away how those liberals can seem so right while being so very, very wrong (Angels of light! Angels of light! They’re sent by Satan to confuse us, sounding all intellectual, but really destroying our souls!), saying that somebody is hurt also completely dismisses what they have to say.
So they weep when looking upon the lesbian woman empowered to own her sexuality, tears running down their face as she displays agency in choosing sex partners based on her own ideals. They grit their teeth as gay men raise children together. After my finding a boyfriend who was successful in his job and with a supportive family, these people poured ashes on top of their head and tore their sackcloths. Dear God, the humanity! I must be so miserable, living an aimless existence of attending church and serving homeless people at a local shelter. My music can’t possibly buoy my heart after I hefted those chains of sin upon it. I cook a meal for my boyfriend at his place, as he opens a bottle of wine and lights some candles. THE SHAME OF IT ALL! I’m so miserable, I don’t even know I’m miserable. The saddest part is that I’m so deceived that I actually think I’m happy. I can’t see my soul bleeding its murky, sinful blood out into the ether. I think that “joy” is having a job I love. That fulfillment is making the world a better place. That life consists of nothing but learning, growing, loving, and living. If only I knew. IF ONLY. They beat their breasts and sob.
Though, like ad homosexual, the wounded strawman makes the person using it sound slightly deranged, it does have some additional benefits.
For one, moral superiority. Clearly, if somebody thinks they’re happy while disagreeing with a Christian, it’s that Christian’s job to teach them how miserable they really, secretly are. Now the Christian has a mission, as well as a reason not to listen to those uncomfortable things a person may be saying. The Wounded Strawman not only helps dismiss a person’s arguments, but grants a seemingly benevolent countenance to the person using it. They’re just so concerned about you, is all. They hope that you soon feel better, and come to feel the love that Jesus has for you. They’ve hopped on a train to pious-ville, and their ticket was one-way. There’s no getting them back.
Additionally, The Wounded Strawman manages to cast every argument into a different light retroactively. When you say somebody is going to hell, that’s a conclusion that you’ve reached from their disagreeing with you. But when you say they’ve been hurt by the church, well, that’s different. You act as though you’ve concluded it from what they’ve said, but in reality, people can now read a fake back-story into it, starting from when you introduced the Wounded Strawman and working backwards. Unlike hell, which doesn’t exist on our plane of existence (Or anywhere, arguably), pain does. We may not understand the motivations of evil angels of light sent from Satan, but it’s human nature to assign causality to events, and to people. That’s how all of us create meaning. “This person argued” is not a story we can tell ourselves. “This person argued because they’re sad” is such a story. And we, as humans, live for such stories. Even people agreeing with the victim of the wounded strawman may begin to “see” such hurt and pain in their friends’ eyes. It works backwards. Which is part of what makes it so hard to disentangle from the initial argument when you reconstruct it later asking “Dear God, why? What happened?”
In Evangelical/gay discussions, in order to progress in a dialogue, one must challenge the preconceived notion that gays are intrinsically hurt. That gays are wholly other. That we need to be ministered to. Further, one must argue that having an untroubled history with the church is not an accurate indicator of objectivity. And, actually, defining what on Earth the “Church” is wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Let’s take another look at Billy, and change some details.
Sam (Short for Samantha) is coming home with bruises. Her parents question her and discover that a child named Billy is hitting her. They decide then and there that they will call Billy’s parents to work things out.
While Sam’s dad tucks her in, Sam’s mother calls Billy’s dad. She explains to him that Billy was hitting Sam and other children while at school, and that she expects Billy’s parents to ensure such would never happen again. And maybe afterwards, Sam and Billy could go on a nice playdate, wouldn’t that be lovely?
But, no, Billy’s father argues. Billy is just boisterous. The other children are just namby-pamby wimps who are too sensitive because they’re raised by weak parents. Billy is perfectly fine to hit other children; it will build character, he says. Billy’s father hangs up.
Well, Sam’s parents are very upset. They agree, that they should let her skip school the next day, and schedule a meeting with her teacher so they can discuss what’s happening at school, and how they can make it better.
Sam’s teacher was not young, and was not old. She was something in between. She was neither thin or wide, tall or short. Her hair wasn’t brown, but it wasn’t quite any other color either. Her dress wasn’t casual, but neither was it quite professional. Her manner wasn’t exactly friendly, but it wasn’t cold. Sam’s teacher was a very in-between teacher. But this was not a very in-between meeting.
As Sam’s parents sat in the classroom, she walked down the hall, not too fast, not too slow. She walked in to the room and closed the door, not too firm. She sat down at her desk and faced Sam’s parents and drew in a slow breath. And then she paused. And the pause lengthened and became very long, and very awkward. It was not a very in-between pause.
“I will not let Billy hit people. You may be assured that no matter what his parents think, he will not be allowed to hit students in my classroom.” She said.
Sam’s parents left elated. When they arrived home, they told Sam that Billy would not be able to hit her again.
Billy, of course, tried to hit Sam. But when he did, his teacher pulled him aside, and put on a stern face. It was one that she used only on the gravest offenses. It was not a very in-between face. She told Billy that he would not be going to recess today, and that if he wanted to be able to play with the other kids, he would have to stop hitting them. If he wanted other kids to like him, he would have to stop hitting them. If he wanted to do much of anything in life, he would have to stop hitting people. He would have to modify his behavior so that he could be around the general public. Thought it’s tough, that’s just the way things work.
Billy’s dad later meet Sam’s mom at a playdate. Billy’s dad starts talking about how it’s a shame that children today were so weak, none of them tough. Sam’s mom says that she doesn’t think that such an opinion is very accurate; after all, her daughter Sam was plenty tough. Billy’s father shakes his head, talking about how disappointing it is that somebody like Sam’s mother could be so blind. She asks him what he means, and he says that she was the one who had to talk to the teacher to change everything in the school, just to protect her sensitive child. Billy’s father shakes his head, saying that it must be hard to have such a group of sensitive children who must live their whole lives being afraid of any kind of pain, not getting toughened up like they should. How sad those children must be, being coddled all their lives. Sam’s mother is having none of this, and says that her daughter is not sensitive just because she doesn’t want to get hit in the face. But Billy’s parents soon leave, saying that they will pray for Sam and her parents, hoping that they will toughen up and stop taking things so personally.
Notice how this works. When there is a wounded strawman, it’s never about actual physical damage (i.e, bruises from being hit in the face). No, it’s about some intangible concept like “Holiness,” or “Toughness,” that somebody is lacking. Billy’s dad gets to decide that it’s impossible to be happy without “Toughness.” And only Billy’s dad, the person constructing the wounded strawman, can grant “toughness” or take it away. Convenient, no?
Also see how Billy’s dad constructs things so that Sam’s mom is subjective. Because she and her husband specifically went in to talk to the teacher to change “Everything” at the school. It’s a false equivalence. It supposes that Sam’s “sensitivity” is her parents’ primary motivator, and that such is wrong, and that he’s somehow not motivated by a similar desire to protect his son. It supposes that Billy’s parents’ investment in letting their son hit people is “objective” and just the way things are. You cannot argue with it. You can’t argue about anything until you lay that notion to rest: The notion that it’s normal to hit people, and that people who think otherwise are “subjective.”
But there’s even more! How this manifests in “dialogue-creating” groups is probably the most infuriating part of the wounded strawman. Because ultimately, who is wounded? I mean, most bridge-building organizations are postulating that gay people are. And not the actual wounds, either. You know, teen homelessness, trans-phobia, inability to have government recognize our marriages, no job protection, and many more. No no no. What they acknowledge is how hurt queer folk are by – wait for it – … the Church. Because church people hurt our feelings. And we’re a sensitive bunch. Every sign-holding, t-shirt-wearing Christian who wants to apologize for only the most blatant and crazy, small-scale homophobia (Just thinking about Westboro makes me so angry) thinks that they’re ministering to LGBTQ folk. And while that seems helpful, it’s actually othering. Because the reason they think we need help is because we just need Jesus SO MUCH! We, by the virtue of being LGBTQ, must, be “sensitive” and “sore” and “raw” from our relationship with the “church.” Even if we grew up in a normal, gay affirming church. Somehow the “real church” hurt us, and they want us to come back, into loving arms, so that we may be whole again.
That’s not a two-way street. That’s horribly condescending. Yes, gay people are hurting. Some are even hurting because SOME church people hurt them. But to consider that the primary means of ministry is stupid when there is so much actual, tangible harm being done to LGBTQ folk. And to use it as a means of invalidating the experiences of queer folk (You’re just saying that because you’re hurting so much) is dishonest, and completely defeats its initial “purpose.” That’s not reaching out to the “other.” That’s maintaining privilege. And it’s ugly. Even more, it’s harmful, and I don’t just mean to LGBTQ* folk.
Billy’s parents are at a loss. Their little elementary school darling used to be so outgoing and extroverted. But now he keeps to himself. He doesn’t talk about school, and doesn’t talk about his friends. He does his homework sullenly, and his grades have dropped.
At dinner one day, Billy’s mom asks him gently if anything has changed at school. And then she and her husband discover that he has few friends and even those few he can call his friends are dwindling in number. The kids aren’t talking to him any more. They call him names. They say that he’s mean. Billy begins to cry.
Well, Billy’s parents are very upset. His father hugs him and tucks him in for an early bedtime, letting him skip his homework this night. They schedule a meeting with his teacher so they can discuss what’s happening at school, and how they can make it better.
Billy’s teacher was not young, and was not old. She was something in between. She was neither thin or wide, tall or short. Her hair wasn’t brown, but it wasn’t quite any other color either. Her dress wasn’t casual, but neither was it quite professional. Her manner wasn’t exactly friendly, but it wasn’t cold. Billy’s teacher was a very in-between teacher. And she was sure to make this a very in-between meeting.
As Billy’s parents sat in the classroom, she walked down the hall, not too fast, not too slow. She walked in to the room and closed the door, not too firm. She sat down at her desk and faced Billy’s parents and drew in a slow breath. And then she paused. However, it was a very in-between pause.
“Billy hits people. And they don’t like being hit”
Billy’s mother gasped.
“However,” said Billy’s teacher, “I’m doing my best to facilitate a dialogue between Billy and the children he hits. Hopefully they’ll come to understand that just as they don’t want him to hit, he wants to hit them without consequence. All viewpoints are welcome in my class, and hey! There’s got to be a spot for violent children too. Otherwise, that’s not very tolerant of me, now is it.” She said.
Billy’s parents are pleased, and go home and give Billy some ice-cream!
During his first year of high-school, Billy is arrested for breaking and entering, as well as assault with a deadly weapon. After spending time in Juvie, he returned to his parents place. He had picked up drugs while he was there, and used his new found freedom to start dealing them. After violently pursuing a client who owed him money, Billy ended up in prison again. After leaving prison, he met his girlfriend that he met online and began an abusive relationship with her. One time, after beating her, he attempted suicide. Billy’s parents were shocked and dismayed.
Sam visits home from college. It turns out, her mother tells her, that Billy – does Sam remember little, violent Billy? Billy-goat? Yes, that poor kid with the negligent parents – Well, he attempted suicide.
Sam feels a stir of compassion. While Billy is responsible for his own actions, given his horrible upbringing, he had a lot more to overcome than she did. So she slowly starts to visit Billy, keeping a slight distance, but helping him find a therapist he connects with, driving him to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and lending an ear when he needs somebody to talk to.
Eventually, Billy realizes the source of his wrong doing and finally, over the course of two years, learns to modify his harmful behavior.
So, Billy is being taught that his behavior is fine. When the person in charge of facilitating his relations with the other kids – his teacher – tries to be “in-between” about the harm he’s doing, it reinforces a behavior that costs him dearly. Billy was taught by people some very horrible lessons. And while he and his parents may have pitied the weak, namby-pamby children, it was he who was left alone with his horrible behavior, not the other kids.
When experiencing the wounded strawman, perhaps the best thing we can do is ask just who is wounded. Because it is here that we find the fundamental ridiculousness of the wounded strawman and the bridge building organizations that use it. Because there is something very sad about an evangelical who has no friends. A person whose own bigotry hurts the people around them so much that they soon are left standing alone. I hurt for those people, because I know there are times where I have had similar attitudes about other issues. And for that reason, I do think there does need to be reaching out to that other: Billy goat. He needs people to teach him how to behave so he can have friends and function in society.