It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: Translation and the Reclamation of Power
It seems that Senator Flake is in trouble. He wrote to the mother of a shooting victim from Aurora, and said he was for Strengthening gun background checks. Except, awkwardly enough, he voted against them. Now, he has a very, very low approval rating.
Well, this is easy to parse. He’s a craven flip-flopper, right? He lied to her, because he wanted to sound good, but then he voted against a bill he said he supported.
Now, that’s what normal people think. And they’re absolutely right to think so. However, he would say that he technically didn’t lie. Technically, he told the truth. He said that “Strengthening background checks is something we can agree on.”
See, all of those liberal people don’t have the properly nuanced view of what he said. What does the term “background check” really mean? While some might assume that “background checks” are a pretty universal idea encapsulating policy that would ensure background checks for all gun sales, in actuality, he’s just talking about beefing up existing checks that only 60% of people have to take. Mental illness, man. If there’s anything we can agree on, it’s restricting the rights of those crazy people.
This is more irritating than lying. It’s as if elected Republicans fancy themselves creatures of faerie from western mythology. They speak naught but truth, but the truth can be devastating – They grant you eternal life, but not eternal youth. Wording is very important with the Fae folk. In the end, when our feeble and decrepit protagonist screams at the fairy “But you promised!” the fairy gets to point at his clever wording, and then disappear. Ha ha. Should’ve wished more carefully, mortal.
Of course, elected Republicans aren’t fairies. The reason they rely on misleading wordage is that they’re unpopular. Things they stand for are unpopular. So, like any other unpopular people who support unpopular things, they try to repackage themselves, to change the words. People who were Republicans now call themselves Moderates and Independents and Libertarians. People who support Voucher-care hate vouchers. Fundamentalist Christians are Orthodox. People are for going to war in Syria, but against arming the rebels. Why? Words.
This is nonsense.
But most importantly, it is a power struggle. Sen. Flake doesn’t have to admit to misleading anybody, because he claims that the fault actually lies with the people who, silly enough, believe that words mean what words mean. He’s making an appeal to authority that the words “background check” mean something that he likes, and anybody who thinks differently is wrong. And in being so wrong, they may misinterpret his statements, which are themselves faultless and honest and true. But just who gets to choose what words mean? Who gets to decide what’s important? Those in power. And this is a struggle over something far more important than power over academia, or the rules of dialogue. This is a battle over meaning, and who gets to decide it. This is a war over words.
When I first came out, I was convinced that gay people hated Christians. I felt torn in the middle, being rejected by Christians for being gay, and being rejected by gay people for being Christian. It was just so dang hard. Does that sound familiar?
It sounds familiar because I think a lot of gay, Christian people think that when they come out. (Some of them write entire books about it.) And then they learn and find out that the middle is a creation of their own making. At least it was for me. Because, actually, in my experience, I’ve found that the LGBTQ* community is very open to dialogue with Christians, even the Evangelical ones. As it turns out, I really wasn’t torn between two worlds at all. Once I matured, I was really fine with being friends with people who believed differently than me. My initial discomfort with such people was the real problem.
In fact, the “worldliest” gay people, the ones least exposed to Evangelical thought and culture, are the ones most likely to talk with Evangelical people, in my experience. Which is great. Everybody talks; everybody learns.
Except, homophobic Evangelicals keep finding out that their ideas sound horrible. It’s kind of hard to say “I’m against gay marriage because your marriage will end society as we know it” to a gay person. Similarly, it’s hard to say “I’m really grateful that my church has the right to fire you because you’re gay.” So these Evangelicals, instead of analyzing their ideas, immediately just associate such discomfort with gay people. So they only spend time with evangelicals. They only read Evangelical books about dialogue and gay people. And they only feel comfortable dialoguing in contexts that are suitably Evangelical for them. And in these contexts, they learn how to lie. And they call it “sensitivity,” or “engaging the other.”
Great, right? Except LGBTQ* folk get the wrong idea, I think. Because they aren’t familiar with the significant re-branding these Evangelicals have done, when they speak with these Evangelicals, they think many Evangelicals are saying things and promising things that those Evangelicals aren’t actually saying or promising. I mean, to a normal person, you’d think they were. But if you know their sensitivity training, you realize they’re actually completely skirting questions and even being homophobic. They’ve just learned how to be quiet about it, how to use language to mislead as much as they can without technically lying.
Many “dialogue-creating” organizations actually see this as a good thing – Because after all, those close-ended “Yes or no” questions only hamper dialogue. What’s really important is that we all affirm each others’ experiences; that we listen to people, and hear where they’re coming from. However erroneous I find that, I would find the entire concept much more palatable if they were at least completely honest as such. But, often times, such “progressive” evangelicals are not honest as such. Rather than saying that they won’t, as a matter of principle, answer yes or no because they believe such is bad for dialogue (Which is problematic enough), they will insist that they *are* answering yes or no. They pretend to say yes, and when you realize they haven’t said yes, they blame you for misinterpreting them. Ha ha! Should’ve listened more carefully, gays.
Common Evangelical Skirting:
- What they say: “I believe that nobody chooses to be gay.”
- What it means: “Right. No one chooses it. Environmental factors, such as a distant father or overbearing mother, make somebody gay. And through ex-gay therapy, you can process that hurt and fix it so that you’re heterosexual. Nobody chooses bi-polar disorder either, you know. But you’ve got to think positively until you reach recovery.”
- What they say: “I believe that you can’t pray away the gay.”
- What it means: “Because you have to have therapy too.”
- What they say: “I don’t believe it’s possible to ever be 100% straight.”
- What it means: “Every day is a struggle with homosexuality. Most days I’m only 94% straight. But, we all have our struggles. And my opposite-sex partner is really understanding.” (Ahem. Alan Chambers)
- What they say: “Ex-gay therapy doesn’t work.”
- What they mean: “But though it’s wasteful, it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t have the choice to do it if they want to. So we should present them with that option. I mean, what are we afraid of?”
- What they say: “Ex-gay therapy is harmful and doesn’t work.”
- What they mean: “Gays shouldn’t seek out therapy. They should just remain celibate.”
- What they say: “Sure, you’re gay.”
- What they mean: “You’re gay. I’m an alcoholic. Thomas over there beats his wife. We all have our issues, you know?”
- What they say: “I mean, psychologists say _____”
- What they mean: “Sure, that psychologist was actually somebody who just got a masters in Christian Counseling and a Doctorate in Theology. But that’s the same as somebody who has gotten a PhD in Clinical Pyschology, right? And that academic, that psychologist? They totally said ______”
- What they say: “Being gay is not a sin.”
- What they mean: “I mean, having a gay partner or in any way acting on being gay is wrong. Like alcoholism. If you’re an alcoholic, that’s okay. You just shouldn’t drink. So, being gay isn’t wrong. You just have to be celibate.”
- What they say: “I think we should all have equal rights.”
- What they mean: “Which is why I’m super glad that we all have the right to marry an opposite-sex spouse.”
- What they say: “I don’t think being gay should be illegal.”
- What they mean: “I think that gay sex should be illegal. Like, that stuff in Uganda? That’s terrible. No, we should not prosecute people for who they’re attracted to. We should just prosecute the people who act on their desires and have gay sex. Because it is icky.
- What they say: “I think, though, we shouldn’t persecute churches for their beliefs either.”
- What they mean: “The suffering of churches is equal or greater to that of LGBTQ* folk. And LGBTQ* folk who don’t believe so are being mean. It’s very important that your recognize my suffering.”
- What they say: “Gay people are welcome at our church.”
- What they mean: “They are welcome to observe us, until our love converts them. Until then, however, gay people must not be involved in any leadership positions.”
- What they say: “Ours is the first study of it’s kind; it’s been peer reviewed, will be published as an academic book, and will be in some journals.”
- What they mean: “Unlike other studies, ours was not backed by an institution of higher learning or any other kind of respectable grant-awarding institution. Unlike other studies, we will not be held to the same ethical or practical standards. Unlike peer reviewed journals where people not selected by us objectively review our work and decide if it’s fit to be published, we selected our own friends, our “peers” and had them read over it. Unlike Yale’s academic press, ours will be coming out in a Christian press; it’s an academic book because we say so, and it will be published in Christian journals.” *
- What they say: “People should not be homophobic.”
- What they mean: “People should not wave signs around at gay rights protests (Unless the signs say “I’m sorry” on them), or physically beat up gay people. Because that’s all that homophobia is. However, you still don’t need to welcome them in church or give them equal standing in the eyes of the law. *
- What they say: “Tolerance is a two way street.”
- What they mean: “I’m white.”
- What they say: “I’m against this bill because it’s against religious liberty.”
- What they mean: “I’m against this bill because it allows gays to marry. But that doesn’t sound as good as “it’s against religious liberty” so I’ll go with that.
- What they say: “Gay people should be nicer in order to get their rights.”
- What they mean: “I only become a good person for nice people. And I’m not going to help gay people at all with their rights. If I weren’t so speshul, I might not even care at all because those gays have been mean to me!”
- What they say: “That gay people can’t get married isn’t fair!”
- What they mean: “However, life also isn’t fair, and I’m not about to end that.”
(That last is actually based on a very real quote from a blogger from a bridge-building organization. In it, he posts about gay marriage, saying that his friend says “It’s not fair that I can’t get married.” And while his friend cries, the blogger posts lyrics from a sad song, and seems to agree that it isn’t fair. That’s all. There’s no actual stance on marriage equality, even though the blogger references this blog post several times later to show how much support he gives to gay marriage sympathizers. Convenient, no?)
* Seriously, stuff with the asterisk is inspired by that Marin guy. It’s on his website and blog. For real.
Heaven knows, there are many more. I’ll post “Translations” as a series, and post new installments from time to time. But these are probably enough to illustrate what is happening.
This is an important phenomenon. Because those in power – Those with privilege in our society and within Christian circles – are changing the language in order to retain their power. There’s no good intention here. It’s all about morphing the language so that homophobic people can more easily attempt to convert LGBTQ* folk to their way of thinking. Or, morphing the language so that they can talk to LGBTQ* folk enough so that they feel like it’s ontologically impossible for them to be homophobic. They’ve decided that it’s really important that you talk to them, even though you have your own litmus tests for doing so. And because they cannot pass your litmus tests, they’re going to attempt to bypass them altogether so that they may talk to you on their terms. Because they know better than you do what dialogue you need. Your litmus tests are at fault, and they, supreme chancellors of dialogue and language that they are, know exactly what to say to you so that you grow as a person. Having such limitless knowledge, they want the power to make you spend time with them. But more than that: They want the power to silence you. Because it’s only when you’re silent that they can speak in the pretense that they are not oppressors.
This kind of silencing manifests for three reasons, listed in the order of their seriousness of ethical violation: Cognitive Dissonance, Privilege Distress, and Tone-policing. You can assume at least one of these things is happening when you hear people re-branding themselves, and needing a translator.
Cognitive Dissonance is inconsistency of thought or belief. Many evangelicals actually know that what they’re saying is oppressive and pretty un-Christian, but it makes them feel bad to acknowledge this, because if they did, they’d have to dramatically revise their other thoughts and beliefs, and that would be scary. So in order for them to satisfy their need for comfort, they try not to say what they really mean, and pretend that these two beliefs (Gay people are inferior; gay people are equal) can actually mesh together. Because they can’t even admit it to themselves. You know how when you’re alone with other people who are all like you in certain ways, you may say some magnanimous things about people who use wheelchairs. You might talk about accessibility issues and how horrible it is that somebody in a wheelchair can’t get into a certain building. But the minute you start talking about such topics with somebody who is in a wheelchair, you feel self-conscious, and realize that some other things you said were actually patronizing, even discriminatory. And you feel bad. You think, Wow, man, I spoke really freely just then about something I don’t know that much about. Or, whoa, that sounds really horrible when I think about saying that to that man in the wheelchair. That joke doesn’t seem funny at all now. Well, Evangelicals feel this too, I think. Only they don’t realize it’s happening because the fault is with them. They blame language, and accuse LGBTQ* folk of misappropriating it and “tricking” them into saying mean things. Or, better yet, “misinterpreting them.” In truth, they still believe these mean things, though. And this cognitive dissonance is one of their own making. It really is hard to fear your gay friends. I experience cognitive dissonance over that too before I dealt with my internalized homophobia. Cognitive dissonance, man. I’m a Christian, so I shouldn’t fear people. But I’m afraid of gay people. In the end, this results in sometimes authentic utterances of their desire for equality when they’re with their gay friends. They really do want us to be able to experience marriage. But these feelings almost always fleeting; they dissipate at the slightest sign of an actual change-of-heart. Eventually they leave their gay friends, and find themselves with the other group of conflicting thoughts. They are a leaf in the wind.
Privilege distress is what we call the moments when somebody wants not to be a good person, but rather, wants to have been a good person forever and always. It’s very similar to Cognitive Dissonance, but whereas cognitive dissonance is trying to resolve two equally-believed notions with oneself, privilege distress attempts to resolve discriminatory notions with the need to be perceived as non-discriminatory. There’s no authenticity in their re-phrasing when they do come close to acknowledging fundamental inequality for LGBTQ* folk, unlike people with cognitive dissonance. They genuinely believe that LGBTQ* folk are inferior, without question. So they really are attempting to bypass litmus tests so they can have a gay friend. Having a gay friend helps mitigate the damage their unpopular views cause. It makes them feel better about themselves. It helps them feel that they are not oppressors, and that they have always been good people. They are easily wounded, and very concerned about proving that they’re good people in other respects. To them, it makes perfect sense to respond to the accusation of homophobia by saying that they volunteer at a homeless shelter. These Evangelicals believe they are good people. And since the whole world is against Christianity and makes Christians feel like bad people when they express their homophobia, they have to argue that they aren’t bad people because what they expressed isn’t, in fact, homophobic. Because they are good people, they cannot believe that gay people are inferior. Instead, gay people are taking offense at small things, and must not be open to dialogue. This kind of distress can lead to the worst thing on the list.
Tone-policing is a red herring designed to silence the oppressed. It’s a distraction, and is contingent on denying both inequality, and the importance of inequality-if-it-existed-though-of-course-it-doesn’t. The purpose of dialogue becomes not ensuring that human beings are equal, but, instead, ensuring that unequal human beings are nice. So, then, everybody talks, and everybody’s views are treated as equal, and everybody is nice. Who decides who’s nice? The Evangelicals. And that’s where it gets interesting. Because calling homophobia homophobia is not nice. So you’re not allowed to use that word. You’re preventing dialogue if you do use it. No, no, no. Homophobia is what Westboro Baptist Church has. It’s mean to compare people to WBC. Don’t say the word homophobic. These tone-policing evangelicals have stolen the word “homophobic.” It’s theirs now. You can only use it by their rules. It’s a testament to the heights of their entitlement that they believe they should be the ones to define such words. Even empowering queer folk by letting us define our own words is too much! Because it’s not just the word “homophobia;” this extends to pretty much any word, phrase, or sentiment that expresses the inequality that exists. Because in these nice discussions, inequality is the real red herring. Inequality distracts everybody from being nice to each other. Teh mean gays are hurting the Evangelicals’ feelings by talking about inequality. (This is further exacerbated if said Evangelicals are experiencing privilege distress or cognitive dissonance) So queer folk try to find nice, polite ways to discuss inequality. But to no avail. Here’s a hint: There are none.
You may not realize it at first. In the group, the Evangelicals will keep assuring you that they really do want your perspective. But no matter how you re-word yourself, or clumsily attempt the kind of re-branding they’ve pulled off, you will never be nice. Because it’s not your wording, it’s your very perspective that’s so offensive. They would hear what you had to say if only you’d not say it.
But see, they’ll say, this dialogue is mostly for evangelicals. This is how evangelicals learn, because evangelicals (Which usually aren’t as speshul as the speshul evangelicals arranging such dialogue), won’t talk to gay people otherwise. It absolutely must happen in terms that validate their already validated prejudices, or else they’ll not talk at all. And gay people will be forever shunted to horribly liberal, affirming churches.
So, this most necessary dialogue necessarily comes mostly from Evangelical Christians, reasoning about how they are good people, and how they are misunderstood and misinterpreted. Even as LGBTQ* experience actual discrimination and inequality, in government, in many Evangelical churches, and in everyday life, the goal of the discussion is to assure homophobic Evangelicals that their own perspectives — Those of the oppressors — are heard. Not only will they require equal time to discuss their feelings, but they often request more than equal time for their feelings. Because, after all, it’s for evangelicals. That’s how evangelicals learn — Talking about themselves in front of gay people. It’s all for you, actually. It’s all about helping you help yourself by making you nice enough so that the other evangelicals that aren’t as speshul will understand.
This kind of dialogue is only reactionary. It is a negative response to positive social change. It is an attempt to ameliorate bigotry.
It is nonsense.
This peculiar form of politeness, of redefinition — this war over words: It does not help queer folk. When we assume that people already know the truth of inequality, we speak less on inequality. We share less about our truth, our honest, lived-in experience of the world. And our truth is the thing that is most important to convey. That truth sheds light on bigotry. It is necessary for true dialogue. And in this “polite” and redefined nice dialogue, this truth is absent. In a conversation where we should be empowered, we are disenfranchised. Without words to express our truth, we are silenced. We are left with lies.
I’ve been dangerously close to such dialogue. I’ve seen a straight ally made to rephrase herself after she said that legislation against gay people – specifically justified with fear tactics in this particular conversation – was homophobic. I’ve also seen LGBTQ* folk asked to respect what the evangelicals were putting at stake by talking with them, because they may have to keep the meeting quiet for the sake of their reputations. I’ve seen leaders of “bridge-building” organizations respond only to Evangelicals online, while systematically ignoring every single comment from people more liberal. I’ve seen these same leaders decline to publicly support marriage equality because it would threaten their job security at a conservative Christian institution. I’ve watched as the LGBTQ* stories featured in a dialogue-creating group treat discrimination as though it comes from the air around them, carefully avoiding laying the blame at the feet of oppressors, many of whom are the self-same Evangelicals participating in such dialogue. And I’ve seen oppressors leave more empowered than before by these interactions. I promise you: If this is dialogue, it does no good. With no truth to tell, the only way LGBTQ* folk can resist being silent is to lie, to tell the lies that such Evangelicals want to hear. They must speak untruth to power.
Because that lay at the heart of tone policing, this heinous tactic in a war on words. The reason that you cannot be polite about inequality is because dishonesty is intrinsic to their definition of polite. That is why they mislead so often about their thoughts on marriage equality and job discrimination. They are “polite,” not despite such dishonesty, but precisely because of it. They expect you to lie in turn. To use “homophobic” in their sense. To use the phrase “background checks” in specific ways. In this framework, it is only by lying about standing inequalities that LGBTQ* folk can participate in such honest discussion. And while there are people who stand to gain from this, they certainly aren’t queer.