Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shock To The System

In one of a pair of posts libertarian Julian Sanchez has written that has sparked a whole lot of discussion concerning what he terms "epistemic closure" (an inartful if technically correct description of the current right-wing refusal to seriously engage liberal and left-wing arguments), he offers the phenomenon of Constance McMillen, a teenage lesbian in small-town Mississippi, who petitioned to be allowed to attend her prom with her girlfriend. Specifically, he recounts the flood of emails received at a site dedicated to the issue from all over the world that, in essence, must have shattered their view of themselves as doing nothing out of the ordinary.

Let me tell my own version of this kind of thing, only from the other side.

In June, 1994, my wife and I were preparing to move to southern Virginia where she would take up her first appointment as pastor of Centenary UMC in Jarratt, VA. She was to be ordained a deacon under the old order of ordination at the Annual Conference that year, held in Norfolk. Her mother came out from Illinois, and we took a suite on the beach in Virginia Beach, just a hop, skip, and a couple jumps away. While staying there, I decided to pick up a copy of the Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch, which would be the paper we would have access to while in Jarratt.

At the time, there was much buzz concerning a custody case in which a woman sought custody of her grandchild because her daughter, who currently had custody, was a lesbian (this case became the basis for a TV movie featuring Valerie Bertinelli). It should go without saying that I found the whole thing nonsensical; of course the woman had no reason or privilege under law to take a child from her birth mother solely because that woman was a lesbian. It was absurd on its face.

While sitting in my suite one morning, coffee slowly bringing wakefulness, I read an editorial that not only supported the woman's case, but did so in a manner I found blatantly dishonest. The editors' contention was that the child's mother was an unfit parent because she admitted, under oath, to breaking Virginia's sodomy laws. Without actually referencing the particularities, the editors said that, as an admitted violator of the law, this woman was, ipso facto an unfit parent.

My initial reaction - and I am being honest about this - was to consider the editorial a joke, a kind of National Lampoon-style hyperconservative argument to show how ridiculous it all really is.

Except, it dawned on me they were completely serious.

Now, I suppose that my own relatively young age (I was 28) and inexperience (I had lived my whole life sheltered from the far reaches of conservative ideas, and was in the waning days of four years in a seminary of a liberal mainline Christian denomination in the nation's capital) certainly played a part in the shock I felt. I still think the argument, at least as presented by the editors, was intellectually dishonest. After all, the "law" the woman "broke" was admitting, under oath, to performing oral sex on her female partner. Under this standard, what set of parents would be "fit", precisely because they, too, engage in "sodomy" as defined by the Commonwealth's statutes?* Their real objection wasn't that she was "an admitted criminal". They didn't like that she was a lesbian who had custody of a child. Everything else was nonsensical drivel.

When it dawned on me the editors were serious, it also occurred to me that they might not be outliers, but represent a good chunk of opinion, the thought of people in the area to which I was moving.

So, I sympathize with the folks in that little Mississippi town who realized, via the miracle of the internet, that their insistence that local traditions not be messed with in the name of oddments like "equal protection" and "respect for diversity" found themselves the target of so much vitriol. It can, indeed, be quite stunning to realize that not everyone holds the same set of ideas. It can be even more stunning to hear from people who hold your own views in contempt, as a sign of one's own malicious nature.

I do not know what the solution to this particular conundrum, if it is such, might be. A start might just be a willingness to move beyond caricature, and engage in substantive discussion, not excluding rancor but also not including a refusal to grant a certain benefit of the doubt to one's ideological opponents.

*I do not know for sure, but I think it probable that Virginia's overbroad sodomy statutes were invalidated when the Supreme Court declared such unconstitutional.

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