Monday, April 30, 2012

It Just Got (slightly) Worse

I wish Dan Savage, the man behind the "It Gets Better" campaign had not done this.

The worst part was not his referring to parts of the Bible as "bullshit" in front of an assembly full of high school students. The worst part was mocking those who got up to leave the auditorium as Christian pansy-asses, while those remaining in the auditorium laughed at them.

I've never really been a Dan Savage fan. One of the main reasons I don't read his "Savage Love" column (apart from the sexual crudity) is the way he seems to delight in using a national forum to ridicule people who disagree with him. When I learned that he was the one who helped launch the "It Gets Better" campaign, I thought, "Really? Now Dan Savage is against bullying?" I had to give him props... But still, coming from him it was only slightly less surprising than if it had come from Rush Limbaugh.

Unfortunately, a whole generation of high school students don't know that side of Dan Savage. Or I should say, didn't know that side of him until now. To many high school students, Dan Savage had become something of a hero, defending the defenseless and standing up for a kinder, gentler high school experience, where bullying and bullies could be a thing of the past. That is, until he used his "bully pulpit" (pun intended) to humiliate a minority of students who didn't like the way he was talking about the Bible.

This is a big step back for the It Gets Better campaign.


It could be an opportunity to teach a really important object lesson.

If I were Dan Savage, I'd issue a great big apology that went something like this:

I just learned something really important about the nature of bullying. What I learned is that people bully not necessarily because they're homophobic, but because they have power and they don't know how to use it... Because they feel insecure and they want to look cool in front of others... I had a position of power speaking to you in that auditorium. Everyone was looking to me, and listening to what I had to say, and that gave me a lot of power. And I used that power to make you feel isolated and ridiculous, to make you look foolish in front of your classmates. And that's the opposite of what I wanted to teach you. What I did was wrong and it was not cool. So I apologize. I hope this can be a lesson to all of us that if we want our schools and our communities and our country to be a safer place, we need to look deep within ourselves, and work more at listening to each other and being concerned about each other's feelings.

I'll be surprised if he issues that kind of an apology. But then, Dan Savage has surprised me at least once before.


Post Script

Looks like Dan Savage did publish an apology on his blog. You can read it for yourselves and see how effective you think it is. To me, it still seems a bit defensive, and I think he does end up sort of calling the students who walked out hypocrites. (After apologizing for calling them "pansy-assed".)


surakmn said...

There's no doubt about it, Savage is an activist not a good will ambassador. But I think it's too easy to attack the messenger and overlook the substance of his remarks. As Zinnia Jones observes, "Let's get one thing straight. The Bible is unequivocal in its support for slavery...So regardless of Dan Savage's tone or how terribly offended some Christians were, his underlying point is completely valid. And its impact was only amplified by the incredible sight of devout Christians literally fleeing from the truth about their Bible and their own moral hypocrisy. In doing so, they made his point even better than he did. After all, if you're so pious that you won't tolerate anyone speaking ill of your Bible, then how can you be so completely unprepared to face the reality of what it actually says? What kind of Christian are you? And if this is your reaction as a journalist, then what kind of journalist are you?"

The Chritianists have neither clean hands nor a pure heart on this one. To want free rein in using the Bible as a bludegon against GLBT people while choosing to remain ignorant of a legacy of being on the wrong side of history in so many social issues is just a little precious. The Chrsitianists who walked out, for all their supposed offense, are not the ones suffering tangible injury by having their relationships remain unrecognized by government of which they are supposedly equal citizens.

J G-W said...

surakmn - I agree, it's sad that these students felt incapable of hearing out a viewpoint expressed that they were uncomfortable with. Still, it was their right walk out, if they so chose.

Had that been all that happened (i.e., had Savage gone on his rant about all the "bullshit" in the Bible, and had a handful of students walked out in protest), nothing objectionable -- on either side -- would have occurred in my opinion.

What was objectionable was Savage publicly ridiculing those who walked out, and calling them "pansy-assed."

Tony said...

I have never commented on your posts before, but I couldn't ignore this one.

I have read a lot about this incident and it appears not all the facts are being considered.

According to accounts I have read and from what I have seen in the video, these kids did not walk out in spontaneous protest.

They got up and began walking about before he made his "bullshit" comments. It was clearly a planned protest. The kids were not upset when they left. They were talking and laughing with each other.

Dan wasn't responding to a spontaneous act of a bunch of kids being upset. We was responding to a coordinated statement being made against him.

Also according to Dan he specifically asked the organizers if he should tone down is typical approach or his language and he was told in no uncertain terms that he should not.

It is important to also keep in mind that this wasn't a general assembly of student attending an anti bullying presentation. The presentation was actually on journalism and these students were students specifically studying journalism. Someone aspiring to be a journalist needs to be able to listen to someone expressing ideas they don't like, and it was that element that prompted his comments.

Don't get me wrong, I agree he shouldn't have said it. I wish he hadn't of said it. But I think that those who are trying to turn this around into, "the anti bullying guy is bullying people" are wrong.

To quote The Economist's article on the incident: "Bullying is the strong picking on the weak, not the other way around (the other way around is satire). One could make the argument that in the case of Mr. Savage's speech, he was the strong one, and the high-school students were "victims", but that would be weak tea indeed. Mr. Savage is one person, not a movement, and of course those students whom he gave the vapours were free to leave. Not everyone has such freedom."

I think Dan handed the anti gay crowd an early Christmas present on a silver platter, but I also think people are not considering the full context of the situation, the deliberate nature of a small group of the students, or the real nature of what it means to be a bully. Dan said a stupid thing, but he wasn't bullying anyone, and to suggest he was is to do a disservice to all the kids in schools, gay or not, who face real bullying and who's lives are made miserable by it.

Fortunately for Dan his comments have been pushed out of the limelight by Pastor Sean Harris' comments a few days ago that parents should physically harm their kids if they appear gay or gender non-conformist in any way.

It's hard to maintain manufactured outrage against Dan's comments when real abusive and bullying comments are still flying around out there.

J G-W said...

Tony - thanks for this information. I'm glad you've posted it, because it's important information for folks to have, to better frame exactly what happened.

I was having a discussion about this with a friend of mine on Facebook, and we speculated about the possibility that the students had planned or staged a walkout.

I told my friend that had Dan spoken about the Bible in a more respectful manner in the first place, their staged walkout would have just looked stupid and intolerant... So that was the "Christmas present on a silver platter." Whether or not the organizers granted him permission to use the term "bullshit" in talking about the Bible, a more judicious speaker would have thought twice.

But the real issue is, as you acknowledge, that mocking these students in front of the assembly the way he did was out of order. Even if we agree the students were behaving badly, that couldn't have justified what he did.

I'm not sure I agree with The Economist that Dan wasn't in a position of power here. I disagree; especially if the students who walked out hold a minority view in their school.

Sadly, I must agree that anti-gay violence and bullying is still a serious problem, which makes Dan's behavior all the more dismaying... The last thing we need is for the anti-bullying movement to lose steam because of the perception that it's promoters are hypocrites...