Thursday, March 2, 2017

Attorney General Sessions, the Russians, and the Meaning of Words.

In case you haven't heard, the Washington Post broke the news yesterday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice during Trump's successful presidential campaign. This is a problem because of what Sessions said, under oath, during his confirmation hearings.

During those hearings, Sen. Al Franken asked Session how he would respond were he to learn that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communications with Russian officials. Sessions responded by insisting that he had no knowledge of any such communications, and then added the following remark: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

The Washington Post reports the following response from the Sessions-camp:

Officials said Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.  
"There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," said Sarah Isgur Flores, Sessions’s spokeswoman.

The idea seems to be this: Although Sessions said the words, "I did not have communications with the Russians," what he meant by those words was not inconsistent with the fact that he actually did meet with the Russian Ambassador twice, once in private. Although meeting with the Russian ambassador seems to qualify as "communications with the Russians," the claim is that something in the context in which those words were spoken alters their intended meaning.

So let's talk a bit about something that, in critical thinking texts, is dubbed "conversational implication." Sometimes we speak loosely on the assumption that people will understand what we mean based on the broader context within which we are speaking. If the context makes it obvious that I meant something that I didn't say explicitly, then it is "conversationally implied." This means that I can be dishonest without saying anything that is strictly-speaking false, and it means I can be honest even though my words, pulled out of context, are not exactly true as stated.

Suppose, for example, that someone rushes into my office and shouts, "I need a fire extinguisher! Do you know where I can find a fire extinguisher?" Now imagine that I answer, "Go to the stairwell at the end of the hall. If you go down two flights, you'll find one at the base of the stairs." The context here implies that the fire extinguisher I'm directing the desperate person to is the NEAREST fire extinguisher (or at least the nearest one that I know of). If I happen to have a fire extinguisher under my desk, there is reason to accuse me of being misleading even if the words I said were strictly true.

Likewise, a statement might be strictly false because it isn't properly qualified--but the needed qualifications are conversationally implicit, and so we can't accuse the person of dishonesty. If I say, "I didn't drive anywhere near the bank" in order to explain to my wife why I failed to deposit the checks, the fact that I have driven near the bank on countless occasions over the last few years doesn't make me dishonest. The qualifier, "today," is conversationally implied: "I didn't drive anywhere near the bank today." And the fact that I was driving in the same town as my bank, and that by global standards that is darned near to the bank, doesn't make me dishonest either. After all, the context makes it clear that I am using the term "near" in a relative sense--in the sense in which it would be convenient for me to pull in and deposit the checks.

It sounds to me like this is the move that Sessions and his surrogates want to make: Although what he said wasn't strictly true, it was conversationally implied that he was only referring to communications about Trump's campaign.

But this doesn't seem right. I've read the full question that Franken asked, which elicited Sessions' reply (you can find here). There is something that clearly is conversationally implied by the context of Sessions' words, namely that he did not have communications with the Russians during the time of the campaign. Given how long Sessions has been in the Senate, it would be hard to believe the remark if we didn't assume some kind of time constraint like that. But given the focus of Franken's question, and given Sessions' explicit reference to the campaign, the time constraint was conversationally implied. So on that front, we can't accuse Sessions of dishonesty even if we can prove that he has met with Russian officials dozens of times over the years.

Also, the context seems to imply something more substantive that casual communication of the sort one might have at a black tie affair. If Sessions had run into the Russian ambassador at the cocktail bar, and the two had exchanged pleasantries about the weather, that would be a kind of communication with a Russian official. But I think the conversational context makes it clear that something more substantive is at issue.

The problem, of course, is that Sessions met with a Russian official during the campaign, and that at least one of these meetings was a private meeting, not a casual exchange about the weather. And yet what he said was this: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians." Given the context offered by Franken's question, I doubt that anyone in the room assumed that this meant, "Although I have had communications with the Russians during the campaign, in fact meeting more than once with the Russian ambassador, we didn't talk about the campaign."

"I did not have communications with the Russians," in ordinary English, tends to carry the implication that one, well, didn't have communications with the Russians--unless there is something clearly indicated by the conversational context that implies otherwise. And there just doesn't seem to be any such something in place here.

Could Sessions have misspoken under the stress of a confirmation hearing? Sure. He could have intended to say, "I did not have any communications with the Russians about the campaign." But if he had spoken correctly, you can bet Franken would have asked some follow-up questions: "Did you, then, communicate with Russian officials during the campaign in some other capacity?" That he didn't ask such follow-up questions is a pretty good sign to me that Franken didn't interpret Sessions' words to be qualified in that way.

In fact, such follow up questions wouldn't make sense given what Sessions in fact said. It is thus a strain of the concept of conversational implication to assume that "about the campaign" was conversationally implied, even though the person Sessions was directly answering clearly failed to catch the implication. I doubt anyone else caught it either. Why would they?

As such, the claim by Sessions' spokesperson, Flores, that there was "nothing misleading" about his statement only succeeds in calling Flores' credibility into question. It was clearly misleading--misleading enough that a natural line of follow-up questions, which Franken would surely have asked had the statement been properly qualified, was not pursued. And we'll never know what that line of questioning might have produced.

None of this means Sessions committed perjury. To establish perjury, one would need to show not only that his words were strictly false but that he intended to mislead. But even if he did not intend to mislead, the words were misleading.

Is it a big deal? We inadvertently say misleading things all the time, because we aren't being careful. Sometimes we assume, wrongly, that something is conversationally implied when it isn't. Misspeaking isn't necessarily a big deal, although it can be pretty serious depending on what it leads people to believe and do. And I think it is important to acknowledge when one's words are misleading, and to take responsibility for the consequences when they are less than trivial.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Responding to Trump's Administrations: Scapegoats and Meaningful Resistance

Yesterday I was reading about RenĂ© Girard and his understanding of how societies use the scapegoating mechanism as a kind of pressure valve to channel the violent energies caused by rising conflict: people collectively identify a sacrificial scapegoat towards whom they channel all that violent energy. They "sacrifice" the scapegoat to "the gods" and achieve a kind of catharsis that brings in its wake a temporary peace.

As I was reading, I was (naturally) thinking about the current administration. That administration, as I see it, has invoked a particular form of this scapegoating mechanism as part of an effort to win the support of disaffected, white, working-class Americans. I say a "particular form," because what the administration has done is invoked divisive us/them ideology that divides the world between an in-group and an out-group, and it is this out-group that becomes the scapegoat. Not an individual, but an entire class of human beings. "These others," they say, "are the source of our troubles, and when these others are removed or marginalized our problems will be solved."

This ideological othering is the most dangerous kind of scapegoating. It sets community against community, achieving the temporary peace within a community by putting itself at war (figuratively or literally) with another community. When the targeted others are already represented in a diverse community, then the war first begins internally, requiring a kind of purge. The potential for widespread and enduring horror is quite significant if the leadership of a nation is allowed to carry out a vision defined by such scapegoating of the ideological other.

So when there is a danger of this happening, or when it is already underway, resistance is essential. (I am convinced a resistance movement must be thoroughly nonviolent, for reasons I won't explore here.) But yesterday, as I was reading about Girardian scapegoating, I began to worry that some voices in the burgeoning resistance in the US were turning Trump into a scapegoat, trying to heap on him the weight of all that is wrong in American society so that his removal from office could become the sacrificial ritual that would, in the Girardian scapegoat mythology, make everything right again.

Thinking about this, I wrote up a quick little parable or drama, meaning to warn against this possibility. Then I posted it here.

Feedback from friends on social media as well as on this blog have led me to conclude that the parable was at best ripe for being misunderstood and at worst a dangerously misleading vision. More precisely, I worry that my little parable suggested a false equivalency between two very different things: on the one hand, the kind of threat posed by a presidential administration that lifts up and legitimizes ideological hate in the course of implementing policies that scapegoat whole classes of people; on the other hand, the kind of threat posed if those who resist that administration's efforts were to fall prey in significant numbers to the scapegoating instinct.

These two things are not equivalent.

What I want to say now is this. I think there is enormous danger when the reins of power fall into the hands of those who openly preach ideological division and encourage scapegoating of whole classes of people. Those who see this happening have an obligation to speak out about the threat, to repudiate the othering, and to stand (nonviolently) against the policies and policy proposals that would implement such scapegoating of entire groups. There needs to be a meaningful resistance.

I suspect that the sort of approach that Michael Moore lays out in his "10-Point Plan to Stop Trump" would (if a large enough number of people get on board) prove quite effective in neutralizing Trump's ability to enact his ideological agenda, if not pushing him out of office. But while an action plan is crucial to any organized nonviolent campaign, the spirit in which that campaign is waged is just as important, especially for long-term success.

Most importantly, a resistance movement must avoid becoming the thing it stands against. This means, first and foremost, that it must avoid ideological othering. But just as importantly, it must also avoid the milder scapegoating that treats Trump as the problem and his removal as the solution that will restore peace and prosperity to America.

If a nonviolent resistance movement against Trump's agenda falls prey to the scapegoating instinct, that is not in any way equivalent to an administration that is trying to implement us/them ideology on a global scale. Not even close. Our world will be safer if that administration fails to implement its ideology or, better yet, stops trying either because it has been rendered toothless by our checks-and-balances (supported by a strong grass-roots movement) or has been removed through impeachment or resignation. But my worry is this: a resistance that falls prey to mythic scapegoat-thinking will, if successful in removing Trump's administration, quickly move from the elation of success to the comforting sense that all is now well, as if the problem were solved.

Furthermore, if a successful campaign is defined by the scapegoating of Trump, this may actually fuel the us/them ideology in this country, worsening the divisions and the polarized animosity. Because here's the thing: Trump is the hero of a lot of people. He symbolically represents them. If it's just about ousting Trump--and his ardent supporters are seen as nothing but a bunch of idiots that deserve to be shoved back under the rocks they crawled out from--then the danger posed by Trump's brand of ideological leadership will be alleviated only at the cost of intensifying the divisions that put him into power in the first place. The next Trump who comes along can awaken the same forces, and they may be angrier than ever.

I have been in the habit of expressing these concerns by saying that Trump is just a symptom of a far deeper problem--a problem of ideological divisiveness that needs to be separated from the people who preach it and repudiated in much the way the Martin Luther King, Jr., repudiated racial oppression by insisting that racism, not racists, were the enemy.

But a commenter on this blog, raverroes, has pointed out to me that this is the wrong way to characterize Trump. Rather than being a symptom, he is a catalyst.

This strikes me as exactly. When he was campaigning, Trump's shameless indulgence in pugnacious rhetoric encouraged others who harbored divisive ideologies to step out of the shadow of shame that kept them from expressing their hate boldly. The social constraints against openly abusing Muslims and other minorities in public were, in Trump's rhetoric, lumped together with "political correctness" and dismissed along with its excesses. And when Trump was elected, that event carried a symbolic meaning for at least some of those among Trump's base who were most in the grip of ideologies of hate: The social forces that repudiate acting on our hateful feelings have been defeated. We are free to hate out loud.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that every Trump voter took home that message. A substantial percentage of Trump voters were never inspired by his divisive rhetoric and blatant us/them ideologies in the first place. They voted for him in spite of those things, perhaps not seeing them as the existential threat to our values and social life that I take them to be. I know people--who are surely representative of many more--who held their noses as they voted for Trump, finding him odious but thinking that his excesses would be restrained by the establishment and that his administration would make SCOTUS appointments that would favor a pro-life agenda. Others thought his promise of good jobs, of looking out for the working class, eclipsed his talk about Muslim bans and registries (which, they thought, was just talk and wouldn't be something he could implement anyway, it being unconstitutional and all).

But even if most Trump voters were not inspired by Trump's promulgation of ideologies of division, those in our society who did embrace such ideologies flocked to him and were emboldened by him. He became a catalyst. And that catalyst is now occupying the most powerful political office on planet Earth.

This, then, raises the question of what to do in response. The root problem is not any one person but an underlying pattern of thinking and acting. The root problem is divisive ideology and the illusory promise of tribal unity offered by sacrificing scapegoats. There are deep social structures and unconscious cultural forces that feed such ideology, that perpetuate such false promises. We need to work against these forces in a way that doesn't lead us to become seduced by their lure. But we also confront the reality that a catalyst for these forces now occupies the Oval Office. I'm not sure his aim is to be such a catalyst.  I suspect it is more about ego-gratification. But he remains a catalyst.

I remain convinced that we compromise any meaningful resistance to divisive ideology and its harmful effects if we turn a catalyst into a scapegoat. But raverroes has highlighted for me the crucial difference between symptoms and catalysts, and so I also think we compromise any meaningful resistance if we treat someone who has functioned as a catalyst as nothing but a symptom.

There is one final conditioning force that I believe any meaningful resistance needs to internalize. I think we lose the moral center that must define a nonviolent movement if we see only the catalyst and forget that the catalyst is first and foremost a person--a human person who has been thrown into a position he never expected to be in and who is plagued by his own demons. A person gripped by an irrepressible urge for approval while sitting in a role that by its nature draws relentless critical scrutiny. A person who is surely angry and miserable, whose spirit is layered with crud and who is desperately trying to get rid of the crud by rubbing it off on those around him. Where there is a human soul there is the need for the kind of compassion that reaches across the divides of human conflict and affirms our shared human condition even as we stand firm against the choices and behaviors that we are convinced are wrong and harmful.

The question is how to cultivate the right spirit and weave that spirit into an action plan that stands up for the vulnerable, that says no to ideological hate and scapegoating, that impedes the advance of injustice--and that can do so without falling into the scapegoating instinct even when such a potent catalyst for ideological division occupies the most visible and powerful office in the world.

I don't have clear answers, but I think we need to ask the questions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A (Very) Short Drama, Maybe a True one

Donald Trump: "I present to you, the American people, the dangerous other, the source of all our troubles. It is the Muslim and the Latin American immigrant! Let us together drive them out, or keep them out. Let us crush them and all will be well with America. It will be great again!"

Trumpeters: "Yes! Let us strike down this evil among us. Let us destroy this threat to all that is good and right, so that America will be great again!"

(Efforts to enact the plan ensue, until the resistance interrupts.)

The Resistance: "This is intolerable! It is an effort to oversimplify our nation's problems by identifying those problems with some scapegoat, with people who are different or 'other.' This will lead only to greater hatred and escalating cycles of violence. It must be stopped!"

(Struggle commences as Trumpeters and the Resistance face off. As the Resistance grows in numbers, some leaders emerge, who speak out a unifying message.)

Leaders of the Resistance: "We present to you, the American people, the dangerous other, the source of all our troubles. It is Donald Trump! Let us together drive him out!"

I'll stop there, since you know how it ends--or, more properly, doesn't end. I guess this isn't a (very) short drama after all. But the telling is short, unless we decide to throw away the script.

Addendum: Because of some responses I've had to this post both on social media and in the comments, I worry that my effort to deliver a warning in a clever way has ended up implying a false equivalence where I didn't intend to--and, furthermore, that I ended up glossing over some very important realities. Hence, I have created a follow-up post that addresses these things.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Resisting Feedback Loops of Ideological Violence: Answering a Commenter's Question

In a comment on my previous post, Mike H asked (simply playing Devil's Advocate) how I would respond to the following claim:

"The very fact that those who oppose an all-out ban bring up the likelihood that a ban would actually increase terrorism in the future seems to prove the point - that there is an inherent problem with what we call 'terrorism' in the very essence of Islam that is just waiting to explode and which could awaken at any time or place."

Since my answer was too long to post as a comment, I post it here instead:

It is part of the very essence of ideologies of division that they operate in this way, but Islam needn't be formulated in such ideological terms. In fact, many Muslims (all the Muslims I know personally) reject such an ideological understanding of Islam.

But divisive ideologies are real--and you can find them alive and well in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, they are also alive and well everywhere else in the world. And that creates the danger of feedback loops of escalating hostility unless we stand against these ideologies.

Here's how these feedback loops work. Suppose you have two groups, A and B, and within each group there is a subgroup that views itself as locked in a zero-sum struggle with the other group. Acts by members of A that treat all of B as the enemy strengthen the position of those within B who claim that all of A is the enemy, earning them more recruits and greater strength. This in turn will lead to more acts by members of B treating all of A as the enemy...and the feedback loop is off and running.

Of course, there's the question of whether something in the Koran or in Islam's history and traditions lends itself to such us/them ideology. And the reality is this: if you leaf through the Koran, you can find texts to support such ideological thinking. I'm no expert in Muslim history, but you can probably find things there to support such ideological thinking, too. But I've leafed through the copy of the Koran that I got when I went to a Muslim open house, and so I know you can also find things there to oppose ideological divisiveness.

The same is true of the Christian and Jewish Scriptures and histories/traditions: you can find plenty of texts that support us/them ideology; and you can find texts that oppose such ideology. What you do with these complex texts and traditions depends on the interpretive lens you bring to bear. The more that ideologies of division prevail within a religious community, the more that texts and traditions will be interpreted in ways that feed those ideologies.

The Muslims I know personally read the Koran and their tradition in ways utterly opposed to the ideologies that fuel terrorism and underwrite dreams of Muslim world-domination. U.S. policies that single out Muslims in a sweeping way will cause them substantial hardship and will inspire in them fear for the future and outrage against the administration, but will almost certainly not inspire them to adopt ideologies of division and turn them into terrorists.

But there are those on the fence who will be pushed towards embracing this ideological us/them version of Islam by such policies. Of course, most who end up in this ideological camp don't commit acts of terror (although they may cheer them). But policies that treat all of Islam as the enemy will not merely help to push more people towards extremist views but will also push more of those with these extremist views into extremist actions.

But this isn't a distinctively Muslim thing. The same is true on the other side of the divide. Most Americans don't view all of Islam as the enemy. But some do. And if a handful of Islamist extremists commit another significant terrorist attack on US soil, guess what will happen? The number of Americans who think all Muslims are the enemy will grow (especially if there are prominent voices of authority encouraging it). And of those who harbor such ideology, more will be inspired to strike out against innocent Muslims, committing hate crimes and the like. The position of those in authority who harbor such ideological views will likely be strengthened, making it more likely that America will implement military policies that strike out at the Muslim world in ways that harm innocent Muslims. And it will be less likely that this cost in innocent lives will be treated as a weighty loss.

When this happens, ideological extremists in the Muslim world will likely say something like the following: "These actions by the American government show that there is something in the very essence of the West that is just waiting to explode against us!"

Put another way, this kind of language is part of the ideology of division that fuels inter-group conflict and makes such conflict escalate and become increasingly entrenched. We can step away from escalating cycles of violence only by resisting these ideas--only by stepping back and blaming the ideology of division itself, manifested on all sides, instead of fueling it on our side by saying that there is something in the very essence of "them" that causes the problem.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Security, Good Will, and Ideologies of Division

In recent month I've found myself writing numerous lengthy reflections on our nation's current political climate and circumstances--and posting them publicly on Facebook rather than on my blog. The reasons for this are numerous, but the result is that this blog has been neglected. There is, however, an important point I wanted to make today, and as I was about to compose it on Facebook I decided it ought to go here instead.

Much of this blog is devoted to the Christian love ethic. I have argued that, based on an ethic of love, we should be willing to take risks. We should be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable on the Jericho road to help the injured victim in the ditch. We should be prepared to face our enemies with the kind of love that can turn them into friends, even though what might happen instead is that they strike us down.

But the point I want to make in this post is that even if our main aim is security, as opposed to living out a love ethic for its own sake, we need to take the sorts of risks that love demands.

The fact is that there are multiple ways to promote safety and security. One way is to keep threats out. Another way is to threaten decisive retaliation against those who do us harm. A third is to promote good will.

By "promote good will" I mean a few interrelated things. I mean interacting with others in a way that builds networks of friendship and mutual care. I mean doing the sorts of things that inspire gratitude. I also mean avoiding the kinds of things that magnify hostility and create enemies. I mean not deliberately provoking outrage.

Put simply, we're safer in a world of friends than in a world of enemies. One of the surest ways to create friends is to help people in their time of need. And one of the surest ways to create enemies is to assume that they are enemies and treat them accordingly.

The problem, of course, is this: to build friendships, I need to make myself vulnerable. If I refuse to make myself vulnerable, that means I am shutting people out in ways that they will likely experience as hostile.

If I engage those around me in a spirit of good will, those who are already my enemy may try to take advantage of that. They might pretend to be in need, and then when I make myself vulnerable by helping them, strike out against me. Reasonable concern for my own safety and security requires that I take sensible precautions against such things, especially if I know that I have enemies out there. But if I take extreme steps to prevent such things--if I try to make myself invulnerable to attack by shutting out anyone who might pose the slightest risk of being a threat--I help create a world in which I have fewer friends and more enemies. I create a world where I am in greater danger than I was before, because more of those around me wish me ill.

In other words, the more afraid I am of making myself vulnerable and the more I act on such fear, the more I will need to be afraid. Similarly, the more aggressive I am in relation to my neighbors--seeking to keep myself safe by issuing threats against them and retaliating with extreme prejudice when my threats aren't heeded--the more I find myself with no alternative but to be aggressive. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is true both at the individual level and at the group level. It is true of me with my neighbors, and it is true of America in relation to the wider world. We live in a world where America has enemies, those who wish to do us harm. But if we try to make ourselves immune to attack by shutting down our borders and adopting an aggressive posture, we become a nation with fewer friends and more enemies. The cost of an an "America First" nationalism that shuts down our borders and treats every desperate refugee as a potential terrorist is that we help to create a global environment in which more people wish us harm than before.

If we open our borders to, say, Iranian college students, what is going to happen? Of course, some extremist who wishes to violently attack Americans could try to come into the country on a student visa. But the vast majority who come to this country will do so in order to experience a new country and get an education. And guess what? If we let them in and don't treat them like enemies, if we invite them to dinner and to the movies and to a football game, if we give them a stellar education and inspire them to learn to sing the school's alma mater, we have planted seeds of good will that can help to overcome the seeds of hatred that are being sown by hate groups out there in the wider world.

ISIS and organizations like them are built on ideologies of division: us vs. them, the in-group vs. the out-group. Terrorists depend on a worldview in which "we" are at war with "them." Islamist extremists who target the West teach that Western nations are an enemy of Islam and that there is only one path for Muslims who want to flourish: destroy the enemy. This is the thinking that inspires Islamist terrorism.

Most Muslims don't buy it. Certainly, most of those who live in America today don't buy it. And our security depends on things staying that way. We become more secure if fewer people buy it, rather than more people buying it.

Right now, ISIS is helping to create a refugee crisis. Most of those desperate refugees are Muslims. The horrors of civil war and the violence of Islamist extremism are displacing them, and they are fleeing for their lives. ISIS claims that all of Islam is at war with West. If it's the West that provides succor to these Muslim refugees, that act of good will flies in the face of ISIS's ideology. If America provides a place of refuge and healing--not blindly, but through the kind of careful vetting process that's been in place for years--doing so helps expose ISIS's ideology as a lie.

But if we slam our borders shut, especially if we focus on singling out Muslims as a class for exclusion, we feed the ISIS ideology. We make their worldview more convincing. We help their recruitment efforts. In our of fear of letting a terrorist slip through the cracks of our vetting, we fuel the ideologies of division that inspire terrorism.

The alternative is not open borders. Just because I invite my neighbors over for dinner and show hospitality to those in need doesn't mean I take the locks off my doors. We must not fall for these sorts of false dilemmas. There are people out there who mean to do us harm, and we need to take sensible precautions. But our security depends as much on good will as it does on those precautions. And if we become so ruled by fear that we try to shut out everyone, our efforts at promoting security become self-defeating. We make our world more dangerous. We make ourselves less secure.

This isn't some obscure scholarly point. It's common sense. We are safer in a world with more friends and fewer enemies. Right now, there are ideologies of division that encourage Muslims to view Americans as enemies, and vice versa. If we feed those ideologies, we make our world more dangerous. If we fight those ideologies through showing Muslims that we are not their enemies, we make our world safer.

What is the effect of a sudden, unannounced slamming shut of our borders to a range of Muslim-majority countries--turning away scientists on their way to the the US to join cutting-edge research teams, turning away students about to begin Master's programs in philosophy and chemistry, turning away refugee families that after years of vetting have finally received approval to settle in America and have boarded a plane to their new lives? This act will cause hardship to those affected. It will deprive us of the good will that might have been generated by our generosity. It might deprive an American research team of a brilliant colleague and impede life-saving research.

It will probably not cause those scientists, students, and refugees to become terrorists. But it will send a broad symbolic message to the Muslim world: The US is anti-Muslim. And when the US sends that message, ISIS says, "Oh, goodie!" Because it means their ranks will grow. It means their worldview will become more plausible to more people. It means more people will be fueled by outrage against America to pursue the path of terrorist violence.

And no security system is foolproof. A security measure that reduces the likelihood of a determined terrorist getting into the country is not a good security bet if, in the long run, it substantially increases the number of terrorists who are trying to get in to do us harm.

Imagine that I found out that my door locks and dogs will only keep out 50% of determined burglars, whereas there is a new security system by Company X which would keep out 99% of them. But suppose that I am not really a target for burglars, let alone determined ones. In fact, the chances that a determined burglar will target my home in any given year is about one in a hundred. Now imagine that I find out that there is a team of burglars that keeps tabs on Company X's customers. They think anyone who installs the company's system has something really worth stealing. So were I to get the security system installed, my home would suddenly become the target of dozens of determined burglars every year.

Should I get the system installed? Obviously not.

Of course, the trade-offs we're dealing with when it comes to national security are not so stark or clear. But the point remains the same: sacrificing good will for the sake of greater security has costs--including a cost in terms of security. The safest world is one where ideologies of division are replaced by mutual understanding and respect across differences. Our aim should be to work towards such a world while taking sensible precautions against those in the grip of these ideologies. As soon as we decide to stop working towards such a world in favor of immunizing ourselves from any possible threat, we are pursuing an illusion: the illusion that we can achieve invulnerability.

Here's the grim truth: no matter what we do, we will be the victims of terrorism again. It will happen. The national security question is how best to reduce the frequency of such attacks. Throwing good will to the dogs is not the answer.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Triumph of Love, Excerpt #3: The Effects of Categorically Condemning Homosexuality

For Election Day, instead of a political post, I offer the third excerpt from my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic. This excerpt offers a kind of summary of what the book has argued so far, in anticipation of tackling scriptural and natural law arguments for the conservative view. It thus functions well as a short, stand-alone piece (although it does not address all the details that came before or address the various objections that come later in the book). Enjoy!

I’ve tried to paint a picture of what it’s like for gays and lesbians to live in societies that deny them access to legal marriage and condemn every expression of their sexuality. Although Western societies have been moving fitfully away from this model of exclusion, this is the kind of society conservative Christians think gays and lesbians should live in. And because so many gays and lesbians have grown up in such a society, we know what it’s like for them.

My argument so far has been that by endorsing such a society, conservative Christians endorse something that harms their gay and lesbian neighbors. In such a society, gays and lesbians learn from a young age that they’ll never be equal and fully accepted members of their community. Most who try to change their intimate feelings fail, but in the process some trap themselves and their spouses in miserable heterosexual marriages they hoped would “fix” them. If they do form a loving partnership, society will condemn it. Every effort to nurture the bonds of love will be seen as evidence of their commitment to sin. While their straight friends can hope to fall in love and have their partnerships celebrated and supported by the wider community, the best sexual minorities can hope for is to find such support in a marginalized subculture while erecting walls of secrecy and isolation from those who would call their love a sin.

Some internalize the message that their deepest impulse towards love and intimacy is an affront to God. And when promises of change prove empty, they come to see that impulse as a sign that their very nature is a perversion, a blight on the world. Others, struggling to live in self-denial, cling to the praise of the very Christian conservatives who deny them what so enriches their heterosexual peers—a pattern reminiscent of abused children living for intermittent scraps of parental affection. As the only real payoff for their sacrifice, they wear the mantle of “costly discipleship” so tightly they hardly notice it costs them their ability to focus on discipleship.

Some, unable to suppress their deep instinct for sexual and romantic intimacy, pursue it in contexts where normal, healthy constraints on sexuality are absent. Since their sexuality as a whole is condemned, they make no fine-tuned distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate expressions. Loving monogamy becomes no better than casual sex—except that the latter can be explained away as momentary weakness rather than commitment to sin. In such a world, we shouldn’t be surprised when closeted pastors and politicians are caught with their pants down in pathetically tawdry sex scandals.

Other minorities, such as blacks and Jews, are raised by families like them in the ways that mark them off for marginalization. They have the opportunity from childhood to know solidarity with others who are similarly marginalized. Their homes and religious communities offer coping skills and at least some measure of refuge from society’s stigmatization.

But sexual minorities routinely grow up in profound isolation. Fearing rejection even from their own families and churches (at least if they admit who they are), they retreat into the closet—a metaphor for hiding one’s true self from the world and living a pretense. And because intimacy is about sharing oneself with others, the closet impedes intimacy across relationships—with parents, siblings, coworkers, friends, teachers and pastors. Deprived of one kind of intimacy by the categorical condemnation of homosexuality, the closet takes away the rest. Sometimes the isolation and rejection can be almost too much to bear, and all it takes is a final gesture of denunciation or scorn to spark an act of self-obliteration.

Despite all of this, many gays and lesbians make their way to a subculture that accepts them. They shake off self-loathing and the condemnation of their sexuality, and they come to see faithful partnerships as having a worth that other expressions of their sexuality lack. They fall in love, form marriage-like partnerships, and work to sustain them despite a society that not only withholds the social supports and accountability marriage provides but can be overtly hostile. Many have the devotion to do that work, and with the security of those relationships and a gay subculture that steps in to partially fill the gap, many escape suicidal loneliness.

But this bulwark against despair is something conservatives think they ought to be deprived of. Admittedly, many are sincere about trying to make alternative support systems available: ex-gay communities and spiritual friendship networks that aim to help those without the gift of celibacy to endure a life of ongoing suppression of their sexuality. But these alternatives lack what Christian marriage has: the multiple-level intimacy in which physical love is integrated with other forms of closeness in a way that forms a deeper and more holistic connection between embodied spirits than is possible without that physical dimension. And because they lack a framework for expressing sexuality that lifts sexuality out of the realm of animal lust and into a space of human meaning, these alternatives set up those gays and lesbians who lack the gift of celibacy not only for failure, but for failure of a particularly debasing kind: momentary sexual relief in meaningless encounters. As we have seen, such failure can lead to genital-slashing self-loathing.

What conservatives on this issue cannot consistently support is the bulwark against despair that does the most good: a community that supports and celebrates expressions of a homosexual orientation within the context of enduring monogamous love. Conservatives can’t consistently say that homosexuality is always a sin and yet be glad there’s a subculture where despairing gays and lesbians are embraced for who they are and encouraged to live out their sexuality with a self-affirming identity. They can’t consistently say that homosexuality is always a sin and yet be happy for their gay and lesbian neighbors who form life-enriching same-sex relationships. To think homosexuality is always a sin is, on pain of inconsistency, to think there should be no such subculture and no such relationships.

Suppose someone said something like the following about your most intimate partnership: “No matter how much it enriches your life and no matter how hard you have worked to nurture love and intimacy within it, it would be better if your relationship ceased to exist.” And then suppose they follow it up with something like this: “But even though I think this relationship that means so much to you is a moral blight on the world, I still love you.”

Wouldn’t your natural response be to say, “No, you don’t”?

The portrait I’m painting doesn’t look like a society that loves the gays and lesbians in its midst. The practical implications of condemning homosexuality, which come to vivid life when we listen compassionately to our gay and lesbian neighbors, are hard to reconcile with the Christian command to love our neighbors, including our gay and lesbian ones, as ourselves.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Richard Swinburne, the Ethics of Homosexuality, and the Ethics of Love

(Note to readers: I ran out of time on this before being able to track down and embed links to all the discussions I reference--but I thought it would be better to get this up while it is still timely than to wait. I may embed links later when I have more time.)

As most readers of this blog know, I'm in the midst of writing (actually revising) a book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic.

What readers might not know is that I was part of an effort to bring Richard Swinburne, the eminent Christian philosopher of religion, to the Oklahoma State University campus--a visit that took place this past week. On Monday I met Swinburne, had lunch with him, and tried to help him figure out how to answer calls on his new cell phone (I wasn't much help). That evening I moderated his talk on arguments for the existence of God, which had an audience of 600 people not counting those watching on the live-feed from home. The following day, I introduced his lecture on "Humans have two parts--body and soul." I had him sign my copy of his book from which that lecture drew.

All things told, it was a delightful visit, and I was honored to have the chance to meet and interact with such an eminent and important leader in my field.

None of this would be fodder for a blog post were it not for what happened in the days just before Swinburne came to OSU. On the Friday before his visit, he gave a keynote talk at a divisional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His topic was a departure for him: Christian sexual ethics. As part of that talk, he offered an argument in defense of the traditional, conservative Christian stance on homosexuality--a stance that I unrelentingly challenge in the book I'm now revising.

A member of the audience--J. Edward Hackett--got very upset, and not only objected to Swinburne's remarks during the Q&A but published a blog post about it, calling Swinburne's remarks "toxic." The post was widely disseminated on social media. The President of the Society for Christian Philosophers, Michael Rea, wrote a Facebook post expressing regret for hurt feelings, indicating that Swinburne's views do not necessarily represent the views of the society, and affirming the society's commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.

This triggered its own wave of outrage: A philosopher apologizing because another philosopher gave an argument for a controversial conclusion at a philosophy conference? A Christian philosopher apologizing for another Christian philosopher for defending a traditional Christian view?

All of this in the days leading up to Swinburne's visit to OSU, a day I'd been looking forward to for some time.

Of course the topic came up when I had lunch with him. After all, I was working on a book on the very topic that had just embroiled his name in a social media firestorm. He'd apparently read at least one of my articles on homosexuality, but was more interested in talking about an article I'd written with the provocative title "Swinburne's Lapse."

He knew my position on homosexuality, and I knew his. We disagreed--but since the topic was both peripheral to his career focus and unrelated to what he would be talking about at OSU, we didn't devote a lot of time to it. We ate pizza and tried to figure out his phone.

Of course, philosophers disagree about things all the time. In a sense, it's what we do for a living. And we disagree about things that impact human lives for good or ill. Some of the ideas that my fellow philosophers espouse are ones I think damage real human beings. They probably think the same about my ideas. And we have a beer together anyway. Or a pizza. Anyone unable to do that couldn't be philosophers--not and have any friends within the field.

That said, the topic of homosexuality is more than just an "issue." It's about people I love. It's about my gay best friend and my cousin. I can get very emotional about it. When I am engaging those who espouse the traditional view, my emotions give me energy to remain engaged. But I try not to be controlled by them. It is much more helpful to get opponents of LGBT equality to articulate their reasons clearly, and then examine their merits. When they are fellow philosophers who don't need to be prodded to clearly lay out their arguments, it can be downright refreshing.

There are important questions here about how we should live out the love ethic in relation to those who disagree with us. Swinburne is one of the greats in my field, a highly accomplished scholar who has earned my respect with his body of work. He is also a neighbor in the Christian sense, and I believe I am called to love my neighbors as myself. I am also called to love my gay and lesbian neighbors as myself--and Swinburne is endorsing a view that I think is harming them.

What is the best way to live out the love ethic in this situation? I can't answer that question in a blog post, but there are several things I want to say that are relevant to it.

1. Paying compassionate attention

I think Swinburne's view on homosexuality is mistaken. I think that the promulgation of that view, as a teaching of the church, has done immeasurable harm to my gay and lesbian neighbors over the centuries. I won't defend that view in this post, but I think it is important to state it.

From what I've gathered of his argument, Swinburne thinks that while not "intrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong in itself") same-sex sex is "extrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong because of some sort of external relation, such a violating an authorized and justified command or contributing for contingent reasons to some undesirable state of affairs").

This makes his condemnation of same-sex sex softer than what is common among conservative Christians. For him, it's not wrong in the way that lying or abusing people is wrong, but in the way that driving on the left-hand side of the road in the US is wrong. I can't tell you what I think of his case for this conclusion, since I haven't been able to study it. But I've looked at a lot of arguments, and I have yet to find any that can meet what I take to be an extremely powerful burden of proof created by the fact that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is harmful to gays and lesbians who belong to those communities. Depending on native dispositional qualities, some can be driven to the brink of suicide.

An abstract argument that doesn't get down and dirty and wrestle with the actual life stories of gays and lesbians whose lives have been broken on the wheel of condemnation is unlikely to be very compelling to me or anyone else who cares deeply about their gay and lesbian neighbors. Unlike abstract questions in philosophy of religion or epistemology--which have been the focus of Swinburne's career--ethics, especially applied ethics, often demands serious engagement with human stories. This is even more true for Christian ethics, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such love demands compassionate attention to the experiences and life stories of our neighbors. Unless and until Swinburne offers an argument that is deeply informed and shaped by sustained attention to the lived experiences of gays and lesbians, I doubt his argument will convince me--and nothing I have heard suggests that Swinburne's argument at the SCP was informed by such attention.

(Note: there is a big difference between saying an argument of a certain kind is unlikely to convince me and saying that it won't enlighten me, deepen my thinking, or in other ways be useful in shaping my intellectual development. Swinburne's argument may well be very useful--offering distinctions and qualifications that may have bearing on my thought--even if it is of a kind that's unlikely to convince.)

One way I can show love in this case is to stress the importance of not exploring the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage without paying compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors. There is nothing unloving about offering such advice to my conservative Christians brothers and sisters--some of whom I greatly admire as eminent scholars in my field who have shaped me in many ways. I suspect that advice will do more good that calling them "f***ing a**holes," as one Yale philosopher has done.

But if I offer such advice, I cannot then refuse to pay compassionate attention to Swinburne and others who espouse the traditional teaching. And such compassionate attention requires honest and fair assessments of their convictions and motives. This leads me to my next point.

2. Recognizing motives 

I am certain that Swinburne does not think the traditional teaching on homosexuality causes harm. He is not defending it in order to harm our gay and lesbian neighbors, even if I believe that is the actual effect. Or, more precisely, that is what I take to be the effect on gays and lesbians who belong to a community in which this view is treated as normative and significant. It's belonging to a community that teaches this which is harmful, not the arguments of a single philosopher, no matter how eminent. But I'm sure Swinburne does not agree with that, and in trying to preserve such a community he is not doing it in order to cause harm.

To put the point another way, if Swinburne believed that the teaching were a source of harm, he wouldn't be publicly defending it. Swinburne believes that this teaching is good and helpful as sincerely as I believe that it causes harm.

It may be worth pointing out that he didn't decide on this keynote topic on his own. He didn't set out to beat up on gays. I don't think I'm breaking any confidentiality when I say that during our lunch conversation, Swinburne told me how this came to be his topic. He'd offered some advice to philosophers of religion, to the effect that they should apply their distinctive training and expertise to contemporary social questions such as sexual ethics. And that advice prompted an invitation to follow the advice himself in his SCP address. Since he'd given the advice, he didn't feel as if he could refuse. And so he put something together.

This is not an issue that he has focused his career on or written a book about (I think it comes up briefly in his book on revelation). Rather, he was treading into largely new territory at the request of the conference organizers. If he did not display the kind of awareness of LGBT issues that others do, the most helpful response is to educate him, not denounce him.

Swinburne was asked to talk on a topic that was new to him, and he thought that resources from his own discipline might be useful in clarifying some of the moral issues. Were they? I wasn't at the talk, but I have learned lots from people I disagree with. Philosophers whose views I find misguided often provide ways of thinking about those very issues that deepen my insight even while I reject their arguments and conclusions. Is that true of Swinburne's thinking in this case?

I don't know. But I do know that Christian love calls for grace. And this leads to my next point.

3. Choosing our words with care and showing grace for failures

Given everything I know about Swinburne through reading his work, given what he told me about the argument he delivered at the SCP meeting, given the little I have gleaned about his argument form third parties, and given the talks I have now seen him deliver, I am convinced of the following: Swinburne offered a thoroughly dispassionate, analytically careful, abstractly intellectual argument for a conclusion he wanted to defend--with plenty of distinctions and deductive arguments and no deliberate personal attacks. I am pretty confident that he approached this as an issue of intellectual interest, as opposed to thinking of the faces of gay and lesbian loved ones (as I do every time I approach this topic).

That said, he reportedly used language that, when I read it in Hackett's post, immediately made me cringe. One premise of his argument was that gays and lesbians suffer from a "disability" insofar as their romantic sexual unions can't produce children. Another was that this is an "incurable condition." This language choice displays the kind of lack of familiarity with the LGBT community that is unsurprising in an elderly Christian philosopher who has spent his career focused primarily on traditional questions in the philosophy of religion, travels in circles where most gays and lesbians probably remain in the closet, and has not spent a long time considering these issues.

But here's the thing. These claims on Swinburne's part are claims I make in my book--but in different terms.

I do not call homosexuality a disability or an incurable condition, because I know that this language invokes the idea of "sickness"--and I know how that language has been used to abuse sexual minorities. But in my book and elsewhere, I argue that same-sex couples are like infertile heterosexual couples in that they can pursue the "unitive" end of sexual intimacy but not the procreative end. Of course, my aim is to argue the following: It would be unloving to bar infertile couples from marrying and pursuing loving union just because the union won't be reproductive; and it is likewise wrong to prohibit same-sex marriages for this reason.

But here's the thing: infertility is usually considered a disability. By comparing gay couples to infertile ones as part of my argument for their right to marry, I am likening them to a class of people who are often called disabled without anyone blinking an eye. But I know that many gays and lesbians have been kicked out of their parents' homes with the word "sick" ringing in their ears. I've held the hands of gay friends who were still scarred by abuse that was couched in the language of "sickness." And so I try to steer clear of such language.

Similar remarks apply to the other claim of Swinburne's that evokes the language of sickness--the claim that homosexuality is an "incurable condition." I have argued time and again that gays and lesbians cannot be expected to change their sexuality, that so-called conversion therapies and ex-gay ministries don't work. My gay and lesbian friends agree with me on this. If one were oblivious to the experiences of LGBT persons and the way the sickness label has been used to abuse them, one might make this point using the words "incurable condition"--and have no idea how that will stir up all sorts of painful crud among gay and lesbian listeners.

The thing about analytic philosophers of religion is this: Many if not most of them spend more time in their heads thinking about things like modal logic and probability theory than they do reflecting on how word choices are related to human feelings. While this is perhaps a human failing, all of us have failings and we need to treat each other with grace.

This means we shouldn't react as if an elder scholar whose career has focused on completely different issues, for whom all of this is mostly new, should know better. Oblivious use of terms that hurt is an opportunity to share stories about why they hurt, not to repudiate and shame.

The issue in these cases is not with the claims Swinburne is making but with his choice of words. I'm not saying that the words we use to express an idea don't matter. What I'm suggesting is that we need to engage one another in a spirit of grace, understanding where other people come from and not going on the offensive every time their word choice offends.

Let me offer an analogy from grading. Sometimes, I assign an essay on a topic and student after student makes the same oversight. The first time it happens, I calmly explain the oversight in the margins. The twentieth time it happens, I'm feeling exasperated. I want to scream, "How many times do I have to tell you this?!" I have to remind myself that I haven't told the same person this twenty times. For each of them, it is the first time they are hearing it. And for each of them, that first time may open their eyes, give them an "a ha!" moment, and lead their thinking in a new direction. But not if I make the point in a tone of outraged indignation as if I've been telling them this over and over and they haven't been listening. That'll just inspire defensiveness.

I remember, years ago, being at a discussion on homosexuality and the church where I used the phrase "gay lifestyle." A gay man in the discussion calmly explained the associations that term had for him, and the reasons it grated on him. I don't how many times he'd made that point. Probably many, many times. But for me it was the first time. His sharing was personal. It didn't make me defensive. And I stopped using the term. I doubt things would've gone so smoothly if he'd said, instead, "How many times do I have to tell you people that there is no *#$@! gay lifestyle!"

4. Embracing (rather than shutting down) discussion opportunities

Finally, if I'm right about the negative impact the traditional Christian teaching has on gays and lesbians who belong to communities that teach it, there is good reason to have serious discussion and debate within communities--such as conservative Christian ones--that still teach it. Such discussion and debate is not facilitated by efforts to shame and silence people who lay out, with admirable analytical clarity, their reasons for supporting this teaching. Especially in philosophy, every such effort to lay out arguments is intended as an invitation to raise objections, level criticism, and engage in discussion. That's what philosophers do.

When philosophers who are conservative on this issue try to spell out arguments for their view at a philosophical conference, this is the perfect opportunity to have a discussion. That's what a philosophy conference is for. When it's a conference for Christian philosophers, what that means for me is the discussion is happening where it needs to happen: in a community whose members still widely teach that all homosexual acts are sinful. Swinburne did not merely offer an argument for the conservative Christian position. He did so in a venue whose norms and standards invite vigorous critical discussion. As such, he created an opportunity to critically discuss the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage exactly where I think that critical discussion most urgently needs to happen.

The question is what we should do with such opportunities. What did Hackett do with it? What did the rest of us do in the aftermath? Will these choices make it more or less likely that such opportunities will arise again?

To respond to opportunities for meaningful dialogue with repudiation and attack probably isn't the most productive strategy, and it certainly isn't the most loving.

That said, I know that many people carry deep hurt and anger over the ways in which the church has perpetuated and magnified anguish for gays and lesbians. It is too easy to dismiss someone like Hackett, who rises up to offer an angry rebuke to an elder statesman in the discipline, as offering nothing but a"semi-coherent rant." But behind such anger there is human pain, and pain cries out for compassion.

Philosophers are used to engaging with issues on a purely intellectual level. But when the topic is something like homosexuality, what is at stake are the lives and loves of real human beings, with histories and emotional lives. This fact may have actual bearing on what conclusions we should reach; but it also has bearing on which approaches to argument and debate are likely to be most productive. Patience and grace and compassion may, on this level, prove to be important philosophical virtues.


I want to say something about Michael Rea's "apology," which many have denounced.

On the one hand, I don't think it is wrong for a philosopher at a philosophy conference to give a talk defending a view that the philosopher accepts, with the understanding that others are encouraged to ask critical questions and raise objections. Hence, it isn't wrong for Swinburne to give such a talk, whatever we might think of the view being defended.

So, in that sense, there wasn't anything to apologize for. But strictly speaking, Rea did not apologize for what Swinburne said. He expressed regret for any hurt caused at the meeting, clarified that Swinburne's view was not that of the society, and affirmed a commitment to welcoming diverse people and perspectives (while affirming the shared foundation of Christian faith of the society's members).

Can anything be said for issuing such a "disclaimer"? I'm still not sure what I think of his decision to explicitly distance Swinburne's views from those of the SCP. Ordinarily, this distance is taken for granted at philosophy conferences, which may lead some readers to suppose that the real message is that those with Swinburne's views are not welcome to express them at the SCP. But much hinges here on the history of the SCP on this issue and the broader perceptions of the philosophical community. And this distancing is related to something I am sure about, which I turn to now.

Gays and lesbians have a long history of not feeling welcome in Christian communities. And the SCP is a Christian community. Absent any statement by SCP officials to the contrary, it is quite possible, even likely, that at least some gays and lesbians upon hearing second-hand about Swinburne's keynote address would get the impression that the SCP does not welcome their perspectives, their ideas, or their presence. Even if this impression is inaccurate, it could stifle the diversity that Rea talks about nurturing.

Furthermore, gays and lesbians have lived what for me and other straight Christians can only be an hypothesis--that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality causes harm to gays and lesbians. Other straight Christians may doubt its truth, but many gay and lesbian Christians experience it not as an hypothesis to which they might give intellectual assent but at a painfully inescapable feature of their personal histories. As such, an assurance of welcome that does not include something about the views of the society might be experienced as disingenuous.

But this is tricky. Some are afraid of any community where the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is granted hegemony and significance, because they have experienced the harms that such a community does to its LGBT members. Out of such fear, they fear any community that allows this condemnation to be expressed without rebuke. But there is an enormous difference between a community that preaches this condemnation and a community which cultivates an environment where people who believe in this condemnation feel welcome to make their case for it, knowing that there will be challenges and critical discussion (but not efforts to shame and silence). A philosophical society surely should be the latter--and there is need for the latter. And for reasons already mentioned, the SCP would be a particularly valuable place for the latter.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #2: Loving the Sinner but Hating the Sin

Posted below is the second of my promised excerpts from my work-in-progress, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. This is the introductory section of a chapter exploring the uses and misuses of the "love the sinner but hate the sin" mantra. Enjoy!

The story is common enough. Joe and Mary are walking out of a college classroom where the topic of homosexuality just came up. Joe, a conservative Christian convinced that all homosexual sex is sinful, expressed this conviction during the class discussion. Mary, a lesbian, isn’t quite ready to let that go. She’s tired of staying quiet.

“You really think I should break up with my girlfriend,” she says, “even though we love each other?”

“The Bible says it’s wrong. I can’t go against that.”

“But what about love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that in the Bible, too? You really think it’s loving to break apart people who love each other?”

“I’m not breaking you apart. You’ve got to decide to do that for yourself.”

“But you think we ought to break up. You would encourage us to break up.”

“That’s what God says.”

“You really know what God says? How arrogant can you be!”

“I…it’s in the Bible. I don’t have anything against you or your girlfriend, but the Bible is clear. What you’re doing is a sin, and I can’t condone sin.”

“This is the most meaningful relationship of my life. Anyone who knows me knows what ending it would do…it would be…” She falls silent, seething with frustration. She doesn’t know how to say it. He seems to her like a wall of righteousness. She gropes for words: “If you think the world would be improved by Katy and me breaking up, what you really think is that the world would be better if both Katy and I lost the most meaningful, beautiful, loving relationship either of us has ever known. You think the world would be a better place if this beautiful thing were destroyed, if it were taken away from us, if both of us were left heartbroken. How is that love? How can you possibly claim to love me and Katy if that’s what you think should happen? You think it would be loving to tell a happily married couple they should break up, that it would be wrong for them to grow old together? You think it would be loving to call what they have an abomination?”

“I didn’t use that word.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“But it’s not the same thing. A married couple—”

“It is the same thing!”

“It’s not! One’s a sin and the other isn’t!”

“I’m telling you that Katy and I have something beautiful together, and wanting to tear us apart is wanting to destroy something that makes our lives better. That’s not love.”

“I don’t want to tear you apart. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“You don’t? So you think it is fine for us to stay together?”

“No! I’m saying I’m supposed to love the sinner while hating the sin.”

“That’s a f**king copout!” she shouts. “If you hate my relationship enough to insist that it should end, then you don’t love me and you don’t love Katy. You can’t call what we have a sin and still love us. That’s bulls**t!”

Mary storms away. Joe stands there, shaking a little in the aftermath of her fury.

So is Joe right that he can love Mary while condemning as sin her most intimate relationship? Is Mary right that to hate her relationship is incompatible with loving her?

The question is important. Setting aside extremists like Fred Phelps with his “God Hates Fags” signs, conservative Christians typically agree that we ought to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves—in other words, that the Christian call to love one another includes sexual minorities. But they typically hold that such love is fully compatible with condemning homosexuality—because we can “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

For many of my gay and lesbian acquaintances, they’ve heard this phrase so much it has become an emotional trigger. They react as if it were nothing but a smokescreen for perpetuating hateful practices and policies, a false promise of love to make the reality of hate more palatable (that is, more palatable to the agents of hate and third-party observers, not to the victims).

In a recent Tulsa World op-ed, Mike Jones expresses just this sort of cynicism. He concedes that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” phrase could be used in beneficial ways. “But what can be a helpful, even comforting phrase, under the right circumstances,” he says, “has been hijacked by those whose purpose is to hand down judgments . . . ” And instead of being a general remark about sin and sinners, it has acquired a focus. In Jones’s experience, the phrase “is used now almost exclusively for those who disapprove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.”

The widespread LGBT suspicion of the phrase doesn’t spring out of nowhere. James Dobson, for example, repeatedly says that we should love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves. The following statement is typical:
Christians have a scriptural mandate to love and care for all the people of the world. Even those who are living in immoral circumstances are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. There is no place for hatred, hurtful jokes, or other forms of rejection toward those who are gay.
But as we’ve already seen, Dobson has persistently used rhetoric that feeds anti-gay ideologies of division, including claims that homosexuals are a threat to children. Dobson founded the Family Research Council and remains closely tied to it—the same Family Research Council that published the slanderous pamphlet we looked at in the last chapter, in which homosexuality was falsely linked to pedophilia through egregious misrepresentation of the research.

When such public figures pay lip service to loving gays and lesbians at the same time that they pursue and supporting unloving practices, it is not at all surprising that when gays and lesbians hear “love the sinner but hate the sin,” they find it a kind of disingenuous double-speak that is mostly about making hateful practices tolerable to the wider public by wrapping it up loving words.

But in my experience, most individual Christians who talk about loving the sinner while hating the sin are sincere. There was a time when I used the phrase myself in relation to my gay and lesbian neighbors—and I was earnest enough when I did so. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t mean it. My problem was that I didn’t wrestle with what it means to show love for gays and lesbians. The phrase became a mantra that I could fall back on to avoid confronting a real difficulty—the difficulty highlighted in the exchange between Joe and Mary. What is involved in believing that homosexuality is a sin—that is, really believing it, acting as if it were true? And what is involved in really loving my gay and lesbian neighbors? And are these things compatible?

There is a tension here, and conservative Christians who invoke the “love the sinner, hate the sin” dictum are often dodging that tension. The dictum becomes an easy conversation-stopper, a way to hide from challenging questions about what it means to show love. Gays and lesbians have every right to complain when Christians do that.

Nevertheless, I think the dictum is an indispensable part of the Christian moral life. No Christian who seeks to live by the ethic of love can deny that we must love sinners while hating sin. The problem doesn’t lie with the dictum itself, but with how it is invoked and with the challenge of figuring out what it implies.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #1: The place of emotions in loving debate

As promised, I start this week sharing excepts from my forthcoming book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. For the first excerpt, I've chosen a passage from the last chapter of the book, in which I move away from the question of what the love ethic demands with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors and focus on how sincere people who disagree on these matters can pursue their disagreements in a spirit of love.

Let me offer just a few words of context. I reject the notion that any of us should simply "agree to disagree" when the actual fate of people we are called to love is at stake. If we're convinced we have an important truth to share, we do no one a favor by hiding it or obscuring it in an effort to be nice. What love calls for is honest debate that avoid psychological manipulation and seeks instead to illuminate truth. We are called to share why we believe in ways that may move others if our reasons are as compelling as we think they are, and may expose the weaknesses in our thinking when they're not as compelling as we think.

One question that arises in this context is the place of emotions and emotional appeals in loving debates. After exploring an example of an illicit appeal to disgust (an example I addressed a few years back in this blog entry), I move to a broader discussion of the place of emotions in loving discourse and debate. Without further ado, the excerpt:

Appeals to misleading emotions are one of the most potent forms of improper manipulation, and the appeal to disgust is just an example. Consider a slightly more complex case involving shame, fear of ridicule, and the desire for belonging. Suppose I’m having a conversation with several people, talking about my gay best friend, and I notice that one member of the group—call her Jane—starts to shift uncomfortably. She finally asks how I deal with the biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. Imagine that I respond with something like the following: “You don’t actually think homosexuality is wrong, do you? I mean, that’s ridiculous! This is the twenty-first century. You’re smarter than that, right?” 

Such a comment is designed to manipulate Jane with the fear of appearing a fool. Instead of inviting an open sharing of perspectives, it shuts down such sharing. A hint of flattery—“you look smarter than the kind of person who would think that”—is really a basis for invoking the specter of public shame. More often than not, the person most influenced by such a tactic may not be Jane, but the fence-sitting bystander—let’s call him Joe—who hasn’t thought much about the topic but sincerely longs to belong. The more he witnesses those with another view being shamed and silenced, the more he gravitates to the socially safest choice. At its worst this strategy can generate an arms-race of shame, in which each side of the debate escalates the social costs of rejecting their view in order to ensure that siding with them represent the socially safest choice. The winner of such an arms race has done nothing to illuminate truth.

While invoking misleading emotional responses for persuasive purposes is inimical to debating issues in a spirit of love, this does not mean that our discussions and debates should be divorced from our feelings. Not every emotion is an irrelevant emotion. 

Sometimes a compelling story generates a strong emotional response, and the reason is because the story has stimulated our capacity for empathy. We are suddenly in the shoes of another person, feeling what it’s like to be them. Our eyes tear up because we vicariously feel their suffering. We smile because we suddenly understand their joy as if it were our own. 

That kind of emotional resonance is crucial for loving our neighbors as ourselves, because it gives genuine insight. We can’t make wise decisions about how to love our neighbors if we can’t empathize with how they feel, if we can’t discern the truth about what it is like to be in their situation. 

Sometimes, in disagreements and debates, what we have to offer is a way of looking at an issue that invites and encourages this sort of empathy, thereby eliciting an emotional response. That emotional response is hardly irrelevant, because it is part of the insight into truth. If I didn’t feel some vicarious anguish at the story of a mother who can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby, that means I’m not seeing the truth about her situation. 

Likewise, there are some emotional responses to the experiences of others—compassion for those who suffer, anger at injustice—whose absence betrays a failure to appreciate what is going on. While our emotions are tricky, there is a strong intellectual tradition that sees them as having cognitive content: emotions are about something. Anger, for example, is a response to a perceived wrong. If injustice does not anger us, if it’s just some fact about the world that our intellect tells us is wrong, then a part of us has failed to see that it’s wrong. Our emotional selves have become blinded to the injustice, and so we aren’t discerning the injustice with our whole selves. 

In discussion or debate, part of our aim might be to awaken others’ emotional selves to a truth they have failed to see (even if their intellects have discerned it). In other words, we might not limit ourselves to making an intellectually dispassionate case that something is unjust. We might go further, looking for an analogy or image or narrative that helps to expose the outrageousness of the injustice. This is not an appeal to an irrelevant emotion, but rather a way of extending the intellectual argument beyond the merely academic, theoretical level. It’s a way of helping the heart, and not just the mind, to see. 

But because the emotions can be misled—because some rhetoricians have the power to paint something as outrageous even when no wrong has been done—it is best to wed such emotion-evoking arguments to more intellectual ones, to argue in a way that awakens the heart along with the mind, as opposed to awakening the heart alone (while, perhaps, the mind is kept deliberately asleep so the heart can be more easily led astray). 

Christian love, whatever else it is, is emotional. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to feel for them and to feel with them. Any strategy of debate and argument that is cut off from our emotions is therefore at odds with the very nature of Christian love. But truth-oriented arguments that extend to our emotional selves are not the same as manipulative ones that evoke emotions in order to confuse and obscure and misdirect. Love calls for the former, and rules out the latter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Coming Soon: Triumph of Love Excerpts!

Some of you may have noticed that my blogging dropped off this spring and vanished entirely over the summer. There is a reason for this: I've been pouring all my writing energies into finishing my newest book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, in an effort to beat the December contract deadline.

The good news is that I am now working on the final chapter of the first draft, and with my sabbatical this semester I have no worries about being able to revise the whole manuscript in time, so long as I stay focused. The bad news is that I still want to resist blogging about current topics so I can be sure to meet my deadline. This is probably a good thing, since the current election season would likely inspire posts that are nothing but expressions of incredulity.


There is no reason why I can't, over the next few months, post a few choice excerpts from my work-in-progress. Look for the first one next week.

I post these for two self-serving reasons. First, to generate some interest in the forthcoming book. Second, to elicit critical feedback.

Just a word about that second aim. I don't take all critical feedback seriously, because I don't find all critical feedback helpful. Some of it doesn't even qualify as critical feedback. I generally find feedback of the following sort unhelpful: it commits formal or informal fallacies; it does little more than accuse me of being a heretic; it is an exercise in creative name-calling instead of a critical engagement with the substance of what I have posted; it expresses righteous indignation over my utter failure to consider argument X (which, while I don't address it in the excerpt, I address elsewhere in the book).

Of course, with respect to the last issue, you can't know whether I consider argument X elsewhere in the book or not. So you should feel free to point out that argument X is relevant to issues raised in the excerpt. I'm likely to be quite receptive if you use something like the following form: "This excerpt made me think of argument X, which I think is relevant for reasons R1 and R2. Do you address that argument in the book?" I just get irritated when you use something like the following form: "What an idiot you are for failing to consider argument X! And to think you call yourself a philosopher!" If you do use the latter form, it is helpful to include a winky-face emoji at the end.

(That said, if I really did miss arguments that strikes me as important, I will likely look up scholarly articulations of them and find ways to work them into the manuscript even if you direct me to them in an a$$#0l-ey way.)

If you do feel motivated to offer serious feedback that engages with the substance of what I argue in a posted excerpt, I will be appreciative. I may not, however, take the time to engage in the kind of back-and-forth discussion that I pursue when I have more time. My energies will be directed primarily towards revising the manuscript, and I know from experience that the discussion section of a blog post can be a serious time-suck if I start responding to comments there. So my engagement may be minimal, although you may find that other readers of the blog are eager to engage.

Finally, my main aim with posting excerpts is to generate some interest and give those who are already interested a foretaste of what's to come. I have volunteer readers for the manuscript who are likely to offer far more substantive and authoritative feedback than what I can get from those who happen to read a few pages out of context. But if you surprise me, it's not totally inconceivable that the acknowledgments section of the book might include a sentence like this: "Thanks also to the various commenters on my blog, some of whom offered feedback on early excerpts that ranged from actually helpful to only moderately perplexing."

I know, I know. Heady stuff.