The Duck Dynasty controversy is a good example of why being someone who is committed to faith in Jesus and who is attracted to men often leaves me feeling like an odd man out. I’ve got a foot in the Christian world. In fact, I’ve got a foot in the small, specific corner of the Christian world the Dynasty folks call home, the Churches of Christ. On December 18, my social media feeds were full of Dynasty references in response to Phil Robertson’s GQ interview. One day prior, on December 17, my social media feeds were also full of Dynasty references in response to an announcement that my college—a small private university associated with Churches of Christ—would be hosting three of the Dynasty cast members (not including Phil) as speakers for an event in April raising funds for a couple Abilene organizations. From what I can tell, the Dynasty crew has amassed a strong, devoted fan base within my denomination, and I think the way many Christians are leaping to defend Phil’s comments in GQ probably has as much to do with their familial affection for him as it does with any of the sentiments he expressed. This conflict feels personal to them because of their affection for Robertson, who (to my knowledge) hadn’t previously expressed sentiments like those in the interview. The conflict also feels public because the backlash against Robertson is indicative of the growing animosity they sense in our culture toward the traditional Christian attitude toward same-sex relationships.
I’ve also got a foot in the gay world. It goes without saying those two worlds overlap in some significant ways, but the Dynasty controversy has made apparent the culture gap that often exists between them. Many of my gay friends, and especially my gay friends who aren’t from the South, hadn’t even heard of Dynasty until this week, and their first and only impression of the cast was Robertson’s interview. His comments were profoundly hurtful and offensive to many of them due not to Robertson’s beliefs but rather his manner of expressing them, which included some regrettable comparisons and vulgar descriptions. (To be sure, many people would have been hurt and offended by the beliefs themselves regardless of how he expressed them.) This conflict feels personal to them because Robertson’s comments concern nontraditional sexual orientation, which is a huge, inextricable component of every gay person’s identity and experience. The conflict also feels public because the flood of Christian support that has erupted for Robertson seems symbolic of the historic victimization and marginalization sexual minorities have faced, often at the hands of Christians.
The flavor of this controversy, in which a poultry-related institution beloved in the conservative Christian subculture but mostly unknown elsewhere has come under fire due to public statements about marriage from one of its figureheads, has brought to mind last year’s controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A. I’m often curious about how people on both sides of the culture war look back on that event, whether it was as big of a deal to them as it was to me. I’ll admit I was in already in a tender place when it happened, since I was coming off a wonderful-but-tiring summer planting myself right in the middle of the culture war in an internship with The Marin Foundation; but the sheer volume of the strong opinions and sharp conflict I encountered throughout that debacle was absolutely staggering to me. My read on that controversy was that it was damaging for both sides. It seems to have left many conservative Christians feeling more defensive and many gay folks feeling more abused. I think it largely broke down communication and empathy between the camps, both of which are necessary for any sort of cultural reconciliation and healing.
My anger and regret about what happened with Chick-fil-A may help explain why I’m concerned this Dynasty controversy could become something similar. Robertson’s attitude and A&E’s response have very little to do with me, but the situation is significantly impacting many of the people of my life. It’s possible the noise will die down, especially since the holidays stand (rightly) poised to divert our attention, but the dramatic reaction I’ve already witnessed from people across the spectrum leads me to believe things will continue to escalate. (I’m aware this post itself may serve to prolong the controversy in my corner of the Internet, but I believe that ship has sailed.) Even if the Dynasty commotion does dissipate, I fear it’s only a matter of time before another similar controversy (Ugandan politics? the Olympics? the Supreme Court?) draws out strong opinions and sharp conflict. This post is my attempt to influence my corner of the Internet to handle the Dynasty situation and any others like it in a way that fosters communication and empathy.
As you think, read, write, talk, post, share, tweet, or comment about Robertson’s comments or any other controversy related to faith and sexuality, I’d encourage you to keep three suggestions in mind:
1. Don’t sink into lazy habits.
I don’t think most of us are lazy people, but I think something about these controversies (maybe that they occur online, or maybe that we’re all getting tired of arguing, or maybe that many of us have been severely hurt?) often draws us into lazy habits. We might make broad generalizations about gay people or conservative Christians or duck call manufacturers that unfairly characterize complex and diverse groups as monolithic movements. We might rely on inaccurate assumptions that color our perceptions of people and their actions, causing us to read unintended messages into their words and unfairly idolize or demonize them. Or we might read or listen poorly, manipulating someone else’s words rather than engaging them charitably and seeking to comprehend what they mean to communicate. (For an example of that last point, pay attention to any comment thread or discussion board you see online, and watch how quickly the conversation moves away from the original speaker’s content and collapses into tired, repetitive talking points. Often, it seems like many of us have lost the ability to engage what other people are actually saying on their terms.) When you commit one of these errors of laziness, acknowledge your error, apologize, and move on. When someone else commits one of these errors, confront them gently, and be quick to forgive and move on. If we’re willing to do the hard work of dialogue, we’re capable of productive conversations and deeper understanding. But that stuff is work, especially when it involves a topic that’s become so contentious, and we have to recognize the temptation to laziness and actively resist it.
2. Take your time.
The nature of a drive-by controversy like Robertson’s interview naturally motivates people to move quickly in order to capitalize on the attention. I don’t mean that in a cynical, everyone-is-scheming kind of way; I just mean we all understand people probably won’t be talking about Robertson in a month, so those who want to support or criticize his words in a visible manner realize, even if only subconsciously, they have to do so before our national attention shifts to something else. This past Wednesday evening, I caught wind of Robertson’s interview, and petitions to repeal A&E’s decision to remove him from his show had already begun circulating that night. It’s natural people will feel strong emotions when something like this happens; but when we make the decision to turn those strong emotions into visible forms of activism that aim to send a message, I think it’s foolhardy to rush into that activism without pausing a moment, or many moments, to consider the impact our activism will make. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, a demonstration in which a record number of people ate at Chick-fil-A on August 1, came together in less than two weeks after politicians in Boston and Chicago criticized the company. After Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, I commented that there seemed to be vastly different perceptions of the purpose of the demonstration, even among its participants. If the participants themselves couldn’t consistently articulate the message they hoped to send by eating at Chick-fil-A that day, it was inevitable they would have little control over the message others would hear. Whether the message you want to send involves inviting thousands of people to a protest or merely tweeting your opinion in 140 characters, don’t allow the momentum of our culture to make you rash or thoughtless.
Taking your time is essential in order to discern what and how you need to communicate, then, but it’s also essential in order to understand the position of your opponent. If you want to say, “The other side is irrelevant in this conflict,” go right ahead—you do not have to engage. If you want to say, “The other side is wrong,” though, that claim requires you to take the other side’s position seriously as a means of understanding and evaluating it. Without a doubt, there’s a good chance you’ll still come to the conclusion the other side is wrong, but at least you’ll know where the other side stands rather than picking fights with straw men and stereotypes. There’s a clear difference between listening to one’s opponent for the sake of attacking them and listening for the sake of understanding them. The latter requires seeking out the best advocate of a position rather than its laziest, shallowest, most-easily-defeated zealot. As above, it requires avoiding generalizations and assumptions, and it requires you to listen well. If your goal is nothing more than to state your case, that will take little work and requires almost no engagement with your opponents. If your goal is to affect your opponents productively, though, you must be willing to do the hard work to get there, and that takes time.
3. Remember that everyone involved is a human.
Remember that everything you say is going to be heard by humans, and remember that everything you hear was spoken by humans. I’m often perplexed when I come across a seemingly homophobic Facebook status update written by someone who knows I’m gay and who has treated me with nothing less than love and respect. I’m tempted to take the remark personally, as if the person had me in mind when they wrote it, and to conclude the person doesn’t actually love me like I thought. (My feelings are similar when I see posts attacking Christians, but I suppose I feel Christians have less room to feel offended.) Nevertheless, I think people are more complex than that. I think we’re each trying hard to live with integrity between our beliefs and our relationships, and I think sometimes the results of those efforts are messy and inconsistent. I have to remind myself constantly: “This isn’t about me. We’re all on a journey.” Should I find ways to express my hurt to the people who write and say those things? Absolutely, and I think they’d probably appreciate my honesty. But when social media gets tumultuous, it helps protect my heart if I can remember that the people writing and saying things that might be hurtful to me are humans themselves. Allow people to be complex beings who may have a cacophony of motivations affecting the way they think and feel.
The other side of that coin is to remember your audience consists of humans. To be honest, I can still remember many of the specific comments I heard during the Chick-fil-A controversy, both positive and negative. The sad truth is that in both cases—whether the comments elated or deflated me—the impact of the words was probably much, much greater than the amount of thought that went into them. This means a spontaneous word of grace can do immense good, and it means a thoughtless word of abuse can do immense harm. If you’re in any sort of position of influence, think about the weight your words may carry for key individuals in this controversy, for those people who won’t be able to shift their attention to some new controversy next week. How might your words be received by a young girl struggling with her sexuality who genuinely believes God doesn’t care about her, by a father losing sleep over what it means to love his gay son, by the bully who’s planning to beat up his effeminate classmate tomorrow? Can you effectively and clearly communicate everything you need to say to them in the comment you’re about to make, and if not, what is the purpose of your comment?
The controversy surrounding Robertson’s comments is, like the controversy surrounding Cathy’s comments, a huge opportunity. It’s one of those rare times when everyone is directing their attention to that strange intersection of faith and sexuality, an intersection that includes politics, religion, identity, family, and, strangely enough, reality TV. That means we have the chance to take a step toward improving the situation in our culture or damaging it further. Let’s avoid sinking into lazy habits, take our time, and remember that each and every one of us is a human, and perhaps this noise can ultimately produce greater communication and empathy.