In general, it is a bad idea to insult people’s appearance, religious texts, or children. “Ma’am! You are ugly, I think Scientology is bunk, and your child is ill-equipped to handle basic math!” are some of the most cutting words you can utter. Add vulgarity, and you may never be on speaking terms again.
I only mention this because Dan Savage, during an April 12conference on journalism, managed to refer to parts of the Bible in no uncertain terms. “We’ll just talk about the Bible for a second,” Savage said. “People often point out that they can’t help it — they can’t help with the anti-gay bullying, because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans, that being gay is wrong... We can learn to ignore the bull[excrement] in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the [redacted] in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore [redacted] in the Bible about all sorts of things.”
It’s causing a minor firestorm. Conservative commentators are accusing Savage of bullying. Several students walked out, and he called their response “pansy-[patooted].” He has since apologized for that — but not for the first few Biblical turdblossoms.
Dan Savage, like most humans, encompasses an array of contradictions. He is simultaneously most famous for his anti-bullying It Gets Better Project — and for his cruel redefinition of Rick Santorum’s last name. He’s a gay activist, “cultural Catholic,” and married father. He has an MTV show. And he gives pretty solid relationship advice.
I’ve been an avid Savage reader since before he renamed Rick Santorum, watching as he went from someone who had opinions to someone people had opinions about. He’s become — wittingly or un — one of the people who set the terms of national debate. Now he’s hit the point where enough people are listening to him at any given time that someone periodically demands that he apologize.
So what to do?
The indignation machine these days is remarkably well-oiled. As John Shore noted: “I, for one, have no idea what the world has come to, when a person who has made his career out of speaking, in the most unadorned language possible, directly to great numbers of young people about some of the most important issues in their lives, dares to speak in unadorned language directly to a great number of young people about one of the most important issues in American life today.”
But even if the machine were slightly rustier, it isn’t hard to muster up dudgeon when someone flat-out insults your religious text, especially in the terms Savage picked.
Then again, Savage has made a career out of arguing that the urge to be polite to everyone has to have some limits. If people earnestly believe that they are justified in treating you badly, if they object to your very existence on what seem to them to be moral grounds, you are justified in calling them out on it. Sometimes, you can go so far as to rename them. If someone tells you that you will burn in Hell for all eternity, you can turn around and say unprintable things about his religious text.
No one is ever entirely bad. That would be too easy. Josef Stalin was probably good with house plants and could soothe crying babies with a glance. But there comes a point when that is not enough. Someone strikes you on the cheek, and you sock him one right back. Someone takes half your cloak, and you write an unflattering article about him on the Internet.
Sure, it’s a bit Old-Testamenty. But people have disagreed about the correct meaning and emphasis of the Bible for decades. Back in the early days, there were schisms over the insertion or removal of a single iota. (There was no television then.)
Thomas Jefferson went through the text redacting the parts with which he disagreed. But he never said anything really impolite — like calling certain chapters and verses [excrement], or saying that anyone who disagreed with him would burn in Hell for all eternity.
Whoever said that words can’t hurt you never was hit on the head with large chunks of Leviticus. A study by PublicReligion.org suggests that most kids have been.
Ask a Millennial these days about religion, and we’re torn. Sixty-three percent of us say that modern-day Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” But 64 percent say “anti-gay” describes Christianity somewhat or very well. And 62 percent of us call it “judgmental.” Of course, to be judgmental is one of the critical functions of religion. If we just wandered around feeling vaguely loved all the time, we’d be at a Joel Osteen rally.
Something must be wrong.
The fact that the judging and smiting bits of the Bible are the first things that leap to mind for so many is troubling. There are so many better parts. The Book has been a force for good for hundreds of years. So it’s a shame that the people with angry signs who go around reciting Leviticus in malls have soured so many.
Still, I quail at this sort of language, and I’m glad Savage apologized for the second bit at least. The ruder you are in disagreeing with someone, the more likely he is to leap into his bunker and assume that he can write you off as a person. There are some insults you can only answer by Googling the person who uttered them and reassuring yourself with thoughts of his large pores, bad taste in music, or the cruel way his last name has been redefined. But this kind of entrenched ad hominem dismissal does little for the discussion as a whole. Then again, maybe this kind of thinking is why I am toiling away in comparative obscurity and Savage is a major media figure.
But Savage’s circle has been expanding for a reason. In a perverse way, if he’s in a position to make other people feel bullied, that’s a sign of progress. If only we'd come far enough he didn’t have to use that position to do so.