You might have heard that Dan Savage landed himself in some hot water recently over comments he made during a speech at a high school journalism conference. Savage, a syndicated sex columnist and the founder of “It Gets Better” project, a collection of online videos offering support to gay teens, cut loose on the Bible while discussing bullying, referring to parts of it as “bulls–t” and calling it a “radically pro-slavery document”. Now, whether or not you think these comments were appropriate, let’s start by taking a look at whether they were advisable.
Ignore the debate about the anti-bullying movement for a second, as well as the larger debate about homosexuality. Ignore the fact that the leader of an anti-bullying group used his position as a guest speaker to attack a group of high school students about their beliefs. These topics are broad, and Savage’s words fail at a much more primitive level: basic pragmatism. Suppose you are Dan Savage and you want to reach out to a group of high school students. Your goal is to convince as many of them as possible to take a stand against bullying, in particular anti-LGBT bullying. The worst thing you could do for your cause, one would think, would be to alienate your audience. And yet Savage does exactly that.
You can see why this was a very stupid idea using two simple proxies. First, take the percentage of Americans in support of gay marriage as an estimate of the percentage of Savage’s audience amenable to his cause. As of 2011, according to Gallup, 53% of the US population believes that same-sex marriage should be legal, so we’ll say that roughly half of the listeners in a random audience side with him. Second, use the percentage of Christians in America as both the pool of potential bullies Savage is tagetting with his attack and the percentage of his audience that he risks losing. Again according to Gallup, as of 2009, Christians make up 77% of the US population, or about three-quarters of a random audience. Thus even in the worst case, assuming every person in the US who is opposed to same-sex marriage is Christian, that still leaves about one-third of the Christian population, one-fourth of the US population, and fully one-half of the pro-gay marriage population as aligned with Savage yet maligned by his attacks. That is not an insignificant number, even using rough numbers.
There are mitigating factors, of course, and severe ones at that. The proxies do not provide a categorical match with the groups affected by Savage’s speech, necessitating several broad generalizations, and they are an imprecise indicator of Savage’s intended high-school audience. Support for same-sex marriage skews heavily towards the young, but remains low among Republicans and conservatives. Opposition to same-sex marriage does not necessarily indicate opposition to homosexuality or, in particular, support of bullying. Many self-described Christians would not object strongly to Savage’s words, and many Americans of other faiths might be turned off by them. Most importantly, would-be journalists who attended Savage’s speech seem more likely to share his opinions, both regarding religion and bullying. The mix of factors makes broad statistics ineffective at speculating about the breakdown of Savage’s intended high school audience, but they can say something about the thousands or millions of people who have now heard his remarks.
The point I’m trying to make is that Savage is painting with a very broad brush here. Either directly or indirectly, he hits nearly every faith that holds to a biblically-enumerated practice, denouncing the Bible’s rules, customs, and ceremonies in an effort to get at its proscriptions against homosexuality. Not only is this a slap in the face of every listener who holds to a biblical practice regarding shellfish, farming, masturbation, or nearly any other tenet of the Bible still practiced today, but it also denies that there are any reasons to oppose homosexuality other than simply quoting the Bible. He targets the people who use the Bible as justification without further backing, yet insults the faith of those who can present deeper arguments, without giving them so much as a mention in his rant.
How many minds—old, young, Christian, Jewish, atheist—have been turned away by Dan Savage’s hateful speech? How many people who might have supported It Gets Better as a weapon against teen suicide now oppose the project based on the vicious words of its founder? For a man ostensibly concerned with teen suicide and bullying, he has proved himself quick to throw the cause under the bus to chase personal grudges. If he truly thinks a minority of Christians are responsible for such bullying, why not clarify this distinction? If he is critiquing a small group, why tar others’ faith to get to it? If he is accusing Christians of being hypocrites, why attack high school students for their beliefs while making a speech about bullying? His speech serves only to rally those sympathetic to him; it does nothing to change minds or diffuse the animosities he claims he is trying to prevent.
Now, based on the crowd’s reaction to the video, perhaps he read his audience correctly. Most of his punchlines about the Bible and the GOP receive laughter and applause. Aside from a steady stream of students walking out towards the beginning of the video, hardly a negative reaction is recorded, and certainly Savage had no specific reason to believe a video of the speech would find its way online, where it could spread. From what I’ve heard and from his own word choice, Savage lives and breathes controversy. Even if he thought better of his words, I doubt he would go on to court Christians, even if they might support his cause.
Savage has shown as much in his subsequent post on the incident, and the reaction from the right has been strong. Savage did walk back the language used in his attack, but he continues to stand by the main thrust of it, that Christians who cite the Bible to defend bullying are hypocrites. Though he comes closer to drawing a valid point, using more specific language than the broad strokes he used during his speech, he fails to address any argument deeper than a direct quote from the Bible. Not only does he ignore more thorough critiques of homosexuality that have nothing to do with bullying, he also manages to grant cover to would-be bullies by reducing the argument to one of hypocrisy. No church in the world has remained static for two thousand years, and to imply that the only argument against homosexuality consists of citing the Bible is both unimaginative and ignorant. One does not have to agree with such arguments to acknowledge their existence, but Dan Savage opts for neither, instead setting up a one-note Christian strawman to lob charges of hypocrisy at from a safe distance. It is sloppy, lazy thinking, and it discredits the organization whose founder stoops to such rehtorical depths. I am convinced that there was an opportunity here to preach acceptance and promote dialogue. Instead, Savage opted for an attack that will close minds to his cause and make life more difficult for the teens he says he cares about.
Incidentally, Teresa Koch has a few words on the topic that I think are spot-on. Beyond the controversial topics Savage raised in his speech, he fails to pass the simple test of manners. If he can’t respect his audience, why should they listen to him? Whatever good that might have come out of his speech was lost when he decided to insult his listeners.