If I were black in 1850, I’d be uppity. If I were gay in 1980, it would show. But it wouldn’t have to be that way. I could be a quiet, docile black man, like the Sambo and coon stereotypes we never hear about anymore. I could be a closeted gay man, an ‘older gentleman’, hoping silence would help my career or avoid scandal.
It’s Christmas, 1890. You bring your working-class girlfriend home. Your upper-crust mother cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.
It’s Christmas, 1940. You bring your black girlfriend home. Stephen Foster is playing on the radio. You note the obvious racial epithets, caricatures and stereotypes in the lyrics. Dad is aghast that you can’t let everyone enjoy a simple song. Your mother cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.
It’s Christmas, 1970. You bring your gay boyfriend home. Dad stiffens, appalled that you would be so disrespectful. Mom cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.
It’s Christmas, 2010. You mention that you’re an atheist. When the Hallelujah Chorus plays, you note that Christianity, being monarchical and autocratic, makes a strange partner for American ideals. Your sister is bewildered that you can’t just enjoy it for its musical stature. Mom cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.
What should we do in situations like these? Everyone likes to get along, so saying nothing is a good option. Why rock the boat? What is to be gained by speaking when you know others will be offended or uncomfortable?
In normal situations, in normal times, I would go this route myself. But there are times when the old culture collides with the new one; where the advancing wave of change buckles the pavement. I largely missed the great civil rights shift, where blacks very slowly became integrated into our society at all levels. Every time a black was hired for a good job or an interracial wedding was held there were those who were offended. Should blacks have stayed in their place to avoid offense?
What do we owe people who get offended? No one wants to be deliberately offensive. But what, exactly, is offensive about a black girlfriend, a gay boyfriend or an atheist insight into religion? Offense in these cases just is the collision of cultures. It is the feeling people have when you aren’t playing by their rules. And you do it when you’re with them.
What effect does ‘being offended’ have? It’s a topic-changer and conversation-stopper. And it’s a threat: “Say certain things and my mood will quickly change for the worse. I won’t be content until you stop and promise not to offend me again.” Now, we all have the right to draw boundaries. If I don’t want to be in the presence of certain people, for any reason, I don’t have to. But the easily offended don’t do this. They want to go anywhere and speak with anyone and have their sensibilities respected. This is cultural control, plain and simple. When we welcome people into our lives, they are not programmable like the devices we carry around. We live in a pluralistic society. We don’t have to celebrate diversity, but it is a fact. If we don’t like it, we can withdraw, but we can’t redraw things to our liking. That is segregation.
Because of the place religion has in our culture, it is hard to see it from other angles. We have been trained to see religion as a force for good. It’s parallel to our natural patriotism. America might make mistakes, but we never doubt our good intentions. When people on the Left dare to question our good will, we are called unpatriotic. I suppose, in a way, we are, if patriotism means blind love. But that’s not what it means to me. Since I love my country, I owe it my honest appraisal. If we are wrong, but think we are right, then we are in love with an illusion. We see this when we have a friend in an abusive relationship. She’s likely to resent our honest input about her husband’s philandering.
So it is with religion. If we love our faith, then we owe it our honest appraisal. If it is solid, there is nothing to fear in inspecting the foundations. The problem arises when we inspect the foundations of other people’s houses. Are we right to do this?
It depends. If they live alone, perhaps not. Almost every city in the world inspects houses. It’s a safety issue. If your religion shuns medical care in favor of prayer, the tribe needs to get involved to protect your children.
Most cases aren’t of this type. Most believers are good parents and citizens and I don’t accost them. I write essays and post articles, but I’m not going to directly subject their faith to my unwelcome analysis. But when we are in relationship with them and they bring religious ideas into the conversation, I think it is wrong to be silent. It is wrong because it is dishonest and it maintains the impression that religious beliefs have no social consequences.
Most people I know rarely mention religion. But when they do, they expect no reply, or benign assent. This expectation is justified by the countless incursions religion has made into our culture without comment. “In God We Trust” in on the money. It’s on the money, right there with “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum”. What greater stamp of reasonableness and universality can something have? But slavery and segregation were once legal, too. We are simply living in a time where religion still has an unquestioned public image, that of a wholesome force for good. People spoke out against slavery for centuries. The objections grew louder in the decades before the Civil War. Desegregation took another hundred years. We can expect a similar, slow process of realignment for the public face of religion. Religion’s image will become more realistic: it will be seen as a private comfort for certain people, but a source of division and supremacy in the public square. This only sounds offensive today because we are early in the process.
What should we do when we hear racist music? Racist speech? American, Iranian or Nazi nationalist speech? Supremacist religious lyrics? We can choose not to speak up to avoid offense, but there are cases where being silent is itself offensive. Social pressure works to maintain the status quo. The civil rights movement showed us that change won’t occur without confrontation. The great achievement of Parks, King and others was that they confronted our culture nonviolently, even though they received violence in return. They refused to be silent. They made people uncomfortable, but these were people who shouldn’t have been comfortable in the first place.
Let’s clarify one thing: I don’t want reverse discrimination. I don’t want religious people to cower silently, either. We simply want to make real the promise of ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ Silent is not equal. Taking offense is social pressure that has evolved to keep others silent. We don’t want to offend, but we can’t keep silent. No one should.
If you keep your religious beliefs private, I won’t comment on them. If you bring them up, put them on the money or insert them in the lyrics of songs, I will. When ideas have social consequences, silence is complicity.