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But Dude, They’re WRONG

December 22nd, 2008 · 9 Comments

It’s a week old now, but this Feministe post exhibits a type of category error that crops up in other contexts, so I figure it’s still worth saying a few words about it. The touchstone is this Rolling Stone postmortem of the battle over Caliornia’s Proposition 8, which concludes that the anti-gay amendment could have been defeated, but for a signally inept campaign waged by its opponents. Blogger Cara responds:

I’m personally really sick of the idea that the “gay people just didn’t beg enough for their own rights” argument is a brilliant replacement for the racist one above.  Guess what?  If entrenched homophobia (across the board) and religious intolerance was not an issue, the fact that No on 8 ran a shitty campaign wouldn’t have been an issue either.  And saying “well maybe if they’d just asked the nice straight people a bit more pleadingly” is just another example of the privilege and prejudice.

No one should have to beg for their rights.  Period.  And the oppressor is always to blame for the oppression they commit.

First, a purely stylistic quibble. The locution “[Statement]. Period.” is not persuasive. It doesn’t impress the reader with your steely commitment to justice. It’s just rhetorical foot-stamping, about half a notch up from the clever habit of punctuating an attempted reductio with “hel-LOOOO?”  It really serves no good purpose. Period, if you will.

The substantive problem here is not that Cara is wrong, as such, but that her being right does no useful work. We can all agree—I assume the author and editorial staff of Rolling Stone agree—that the real problem here is that many people are homophobic and unwilling to extend gay couples the equal treatment to which they are entitled. They really ought to cut that out.

OK, waiting… waiting…

Crap, nope, they’re still homophobes. Even after we pointed out they’re homophobes. And added a “period” to make it clear that we really, really mean it. Given demographic trends, we can probably just wait for them to die out, but since many of us aren’t that patient, some more proactive measures may be in order.  For those of us squeamish about pogroms, that probably means some sort of attempt to persuade them to be less homophobic—or at least less disposed to express their homophobia through the legal system.  If this persuasive effort is sufficiently organized, one might even call it a “campaign.” And if we care about achieving equality, it’s probably helpful to know whether this “campaign” is run competently or incompetently, and how the next one might be run better.

Now, to be sure, criticism of tactics shouldn’t be confused with criticism of the goal: Gay activists morally deserve to win, regardless of how well they campaign,  just by dint of being in the right. That and five bucks will get you a venti latte. Given the premise that their cause is just, the question is how to achieve the goal. That question is not answered by stressing yet again, to people who already agree with you, that the cause is righteous. We know that.  And while I understand the desire to avoid any hint of victim-blaming,  surely when one is addressing a sympathetic audience—the readership of Rolling Stone, say—there’s a point where you get past the satisfying but futile exercise of lamenting the stuff you don’t control and focus on the stuff you do control. Supporters of gay equality have no control over other people’s bigotry, except through an effective persuasive campaign. We do have control over whether those persuasive campaigns are run well or poorly.

When you’re talking to the population as a whole, of course, the thing to stress is that it’s wrong to deny equality to gay couples—though just calling those who disagree bigots may be a suboptimal tactic, even if it’s true. When you’re talking to people who are all pretty much on board with that idea, the thing to stress is whether you’re doing a good job mobilizing those who agree and bringing around those who don’t. Morally speaking, you shouldn’t have to bring them around—or “beg for your rights,” if that’s how we want to put it: They should just abandon their repugnant views. Unfortunately, they haven’t. Now what?

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media · Sexual Politics



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Gowder // Dec 22, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    It depends on what the point of the argument is. There are two possible points to the statement “gay rights advocates could have campaigned better.”

    1) “Gay rights advocates, because of their poor campaigning, are rightly blamed for the success of proposition 8.”

    2) “Gay rights advocates might have succeeded/might succeed in the future with better campaigning.”

    Your argument aptly defends 2), but I think a lot of people want to have 1), and I take it that Cara’s point is that 1) does not follow from 2). (Consider: “she could have avoided being raped by never leaving the house” for a salient example of how 2) does not license 1).) The Rolling Stone article reads like the assignment of blame — of culpability — of 1), and Cara points that out and objects to it.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Dec 22, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Well, right, this is why I think context matters. If a bunch of military commanders are talking strategy, it’s legitimate to say: “Hey, YOU’RE TO BLAME for failing to hold that position.” And it’s no defense for the person being blamed to say: “Well, it’s really the fault of the opposing army waging this unjust war.” If you’re trying to win over unaligned powers, of course, you focus on the injustice of the aggression. In the pages of Rolling Stone, I think we’re a lot closer to the first sort of context than the second. Assuming background agreement within the relevant community about which side is in the right, fuming about the Mormons is not useful, whereas asking “how did we fuck this up?” might be.

  • 3 Julian Elson // Dec 23, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Only loosely related, but this reminds me of the scene in Milk where Franco and Penn go to the older, richer gay rights activists. The older gay rights activists (with a bit of condescension, admittedly) explain their incremental strategy of supporting pro-gay straight candidates, and don’t immediately support Milk.

    I’m not saying that the older gay rights activists were right. However, if they were wrong, Milk could have made an argument that increasing visibility was, in the long-run, the best route to acceptance. He could have made some argument about why he was more viable as a candidate than they perceived and that having gay, and not merely pro-gay, politicians in office was more critical than he perceived. Ultimately, though, Milk and Smith just storm out of the place with an indignantly self-righteous flourish.

    I’m not sure whether this was intended to show Milk as being a bold man of principle, or as a flawed, temperamental man whose political instincts were far from perfect. I suppose I felt like the former was intended, and I disagreed with the message in that case. In the latter case, though — Milk was an imperfect human being and an imperfect politician and activist, yet he deserved to be able to run for office, speak out, and not get shot every bit as much as all of the straights who are imperfect as politicians, activists, and human beings — then I suppose it worked. Maybe either interpretation works.

    I suppose this is all a bit tangential, but I suppose the point is that right does not make might, and self-righteousness makes neither. (Although, as in the case of Cara and Milk, self-righteousness doesn’t make wrong, either — at least in broad terms of principle.)

  • 4 Uncommon Priors » Commenting elsewhere // Dec 23, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    […] 8, and the way in which we ought to deal with the wrongness of our victorious opponents. After my comments, he clarifies some. On reflection, I think he’s ultimately right: blame, too, is contextual: […]

  • 5 Watertight Compartment // Dec 26, 2008 at 9:23 am

    “Given demographic trends, we can probably just wait for them to die out”

    Notwithstanding the monstrousness of longing for the deaths of millions of one’s fellow citizens, this statement is wrongheaded.

    Given that blacks and latinos supported Prop 8 by a healthy margin and taking into account their increasing proportion of the population, the demographic trends in the United States militate in favour of less indulgence of homosexuality, not more.

  • 6 Dave2 // Dec 27, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Watertight Compartment, do you really think that a reasonable reading of Julian’s post leads to the conclusion that he “long[s] for the deaths of millions of [his] fellow citizens”? Or are you in the middle of writing an apology for your unfair allegation?

  • 7 Watertight Compartment // Dec 27, 2008 at 9:34 am


    The latter. I am on my fifteenth draft at the moment, but I don’t think it’s sufficiently abject yet.

    In all earnest, I think that is a plausible reading. I’m not saying he would twitch a finger in order to bring the blessed day about, but his contempt for those “immoral” “homophobes” standing in the way of the coming pan-sexual Utopia is palpable and seemingly vast.

    Likely a case of one death being a tragedy but a million deaths a policy opportunity.

  • 8 Stuhlmann // Dec 29, 2008 at 6:17 am

    “No one should have to beg for their rights. Period. And the oppressor is always to blame for the oppression they commit.”

    No, you do not have to beg for your rights, but some times you do have to fight for them.

  • 9 Barry // Jan 8, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    “Given that blacks and latinos supported Prop 8 by a healthy margin and taking into account their increasing proportion of the population, the demographic trends in the United States militate in favour of less indulgence of homosexuality, not more.”

    Ta-Nehisi Coates (at The Atlantic) took that on: