Disagreement is not discrimination

A writer to Dan Savage‘s Savage Love advice column voiced what seems to be a more and more popular sentiment, that although bullying and harassing gay teens until they break down and kill themselves is clearly a bad thing, it’s at least as bad to “bully” Christians by telling them that they and their unwarranted beliefs had any part in that process.

If your message is that we should not judge people based on their sexual preference, how do you justify judging entire groups of people for any other reason (including their faith)? There is no part of me that took any pleasure in what happened to that young man.

Lydia Statz, a junior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, got quite a bit of publicity for her opinion piece in her campus paper in support of that letter-writer. (Emphasis mine.)

Savage, who is openly gay and the founder of the “It Gets Better” campaign against youth bullying, made a remark during an NPR interview that asserted his belief that the church perpetuates the discrimination. A Christian listener wrote in to tell him he was offended by the comment, and stated that he and many others were deeply saddened to hear of the recent suicides. The letter was well-written, polite, and simply pointed out the hypocrisy of preaching against discriminating based on sexual preference while simultaneously discriminating against people of faith.

Savage’s reply, on the other hand, was a blatant attack on the writer and their faith, complete with references to their “magic sky-friend Jesus,” and expressions like “dehumanizing bigotries” and even, I’m sad to say, a “Fuck you.” While I fully expected him to respond in typical Savage fashion to the listener’s complaint, his full-blown attack on Christianity as a whole displayed just as much disrespect and ignorance as the people he fights against.

Townhall columnist Mike Adams expresses the same point of view on a different topic, in a discussion of his lawsuits against queer student resource centers at public universities. He’s attempting to get them to be more “viewpoint neutral” — that is, give equal amounts of time to people who want to offer help and a welcoming community to queer students, and those who want to tell them to suppress their identities or go to hell. (Again, emphasis mine.)

I would urge everyone – especially those who trumpet the importance of “context” – to read the entire Sermon on the Mount. When they do, they will realize that Jesus also said that those who are persecuted in His name will be richly blessed. The tallest blade of grass is the one that gets cut first. Similarly, the Christian who stands tallest is the one that gets persecuted first. …

Argument for passivity: Doesn’t the Bible tell us to abide by laws and submit to the authority of government?

Response: It sure does. And the First Amendment is the law of the land. When it is violated, we should protest by using the First Amendment. If our protests are ignored we should use civil litigation to uphold the laws that lawless secular humanists seek to destroy.

These are just a few examples of what I’ve heard many times from many sources, and I have to say something about how misguided it is. First of all, nobody was saying that literally every single Christian out there is a bigot. What they are saying is that Christianity as an institution is a very strong force for bigotry in our society. That’s true, and it’s getting harder to hide that truth from people. Beyond that, though, these offended Christians seem to have no grasp of what discrimination really is — what being discriminated against would actually look like or feel like.

If I’m standing outside on a sunny day with my friend, and she says, “I can’t believe it’s still raining! I really wish the rain would let up,” am I discriminating against her by pointing out that there is, in fact, no rain?

If my little cousin keeps chasing his family’s cat around, trying to step on its tail, and getting disappointed every time the cat screeches and darts away from him, am I discriminating against him by pointing out that his actions are injuring the cat and by asking that he stop?

If I notice that an engineer doing reliability calculations for a bridge has got her order of operations mixed up so her arithmetic is coming out wrong, am I discriminating against her by pointing out her math errors and reminding her that people’s lives depend on her accuracy?

Look. When we talk about “discrimination” in our society, we’re talking about unfair treatment of a group of people based on some irrelevant characteristic. It’s discriminatory to ban black people from eating at your diner. It’s discriminatory to pay women lower salaries than men doing the same jobs. I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but for now it suffices to say that what people are saying to Christians is not anti-Christian discrimination. Saying, “I disagree with your opinion,” has never been discrimination. Saying, “I think you are wrong about the facts,” has never been discrimination. Saying, “The actions you take have clear, direct impacts on the world,” has never been discrimination.

It’s amazing to me that (some) Christians feel they are being persecuted when there is any discussion about the veracity of their beliefs, any challenge to their assumptions, or any indication that they are not as loving and perfect as they claim. Really, it’s a measure of how highly they are privileged in everyday life, that they would overreact so strongly.

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10 Comments

  1. A good Part One!

    I think you hit on the fundamental issue in your final sentence here: privilege. I have intended for many months to write a long blog post (Daily Kos diary) on the concept of privilege—starting with white privilege, straight privilege, and male privilege, and then extending the discussion to religious privilege and one of its bitterest fruits, the toxic but widespread notion that it is morally objectionable to publicly treat religious ideas with the same scrutiny and (where appropriate) disrespect that we show to every other kind of idea. I think the concept of privilege does a lot to explain what’s going on here.

    I’ve long wanted to write such a blog post, but it’s a monster undertaking and I just haven’t gotten up the energy. It looks to me like your “miniseries,” here, is exploring some of the same ground. Go, you!

    Saying, “I disagree with your opinion,” has never been discrimination. Saying, “I think you are wrong about the facts,” has never been discrimination. Saying, “The actions you take have clear, direct impacts on the world,” has never been discrimination.

    The above are important (and politic) realities, but, also…. Saying “The things that you believe are irrational and stupid” has never, in and of itself, been discrimination, either!

    Your examples are probably better ones, though.

  2. Thanks, glad you liked it. … I would love it if the sort of sensitivity people are starting to have towards, say, white privilege caught on in the arena of religious beliefs. I’ve gotten burned while talking about privilege before so I’m sort of hesitant to assume any teacher-ly role on the subject, but the kind of treatise you’re talking about would certainly be very welcome. We’ll see how close I end up getting in this series.

    (To some extent, I think the taboo on criticizing religion comes from the fact that people seem to think it’s innate, in addition to the privilege of being a majority. See: the Don’t Label Me campaign, and the fact that so many people I’ve talked to are unfazed by the idea that if they were born in a different family, they might well be a different religion. It’s treated as a genetic trait, not a set of claims about reality that can be examined and evaluated.)

    The discrimination issue is a very tricky one — I’m planning the next post to be about how “discriminating” between different options is sometimes a very useful and appropriate thing to do. The line I felt I was treading in this post had to do with the correctness of the criticism. I think that this “irrational and stupid” critique of religion is valid, but if it wasn’t, I could understand religious people saying, “It’s unfair of you to say that” (so long as they followed it up with arguments about how their beliefs weren’t irrational — which, of course, they didn’t). Is any unfair treatment “discrimination”? I don’t think so … but when you are talking about unfair treatment towards a group of people, the line gets blurry. At any rate, when what you are saying is true, it’s not unfair. I felt like I was on more solid ground talking about the issue of allowing any discussion or challenge at all. But there’s certainly this whole pile of nuance I didn’t feel like I could adequately address in a reasonable-length blog post.

  3. I think that this “irrational and stupid” critique of religion is valid, but if it wasn’t, I could understand religious people saying, “It’s unfair of you to say that”…. Is any unfair treatment “discrimination”? I don’t think so … but when you are talking about unfair treatment towards a group of people, the line gets blurry.

    I think you and I are in heated agreement about almost all of this. However, I get the sense that I’m less concerned about the “it’s unfair” response than you are.

    Let’s presume that it is unfair to call the beliefs of a particular group of religious believers “irrational and stupid.” (To make this a little less fraught, I think the logic works the same way if we substitute a claim like “All Christians believe the moon is made of green cheese,” which is definitely unfair.) I suppose that pressing an argument like that may be ethically problematic, insofar as openly arguing anything that could have meaningful and negative consequences is problematic if the thing you’re arguing is false. Still, I don’t see any discrimination: there is simply no “unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people” going on in such a case.

    Again, I think the root cause of the (illegitimate) complaint is religious privilege and its constant obscuring of the distinction between a religious person and his/her beliefs. Attacking a person’s ideas, even unfairly, is simply not attacking or discriminating against that person.

    The concept I continually return to in these kinds of discussions is John Stuart Mill’s “free marketplace of ideas”; within that marketplace, we all have to expect that unkind things are going to be said about our ideas. Some of those things might even be mistaken. Saying mistaken things about others’ ideas can be inappropriate in particular instances, but even then it’s not discrimination; it’s just the inevitable traffic of a free marketplace that’s fractious, complex, and populated by unevenly rational human beings.

    Anyway, as I said, I don’t think you and I are disagreeing on much here.

    At any rate, when what you are saying is true, it’s not unfair. I felt like I was on more solid ground talking about the issue of allowing any discussion or challenge at all. But there’s certainly this whole pile of nuance I didn’t feel like I could adequately address in a reasonable-length blog post.

    Oh, goodness: I’m not arguing that you should have included these particular issues in the post above, or even in the forthcoming Part 2 or 3. As I said, for your purposes, your examples (“I disagree with your opinion,” “I think you are wrong about the facts,” and “The actions you take have clear, direct impacts on the world”) are much better than my “The things that you believe are irrational and stupid.” As we’ve demonstrated, my tack takes us off into side matters that you didn’t want or need to get into.

    However, I think blog comments are a great place to flesh out that kind of side-issue, sometimes from a commenter who’s willing to take/interested in taking a more aggressive line than the blogger. I’m just stretching out the ol’ Overton Window for you!

    As for “adequately address[ing things] in a reasonable-length blog post,” I’d say your concern about such things has plenty to do with why you’re a more successful blogger than I am.

  4. Trikepilot

     /  October 29, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I agree that privilege is the key here. What concerns me is the extent that Christians and other religious minded folks are going to expand their realm of privilege. I have seen church marquees blatantly promoting politicians by name, with no response from the IRS. Politicking is supposed to be reserved for those who pay taxes.

    I have seen company dollar matching charity campaigns deluged with parishioners wanting their employer to match their tithes. As long as the church is listed as a nonprofit, their new assembly hall or activities bus will be 50 percent acquired by the company’s profits which were promised to REAL charities to help feed the poor or comfort those suffering. By diverting the matching funds to give pastor Bob a raise they are stealing from those in need.

    I wish for legislation to stop these offenses and for enforcement of those laws already in place. If anyone knows where I can donate funds to that end specifically, your information will go a long way toward helping curb the privilege of the religious right in America.

  5. Aristarchus

     /  October 29, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I think there’s a larger phenomenon here. I think the forces that result in Christians claiming to be “oppressed” are the same ones that are making conservative whites feel like anti-racism is “discrimination” against them. (I’m not just talking about affirmative action, where you can actually make that case. I’m too lazy to find a link, but there are lots of examples.) They feel like their group is under attack. And you know what, it is. When a group has held a privileged social/political/whatever position for a long time, and a movement attempts to remove that privilege, that’s a concerted effort to make life worse for that group of people. It’s a totally justified attack, and I fully support it, but it’s an attack, and it’s going to result in defensiveness. The people in question have become accustom to that position, and of course they’re going to get defensive. It’s not a rational response, and that’s why their claims look so ridiculous when they describe the situation in language that implies it’s unfair (discrimination, oppression, etc.), but it’s insanely predictable and normal.

    @Trikepilot: I agree wholeheartedly about the political endorsements, but I’m not so sure the matching funds thing is that outrageous. I dont’ think the matching funds are being “diverted” when given to religious organizations – any reasonable company must have expected that when they made the policy. It’s one of the downsides of a matching campaign – money goes to charities you wouldn’t choose, including all sorts of bad ones, not just religious groups.

  6. @Rieux: We are totally on the same page, as per usual. ;) I agree that blog comments are a great place for getting into the complicated nuances, and I appreciate the back-and-forth with you on them. Most importantly,

    Again, I think the root cause of the (illegitimate) complaint is religious privilege and its constant obscuring of the distinction between a religious person and his/her beliefs. Attacking a person’s ideas, even unfairly, is simply not attacking or discriminating against that person.

    this. Yes.

    @Trikepilot: Americans United for Separation of Church and State is the group that first comes to mind when I think about who is actively working for better church-state separation laws and law enforcement. They’re very well-respected, and certainly a good place to start if you are looking to donate toward that sort of cause.

    @Aristarchus: Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. It’s got to be rough (in a manner of speaking…) to be a white conservative Christian man these days. Seems like all these “politically correct” folks are out to get you with their “fairness” and “equality.” And yeah, it’s a “concerted effort to make life worse” in the same way that a push for democracy in a dictatorship is a concerted effort to make life worse for the dictator. You can frame it that way … and certainly these privileged Christians love to do so … but even if it’s as predictable and normal as you say it is, I’m still going to argue against it. :)
         By the way, on what Trikepilot said — I think the matching funds business exacerbates the original disappointment, which is that there’s nothing about religious organizations that should merit their being automatically included in the list of 501(c)(3) exemptions. It’s silly also that they classify “advancement of religion” as automatically “charitable.”

  7. Aristarchus: I recognize that you’re stating this in a deliberately perverse way to emphasize the point of view of the heavily privileged, but I’m not so sure that measures taken to lessen privilege really are “concerted effort[s] to make life worse for th[e privileged] group of people.” From the privileged person’s perspective, it certainly can feel that way much of the time, but I think a common theme in liberal criticism of privilege (white, straight, male, class, able-bodied, etc.) is that the privileged groups are actually lessened by the unjust privilege they “enjoy.”

    I happen to be heterosexually married; it’s unquestionably an example of straight privilege that I can reap the benefits of that status but my gay and lesbian friends can’t. But if my straight privilege went away, that wouldn’t actually “make life worse for me” (or for a huge number of other heterosexuals). In fact, it pisses me off that this institution I’m a part of is so damned discriminatory. I would much prefer to be married in a place that recognizes equal marriage rights.

    To some extent that example avoids your point, because the subject (me) is not exactly a raving heterosexist. I think you’re referring to the “loss” that would be perceived, in a world emptied of straight privilege, by open homophobes who would feel the sting of (1) not being able to gay-bash in public and (2) knowing that their prejudices are disdained by society. I suppose that’s a “worse life” in a sense, but I guess the liberal notion is that any such hater would actually live a better life if (s)he just dropped the bigotry and addressed his/her personal demons (sort of like Edward Norton’s and Edward Furlong’s characters in American History X, if you’ve seen that)—and the end of straight privilege would make dropping one’s bigotry easier, not harder.

    Then, of course, there’s the common (and I think frequently cogent) feminist argument that sexism/male privilege hurts men. To the extent that’s correct, weakening male privilege stands to help men, not make our lives worse. Though, as you note, some of us wouldn’t see it (aren’t seeing it) that way.

    Anyway. I didn’t really expect to be opening up a can of whoop-liberal on you, but I guess that’s what happened. (Sorry.) I see where you’re coming from in your comment, and I don’t much disagree. I just sort of disagree with that one description of what lessening privilege entails.

  8. Aristarchus

     /  October 30, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    @Rieux: I don’t really disagree with much of what you’re saying. My point is more about the perception of an attack than the actual attack. And yes, often that attack is more on the privileged status itself than actually harmful in some other way, but I do think the lives of some people are being actually made worse, even if in the long term society will be better off for everyone as a result. (As I said before, I think this is good – I’m just pointing it out because I think it’s important to understand the causal factors behind how people are acting.)

    Gay marriage is a good example of a reform that is not very harmful for those previously privileged, though it does do some harm to them. The right to impose your own moral precepts on others around you shouldn’t be something of value, but people consistently attach substantial weight to that right and feel happier when they have it, so it is detrimental to them when you remove it.

    In a lot of other cases, though, it hurts more directly. If you can’t make your school have daily prayers and help out with religious indoctrination of your child, you have to find other ways to do that, and they cost time and/or money. If half the population is no longer being discriminated against in hiring, it makes it harder for you to get that job (again, in the short term – long term the economy expands and creates new jobs, etc.). If blacks can now get elected to congress, it’s that much harder for whites. Some things, like the ability to determine national policy, really are zero-sum.

    It’s easy to say “I think racism is wrong” when it’s an abstract statement. It’s harder when you actually have to let minorities have some of what you were unjustly given (and had gotten used to having).

    My point, really, is that I think these things feed off of each other. The fact that people see gays and blacks getting more rights, and more immigrants coming in, etc., makes them more likely than they otherwise would be to be angry about mean things said about Christians. Right now there’s a large chunk of American society that feels under attack and is taking a defensive posture. It feels unfair to them, and they start to use words for “this is mean” to describe what’s happening to them, even if it’s perfectly fair. That’s where I think these nonsensical claims of discrimination come from.

  9. Nice post.

    Discrimination is based on something that the person has no control over (physical features, sexual orientation), not a belief or opinion that a person has selected themselves. This leads to the Christian rebuttal that sexual orientation is indeed a choice. Not to mention that God does exist so we don’t have a choice in believing in it.

    The question I’d like answered is about discrimination based on body weight since it can be either genetics or personal bad habits.

  1. Discriminating against religious people | No Forbidden Questions

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