Apologies for the long strange headline above, but it descended on me in the midst of a run, charging up a hill, fuming, while wondering what to do about the Rick Perrys of the world.
Outgoing Texas Governor Perry, as you probably have heard by now amidst all the other mayhem and head-shaking absurdities of the daily headlines, responded to a question after an address at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco earlier this week about whether he thought homosexuality is a “disorder” with this nugget:
“Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that. I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.”
So there you have it: a remarkable response in all ways—for its ignorance, its small-mindedness, its complete refutation of actual knowledge rather than breezy moralistic opinion. Not to mention the obvious unfamiliarity with actual gay people—or is it mere incuriosity?— that it reveals of the speaker.
Diabetes, hydrocephaly, dementia, alcoholism, homosexuality—“Don’t give in! Fight it with all you’ve got; you can overcome this!” That’s what Perry, reportedly already running hard for the presidency of our nation in 2016, tells all bearers of the aforementioned “disorders.”
Governor Perry is known for putting his foot in it, famously crashing his 2012 presidential campaign in the face of one hapless utterance after another. Yet this was not an off-the-cuff or off-microphone gaffe, but a carefully considered response, basically identical to a position he laid out in 2008, only this time in, of all places, San Francisco. (Should we salute him for his courage in standing courageously on principle in the lion’s den, or decry him for the compounded idiocy of choosing the least hospitable venue on earth for uttering such nonsense?)
I could go on, but more important in this dismal matter of Governor Perry’s disquisition on the proper self-management of our genetic endowments is the issue of how we engage him once we stop slapping our foreheads in disbelief. Do we just brand him as an incorrigible idiot, despair at any notion of somehow changing his mind, and await his passing on to the great beyond until new thinking from a new generation unencumbered by such ancient prejudices comes to prevail?
In essence, the questions boil down to: How are minds changed on critical, hot button political and social issues? When they’re capable of changing, what are the factors that allow it to happen?
What is the proper and helpful and potentially influential response to outlandish ignorance?
And does even characterizing Mr. Perry’s stance as “outlandish ignorance” betray a completely unhelpful and thus self-defeating stance that does not respect the legitimate rights of others to hold positions different than my own?
There are, after all, well-established norms for civilized discourse, for spirited debate that calls on restraint and cordiality as we conduct business with our adversaries. (“I would only remind my honorable colleague and friend across the aisle…”)
Is gentle persuasion and education always and in every case the best way to confront basic bigotry, whether in race, religion or sexual preference?
But I can’t help noting the reality undergirding much of that discourse: the politician or minister or mayor who listens cordially to outlandish rhetoric, responds with gentility and grace in a public setting, then goes home to pour a drink with the spouse and proclaim, “Oh God, I had to listen to that a-hole spew his vitriol; I wish I’d had a huge crane just to sweep him off the podium.”
So, more questions: Does responding to odious views with grace and gentility help set the stage somehow or other for the eventual transformation of consciousness we are hoping for?
Is gentle persuasion and education always and in every case the best way to confront basic bigotry, whether in race, religion or sexual preference? Or sometimes, do we simply call bigotry what it is and send in armed troops to enforce reason and justice?
And do we apply different standards, with a different approach and mode of discourse, to presidential candidate Rick Perry than to Joe Schmo, our neighbor and local troglodyte?
Personally, I think Joe Schmo usually deserves our patience as we navigate the long-term change we seek, one mind at a time, in matters of justice. While ancient prejudices die hard, it is nothing short of astonishing, when we step back to observe the trajectory, how far and fast we have come in changing minds and hearts and thereby assuring far more opportunity than ever before for previously disenfranchised populations.
Still a long way to go, but the past generation or two alone have involved catapults beyond what seemed possible, and it is good to bear that in mind as we examine all that remains to be done.
So while Joe Schmo might merit a pass as he grapples with the sometimes dizzying pace of change in the world around him, does a sitting governor and (purportedly) educated person angling to assume the most powerful office on the planet merit our equivalent patience and understanding, our gentle coaxing to re-examine his position in the light of all the knowledge and experience available to us in modern life?
With all due respect, Governor Perry, if I may bring to your attention…
I am reminded of a famous Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the relatively civilized “Point-Counterpoint” debates between journalists Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick on the TV show 60 Minutes in the 1970s. Comics Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd went at it, with the latter thundering an unadorned, uncivilized, and likely extremely unhelpful, “Jane, you ignorant slut!”
The audience ate it up because they identified with it—oh, how sweetly satisfying and sometimes even necessary for our own sanity that approach can be, just as our initial reaction to yet another buffoonish, ignorant and groundless comment from Governor Perry is, “For godsakes, would you just stop and think for one brief second, you blathering idiot?”
Allowing for the fact that such an approach violates norms of civilized debate and is unlikely to change Governor Perry’s mind (perhaps only one of his own children or grandchildren coming out as gay would do so), it is also undeniable that hard confrontation has a role in changing minds and culture, just as there is a role for patience, gentility and education.
The progress in civil rights through the latter part of the 20th century would not have been possible without Martin Luther King’s dogged determination to conduct peaceful protest, but far to his left, H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael no doubt had their own impact. By abandoning peace and brotherhood rhetoric and threatening to burn Whitey’s house down, they made King and his own radical demands for justice look downright tame and moderate by comparison.
In this way, the extremes of a head-on confrontational stance help to define some kind of negotiable middle ground, where reason and respect can prevail.
Yes, engendering at least shame if not fear by direct confrontation has always played a role in cultural change. Social isolation and legal action can sometimes tread ground where mere persuasion is unable to gain a foothold.
In the case of a Governor Perry, prominent and ignorant as he is, it may be that only shaming and humiliation will suffice, putting him and all other politicians and public figures on notice that certain attitudes and unfounded prejudices are no longer acceptable in the public square. And that if such an approach doesn’t change his mind and heart, it will at least have set clear limits on society’s tolerance and thus help shape public attitudes of those who will come after him.
No full viewing available, but here’s the key segment of the Saturday Night Live spoof referenced above:
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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small flags photo near top of page by Jeff Adair, Boca Raton, Florida, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffadair/
California Proposition 8 protest test photo by Lisa, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nairnhoward/
“No More Nice Gay” photo by Anthony Velázquez, San Francisco, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danceattack/
Photo of Martin Luther King statue by Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour, ome rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newshour/