A Conversation About Bullying in the Wake of Dan Savage’s Speech-Gone-Bad to Seattle High-School Journalists

Dan Savage

Advice columnist Dan Savage, who founded the “It Gets Better” video project to help victims of school bullying, was accused last week of bullying some of his audience members at the end of his speech to a group of Seattle high-school journalists. Read the story here.

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum starts the conversation:

To eliminate bullying entirely would require a police state, but we should stop bullying and teach our children to stop it. If we go around waving the anti-bullying banner, however, the least we should do is not be a bully ourselves.

Though my critics won’t believe it, I post things like this with great reluctance. I am perfectly aware of what some of my friends and most of my critics will say, and I’m not insensitive to their animosity. But the other day I put up a Facebook post which asked the question, who are the aggressors in the culture wars. I could have said, who are the tolerant ones? Who are the bullies?

I know and work with hundreds of people who are trying to save the institution of marriage from being re-defined out of existence, and who hold no animus against those suffering from same-sex attraction, but who know, too, that—as the Catholic Catechism very aptly puts it—same-sex attraction is “intrinsically disordered.” I also know that friends of mine detest this opinion, and, believe me, I regret that.

But here’s my point about this smug video: Out of the hundreds of people I know who feel as I do about this, I know no one for whom the Bible is the primary source of their defense of traditional marriage and traditional sexual morality, though most of them—not all—are faithful Christians and Jews. In this debate, the Bible, and most especially the Old Testament for which Mr. Savage seems to have a special attraction, is a piñata jerked up and down by a man who knows how to appeal to an MTV audience. Like so many of those who share his contempt for traditional morality, he apparently lives in an insulated world, surrounded by people who think, as he obviously does, that Christianity is synonymous with bigotry.

The sexual revolution which began by using the “nature” card to trump tradition, morality, and commonsense is now using the “victim” and “anti-bullying” cards to trump nature, and bully those who disagree.

If you think Mr. Savage is irrelevant, Google: Dan Savage and the White House.

Sorella Karamazov:

After listening to Dan Savage, I guess his parents didn’t put Jesus in the centre, but themselves and all their presumptuous and idolatrous authority. The same he’s using now…

Doughlas Remy:

Dan Savage’s conduct was inexcusable, and it just shows how easily people can give themselves over to behavior that they deplore in others.

I had hoped you would attempt an answer to the questions you asked in your post: “Who are the aggressors in the culture wars? Who are the tolerant ones? Who are the bullies?”

In the same week that Dan Savage made his unfortunate speech, Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C. angrily exhorted parents in his congregation to “squash” their sons’ gay behavior “like a cockroach.” “Can I make it any clearer?” he continued. “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Okay?”

Of course I realize that not all Christians are bullies, and you realize that not all gays and atheists are bullies.

So my own answer to your set of questions is this: The bullies in the culture wars are those—of whatever ideological persuasion–who attempt to intimidate others through physical force, threats of violence, or abusive language.

Rather than using these two incidents (Savage + Harris) as cudgels for more violence, let’s talk about ways in which we can reduce incidents of bullying in our schools and churches.

First of all, Christianity is not synonymous with bigotry, and we have to educate our children about that and help them understand that many of Christ’s “followers” do in fact follow his teachings. Bigotry may be rife in certain strands of Christianity, but certainly no one should ever assume that an individual is bigoted because she is Christian.

Second, language like you used to describe my sexual orientation (“suffering” from same-sex attraction, and “intrinsically disordered”) is not just callously demeaning but totally unsupported by the medical community—the same professionals that you trust with nearly every aspect of your own healthcare.

I don’t care if the Pope himself is using such language. It should stop.

Finally, we have to understand what messages we are sending our children when we use such stigmatizing language to describe their friends and classmates. When I was raising my son, I never, never said such things about anyone, both because I didn’t want him to grow up with prejudices (as I had), and because I wanted to foreclose any bullying tendencies he might have. It worked. Now 24, he seems to get along with just about everyone and speaks ill of no one.

As parents and educators, we must be vigilant about the destructive power of words. The old folk wisdom that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is simply untrue. Words can hurt, and we must be careful not to weave scapegoating language into the very fabric of our daily conversation. Describing tens of millions of Americans as “intrinsically disordered” is no more acceptable than describing entire classes of people as “racially inferior,” or “greedy by their very nature,” or “weak-willed and prone to hysteria.”

@Sorella: Don’t you think it might have been presumptuous and gratuitously insulting of you to conclude that Dan Savage’s parents, whom you never knew, “didn’t put Jesus in the centre, but themselves and all their presumptuous and idolatrous authority?”

Dan’s mother was a saint, and he told a very touching story about her goodness on a “This American Life” episode about a year ago.

Dan himself was an altar boy in a Chicago Catholic church, but now describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic.” And no, he didn’t leave Catholicism because he was sexually abused but because he was psychologically abused. This abuse is still going on, as we find in Gil’s own channeling of the Church’s demeaning characterizations of homosexuality.

Some day the Church will have to own up to the damage that it has done to young lives. “Intrinsically disordered” is a mean-spirited term of derogation that causes untold psychological distress to young people who have trusted their church to protect them. It doesn’t matter that most of them have probably never heard the term itself. Demeaning epithets are all the more damaging when they “trickle” down from figures of authority into congregations and families and schools. Youth who are prone to bullying, once they feel validated by institutions such as their churches, find their own slurs.

Just as we would remove sticks, stones, knives, and guns from the playground, let’s remove ideas that can be picked up by bullies and used to torment innocent children. This is why I say the Church must stop deploying this kind of language immediately. Failure to curb the psychological abuse of young Catholics by their own clergy can only hurt the church itself, just as the sexual abuse scandals did.

What will it take–another wave of lawsuits?

Sorella Karamazov:

Doughlas, I’m intrinsically disordered too! (Not in your way, but…), But I do not make a flag of it.

Doughlas Remy:

@Sorella:  In what way are you “intrinsically disordered?” Can you explain what you mean by “make a flag of it?”

Sorella Karamazov:

I’m a sinner Doughlas. It’s very simple. And I often put myself between Jesus and my children, as an idol, with all my neurotic behavior. Otherwise I would be a saint, or God himself. But I’m not.

Doughlas Remy:

@Sorella: The epithet “intrinsically disordered” in the catechism has a very specific reference. It would not apply to you unless you are a lesbian. The Church has chosen to single out homosexuality for special opprobrium, or concern, depending on how you interpret the words “intrinsically disordered.”

Those two words continue to be a lightning rod for criticism of the Church—and with good reason. Not only gays and lesbians but also their families and friends—both inside and outside the Church—see the absurdity and malevolence of the description.

Why absurd and malevolent? Because there is absolutely no scientific basis for declaring homosexuality to be a “disorder.” The Church fathers are not trained psychologists, and they willfully ignore the overwhelming consensus of medical professionals that the use of those two words is inaccurate, inappropriate, and psychologically harmful. The American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all voiced their concerns about the Church’s negative characterization of homosexuals.

You said you were concerned about children and that you were familiar with the American Academy of Pediatrics. Please try to understand that the well-being of children and young people is never served by stigmatizing them as “intrinsically disordered.”

That term may sound learned; after all, both words are polysyllabic and Latin-based. Nevertheless, it is an epithet, and it get translated into much cruder forms (slurs) that are used to intimidate and demean others, even children and youth who are not gay.

When a child who is prone to bullying learns that his church openly stigmatizes gays, so will he. And he’ll feel good about it. Educators who work to eliminate bullying behavior have a steep uphill climb when the bullies have learned from their churches that homosexuals are “intrinsically disordered” or that homosexuality is an “abomination.”

This is why we are seeing so many reports of youth who decide to end their own lives rather than put up with another minute of harassment. These stories are heart-breaking. You cannot hear one of them without feeling angry at the institutions that enable the victimizers and ignore the victims’ pleas for help.

When will the Church begin to acknowledge its responsibility for the damage it is still—still—doing to young lives?


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