Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart shared a personal experience in a column today. Attending an aunt’s funeral in church in the North Carolina community of her birth, he sat fuming as a guest minister used the occasion to condemn all gays as sinners, and urging them to use faith to give up their sinful ways.
Capehart, who is openly gay, decided that he was obligated not to accept this insult without a response. Here is what he did:
“After the visiting preacher was thanked for his rousing sermon by the congregation and the home pastor, the two made their way to us in the front pew. During his oration, I vowed I would not shake his hand. But I did, given the immediate circumstances. So I used that as opportunity to make my displeasure known. As he shook my hand and leaned down for a sympathetic hug, I told the preacher, “Your sermon was offensive!” He leaned back, looked at me and replied, “What?” I repeated, “Your sermon was offensive to me. I need you to know that. That’s all I have to say.”
That seemed to satisfy Capehart. “As he moved his way down the pew, the anger I felt was replaced by relief and pride. Never before had I faced down religion-based bigotry. And it felt great.”
I feel terrible for Capehart having to endure such an indignity, and I’m glad what he did made him feel better. But in no way did he “face down religious bigotry,” and I agree that facing down religious bigotry was called for. What did he do, really? He told the reverend that he was offended. He didn’t even say why he was offended.
This is illuminating. Liberals are so sure that anyone announcing offense about anything is such a powerful statement of being wronged that they believe the world should warp itself in grotesque ways to avoid offensiveness, no matter how specious the alleged offense or unreasonable the offended. Thanks to this attitude, families are afraid to talk about politics at Thanksgiving dinner, college students dare not express politically incorrect thoughts, and rodeo clowns are banned for making fun of national leaders. Stating that “I’m offended!” has become a ticket to power as self-ratified grievance—since only you can assert what offends you, it’s the perfect complaint.
Except that it isn’t. Rational people, and even bigots can be rational, realize that a world view that maintains that everyone should be protected from being shocked, annoyed, outraged, embarrassed, scandalized, insulted or otherwise displeased by what someone else says is not only a fantasy, but also harmful. It doesn’t point us to a kinder, more compassionate society, but to a more fearful, less open, less joyful and oppressive one. We have as much of an obligation to oppose the advocates of perpetual avoidance of offense as we do to confront cruel fools like the minister who abused Capehart.
I remember on one occasion I used a Raymond Chandler parody to lay out a legal ethics hypothetical, telling the story in the voice of a Phillip Marlowe-like hard-boiled 30’s detective, as I played a lonely jazz saxophone CD in the background. At some point I used the term “dame,” and engaged a typically over-the top description of my client: “She was blonde, she was deadly, she was a typical dame with a problem, but with better legs, looking for some poor slob she could bat her big blue eyes at and make him take a slug for her, or file a protective order.” The routine was a great success, but one angry young female attendee marched up to me after the session and announced, as if it settled the issue, that she was offended by the “sexist” language, and that the scenario was inappropriate. I believe my response was, approximately, that I was sorry she didn’t appreciate the format, but there was nothing legitimately offensive about a detective novel/ film noir parody, that the problem wasn’t mine but hers, and that she needed to be more tolerant, get a sense of humor, and read more. I opined that people like her were among the reasons ethics courses are so deadly.
Again, I am glad that what Capehart said made him feel better, for he deserved to feel better, and if that was the best he was able to muster at the time, I’m not criticizing him for stopping at what he did. However, if he wants to face down bigots and people who abuse their power, position and authority, he needs to be prepared to tell true offenders like that minister not just that he was offended, but precisely why and why the man’s conduct was wrong, saying something like this:
“You are an ignorant bigot, and you encourage hate and divisiveness. Your words and the mindless prejudice they rationalize cause violence against young people who happened to be born gay, as I was. Your words and words like yours cause them to live in fear and self-loathing, or to take their own life. You have a position of authority and respect that you could use to enlighten, and instead you use it to bolster harmful stereotypes, myths and lies. The sinner is you, Reverend, and I am not only offended by what you said, but disgusted by it. And I just may choose to be at your next sermon, or your next, and at that sermon, I won’t wait until after it is over to register my protest. I, or someone like me will do it right there, amidst the congregation, and expose you for the despicable anti-gay bigot you are. Think about that, the next time you are tempted to call me, or anyone else, a sinner for simply being who and what they are.”
Doing this isn’t easy. I have done something similar only a couple times in my life, over other issues, and I had the great advantage of the example of my father, who I saw more than once scare the crap out of people who richly deserved to have the crap scared out of them. It’s not for everyone, but it is what has to be done—confronting bigotry, hate, fear-mongering, abuse and persecution clearly, directly and stridently, with the promise that words will be followed with consequences. Saying that you are offended is not enough, for the complaint has been devalued by overuse.