It is sobering to read the hateful and contemptuous comments from so many of my Facebook friends about the legislators of Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Mississippi and other states that have either passed or have tried to pass laws allowing citizens to opt out of the cultural freight train that gives them the option of boarding or getting crushed. Whether these are “religious freedom” laws or “bathroom laws,” aimed at transgendered interlopers in the once orderly realm of public bathrooms, or whether they are designed to fight for the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman,” these laws, every one of them unwise and unethical, and probably unconstitutional too, need to be regarded as the inevitable and predictable result when human beings are forced to absorb cultural shifts in a matter of years or less that properly would evolve over generations
Culture–what any society, country, region, religion, business, organization, club, family, secret society or tree house agrees over time as how they do things, think about things, what is right and what is wrong, what is remembered and what is forgotten–is a constantly evolving process. Efforts to freeze it inevitably fail, because human beings as a species can’t stop themselves from learning. Efforts to rush the installment of major changes, however, can be disastrous, even when there seems like no alternative but to rush.
Laws don’t automatically change culture. They are part of the process, both reflecting and facilitating cultural shifts, as well as institutionalizing them. They do not even mark the end of such shifts. Nobody should be surprised, angry or abusively critical when those who have been raised to believe in certain values and practices feel betrayed and mistreated, and see the need to resist when their sense of what is right is suddenly proclaimed as not only wrong but the sign of a character deficiency and a cause for denigration and disrespect.
We have seen, in the examples of slavery, women’s rights—and Prohibition, which teaches that worthy attempts at rapid cultural shifts fail horribly—that acceptance of changed societal attitudes takes not years but decades to become fully assimilated in the larger culture. Of course it does. We should expect that and understand it, and even if we are certain that the shift is away from ignorance, injustice and misconduct and toward enlightenment, fairness, equity and a better, healthier society, we should not react to those who need more convincing—or maybe just more time?–with expressions of condescension, superiority and hate.
First, this is simply the Golden Rule. Imagine an accepted “truth” that you were brought up believing, that your parents believed in and taught to you, that the entire culture around you embraced without doubt, shame or question. Then imagine that without your even noticing the evolving change, to accept that “truth” suddenly made you and people who believed as you do pariahs, and worse, the target of hostile laws as well as loud, righteous zealots determined to use the laws against you….all while the national media and internet and social media stereotyped you as a bad citizen and a cruel human being.
How would you feel?
Id feel like there was a sinister conspiracy to make me either act against my beliefs, or to make me believe something I know is wrong.
How would you react?
I’d react by fighting back, and not listening very hard to the people insulting me, my parents, my community, and perhaps my religion.
What would you do?
I’d seek out my elected officials and demand that the protect me, and what I had been raised all my life to believe was a correct and ethical view of reality.
Because these are predictable and reasonable reactions from the point of view of someone who finds themselves in this frightening position, using condescension, superiority and hate to coerce and punish those who understandably find a sudden cultural shift bewildering and wrong is not just a Golden Rule breach. It is also dangerous and counter-productive.
It can tear the culture and society apart. We have seen it happen here before.
What is the alternative? Here are what cannot be alternatives:
…Expecting LGBT citizens to continue to submit to discrimination and to accept anything other than the full rights and respect that is the birth right of every other American.
…Sitting by as Jim Crow-like cultures are allowed to take root in whole states, forcing LGBT citizens to choose between leaving or submitting to second class status.
…Enabling, ignoring, or passively accepting a societal structure based on biases, fears and misconceptions that we have learned are wrong, though they held the world in their grip for thousands of years.
…Rejecting fact, truth and reality because accepting them will be unpleasant, contentious and painful.
I am old enough to remember when even in the most liberal, educated and enlightened communities, being gay was regarded as a rare and ugly perversion. Gays were likely criminals; they were a danger to children, carried moral rot and disease, and were people to be shunned, avoided, mocked and isolated. This attitude had persisted essentially world-wide, unchanged for centuries. The churches supported it, no politicians had the courage to oppose it, and virtually everyone accepted that it was not only a belief fully justified by experience and facts but also a settled issue that would never change. The idea that individuals of the same-sex could marry each other—or would want to unless they were mentally damaged in some way—was unimaginable. The idea was literally a joke: comedy skits were based on it. Most people claimed they had never met a gay person…even gay people claimed this.
Now and then a celebrity or otherwise accomplished person—a Bill Tilden or an Alan Turing—would be destroyed by the revelation that he or she was gay, and this would be seen as a peculiar tragedy. As for transgender individuals, they were freaks, and that’s all they were. Christine Jorgensen was a tabloid story. Nobody, even the most compassionate people, had much compassion for her, and nobody believed that she was anything more than one in ten million, an anomaly.
And it all changed.
Good. Society is better for it, and will be much better once the shock wears off. My parents never accepted it. As intelligent and kind and well-read as they both were, they found this particular shift bewildering, and they went to their graves still believing what they and their families and their communities believed. I will say this for my father, however: he would judge every individual individually. I introduced him to many of my gay friends and colleagues in the theater world, and he genuinely admired and respected the ones he got to know.
Dad was coming around, but time ran out.
I know it is hard to resist an emotional response, especially for LGBT individuals who themselves are insulted and denigrated by those who are still in thrall to discredited beliefs about them. I can’t blame them for being angry, indignant, and impatient, but we and they will all be better off as a society if they, as well as their allies and supporters, try to maintain a civil dialogue. Boycotts, personal insults and shunning only guarantee similarly aggressive counter measures and a hardening of positions, including distrust and enmity. The obnoxious bathroom laws are a product of hysteria and panic; the “religious freedom” pro-discrimination laws are defensive and foolish, and will be overturned. The established legal process will take more time than forcing laws to be overturned using economic extortion, but time is important. Evolution takes time.
Ethics Alarms has published the abridged highlights of Clarence Darrow’s plea to an all-white jury to overcome their bigotry to find justice and mercy for his African-American clients in 1926, one of the wisest and most powerful pleas for ethical conduct that has ever been made in a courtroom or anywhere else. At the end of his summation, Darrow was pessimistic about the short term prospects for avoiding violence and societal divisions on the way to racial justice, but offered this advice to both blacks and whites:
“I would advise toleration. I would advise understanding. I would advise all of those things which are necessary for men who live together.”
I can’t offer any better advice than that. Toleration. Understanding. Most of all, what is essential is an unwavering commitment to communication and reason, and the rejection of hatred, threats and coercion.