Longtime commenter Matt in VA, who is gay and married, put a fascinating comment on the conscience thread:
“…none of it excuses us from individual responsibility. If you go down that path, you will end up in hell, and make life hell for those around you.”
I think straight people generally cannot appreciate how completely devoid of a concept of individual responsibility gay male culture in particular is. Sure, a big part of it is “structural”: no kids and no real obstacles to sex except whatever you carry within you/bring with you from your upbringing or religion or culture or whatever else outside of the gay ghetto. The total disaster that is gay and bi men’s sexual health outcomes (and don’t be fooled by the existence of medicines to mitigate the worst effects of that culture; it remains a disaster) is just one symptom of the overall really fundamental moral vacuum/pit.
It is a rotten deal: you listen to “fag” and “queer” being thrown around all the time as a kid, either at you if you’re effeminate or at other nongenderconforming kids if you can pass for straight…and then you grow up and hope to find acceptance and a place for yourself and get sucked instead into a culture in which you’re encouraged to view yourself as a piece of meat, in which you are socialized to treat your own body and the bodies of others as trash receptacles for incurable viruses, in which drug use and trolling for sex partners night after night on the basis of proximity are normalized, and you end up spit out at some point when your looks fade, fundamentally changed as person, often infected, and no closer to (probably much farther from) finding meaningful love than you were before you came out. And the whole time the culture keeps telling you to keep your ire focused on conservative Christians, they’re the real problem, they’re the ones to blame if you experience any unhappiness.
Gay people who refuse to be the victims of this communal-sewer culture are the ones who retain that concept of individual responsibility from wherever they got it in the first place — their families, their religions, their upbringing, maybe even just from books (I think for me, it’s been books that have helped the most, though I was involved in, and implicated in, that sewer culture for a while). My point is, that idea — of individual responsibility, the Solzhenitsyn bit about the line between good and evil being not between you and some horrible Other but being inside your own heart — that idea, that saving idea is often within individual gay people, but it is not anywhere within Gay Inc. It does not exist there. I am gay-married, but I don’t think that perennial Big Issue, gay marriage, will make much of a difference in the lives of most gay men so long as gay culture remains continues to so completely exclude the truth that *we* are (and all human beings are) our own worst enemies, we are what’s wrong with the world.
On the conscience front, as you know, I was bullied in high school, but I can remember plenty of times afterward that I was a bully, in my own way, taking pleasure in coming up with cutting phrases and critiques that tore others down for the sake of appearing clever. For this reason, I think it would be difficult for me to read some of the writing I produced in my twenties, in particular.
Every single one of us, unless we’re a saint (and very few of us are), has the potential to misuse power to serve ourselves — even if we think we are serving a Good Cause. In fact, it’s when we think we’re serving a good cause that the temptation to bully is the worst. Some of the worst bullies of our time were Catholic bishops who covered up for abusive priests. Do I think those bishops enjoyed their de facto bullying of the powerless? Of course not. I think most of them meant well. As one of them of my acquaintance told an abuse victim he threatened with personal ruin if she went public with what she had suffered, “I have to protect the people of God.” I think the bishop really believed that.
But you know what? Those who attack Catholic bishops can be bullies too, precisely because the cause of defending victims is so righteous. I am all too aware of how my righteous anger on this topic got the best of me at times. If you read Dante’s Purgatorio with us, you’ll remember that on the terrace of Wrath, Dante could barely see in front of his face for all the smoke. This is what Wrath does to us: it makes us blind. When I was in a state of wrath at the bishops, nothing mattered more to me than making them pay for the injustices they wrought. I could not see my own capacity for inflicting injustice, which was absolutely there.
This is a hard thing to deal with, in part because it blunts the satisfaction we may feel for being on the Right Side. To be sure, I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the sides in the abuse scandal, or in the history of anti-gay bullying, or racist bullying, or any of that. My point is simply that having been victimized does not obviate your capacity to become a victimizer if you are given the chance. It’s human nature.
Here’s another story. Before 9/11, I used to shop at a particular Muslim-owned shop in my neighborhood. I knew the owner and his employees were immigrants from a very conservative part of the Arab world. My guess, from the context clues, is that they were pretty conservative Muslims. I shopped there because their products were good, and because they were always friendly, even warm. After 9/11, I quit shopping there. I figured those conservative Muslims hated people like me (non-Muslims, that is), and I wasn’t going to give them my business. How did I know this? I didn’t know this. But I believed it was true, and besides, I didn’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I was going to do my little part to stand with the 9/11 dead, and fight the evil of radical Islam, by withholding my business from a conservative Muslim shopkeeper and his staff. It felt right. No, it felt righteous.
I thought about this the other day, with shame and remorse, when the news of the boycott of the Mormon-owned organic farm business in Portland broke. The truth is, I’m pretty sure if I could have looked into the hearts of those conservative Muslim shopkeepers in Brooklyn, I would have seen some beliefs that would have appalled me: about non-Muslims, about women, about gays, and the lot. (Same, by the way, if I were able to look into the hearts of ultra-Orthodox Jewish shopkeepers in Brooklyn, or fundamentalist Christian shopkeepers in the rural South, or fundamentalist liberal secular shopkeepers in San Francisco.) But it was just a guess on my part. The only evidence I had for what was in the hearts of those shopkeepers was their politeness to me when I shopped there. That should have been enough. I ought to have kept shopping there. It bothers me that I let my wrath over 9/11 affect my judgment against that shopkeeper, who might have been as guilty of harboring anti-me hatred as I suspected he was, but who might also have been entirely innocent of that. And if they did think I was an infidel who was going to hell, so what? The thing that matters is that they always, always treated me well when I went into that store. That’s the most we ought to expect out of any merchant, because the truth is, if our neighbors could look into our hearts and see what we really think about certain things, they probably wouldn’t want to have much to do with us either.
I failed to stand by those Arab shopkeepers when I ought to have done, at a time when others in our neighborhood were probably feeling the same thing I was at that time. My conscience bothers me about the way I behaved back then. I can’t take it back, but I can work harder to refuse to let my wrath warp my judgment.
I’ll say it again: whatever your own personal beliefs, if your conscience isn’t bothering you about something, then you aren’t paying enough attention to it. If you’re satisfied with your own personal righteousness, then you should consider that you have a problem with pride, and maybe a problem with narcissism. Matt in VA is right: the line between good and evil does not run between liberals and conservatives, between gay and straight, between Christians and non-Christians, or between the weak and the strong. It runs down the middle of every human heart. To fail to recognize that is, as Matt says, to miss a truth that will save you. To fail to recognize that is, in a real and consequential way, to be lost.