I read with interest Rod Dreher’s piece about the “Gay Bob, Christian Bob” parable. And I’m reluctant to pour any amount of cold water on something so obviously well-intentioned. But I’m afraid I have to – a bit.
(Before I start, let me say that I’m not interested in litigating the question of who is more persecuted, gays or traditional Christians, in today’s society. Not because I don’t have opinions on the subject – I do – but because that’s not where I want to go with this piece.)
First, let’s change things up a little bit. Let’s say one of the Bobs is not a friendly, neighborly gay man, but a friendly, normal seeming fellow who is also an active pedophile who preys on pre-pubescent girls. How does the dialogue go now?
Let’s be clear: I’m not equating homosexuality with pedophilia. I am doing exactly the opposite. I’m pointing out how the effectiveness of the dialogue depends on our already having classified both sides as being within the realm of the tolerable as opposed to the intolerable. Christian Bob, if he met pedophile Bob, would be horrified – and the horror would not be lessened, but heightened, if pedophile Bob had been a good neighbor, helping with the trash and so forth. It would be heightened, not lessened, if pedophile Bob complained about being thought a monster, but seemed to take those kinds of nasty comments in stride. All of this would scare the bejeezus out of Christian Bob. The fact that, in the dialogue as written, nothing like that happens, says that Christian Bob already sees gay Bob as fundamentally different from pedophile Bob. In whatever way he continues to believe gay Bob is deeply wrong in the way he lives his life, he doesn’t see him as truly monstrous.
The dialogue builds to a moment of empathy – both Bobs see that the other Bob’s situation is analogous to his. Much of that empathy is built on the recognition that both have experiences of not being understood, of being treated as weird or even monstrous. But of course, the other part is that they each recognize that this treatment is unjustified. Absent that element, the dialogue never gets going.
But let’s take this a little bit further. Let’s say you are a member of the American armed forces living in Afghanistan. Your “neighbor” has just married a nine-year-old girl, and plans to initiate her sexually so as to seal her to him. How does the dialogue go now?
I think one can make a very plausible case for tolerance in that case. The serviceman may need this man’s good will – and he’s not going to get it if he makes it clear that he finds his Afghan neighbor morally abhorrent. And let’s be honest – he’s not going to be able to behave that way unless he convinces himself that his Afghan neighbor has his good points, and is not actually a monster. And he might indeed have his good points – be a gracious host, a fiercely loyal fighter, a loving father and husband, notwithstanding the whole child rape thing. Serviceman Bob might not go so far as to say: hey, this guy is really just like me, if I think about it. Then again, he might – he might conclude: if I were raised here, I’d do much the same (and – remembering who he is – thank God I was not raised here). Either way, we can no longer say that the act of pedophilia as such is intolerable – merely that, if we’re talking about our neighbor in Akron, we’re not willing to tolerate it, but if we’re talking about our neighbor in Kandahar, we are.
Now – let’s look at the other side. What if the other Bob isn’t an evangelical Christian, but a member of the Christian Identity movement, an arguably neo-Nazi type cult? Could agnostic gay Bob tolerate such a neighbor, even if he helped out with the trash? I don’t think so.
Ok, well what if they are in neighboring prison cells? What can each Bob tolerate now? Can they find their way to a dialogue that allows for some measure of mutual respect? Or do they have to try to kill each other on sight? I think the case for tolerance is pretty manifest.
Why am I going through these iterations? To make the point that what we are willing to tolerate and what we are not willing to tolerate is highly context-dependent – and that that context affects our actual beliefs, not just how we behave. The mere fact that Mike Cosper can construct the dialogue that he did implies a great deal about Cosper’s feelings about both characters. He already believes that there’s no reason a gay man or a traditional Christian can’t be a good neighbor. Possibly he believes that because he has had good neighbors who are both. But he also already believes that their private views and practices do not negate the meaning of that good neighborliness – as he surely would if, in the context as given, traditional Christian Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a pedophile, or if gay agnostic Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a member of a neo-Nazi pseudo-Christian cult.
Of course, in either of the latter cases, the “discovery” would be a matter of some moment. neo-Nazi Bob is probably not open about his views in the way that evangelical Christian Bob is. Pedophile Bob is probably not open about his sexual orientation in the way that gay Bob is. But neo-Nazi prisoner Bob is open about his views – he’s got them tattooed on his chest. And our Pashtun preparing to deflower his child bride – he’s not hiding his plans either.
That’s precisely why the gay rights movement has been so insistent that coming out of the closet is a fundamentally radical and necessary act. It is hard, socially, to anathematize something open and admitted. Openness puts a choice on you: be a lousy neighbor, or openly affirm your tolerance. Cosper has decided to be a good neighbor and openly affirm his tolerance.
(And, by the way, I am not blind to the fact that the neo-Nazi prisoner’s openness, and the Pashtun child-deflowerer’s openness, are each built on a structure of violence. The child bride does not have the opportunity to be open in the way that her husband is. Neither does the gay man who submits to the neo-Nazi’s “protection” in prison. That’s tangential to my point, but I wanted to make it clear in passing.)
The surface lesson Cosper is trying to draw is that those inclined to persecute gay people in the name of Christianity, or Christians in the name of gay rights, should see the analogy of their respective social positions and, without changing their views of what is True with a capital “T,” let that empathetic analogy lead them to tolerance and mutual respect. But below the surface, something deeper is going on. Openness has forced a conversation. Quiet hostility is no longer a choice. One must be openly, frankly hostile – or affirm that the other is deserving of respect, and honor.
Two final points.
First, the dialogue couldn’t happen with pedophile or neo-Nazi Bob because neither would be sufficiently open – sufficiently ready to “come out” to the other Bob. And if one of them was so open, it would cause immediate disorientation. Gay Bob, faced with open, friendly Nazi Bob, would not suddenly say, “wow – he’s like me, even though he’s a Nazi. I guess Nazism is just one of those things I just have to tolerate while agreeing to disagree.” He would say, “holy cow – I’ve got a neighbor who’s an open, avowed Nazi! What the heck am I going to do now?” Ditto for Christian Bob faced with alarmingly open pedophile Bob. And if either Bob, alarmed, went around to his other neighbors to get a sense of what everyone else was thinking of doing, and they all didn’t see what the big deal was, he would start to seriously worry if he was being gaslighted.
I have a funny feeling that there are a lot of people out there in America who feel precisely that way.
Second, Dreher talks a lot about the Benedict Option, about insulating, protecting oneself from the baleful influences of the culture. How does he square that impulse with the dialogue that he seems to admire? If I am right that it is openness, and not just good-neighborliness, that forces that conversation, and makes the empathy possible, how does he square achieving that openness with that impulse to insulate?