Labels: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Disclaimer: This post deals with some heavy material. If you don’t feel like reading about the politics of SFWA, or about my personal beliefs on religion, you may want to skip this post. The reason I’m posting this is, well, I’m a writer. And as often happens, I felt the need to write out my thoughts.

There’s been a lot of talk on respect and tolerance in the SFF Community lately, and I’m not going to re-hash it here. (I actually typed about 400 words doing just that before I realized it was going off the rails and deleted it.) But I do want to address one specific aspect of it. A few days ago, Nancy Fulda, on her LiveJournal, made a well-written plea for religious tolerance in our little community, which admittedly, is something we are not always very good at.

I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I agree with Christie Yant, who makes the valid point that people should feel safe coming to SFF events and not feel like they might get mocked for what they believe. And yet, I also agree with Keffy, who makes the extremely valid point that if “religious tolerance” means quietly putting up with every single tenet of someone’s religion, then fuck that noise. In the civil rights struggle of our generation– the struggle for LGBT rights– the primary opponent is religiously-motivated discrimination. We cannot and should not sit idly by when someone’s beliefs dictate the oppression of another group. As a commenter on Keffy’s LiveJournal put it, “If we want to be a welcoming community, the one thing we can’t tolerate is intolerance.”

Which seems like a bit of a contradiction, yet it’s something I totally agree with. Beliefs have consequences– for the believers, and for the non-believers around them. When your beliefs dictate the oppression of an entire group based on their identity, or denying people the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because of who they are— be it sexism, racism, homophobia– you have to come to terms with the fact that those beliefs will have consequences. Your right to believe whatever you want about the universe does not extend to a right to cause others harm.

I think the problem arises, then, and where Nancy may have her strongest point, is that we often paint with too broad a brush. There are religious bigots, yes, but clearly not every religious person is a bigot. My Mom was a progressive, pro-equal-rights Christian who derived great joy, fellowship, and love from her church. Her pastor– who I met several times when we laid my Mom to rest in February– is the sort of loving, empathetic Christian who actually seems to understand what Jesus meant when he said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Nancy is Mormon, and even though I’m not, I can understand when she says she feels the need to hide her faith, that she’s afraid of being painted as a bigot and a homophobe because of the actions of her church, and many members within it. It should be on each of us to ensure that we don’t jump to conclusions, that we don’t judge people prematurely or look down on them for beliefs they don’t actually hold. That kind of stereotyping is no more justified than any other kind.

And yet– I hope Nancy, and religious folks like her, understand that when we denounce the Mormon church’s role in promoting homophobia, in denying rights to gay people, in funding the passage of Proposition 8 (an action which they now seem to be backing away from, to their credit), that it’s not a personal attack on her. But we are standing up for a cause we are passionate about. I am standing up for the rights of my family and friends to live their lives free of discrimination, for their right to not be second-class citizens in a society that is supposed to be, and should be, equal-rights-for-all. No way in hell will I apologize for, or stop doing, that.

Which brings me to my point: Labels are tricky. On the one hand, they’re useful for grouping people together, and giving a shorthand way to describe your beliefs or your identity. On the other hand, they tend to result in a lot of collateral damage when it comes to legitimate arguments. Nancy applies the label “Mormon” to herself (as a member of the Mormon Church, it certainly applies), and so when someone attacks Mormons for being bigoted, Nancy feels unfairly attacked, lumped together with people whose beliefs are far more extreme than her own.

For my own part, I’m an atheist. I recognize that this label represents a broad spectrum of beliefs; it even encompasses people I disagree with, or whose message is far too angry and confrontational for my taste. I am very much a “live and let live” sort of person. So whenever atheists do something I disagree with– whether it’s file a seemingly frivolous lawsuit, or put up a harshly anti-religion message in a public space– I feel bad. I recognize that some people, by extension, might paint me with the same brush they paint those other atheists with. But it’s the price I pay for being public about my beliefs. I think it’s a price worth paying.

But should I have to pay that price? Should a pro-equality Mormon have to pay a price for the fact that some of his or her comrades are virulently anti-gay? Well, no. But like I said, labels are tricky. As mentioned earlier, we often use them as shorthand for a group, and when we do, they cause collateral damage. It is incumbent on each of us to make sure that we don’t lump an entire group of people into one category, because of the actions of a few, or even a substantial portion, of that group.

If you’re a member of that group, and you feel it’s unfairly represented or marginalized, I urge you– if possible– to wear that label anyway, to change things, to demonstrate by your words and your actions that people’s preconceptions and prejudices are wrong. It’s tough to do. As an atheist, I feel like it’s something I do almost every day– especially back when I lived in the South, inundated by public religion, by billboards along the Interstate and people on the radio telling me I was going to hell. But, on the other hand, if you feel like you’re getting hate for not just being associated with the label, but for something you actually believe— well, then you may want to question those particular beliefs. Or maybe not. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences from that speech, and the same applies to freedom of belief.

For people on the other side of the equation, there ought to be a recognition that when you use an overly broad label, you are potentially alienating people who could be your allies. Even just for purely tactical purposes, why push people to the other side? That’s the problem with saying “Religious people are bigots,” or asking “Why do Mormons hate gay rights so much?” You may feel entitled to ask that question, but is it really the smartest thing ever to lump the pro-equality Mormons (of which I know several) in with the bigots? Why alienate the people who could potentially help you? They’re your inside agents, the people who in fact have the most power to change the larger group that’s marginalizing you. They’re potentially your most useful allies of all.

All that said: I don’t think, by and large, that an SFF convention or a writing forum is the proper venue to debate religion or beliefs, but they do occasionally intersect. The SFF community should be a safe space for everyone, and if your beliefs preclude anyone’s safe space– if you believe that for reason or another, a person is less deserving of respect or equality because of who they are– then you’ll probably want to check those beliefs at the door. Respect is a two-way street.

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(Afterword: I welcome comments on this. Looking back over it, I don’t feel like it’s perhaps as cohesive or relevant as I might have hoped, but I still think it’s worth posting. I’m open to questions, corrections, clarifications, and thoughts down below.)

2 thoughts on “Labels: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. The problem comes in when people want to lump in criticism of their stated political beliefs and actions (ie, opposing civil rights for LGBT people, and/or actively taking steps to deny those rights) with criticism of their faith or of themselves as a person of faith. Wrapping yourself in a shield of “but it’s my religious conviction” doesn’t give you a pass, because at that point you’re not just practicing your own religion, you’re demanding that I do so as well.

    • I often say that if going to heaven means spending the rest of eternity with people who think they are going to heaven then hell doesn’t seem too bad. I think a similar argument can be made for politics. Democrats seem to want to save the people on welfare and Republicans protect the top 1% when those are both small groups of people and reflective of the whole group – the same goes for liberals and conservatives, you hear about the extreme people and not the regular person.

      I have always liked the concept of religion but never how it is carried out – and that goes for all faiths. Each has their pluses and minuses but what I have found interesting for all the fighting and “chest thumping” about who’s faith is better is how similar they are. I personally do not have an issue with LGBT people, I have friends that are gay and as long as they are happy then that’s what’s important. One of my employees at my work is gay and I have met his boyfriend and he is really happy with him, and he is also one of the genuinely nicest people I have ever met. That’s what’s important.

      I have always had an issue with using the Bible to justify a person’s dislike of homosexuality. According to the Bible slavery is okay, eating shellfish is a sin, etc. You can use the Bible to justify any number of sins depending on how you take the context – and as we know how I read a passage versus how someone else does can be completely different. For those who are against gay marriage saying it is between a man and a woman and is sacred I simply ask then why is the divorce rate 53%? If they say well what’s to keep people from abusing the system, I’ll ask them about Britney Spears’ 55-hour marriage to Jason Alexander or Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries. There’s arguments on both sides. I actually have more respect for Adrian Peterson and Chris Broussard, NFL running back and ESPN NBA reporter respectively, for their stances against gay marriage – while I don’t agree with them I respect them for stating their beliefs and standing by them, especially at a time when such beliefs are seemingly “unpopular”. But as you rightly say Andrew there are repercussions for believing either side of an argument and people seem to want to have it both ways.

      As for lumping people together….anytime someone says that all Muslims are terrorists I point out that not all Christians are part of the Westboro Baptist Church…you cannot lump everyone together because of one thing because you paint too broad a stroke. It’s like saying that all people who wear glasses are nerds :).

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