Friday, August 24, 2012

Savage meets Brown: A Review

I just saw something I never thought possible – two people from opposite ends of the universe sitting down and talking to each other.  And actually being civil about it.  In America.

It’s being called “The Dinner Table Debate,” a meeting between Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, and gay rights spokesman Dan Savage, on August 15th, nine days ago.  For how this came about, see Mark Oppenheimer’s article in the New York Times on some background to the story.  Oppenheimer moderated the debate.  You can watch it in its entirety here

Let me put my cards on the table and tell you there is probably no way I can write with objectivity about this event.  I want to try, though, and you decide whether I’ve succeeded.   I am by no stretch of the imagination a neutral observer.  My starting point is the same as Terry Miller’s.  He’s Savage’s husband, and he has described Brian Brown’s position as a form of cruelty.

Virtually no one involved saw even the slightest change in anyone’s position.  Neither man was in the least persuaded.  But that, given the nature of the issue, could never have been a realistic goal in the first place.  The fact that these two men from opposite poles of the debate over gay rights actually sat down and talked about their differences with civility is worth something.  It was an astonishing meeting, and I came away with more respect for Brown than I thought I could ever muster.  In that sense, at least for me, it was a success.  In other ways, it was less so.

Oppenheimer, the moderator, tried in vain to get Brown to explain how same-sex marriage was a greater threat to so-called traditional marriage than divorce or adultery.  He also asked the two to explain what new information or turn of events might persuade each man to change his position.  Savage said if it turned out same-sex marriage harmed children; Brown said basically nothing would change his mind.

If it had been a real debate, there would have been a judge determining who won the day on the basis of cogent arguments and effective rebuttals.  We don’t have those debates except in the confines of academia, however.  What we are more used to in America is watching one side talking for a limited time, and then the other side doing the same, usually without reference to most of what the other has just said.   In that sense, this was a typical American “debate.”

If you listen carefully to this exchange, you hear Savage taking on Brown’s points and actually refuting them.  Brown, on the other hand, follows the pattern of our presidential debates and other political confrontations.  Instead of effective refutation, the respondent says, “That’s not important.  What really matters is…” – and then brings out his or her talking points.

Brown and Savage ranged over a number of topics, starting with the impetus for the exchange, their difference over Biblical literalism.  Savage had addressed a group of high school students and let it be known he thought there was a lot of “bullshit” in the Bible.  When pressed for an example, he mentioned the approval of slavery, in both the Old and New Testaments.  They also took up the Regnerus study, and also Brown’s claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry would destroy the institution of marriage, and by extension, society itself.

When Savage spoke of “bullshit” he meant more than approval of slavery.  He meant the Bible was full of errors and nonsense.  “Bible-based” is a code-word in America for literalism – taking every word in the bible as factually true exactly as it is stated, without regard to metaphor or rhetorical effect.  Brown had no comeback except to show annoyance at what he saw as Savage’s lack of respect for religion.  And right off the bat, there in a nutshell, was what keeps the two men talking past each other.  If you see things through Savage’s eyes, how is one to show respect for something one considers untrue and unworthy?  And how, to see things through Brown’s eyes, is one to talk to a person who fails to see truth when it stares him in the face?  Truth, of course, being established by unquestioned embrace of an ideology.

Savage makes the point that those who argue the Bible is to be taken as literal truth reveal that they have never even read the Bible.  Not if you define reading as taking in information in context, and not lifting it and putting it into a modern-day context and making it mean what you want it to mean, or what makes sense to us today.  Literalists never read critically.  Instead they determine what they want the message to be first, and then read the text and try make it fit.  Cinderella’s sisters’ fat feet come to mind.

You don’t have to go very far into the Bible to get Savage’s point.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Chapter 1, narrates the story of creation.  Then right away in Chapter 2, you get another, different version of the world’s beginnings.  Biblical scholars understand the obvious here, that these two accounts (which they refer to as J and P, by the way) come from different sources.   Savage jokes it is as if God were saying, “Here.  We’ll start with two stories.  You have to decide what to do with the fact one cancels out the other.”   When Brown takes his turn, he ignores Savage’s point entirely.

In discussing the Regnerus study, by University of Texas at Austin professor Mark Regnerus, each side rehearses the issues widely covered when the study first came out, and which I covered  here, and here.  Savage stresses the criticism of the study by Regnerus’s peers and the fact it was funded by right-wing funding agencies.  Brown points out that there is no proof the right-wing funders affected the findings, and Savage has nowhere to go in rebuttal.  But Brown then makes the claim, citing the study’s critics themselves, that the “proper procedures were generally followed.”  Savage, again, because of the absence of strict rules for statement and rebuttal, lets this go by when he might have come back that “generally” may refer to some procedures, but the entire foundation of the study – that children raised by gay parents do poorly – is entirely bogus because of confounding variables and the near total absence of examples.

The one time that Brown tries to refute Savage’s assertion that there is “bullshit” in the Bible is when Savage points out the endorsement in both the Old and New Testaments of slavery, and Brown claims that there were not really slavery among the Hebrews, but a kind of “indentured servitude,” as if servants did their work through contracts and were routinely freed when they paid off their debt.  Savage doesn’t engage in this argument, but brushes it off as absurd.  He might have mentioned that when Sarah was supposedly too old to bear a child she offered Abraham her maid servant, Hagar.  And when we tell this story, we talk about how the Jews are descended from Isaac, Sarah’s son (when it turns out she could bear children at the age of 90 after all) and the Arabs come from the maidservant’s line.  What we never seem to pay any attention to is the fact that nobody bothered to ask the maid if this plan was OK with her.    One might want to make the point that all this quibbling over the definition of slavery really illustrates is how foolish it can be to get into arguments over Biblical literalism in the first place.

At one point, the moderator asks Brown if he's in favor of making divorce illegal. Brown answers, "Because you believe something is wrong doesn't mean you make it illegal."  Savage then asks him why this shouldn’t apply to marriage equality?  What is the logic of allowing one wrong but not another?  Brown dodges the question.  “Because gay marriage cannot exist,” he says, ignoring the fact that it does indeed exist in eleven countries and seven American states.

Ultimately, extending full civil rights to gays and lesbians will depend not on Dan Savage’s ability to defeat Brian Brown in a debate, of course.  It may depend, however, on how many people there are willing to listen to this kind of exchange.  Dan Savage feels he was at a disadvantage because he felt an obligation to treat Brown like the guest in his home that he was.  And here I disagree with Savage.  I suspect that the civility of this exchange will do a lot more to get people listening and thinking about the ideas both men put forth than any amount of ranting and raving by either side against the alleged cruelty or wrong-headedness of the other.  How much better it was to listen to the two men talking to each other directly than enduring all the hostile barbs of the guy you don’t agree with in news briefs and pronouncements when they speak in isolation.

The next step, it seems to me, ought to be a return invitation.  Brown should invite Savage to his home to continue the conversation, hopefully with Oppenheimer continuing to moderate.

Some time after Brown’s wife finishes giving birth to their eighth child, of course.


Ode said...

Good post! I was linked to it from slacktivist.

Great points on slavery, Sir. Brown seem to equate slavery with employment, neglecting the fact it's owneship of one person by another( like in your example of Hagar)and referred to in the Bible as "slave and free" not "one who have a job and unemployed" Ap.Paul encourages slaves to free selves if they can.

BB didnt reply to straightforward question : "Would you rather see our son being abused by the system or bounce from home to home instead of being adopted? 3 straight couples refused him, the kid would have no family if not for ours"

No answer.

Anonymous said...

Actually, scholars haven[t believed in J and P for many years now.

Alan McCornick said...

Whether the creation myth in Genesis was written by J and P or by J, P and E, or possibly even more people, is a fascinating detail (See Harvard biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman's discussion of the “documentary hypothesis” at ).

The point here is only that no one but the seriously clueless hold on to the notion that the Bible is “error-free,” and the narrow anti-science school of thought that Brown represents is the same school that once forced Galileo to recant. It is by no means representative of Christianity at large. As Savage argues early on, Brown misrepresents reality when he tries to put Christians on one side of the debate and gays on the other.

Appreciate your comments.


Camas Blues said...

What no one seemed to address in this debate is, why should anyone's interpretation of the Bible be relevant in any way to civil marriage law? One need not be married by a rabbi, priest, or any other religious functionary to be married. Marriage in modern society is really just a matter of civil law - dealing with property ownership, taxes, power of attorney, etc etc. If a couple chooses to bring a religious aspect to what their marriage means to them, that is the choice and practice of that couple - not a matter of the state.

Steve Clay said...

@Camas: Brown's comment that divorce shouldn't be illegal addressed that. He was conceding that we can't make things illegal because of what one group believes. This was an evening of Brown dodging every substantive argument, relabeling his feelings as "facts" (Brown doesn't understand this word), and blaming gay marriage movement for every harm done against its opponents.

Alan McCornick said...

I agree with you, Camas, that same-sex marriage ought to be about civil rights and not about what any religious group thinks. If we had not crossed the church-state line and allowed clerics to act as agents of the state in performing marriages, same-sex marriage would never have become an issue in society at large in the first place. But the Savage/Brown debate came about because Brown took issue with Savage when he claimed the Bible contained a lot of bullshit. That determined what the debate would be about and why the two spent so much time on the ultimately irrelevant question of what the Bible says. I hope viewers recognized how Brown failed utterly to counter Savage's examples defending his position.

Ode said...

Sure, civil marriage has nothing to do with what the Bible, Koran or Book or Mormon have to say, yet,as I understand it, in USA people have, and do exercise the right to speak on their religous convictions.

During slavery, and later segregation debates, religous people of all stripe were vocal about the evils of those institutions. Excluding Biblical debates entirely would also shut down the progressive Christian voices. Laws are brought about by people, and people don't act independently of their beliefs.