“Bullshit.”

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Posted on May 1st, 2012 | Filed under News, Popular Culture, Social Issues

Dan Savage fair use

In today's news, we hear that a group of high school students were offended and walked out of a talk because they were told that they are too moral to do things like stoning women for being non-virgins on their wedding night or owning slaves. The person giving this talk called them cowards for doing so. When word of this event reached certain sources afterward, they loudly condemned the speaker for being a bully. The speaker then apologized.

Yes, I'm serious.

What, you want more details? Fine...

The speaker was sex advice columnist and gay rights advocate Dan Savage. The talk he was giving was about bullying of LGBT students and causes of such. And what happened was...well, I recommend you just watch the video.

It's important to actually hear what was said and done, yes, but mostly so that you can recognize the correct interpretation of what happened rather than what is being reported, which is that Savage went on an "anti-Christian tirade."

No, he did not. Nor did he go on an anti-Christianity tirade, or even really an anti-bible tirade. He did not bully Christian students, he didn't abuse anyone, and-- let's note-- he didn't offend most of the Christian students in the room, at least not enough to make them walk out.

I don't find it likely that the loud cheers and applause when Savage dryly remarked "It's funny, as someone who's on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back," came from a group made up of only atheists, Muslims, and Jews. I think it included at least a few Christians who recognized how absurd it is to be offended at the suggestion that the Bible includes descriptions of and outright commands to do some silly or even horrible things, and modern Christians are content to leave such things to history rather than interpret them as rules for living today. And that if Christians can do that with stoning and slavery, they can do it with attacking homosexuals.

Because that's what Savage said. Only he chose to describe those silly and/or horrible things as "bullshit," which apparently was a bridge too far. Or at least I hope that's what got so many outraged posteriors out of uncomfortable-looking conference hall seating. I hope it wasn't a belief that it's actually really unfortunate that we can't stone fornicating women to death anymore, because such is God's true and enduring will.

I realize that language was the primary concern that caused the movie Bully be rated (ironically) as appropriate only for ears older than those of the victims depicted in the documentary. But really, no high school student hasn't heard the word "bullshit" countless times. As the title of a popular long-running show on Showtime, it barely rates as profanity. But was it an inaccurate word for what Savage was describing? In his apology, he says

"On other occasions I've made the same point without using the word bullshit...

We can learn to ignore what the Bible says about gay people the same way we have learned to ignore what the Bible says about clams and figs and farming and personal grooming and menstruation and masturbation and divorce and virginity and adultery and slavery. Let's take slavery. We ignore what the Bible says about slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. And the authors of the Bible didn't just fail to condemn slavery. They endorsed slavery: "Slaves obey your masters." In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that the Bible got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong. The Bible got slavery wrong. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? I'd put those odds at about 100%.

It shouldn't be hard for modern Christians to ignore what the Bible says about gay people because modern Christians—be they conservative fundamentalists or liberal progressives—already ignore most of what the Bible says about sex and relationships. Divorce is condemned in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Christ condemned divorce. Yet divorce is legal and there is no movement to amend state constitutions to ban divorce. Deuteronomy says that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night she shall be dragged to her father's doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone the third Mrs. Gingrich to death.

...and maybe I shouldn't have used the word bullshit in this instance. But while it may have been a regrettable word choice, my larger point stands: If believers can ignore what the Bible says about slavery, they can ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. (The Bible also says some beautiful things that are widely ignored: "Sell what you possess and give to the poor... and come, follow me.” You better get right on that, Joel.)

Finally, here's Mark Twain on the Bible:

It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

I'm not guilty of saying anything that hasn't been said before and—yes—said much better. What is 'bullshit' in this context but 'upwards of a thousand lies' in modern American English?"

That part, at least, doesn't sound very apologetic. What Savage was actually apologizing for is calling the students who walked out "pansy-assed," which sounds like a pretty good description to me for rising up from one's chair and walking out almost the moment a speaker even mentions your holy text in a discussion on atrocities that once were seen as acceptable but are now easily recognizable as abhorrent. That is what happened, and I've seen claims in a few places that the walkout was planned in advance, before Savage even hit the stage.

Hemant Meta's discussion of this says that Savage should not have used the words "bullshit" and "pansy-assed" because they are alienating. Perhaps they are, but that isn't necessarily an argument against using them. For one thing, the students Savage called "pansy-assed" were already feeling good and alienated. And I thought it pretty clever to use one of the predominate epithets hurled against gay men for the past few decades to describe a walkout in response to the suggestion that the bible is a source of bigotry and bullying. It's not the source, however, as Meta surprisingly claims:

"So did he go too far in talking about the Bible? Nope. If you’re a journalist covering this subject, you should know about the root cause of anti-gay bigotry: the Bible. I don’t know how anyone could give a speech like this without talking about religion."

"The Bible" ! = "religion." It wouldn't even be accurate to say that religion is the root cause of anti-gay bigotry, but it would be a lot closer. Many religions contain moral codes in which some notion of sexual purity and prescribed gender roles are important and therefore men who "act like women" and women who "act like men" by sleeping with members of the same sex are regarded as unnatural and profane.

Ultimately, however, mistrust of any and all people who step outside of rigid gender roles is so widespread that I believe it precedes and is imported into religion by people who want to believe God not only shares but is the source of their bigotry.

Indeed, you can't-- or at least, shouldn't-- give a talk addressing bullying and general mistreatment of gays without addressing how religion contributes to it. But that doesn't mean holding all religious people solely accountable for homophobia, which Savage took great pains not to do. That was the point of noting that there are all sorts of things good religious people no longer believe or practice even if old doctrines say they should, because they (the people) are good.

People who have been taught that God considers homosexuality sinful change their position on this all of the time, usually because they are actually exposed to the existence of homosexuals who are decent, kind, normal people who aren't harming anyone.  "Therefore," the non-homophobic religious person concludes, "I must have been given bad information about what God thinks is sinful in this regard. Surely in order to be considered sinful something must be harmful to someone, and homosexuality isn't."

The existence of this sort of person must be acknowledged and respected, and my hunch is that Dan Savage's audience was largely composed of them. Those are the people who laughed when he said "The Bible guys in the hall can come back now because I'm done beating up the Bible," because they knew he wasn't really beating up the Bible.

And he certainly wasn't beating up Christianity or Christians. He was beating up the notion that it's acceptable to hypocritically discard other relics of religious hatred from 2,000 years ago because they don't apply to how we should live today, but not when it comes to beating on the gays. And that's a message for which nobody should apologize.

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9 Responses to ““Bullshit.””

  1. Ryan Lelache says:

    Thanks for posting a really eloquent and well-researched response to this story, Gretchen.

  2. […] http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/05/bullshit/ Share this:ShareFacebookTwitterStumbleUponEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. Shimshon Stu Siegel says:

    Really?

    Come one– Dan Savage was being, as he often is, gleefully provocative and insensitive from word 3.

    I probably agree with 99% of his positions on everything, but his wording sucked. First of all, he said “the bullshit in the Bible” before explaining what he meant. He could have built his case and then called it bullshit– but to start a speech with “the bullshit in the Bible” is not going to invite a listening ear from people who respect the Bible.

    And by by the way– the “bullshit” about shellfish and dinner? I bet there are a good number of State of Formation writers (and readers) who actually obey the “bullshit about shellfish.”

    He had a decent point, but he didn’t give himself a chance to make it, because, in addition to being a brilliant speaker and refreshingly honest and compassionate social critic, he is also a trickster, and enjoys stirring the pot, even when it’s not really needed

  4. Shimshon,

    Your reply suggests that you think very little of both Savage’s audience and State of Formation writers and readers. You apparently perceive them as very brittle people, unable to hear the word “bullshit” and their religious beliefs mentioned in the same context without turning off their brains and immediately concluding that the entirety of their religious identity is being dismissed. I have a higher opinion of them than that, which is justified by the fact that the majority of Savage’s audience did not walk out. And how much more mature must be the readers and writers of this forum than a bunch of high school journalism students?

    Obeying certain dietary rules as a matter of tradition is one thing, and I agree with you that probably many people here do that in some form or another. But Savage was talking about treating such rules as mandates from God, disobedience of which constitutes sin against him which will earn his judgment, and how harmful that is. In that context “bullshit” is not an inappropriate word to use.

  5. Shimshon Stu Siegel says:

    I’m not sure I’m suggesting that anyone is brittle. My comment was about his rhetorical style- he throws out the word bullshit before he makes his case. As a liberal religionist (i’m making an assumption based on this site), I would think you’d have seen how easily many people dismiss religious texts as bullshit, and what a challenge such an a priori wall can present to having real interaction– just like many people’s blind reverence/obedience for the text can prevent real discourse.

    The fact that most people didn’t walk out doesn’t prove anything. I’d wager that most people at that conference had little or no relationship to the Bible, or held it in some mild uninformed scorn, as is the norm in much of American society. So they didn’t bravely hold their ground, or prove their unbrittleness, they just weren’t impacted by his opening comments, or thought them to be edgy and funny.

    As for the shellfish- adding dietary restrictions to the list of bullshit changes the whole tone of what Savage is saying. For his case against using the Bible to promote homophobia, he wants to say that the violent, anti-social, potentially hurtful elements of the Bible are bullshit. By adding the dietary restrictions to his list, he is suggesting that all Biblical precepts are bullshit. It’s not necessary for the point he’s making, and ropes a lot more people under his umbrella of bullshit.

  6. Shimshon said:
    My comment was about his rhetorical style- he throws out the word bullshit before he makes his case.

    That would be a problem if he didn’t then go on to actually make his case, which he did. Those students who walked out childishly denied themselves the opportunity to hear it.

    As a liberal religionist (i’m making an assumption based on this site), I would think you’d have seen how easily many people dismiss religious texts as bullshit

    He did not dismiss a religious text as bullshit. He said there is bullshit in the bible. Big difference. As I have noted repeatedly, the entire point of that section of his talk is to point out that good Christians make exceptions for the bullshit in determining what in the bible applies to their modern lives.

    I’d wager that most people at that conference had little or no relationship to the Bible, or held it in some mild uninformed scorn, as is the norm in much of American society.

    You mean that “much of American society” which isn’t itself Christian? About 30%, give or take? You think most of the high school students in his audience were of that population?

    As for the shellfish- adding dietary restrictions to the list of bullshit changes the whole tone of what Savage is saying. For his case against using the Bible to promote homophobia, he wants to say that the violent, anti-social, potentially hurtful elements of the Bible are bullshit. By adding the dietary restrictions to his list, he is suggesting that all Biblical precepts are bullshit.

    Wrong. The prohibition against eating shellfish is discarded by most modern bible-believers because there is no particular reason that eating them should be considered an offense against God as compared to anything else. Likewise, there is no particular reason to believe that homosexuality is an offense against God as compared to anything else. That is Savage’s point– here is a list of specific things that even people who take the bible very seriously do not feel compelled to obey anymore, because there is no reason to believe that God should consider them an offense. Being bigoted against homosexuals– especially bullying homosexuals– is one of them.

    Of course, if you actually do believe that eating a mussel, clam, or oyster is an offense against God, then I can see how this point would be lost on you. I think Savage was correct in assuming that most if not all of his audience do not share this belief.

  7. Shimshon Stu Siegel says:

    I thought this was a site for discourse among people interested in modern interpretations and applications of religion. It feels like you just want to prove my comments utterly baseless so you can move on. I’m not sure why.

    As a teen educator who works primarily in religious settings, I can say that yes, many young Americans, even those who get involved in religious movements (often for social reasons) have scant knowledge and little sense of personal relationship to the Bible, and so would not necessarily have any negative reaction to the “bullshit” rhetoric.

    As a Jew who has worked and lived in Israel and America with Jews of all denominations, I know dozens of people who take the Bible very seriously AND obey some of its precepts– the prohibition on shellfish being one of the most commonly observed.

    I also know many people (Jews, I should add) who view the commandments of the Bible not primarily through the lens of obedience and sin, but as a path to connection with Divine. Leviticus 11, where the prohibitions against eating certain animals are laid out, ends with God commanding the people to “be Holy, as I Am Holy.” I am not sure why you so summarily exclude (a) Jews who DO observe some of the commandments; (b) observant people of any faith who connect to the commandments via love, not fear.

    As I said- I agree with Dan Savage on most of what he says and does. He’s probably one of the most important voices in today’s conversations about sexuality and sex. But he rubbed me the wrong way here, and I’m not talking about the content of his speech (with which I almost totally agree), but with his tone.

    The man who taught the world that “it gets better” could extend his sensitivity to those who love the Bible, and are trying to reconcile its challenges.

  8. Shimshon Stu Siegel says:

    I will add, on further viewing- that the girl who left the minute he said “Bible,” before he even said “bullshit,” was being a pansy

  9. I would remind you, Shimshon, of the following:

    1. You began your effort here with a dismissive “Really? Come on” and have continued in that vein.

    2. I explicitly acknowledged the existence of people who obey dietary precepts in the bible as a matter of tradition, so obviously did not “exclude” them.

    I’m sorry that you dislike the notion of someone believing it nonsense (or “bullshit”) that the creator of the universe is offended by the idea of his creations opting to include oysters in their diet. However this is a conclusion that most bible-believers in America have reached, and I frankly agree with them. Indeed, it’s far more bizarre and disturbing to think of the almighty omniscient omnipotent being behind it all being angered by a New England clam bake than by a gay orgy, though if I believed in a deity I couldn’t make heads or tails of him being even slightly put out by either one.

    The man who taught the world that “it gets better” could extend his sensitivity to those who love the Bible, and are trying to reconcile its challenges.

    The irony being, of course, that if you could get over his calling the prohibition against shellfish “bullshit” because it is personally meaningful to you, you would understand that that’s precisely what he’s doing.

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Gretchen recently received her PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Aarhus in Denmark. She currently lives in Plano, Texas and is working on forming her dissertation into a book, and she serves on the Cognitive Science of Religion Consultation for the American Academy of Religion.


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