Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Quest for Middle Ground

Last night I had a dream-well more of a nightmare. I was in my Community Property class at the law school. A fellow student approached me and said in a belligerent tone “I guess you’ve got to remember to vote on that proposition that your church supports.” I replied that the election has already passed but yes it is true that my church advocated the support of prop 8. Some of my other classmates overheard this and within seconds I was surrounded by the entire class shouting at me and calling me names. I tried to explain that I have friends who are gay, some of whom are in the law school. I tried to explain that I don’t look down on people who are gay. I tried to explain that not everyone in my church even supported the measure. I tried to explain that the last thing I want is for people’s feelings to be hurt by this. I tried to articulate where I stood on prop 8. But every time I tried to talk about where my position on the issue was my words would be drowned out by the ever loudening crowd. I realized that it didn’t matter what I thought or even if I was for or against gay marriage. No one cared. No one would listen. I was completely alone.

What disturbed me so much about this dream and made me feel so isolated was the fact that the people in my dream heard I was a Mormon and that was all they needed to know. They didn’t need to hear what I thought. The line had been drawn. And I had been labeled as being on the other side, end of story. As is the case with most of my dreams this one never concluded I simply drifted into another dream. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened. It seemed at the time that the only two options I faced were to deny being Mormon at all or be trampled by the mob. There is an old saying, “never explain. Your friends already understand and your enemies don’t care.”

It feels as if there is no longer any middle ground in discussions of same-sex marriage. It seems as if the issue has been framed in such a way that you either support gay marriage or you are a hate filled bigot. There is no room for explanation and you cannot have friends on both sides of the fence.

I fear deeply that the debate has reached this type of either/or dimension. The situation that I faced in my dream was actually faced by a manager at El Coyote, a nearby Mexican restaurant. She gave a mere $100 of her own money to the prop 8 campaign. She is also a Mormon. This led to a series of protests outside the restaurant she works at in which the protesters yelled “shame on you” to anyone who dared enter the restaurant.

The manager tried to explain things to the crowd. She told them:

“I am sick at heart that I have offended anyone in the gay community…you are treasured to me…I’ve been a member of the Mormon Church all my life and I responded to their request. This was a personal donation, not the El Coyote’s. In like fashion, any employee can support anything of its choosing…The restaurant does not support any political group…I don’t know of another place on earth where such diversity exists in harmony, joy and mutual respect. I know boycotts are planned…It saddens me that my faith will keep you away from the Coyote. I cannot and I will not, no matter what, change my love and respect for you and your views.”

This sounds a lot to me like the middle ground. This sounds like someone trying to explain that they both support traditional marriage and are not a bigot or a gay-hater. But this statement failed to satisfy the crowd. They demanded that she donate money to the effort to repeal prop 8. The manager stated that she could not deny her personal beliefs and the crowd became enraged, claiming that she had no love. She has continued to be vilified on anti-prop 8 sites and there are continual calls to boycott the restaurant even though it has now given 500 dollars to placate the protesters. I know we all have the right to boycott but when you demand that people donate money this looks more like extortion.

I hope that the middle ground has not disappeared but this targeting of individuals seems to confirm the worries of those that fear for the worst. Terryl Givens observed, "At this moment in the debate, it has become political theater rather than exchange of ideas. I don't think members of the church have available to them a constructive way to engage those most angered and distressed by their position. At every stage in a political process, there is a moment where the point of no-compromise is reached, and parties can only react with civility or protest. Mormons should choose the former."

Once the middle ground disappears from a debate all rational discussion is over. When it is no longer acceptable to have any sympathies for the other side, once people demand that your stance be all black or all white only, persuasion becomes meaningless. The next step is a freezing up of the democratic process. And the next step is mob rule. This is the dark side of American politics and it is something that we never been able to completely escape from. This country was founded on violence and on the notion that the people can rise up and vote with their guns. It is in our constitution in the right to bear arms and to form militias. This notion is encapsulated in the oft invoked phrase, “vox populi, vox Dei,” the voice of the people is the voice of God. This dark side of American politics has fueled the anti-Mormon violence of the 1800’s, Southern lynching’s of Blacks and other “undesirables,” and the violence carried out by separatist militias and domestic terrorists.

But we don’t have to get to that point. Last night we heard from President Brimhall who took over as the new Los Angeles Temple president on November 1st, 2008. As you can imagine he has had an interesting first couple of weeks. He chronicled some of his experiences. He mentioned many things that I was unaware of that gave me encouragement that the middle ground endures. These are stories that we have not seen in the reports of the protests and of the envelope mailed to the temple that contained a suspicious powder. He mentioned how during the protests there were nearly 1,000 police officers and FBI agents strategically placed on the temple grounds to ensure the safety of the temple. He mentioned that many of these officers were gay but felt it their duty to protect what one refered to as “our temple.” Many of these officers were even invited into the temple to help ensure its safety. He spoke of the great concern that FBI agents and hazmat teams had as they locked down the temple during Thursday’s anthrax scare (the powder turned out to be talcum powder but I can only imagine the fear experienced by those who thought they may have been exposed to such a terrible pathogen). President Brimhall also told of a letter he received from a 65 year old widow who opposed prop 8 but appreciated the fact that Mormons were taking a stand on moral issues even though she didn’t agree with that stand. She had enclosed a check for 25 dollars which has been used to help those who cannot afford to come to the temple. He also shared the story of an Arizona man who called and said that he supports gay marriage but wanted to personally pay for any damage that the protesters caused to the temple grounds.

These accounts give me great comfort. I hope that there continues to be room for middle ground on this issue. It is the only place where I belong.


Jerkolas said...

At least there weren't any zombies in the dream. Thats bad news.

SGarff said...

Yeah, I’m glad they weren’t zombies too. But I can’t help but wonder if the two dreams aren’t related somehow. There are a lot of parallels: isolation, fear, mindless crowds, and being cornered. Who knows they might even have the same meaning. But I’m not going to lie on a couch for $200 an hour just to find out.

Mike said...

Steve said: 'This country was founded on violence and on the notion that the people can rise up and vote with their guns. It is in our constitution in the right to bear arms and to form militias.'

Important distinction. Back then, we had no representation. Now we have our representation and whatever comes to our country, comes by the voice of the people. We all know what Mosiah 29 says about the voice of the people. One of the few times that 'voting with guns' MAY be justified is when the voice of the people is not honored.

Also, it's important to note that the country was not founded SOLELY on violence and guns, but the principles that are worth taking up arms to defend.

SGarff said...

I agree with both of your points. I’m not saying that it is necessarily bad that this violent strain exists only that it is disturbing because it may justify a broad range of violence. Certainly in all governments people have the absolute or brute power to attempt to rise up by violent means. It also seems that this power is probably a good thing in the cases of repressive regimes which give no political power to the people.

The problem is that this power is often taken to excesses especially since it is qusi-cannonized in American political theory. That is when one group looses in the political process they decide to use violence, taking the law into their own hands. The philosophy is that ‘we the people’ are the law whether by ballots or guns.

It is very difficult to make a distinction between ‘we the people’ as a whole and ‘we the people’ as one particular group that doesn’t like the law.

The heart of the problem is that when people feel wronged by the political process they feel that they have the legitimate right to react through extra-political means such as violence. “Wronged” and “legitimate” are in the eye of the beholder.

As long as there is room for middle ground on an issue and open discussion I don’t think there is a problem because violence will be isolated and anomalous. Once the discussion ends and all who are not completely with us are against us and are the “other” or the “enemy” violence is not inevitable but it is likely.

Mike said...

"“Wronged” and “legitimate” are in the eye of the beholder."

Do you mean in the political sense or in general?

People can feel wronged or that the political process was illegitimate, and those feelings are genuine and valid, but if the voice of the people (meaning the majority of votes) honored something, then it is completely legitimate. That's the definition of the law.

It's almost like saying relativism is relative?

I see what you're saying, and it's a very good point about middle ground, but in the end, wronged and legitimate are concrete matters.

Here's the question that fascinates me. Is someone or some group to be blamed for the loss of the middle ground?

SGarff said...

If I understand your question I mean in the political sense. It’s not a question of being justified but rather of feeling justified. When one group feels that the have a legitimate right and they feel that that right is being improperly denied they may feel that it is legitimate to respond by extra-political means. When they do this they cite our historical precedent of people legitimately rising up against real political tyranny. The problem is that because we have this precedent people will always use it to try and justify violence no matter how illegitimate (objectively) their claims are i.e. a lynch mob.

As for whether or not there is a group to be blamed. I think there is plenty of blame to go around its’ always tempting to just blame the other side. I should note that there are plenty of prop 8 opponents that allow for middle ground (I gave a few examples in the post). The best approach is to take a step back from it all and look at the rhetoric and actions of all involved. There are preachers who have been carrying signs saying all gays will burn with some reference to a biblical verse (fortunately these preachers are not of my particular faith and they really amount to a few fringe weirdoes). These people certainly are contributing to the problem.

The protesters are also contributing to this problem by publicly demonizing individuals and entire organizations when all they know is that someone gave a donation to their opponents. The rhetoric that if you don’t actively support gay-marriage you are a bigot, a Klansman, a daemon is at its heart an attempt to destroy the middle ground. I can’t find an adequate corollary on the other side. I’m sure there are commonly held views that would qualify I just don’t see them advocated in public.

So in the end I don’t think you can pin this loss on any one group (this probably holds for any discussion where the middle ground disappears). I do think however that labeling people in the middle as bigots and targeting individuals are the most egregious and widespread offenses against the middle ground.