The Washington Blade
July 19, 2002
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
I am not an ignorant slut
I feel I deserve a better class of insult. Time and again, when I wade into some controversy in the gay community, the complaints and epithets I get in response are as lame as the arguments they are standing in for. I am almost ready to start writing attacks against myself to make it more sporting.
Just for disputing leftist nostrums, I have been called racist, sexist, fascist, Republican, and a capitalist running dog. Recently, I was even disparagingly called a Catholic. This use of name-calling to quell dissent makes it clear that some people's idea of a liberal society is one where everyone is free to agree with them -- the same, oddly enough, as with the fundamentalists' idea of a Christian society.
Our community has an impoverished political discourse. From online flame wars to print and broadcast debates on the goals and purposes of the gay movement, we too often see indignant posturing, caricature and condemnation in place of substantive and faithful examination of ideas.
One of the contributing factors to this incivility is the Internet's encouragement of speed over reflection, which is made worse by people hiding behind pseudonyms. Another is the treating of discussions as purely abstract, as if all views are equally valid and their practicality irrelevant. Another is reliance on slogans. For example, the totality of some folks' thinking on the subject of gay Republicans is the old quip that the phrase is an oxymoron. When you consider your views self-evident and define your opponents as illegitimate, there is no need to bother with arguments or evidence.
Hurling insults neither challenges nor persuades nor resolves anything. It reduces argument to mere entertainment, like a World Wrestling "Smackdown," and the question of whether an idea actually works is no more relevant than in a Warner Bros. cartoon. You don't refute an adversary's claims -- you drop a rhetorical anvil on his head.
So one black activist with whom I differed on HIV surveillance policy said to me, "I consider you simple-minded, dishonest, and racist." He didn't explain how my arguments were wrong. He just said, in effect, "Shut up, you're white," as if that automatically disqualified me. Crying foul, or declaring exclusive ownership of an issue, is a convenient way to evade criticism.
One of the great barriers to productive discussion is the use of race as a trump card. For five years, I have represented the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., on the NAACP-D.C. Police Task Force. Its chair, Mark Thompson, shares my concern about police accountability, but he is also an associate of Rev. Al Sharpton and perpetually stokes racial conspiracy theories.
Late one night he came by to urge my participation in some obnoxious rally. When I bluntly told him I thought it was foolish and counterproductive and that he should consult me in the planning if he wanted my cooperation, he said, "You're a racist white cracker!" Yet somehow, a day and a half later, he asked me to testify on behalf of the NAACP at a legislative hearing. My rehabilitation happened so fast, I nearly got whiplash.
Years ago at a gay choral festival, a men's chorus from Columbus, Ohio, sang a tongue-in-cheek number about Christopher Columbus. The irony was lost on some women singers from Minneapolis, who interrupted their own set to denounce the supposed racism of the men from Columbus.
This did not win the angry women many fans. A woman from another chorus suggested afterward that her self-righteous sisters should spend less time faulting others and more time improving their own intonation. A chorine from Atlanta said he didn't need a lecture on racism from residents of one of the whitest cities in America.
All of which leads me to this: If you're white and active in urban affairs and no one has called you a racist, you haven't done anything. To those who cry "racist" at the drop of a pin, please expand your repertoire. Not only does the word become devalued from misuse and overuse, I am bored with the same hackneyed epithet. Oh, and try considering the arguments instead of the person making them.
As Lincoln said, "I feel something like a man being ridden out of town on a rail. If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk."
Richard J. Rosendall is a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.