There is a meme I see a lot in progressive circles. The meme goes like this.
“Idea: a reality show where gay marriage opponents have to live under 100% biblical laws for six months so they can show us how awesome it is.”
The meme is credited in the version I have seen most recently to Molly Manglewood of Alternet, but I have seen variations on the theme posted in all sorts of places in different words.
I hate this meme.
I stated in an earlier post that I hate it for about seven discrete reasons but that’s a slight misstatement because really all the reasons are tied together pretty fundamentally.
Here they are.
- If you’ve followed me for any length of time or heard me talk about this before, you’ve already all heard the one I often raise first, a little defensively. The trope presumes that no one would be so far out and ridiculous as to actually keep the laws of the Old Testament in particular, because that would somehow be far too burdensome and ridiculous for anyone in the modern world to deal with. That patently isn’t true because Orthodox Jews exist. I know from my own experience and the experience of many of my friends and family members that there are people who live full and modern lives while keeping the dietary laws, the Sabbath, the imperative not to mix wool and linen in clothing, any supposedly “wacky” thing you can find in the Old Testament (or as we call it, the Torah), as well as any number of laws in the commentaries that I would argue are even more onerous, such as the laws of family purity. The argument implies that the people I know to exist and thrive cannot really be existing and thriving. It’s deeply Christian-centric in a way that I think really ridicules Jews. Ok, that’s obvious to me at least, but now it’s out of the way.
- The argument, as a result, completely fails to address homophobia within Jewish communities, which, as a bisexual Jew who lost my faith partly as a result of my anger at the biblical and consequent community attitudes to gender and sexuality well before I was willing to acknowledge my bisexuality as a real thing, is kind of a big deal to me.
- it presumes that homophobic religious people are hypocrites and it does that from a place of real and dramatic ignorance of scripture and doctrine. I know some people who like the meme like it because that has been their experience in the religious communities in which they were raised, but it still bothers me for a few reasons:
- it implies that religious homophobia stems from idiocy and a lack of contemplation basically, and proceeds to try to effect change on that basis. I understand the impulse to take that attitude but I think it’s naive, unrealistic, arrogant and strategically completely defeatist. When is the last time you ever convinced anyone of anything by insulting their intelligence and telling them that if only they were clever and farsighted like you they would agree with you? And haven’t you known otherwise intelligent people who surprised and even disgusted you with their positions on matters? Wasn’t there usually more to it, something slightly more complex and profound than “they were dumb I guess, despite all evidence to the contrary”?
- it implies that religious people don’t know their own texts better than snide atheists. First, I admit that I’m biased about this, as a Jew, since education about matters of Torah and the commandments is a huge component of my relationship with my culture and history and is so frequently a huge part of Jewish faith. I admit that sometimes certain religious groups do not encourage such study, leading to the presumed ignorance and the presumed supreme knowledge of people who pass the meme around. Often, though, this is emphatically not the case, and one example of when this is not the case is the trope itself. Unlike Judaism, Christianity does not demand adherence to a whole host of the laws of the Torah/Old Testament - it’s one of the formative aspects of Christianity. Someone can be a deeply faithful person who strives for Christian values and not keep many of the commandments of the Old Testament. A lot of the people who pass the meme around don’t know that, and I think if you’re going to engage people in debate about something that is deeply central to their moral and spiritual lives you should probably bother to do enough research to know that before accusing THEM of ignorance or of skating over biblical principles. There are great biblical arguments to have in a Christian framework about whether homosexuality was ever actually condemned by Jesus and whether the Leviticus statement should even be considered applicable. Have those instead; engage genuinely with biblical scholarship if you care what religious people think, which I feel you should. Similarly I see a lot of people saying things like “oh well everyone would just be stoned immediately if they tried to live according to the bible because that’s how people were punished” and I cannot speak for Christianity here but Judaism actually has addressed that - there are no courts of sufficient Jewish authority to give those punishments out anymore and additionally we have a religious obligation to follow the laws of the land and not wildly administer killings. There is a perception that religious people do not think about or tackle the challenges of living piously in the modern world. They often do.
- It implies that the main problem with religiously based homophobia is hypocrisy, and that if you are consistent you can be as hateful of queerness as you like. What do you say to someone who kept all the biblical laws in this hypothetical reality show and, far from finding them burdensome, found the whole experience fascinating and moving? Are they now given license by this meme to keep on keeping on with their belief that queerness is an abomination? Have they passed the test?
- What do we say to the genuinely pious? This is a huge issue I think we shy away from tackling - when you’re arguing with a religious person who wants to be good and kind and loving but also wants to live by their faith’s commandments, you are facing an argument where you are asking someone to betray themselves, to pit some of their values against others and make them choose. To decide that a part of your religion is false is to fundamentally change your life; a lot of ex-religious people understand that but a lot of people who pass that meme around have never been religious, have never understood what they are asking of a religious person when they ask them to reject something their faith demands they believe. We’re talking loss of moral centre, loss of family and community … it’s huge. You need an argument that is cognisant of that, not an argument that presumes they were never that attached to most of their faith in the first place.
- deep down it suggests that the main problem with keeping biblical law is that it is too hard, that the main problem with repressing queer desire is that it is too hard. That buys into the idea that the acceptance of queer people and queer sex and love is about buying into a culture of easy fixes, laziness, licentiousness, lack of personal responsibility, lack of discipline and childishness. Paying your taxes is hard. Being constantly mindful of consent is hard. Treating your fellow human with kindness and respect is often very hard indeed. The argument that you shouldn’t do something because it is hard or because other things asked of you by the same source that issued the directive are hard does not address the central problem of homophobia or of the characterisation of queer sex as an abomination. The central problem is not that it is too hard not to be queer. It is that that isn’t a fair thing to ask, that it harms people, that people should have the right to autonomy when harm is not being done … We won’t even get into it because there are heaps of arguments expressed possibly billions of times. The “it’s too hard” argument buys into myths about queerness that are already way too popular in religious circles and does no justice to the centre of the problem of repressing and punishing queerness.