The walkout on Dan Savage and “ignoring” vs. “interpreting” the Bible

So Dan Savage gave a talk at a high school journalism convention where he said “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstration, about virginity, about masturbation… People are dying because people can’t clear this one last hurdle, they can’t get past this one last thing in the Bible, about homosexuality.”

Link here, having issues getting it to embed at the moment (in part because YouTube is displaying in Korean). Well duh, you’re all saying, but what makes this interesting is that a whole bunch of students walked out on Savage, and I would really love to have a chance to ask them what they were thinking.

At the end of the linked clip, Savage called the walkout “pansy-assed,” a comment he has since apologized for. In the same blog post, though, he refuses to apologize for saying there’s bullshit in the Bible:

I didn’t call anyone’s religion bullshit. I did say that there is bullshit—”untrue words or ideas“—in the Bible. That is being spun as an attack on Christianity. Which is bullshhh… which is untrue. I was not attacking the faith in which I was raised. I was attacking the argument that gay people must be discriminated against—and anti-bullying programs that address anti-gay bullying should be blocked (or exceptions should be made for bullying “motivated by faith”)—because it says right there in the Bible that being gay is wrong. Yet the same people who make that claim choose to ignore what the Bible has to say about a great deal else. I did not attack Christianity. I attacked hypocrisy. My remarks can only be read as an attack on all Christians if you believe that all Christians are hypocrites. Which I don’t believe.

The way he phrased that drew some criticism atheists. Here’s Dan Fincke:

 He rightly apologized for his use of the word “pansy-assed”. But, more annoyingly, he has tried to water down his condemnation of Christianity, making very unconvincing appeals which amount to implying that it would be wholly unreasonable to infer he would ever denounce the religion in which he was raised!

He has tried to delicately parse a tenuous distinction between calling parts of the Bible bullshit and calling Christianity, in turn, bullshit. He is squeamish on the word bullshit, half-apologizing for using it. I can understand the desire not to alienate people who would otherwise listen to arguments if the word bullshit were not included in them (though I still think it is valuable for reasons explained below). But implying that Christianity itself is not deserving of criticism itself, but only the bad parts of the Bible are, is cowardly weaseling from a man who surely knows better. It’s also a troubling acquiescence to advice he says he received which was along the lines that one simply cannot call anyone’s religion “bullshit” in today’s America.

I agree it’s silly to act as if it’s unthinkable that he would denounce the religion was raised in, since plenty of people do that. But I see nothing wrong with Savage saying he wasn’t attacking Christianity. Because he wasn’t. He was making a point that even Christians should be unable to deny, namely that even Christians routinely ignore many parts of the Bible. I obviously don’t think there’s anything wrong with attacking Christianity, but there’s also nothing wrong with saying, “Look, right now I don’t care if you’re a Christian, you still can’t deny there are parts of the Bible we all ignore, so why can’t we ignore these other parts too?” Sometimes, that will be the more effective strategy.

This brings me to the walkout. Debating Christianity itself encourages the argument to go off in a hundred different directions, but there isn’t a hell of a lot Christians can say in response what Savage actually said. So how the hell could these students possibly justify their walkout? Just about the only thing they could possibly say is that we shouldn’t “ignore” the Bible, we should instead “interpret” it differently, but I doubt these high school students really give a shit about debates between exegetes that nobody reads.  

On the other hand, Ophelia suspects the walkout was orchestrated, and I wonder if she’s right, especially given that (1) one girl walked out before Savage had said anything other than stating what other people say and (2) it seems like a large group of students got up and walked out all at once, like they said, “he said a naughty word, that’s our excuse to pretend to be offended.” Also, one of Ophelia’s commenters points out:

Orchestrated. Look at their faces: just smirking & giggling, they don’t look particularly angry or offended. I noticed at least one giggling girl looking slightly embarrassed as if she was doing it only because she’d been told to.

Other choice bits of commentary from Ed Brayton:

The problem is not that Dan Savage criticized the Bible’s disgusting statements about homosexuality; the problem is that we live in a country where it’s not only considered controversial to do so, but where it’s seen as a terrible character flaw to have brazenly “attacked” those vile ideas.

And Amanda Marcotte (via Joe. My. God.):

The American right is undertaking a huge project of trying to put right-wing politics beyond criticism by shouting “religious bigotry” any time someone gets in the way of their political agenda. If they can create a consensus that it’s somehow off-limits to criticize teaching that gay people are subhuman as long as you wrap it up in religion, that gives them a huge political advantage. Taken far enough, merely stating out loud in public that you don’t believe gay people are evil could be cause for the fainting couches to be pulled out and accusations that Christians are being oppressed. Sounds ludicrous? Well, consider that we’re currently debating whether or not it’s oppressing Christians to accurately state what’s in the Bible. Anyone who is actually supportive of gay rights shouldn’t be playing along with this feigned umbrage. It won’t stop until opposing anti-gay actions is considered completely off-bounds on the grounds that it’s an attack on religion.


  • karmakin

    One of the most politically altering things to happen to me in my life was in an airport in Calgary. I picked up a paper, that had a massive ad in it, that stated outright that opposition to opposition to homosexuality and abortion was religious bigotry. That we were in essence banning the bible.

    I’ve also seen fliers sent at lower levels in the US stating pretty much the same thing, although it’s something that, at least for a while, was kept under the cultural radar.

    So yes, people do see any sort of pushback as a direct attack on their religion. Everything else is gravy, really. Not that we should be outright jerks, of course, but we should gauge offense accordingly.

  • Leo

    The thing that bothered me about what Savage said was this: “My remarks can only be read as an attack on all Christians if you believe that all Christians are hypocrites. Which I don’t believe.”

    Well, if we define a hypocritical Christian as a Christian that accepts some bullshit in the Bible while rejecting other bullshit, then show me a Christian that is not hypocritical. To not be a hypocritical Christian, you’d either have to accept all the bullshit (a hard task considering contradictions) or none at all (which includes rejecting Jesus as a god).

    I’m quite sure the reason he said this was to pander to liberal Christians and I can understand why he would do this.

    • mnb0

      I always find it amazing that christians say that they are such humble sinners, but still can’t take it when an atheist points out their hypocrisy.
      According to psychology every human being is a hypocrite now and then. I have no problem admitting it; but those people who wallow in their sinfulness do?
      Weird. Christianity is weird.

  • MarkH

    I don’t get what’s wrong with pansy-assed. Should he have used chicken shit instead? Is “pansy” not a good word to use anymore? It refers to a rather fragile flower. I think that’s pretty appropriate. They couldn’t sit and listen to what was in the end, a pretty mild critique of the bible. Harsher critiques could have included that it is an entirely man-made, political fabrication of various power-hungry religious zealots throughout history. Or that, instead of having a few instances of bullshit, it is vastly flawed on morality and should instead be called frankly immoral. What made Jesus exceptional in the Bible, assuming (likely falsely) he even ever existed, is that he said one or two things that were nice. Which he then ruined by refusing to reject the old testament. Other than that, you could describe him as the fictional figurehead of a crazy death cult that successfully destroyed the empire it was born in.

    You want to see some Christians leave the room fast, use some of those criticisms.

    • Sas

      “Pansy” has that “fragile flower” implication, but it ALSO has a history of use as a homophobic slur. It looked hypocritical to use it when he’s speaking out against homophobic bullying.

      • MarkH

        Really? I’ve never heard it used as such. I’ve only heard it used in the cowardice context. Then again I don’t hang around homophobes so I’m not an expert on their lingo I guess. Either way, I like pansy just because it seems untied to human sexuality as an insult. It suggests fragility, and wilting against minimal adversity which I thought described these kids well.

        • Sas

          I dunno how common its usage is anymore, but it’s still apparently prevalent enough that has “male homosexual” as the priority definition (after the actual flower, of course). From when I’ve heard it used, it’s always been a term for a wimpy or effeminate male, never for female, and never without the connotation of being a “girly boy”. I’m afraid there’s not much chance of salvaging this term. I think “hothouse flower” is the closest non-sexual slang that covers the meaning you’re wanting.

    • machintelligence

      He could have doubled down by issuing a Rush Limbaugh type notpology. Something along the lines of: I called the folks who walked out “pansy-assed”. I misspoke, what I meant to call them was lily-livered cowards.

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