Dan Savage: I’m Not One to Judge

I like Dan Savage. I like him a lot. I think his podcast is extremely funny, his writing  witty and deft, and I think the It Gets Better Project – despite its problems – was a stroke of genius. When he speaks to people during his podcast, or during a live show, there is so often the palpable sense of relief that people finally have someone to talk to about issues which were torturing them – and I think that’s an extremely valuable service to offer. In all honesty, I think he’s handsome and inspiring and a bit of a hero. I have something of a crush on him. Which makes the controversy around his selection as American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year difficult to evaluate (he is accused, in the words of one website, of being “cissexist, sexist, anti-asexual, anti-bisexual, classist, racist, sizeist, and ableist”).

You see, I may like Dan Savage a lot, but then I’m perfectly placed to like him: I’m a white, cisgender, able-bodied, class-privileged gay man. I’m sort of the perfect audience: I’m privileged enough in other ways to completely brush off anything he might say which might offend me (it’s just a joke!), and I’m privileged on exactly the same axes he is, so I always know that any joke or insult he throws my way also in principle boomerangs back to him, so those barbs seem a lot less dangerous. And because we share so much in terms of our identity categories, I find myself making excuses: I don’t just like him, I want to like him, and so I’m drawn to exculpatory articles and generous interpretations of things he has said.

All this would make it very easy for me to perform a simple equation, like this person (also a gay man), interviewed after an event at which Savage was glitterbombed by other activists:

“I knew it was going to be negative,” he explains. “And I’d rather not have that around me now. I don’t want it to interfere with the experience. I have a pretty positive view of him. If I put all the positive things I got from his columns and the It Gets Better campaign on one side, and the other politically correct ‘isms’ on the other side, there’s more positive on the Savage side, whatever minor missteps he’s made.”

If I’m totally honest – and I try to use this blog to expose what I really think! – my gut tells me something like that (without the stuff about “politically correct ‘isms’”): yes, Savage may have said some offensive or even genuinely harmful things, but compared with his years of staunch activism on behalf of so many issues I deeply care about – including on behalf of some of the communities he is accused of attacking – he clearly comes out ahead. Indeed, that basic calculation was what prompted me to tweet:

“I don’t believe in perfect heroes. I think everyone is problematic. But I still believe we should recognize ppl who do good. And in this case I think the balance is pretty much on the side of the angels. Although he should be criticized fiercely too.”

After a useful exchange with Natalie Reed and Andy Semler, I am now not so sure I am right. I’m not sure I am wrong, but I am not certain that I’m right either. The main problem is that I’m not sure, given my privilege, that I’m in a good position to judge the enormity of Savage’s problematic pronouncements – I will simply experience them differently to people like Natlie and Andy. I can make an effort to empathize with people who do not share in the privileges I enjoy, and try to see Savage as they see him – and do so strenuously, I hope. I try to imagine myself into others’ shoes. But empathy can only get you so far: I can try to imagine what it might feel like for a trans person to read something transphobic, for instance, but I won’t get the same visceral experience. That’s one of the problems with privilege: your life experience as a person of privilege in any particular area makes it so that you simply don’t share the painful experiences with people who lack privilege in the same area, meaning that you simply cannot experience the world as they do – and your imagination can only go so far to bridge the gap. When I read passages like this:

“Perhaps I’m a transphobic bigot, but I honestly think waiting a measly 36 months to cut your dick is a sacrifice any father should be willing to make for his 15-year-old son. Call me old-fashioned.”

And this:

“Unfortunately, your ex wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice (selfish tranny!), or it never occurred to him to make that sacrifice (stupid tranny!).”

I can imagine why a trans person might find them offensive, but I don’t have that gut level feeling of personal threat and attack I get when I see the word “faggot” used derogatorily or something like that. I don’t have a store of painful experiences of the word “tranny” being used to attack or shame me, or of people diminishing my transition that might immediately be brought to mind by the casual use of those terms. My privilege has shielded me from those experiences and, in a perverse double-whammy, makes it harder for me to empathize with those who have had them, because while I can make an intellectual and imaginative effort to “get it”, I’m shielded from the immediate gut-level reaction of those who have to deal with that sort of stuff all the time.

All of which is to say, I’m not one to judge Dan Savage – or at least I’m not one to judge his transgressions without deeply considering the views of others whose identities put them more directly in his firing-line. When Natalie Reed says she has a problem with him, or Andy Semler, it makes sense to give that a lot of weight, because their experience of him is likely more in-line with the experiences of his other critics. Which is not to say I am not entitled to develop and express my own views – of course not – but merely to stress the principle that, when making judgments of this kind, I need to be aware of my own positions of privilege and how that is likely to affect my judgment.

In this case, I find the various considerations make it exceptionally difficult to come to any firm conclusion. I am unwilling to discount the experiences of those who have been harmed by some of the things Savage has said, and ideally I’d want to find some way that, were he to be given such an award, critical and challenging questions could be raised about some of his statements. At the same time, I think it impossible to deny that he has done great good for many, many people: including many trans people and bisexual people who, in the numerous threads and posts I have since read dedicated to criticizing Savage, are sometimes his most staunch supporters.

While he has repeatedly stated he is “on a journey” and “learning” about (for instance) trans issues (see here, for example), I do find his seeming reluctance to apologize troubling – it’s not that difficult to simply say “sorry” as well as “I’m learning”, and I think it would go some way to alleviating these sorts of concerns. At the same time, I have sympathy with the idea that we should be open to multiple ways of talking about complex issues of identity and power, that we should consider the intent and record of an individual when judging their speech, and that we shouldn’t succumb to creating shibboleths which chill robust and even, sometimes, hurtful discourse. In the end, I believe that discussion with and and reasoned criticism of a popular figure with a potent mouthpiece is better than any attempt to ostracize or demonize them.

But that’s easy for me to say, right?

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Cornelioid

    Thank you for detailing this discussion and some of its nuances. I haven’t read the Twitter conversations so pardon me if i’m behind the times.

    The example you cite toward the end (like others i’ve been pointed to) gives the impression that Savage only takes these issues seriously when he’s forced to, and defends himself disingenuously relative to other public figures (Jason Alexander comes to mind). While i agree with your concluding points regarding the public discourse, they don’t seem particularly relevant to objections to his selection as HotY. Among the core values of humanism is an evidence-based worldview, and as i see it an acute awareness of one’s own cultural and cognitive biases—or at least an attempt thereat—is central thereto.

    That might admittedly be a point of objection to every recipient ever…and i think you’ve posed here the better (or more relevant) question of how the calculus of Savage’s impact works out. While i’m less equipped still to judge, i’ve learned to bear in mind that if the calculus works out negatively with respect to trans* people (for example) then this cannot be glossed over by it working out positively with respect to GLBTI people in toto (whatever that might mean).

    • jflcroft

      I think you’re right that we can and should expect a certain element of self-criticism and at least a willingness to entertain the possibility that one is wrong about things, and has done things which harm others. I actually think that may be a basic requirement. Everyone is convincing me that this was not a good choice =S

  • BrandonUB

    While I understand the “intent isn’t magic” principle, I’m still inclined to put a fair bit of weight on intent, particularly when actions going forward demonstrate that intent. In Dan Savage’s case, I see a very well intentioned guy that does a lot of good things. He speaks in an off the cuff fashion, speaks very bluntly, and doesn’t really couch what he says in fluffy language very often. As a result, when he says things that are offensive, they’re thoroughly offensive rather than a little bit. Basically though, if we’re adding up contributions as “good” or “bad”, he plainly comes down far on the side of good in my ledger. Others are welcome to disagree, but each commentator doesn’t have to be everything to everyone; Savage’s work has been pretty important for me in figuring out where I stand on a number of things.

    • jflcroft

      I wonder if a stronger case than this could be made by pointing to the fact that, as well as his problematic statements, he has attempted to work on behalf of the very same communities he has maligned for a very long time. Just going today through mountains of his comments, columns, and pieces of advice, It seems to me that there are probably five times as many bi-positive comments in his career than genuinely problematic ones, yet I don’t see many websites dedicated to cataloging those. So it is possible to get a skewed perspective. And to me that makes the judgment more challenging.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    I’m … really conflicted about him. I’m a mostly hetero ciswoman (I have crushes on girls, but I’ve never dated one or had sex with one. I wouldn’t mind, it just never happened, and now I’m married to a man, so it probably won’t). I think he’s done a lot of good for gay men and acceptance of homosexuality.

    But! He says really nasty things about women. The fact that he’s not attracted to women lets him buy into all the societal stereotypes about cisgender hetero women even harder because he just doesn’t spend time around women that much, and given his attitudes, they don’t confide in him at all. It’s really fucking hurtful when someone who gets it on one axis so well just doesn’t get it on any other axis. It’s like, dude, we know you can get it. It feels disingenuous and purposeful when he doesn’t get it along any other axis of status, even if it isn’t, which makes it hurt all the more. It feels like he could get it on trans* issues and gender issues, but he chooses not to because they don’t affect him.

    • jflcroft

      Thanks for this reply – it’s a view I’ve heard expressed a few times which has a lot of weight with me. If it seems like he’s capable of “getting it” on a lot of issues, why not on the others? It doesn’t begin to seem more like a lack of effort or empathy when he seems SO capable of understanding some things and so insensitive regarding others.

  • Richard Anderson

    While the ideas above, are well-stated, I wonder if there’s an additional, practical way to deal with the “Humanist of The Year” question. These kinds of recognitions seem to have a ritualistic quality that results in an almost-Glorification of the award-winner, thus creating questions about whether the individual is truly virtuous. Could such a problem be avoided or at least reduced by focusing the ritual on a project or accomplishment of an individual rather than on the individual, per se? Kind of like the Academy Awards: Best humanist campaign goes to Dan Savage for “It Gets Better.” And the Inclusive Humanist Award goes to ___________ (which could well be someone other than Dan Savage), for _____________. The point would be to give awards that explicitly treat persons as multifaceted and complex.

    • jflcroft

      That’s a good idea. My next post on this asks the question “Why should we have such awards at all?” and explores different ways of “doing” them which might avoid some of the problematic elements :)

  • ildi

    Related to the topic, it bothers me that he still likes to refer to straight people as “breeders.” I was under the assumption that he retired the term about the same time he dropped his “hey faggot” salutation, but it appears not. His last post where he did that was November 14, 2012 titled “Thank a Breeder Day.” Maybe it was an ironic joke for 2 seconds in the 90s for straights to call themselves breeders, but those cool hep-cat days are long gone…

    • jflcroft

      There’s a genuine difference though between using a term like “breeders” and a term like “faggot”, because of the power differentials involved. Power makes everything SO COMPLEX! =S

      • baal

        I agree that real world power makes a difference. In another blog I commented just today that the FEDGOV having a tally listing all the atheists is different than google having the same list since the FEDGOV can actually use it’s power against the person. Evenso, I don’t like google having a similar list even when it’s scope of power is much reduced from the FEDGOV. Similarly, name calling or using an epithet with hateful motive is not something I approve of regardless of power* (range of options totally cool, not so cool, bad, really really bad. Hate, even with out power but irrelevant if you’re solo ranting in the basement, is at least bad).

        *this isn’t an exhaustive discussion so I’m not taking a stand on Savage’s usage of ‘breeders’.

  • jfigdor

    Your point about apologies is absolutely right, James. Even at the AHA Con this year where he revised his position on the bi vs gay distinction, he failed to actually say the words, “I’m sorry.”

    • jflcroft

      I think that’s very telling.

  • baal

    Leaving aside the question of how hard it is or isn’t to get it right all the time; Dan clearly doesn’t understand non-monogamy (specifically poly) even though he and his spouse do have sex with others on occasion. He was better after getting a flood of comments from poly folks after he dissed them in a column but wasn’t willing to change his position all that much. I’d count this as cumulative proof of both not getting groups where he isn’t a member and for slow to apologize. that said, I think he’s done a ton of positive work as well. I’m netting him on the good side of things but agree, he’s a problematic hero*.

    *The word ‘hero’ is a problem but that’s a different discussion.

    • jflcroft

      Right – there are lots of groups which think he doesn’t “get” them and, more problematic still, who think he doesn’t display much interest in really “getting” them. And that does bother me a lot.

  • thebagman45

    I don’t really get why he’s so reluctant to use the words “I’m sorry,” and I think it speaks to some sort of generalized…something. Insecurity, maybe?

    As far as the language he uses, I think that he has this sot of “writer’s mentality” (that’s the very generous way to phrase it) where words are words, they are tools to communicate, we shouldn’t fear them. He’s said something to the effect of, “In 100 years, the word ‘gay’ might just mean ‘lame.’ That’s how language works.”

    He’s right that it’s how language works, but in terms of how we should use words today, I pretty much think it’s bullshit, and that you shouldn’t prioritize your ability to say a word over the harm you may to do someone else from using the word. But it’s at least an argument, and it does speak to the fact that he’s not using those words to hurt people. If anything, in a misguided way, he’s trying to do the opposite.