On Talking To A Bigot

On Talking To A Bigot April 9, 2015

Today, I went on The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show for the fourth time. Below are links to all the appearances. I’ll be discussing them in what follows.

Interview on LGBT Ethics (transcript) (December 11, 2013)
Interview on Atheistic Ethics  (January 13, 2014)
Interview about my Apostasy and my Family  (March 5, 2014)
Interview about Discrimination Against Atheists and LGBT people  (April 9, 2015)

Jesse Lee Peterson is an unambiguous bigot. He’s not shy about referring to gays as abnormal and perverts, transgender women as “men pretending to be women”, and atheists as “children of the devil”. In fact he said all those things just this morning when I was on the radio with him—in addition to calling himself an “Uncle Tom” (presumably in a failed attempt to be ironic). On other occasions he has denied that women should have the right to vote.

So even though I have gotten many very positive, and even grateful, comments from my friends and readers for engaging with him in a way that holds my ground and stands up for those who he is defaming, some of my friends and readers have also made a strong emphasis of expressing how they’d never dialogue with his hate speech and thereby lend him credibility.

My view has been that so long as bigots of one stripe or another make up a sizable portion of our society, they need to be addressed and refuted. And in particular I imagine that there are young religious doubters and LGBT kids and teenagers who are stuck in their parents’ cars listening to hateful right wing radio a significant amount of their lives. I imagine there are any number of employers or co-workers that are subjecting their employees or colleagues to the talk radio propaganda of their choice. I imagine there are closeted religious doubters, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people who listen to right wing radio trying to hold together a self-conception of themselves as straight Christian men or women when deep down they are terrified they’re living a lie. So, to me it’s valuable to go on talk radio to speak up for those people and to speak to them. I think it’s vital that we fight the tendency in our media to balkanize so that people wind up insulated from any and all information that disturbs their preferred narratives about the world. I do not want to write off ignorant people as uneducable. Doing so does nothing to make for a less ignorant world. It’s precisely the people who listen to Jesse Lee Peterson approvingly who need to hear something that has a hope of at least moderating their thinking before they inflict serious hateful abuse on the gay people, the transgender people, or the atheists in their families or wider spheres of influence.

Ignoring bigotry and bigots doesn’t make bigotry go away, it allows it to fester.

There’s serious value to marginalizing some bigoted viewpoints as beneath consideration. And I certainly wouldn’t think that responsible media should elevate the platform of bigots and hand them megaphones to reach millions of people with misinformation and spread toxic abusive attitudes. But where they have platforms already, we should be willing to address their influence. The attempt to make numerous heinous opinions not just unspeakable but undiscussable has allowed people along a wide spectrum of bigoted attitudes to feel like their ideas are irrefutable truths silenced only by “political correctness”. Bigots typically imagine that everyone deep down simply knows they’re right but is afraid to say anything because of the repercussions for such “honesty”.

So, given this context, I think it’s important that those combating bigotry take the effort to make copiously evidenced, well-grounded arguments available to answer the popular memes of bigots. It’s vital that there be such resources at the fingertips of any and all anti-bigots—and at fingertips’ reach of the bigots themselves should ever they have the slightest inclination to learn.

And so, I have gone on The Jesse Lee Peterson Show whenever asked. And the first two experiences were very positive. Yes, Jesse and a couple of his callers said some horribly morally offensive things but to Jesse’s credit he let me talk. He let me explain myself. He let me finish my arguments. He allowed me the platform, for example, to dispel pernicious slanders against gays rather than let them hang in the air unanswered. And I think I was nimble enough on my feet as he darted around in terms of tangents and unfamiliar ideas that I gave a couple of exemplary demonstrations of how to patiently answer someone who is frequently changing topics and saying offensive things without losing your cool or failing to make your point. You can read or hear the first discussion (about LGBT people) here  and listen to me defend atheistic morality here.

So even though I found the illogical character of his ideas dizzying and the substance of his ideas to be offensively intolerant, he was nonetheless sufficiently tolerant of disagreement that I was willing to maintain the working relationship we were establishing. I was able to come away with resources that could help people struggling with their sexuality or their religious doubts and that could help people figure out strategies for answering bigots related to their sexuality or their atheism.

Then when I announced on Facebook that I was going out to Los Angeles last year I was invited to come into the studio for a live interview. The radio show was good enough to put me up in a hotel the night before the show. On the show, Jesse interrupted me a bit more than usual and intrusively psychoanalyzed me personally. He insisted over and over with no justification that my real reason for becoming an atheist was some (wholly imaginary) resentment towards my mother. You can listen to that entire interview here. While I was less thrilled with the interruptions, the pestering, the invasiveness, and the waste of time going down a blind alley, I had come on the show explicitly to talk about the question of whether atheism stems from a bad relationship with one’s father and so his taking the discussion there was par for the course. I left irritated but I did not feel like I had been treated unfairly.

Then came today. I was on to talk about the growing culture war over the prospect of laws either constraining or enabling discrimination by religious people. Specifically, we were going to talk about a new protection for atheists in the city of Madison, Wisconsin that makes explicit that atheists must not be discriminated against in hiring practices anymore than theists are allowed to be. The topic was slated for discussion after this past weekend Fox and Friends ran a jaw-droppingly bigoted attack on these protections for atheists. Martin Hughes has demonstrated enormous patience and gone through in explicit detail everything so offensive about that segment. You have to see the segment to believe it and to read Martin’s whole reply to get your full cathartic relief that someone has spelled out a hundred of the things wrong with it.

So today’s discussion started out okay. Jesse took a kind interest in positive developments in my life and let me liberally plug my online philosophy classes and talk about how great they’re going. We hit a rough patch when he took the fact that my girlfriend and I met online as a chance to bigotedly bash transgender people as “men pretending to be women” in order to lure unsuspecting people to date them. I tried to push back as targetedly as I could but it would have taken a whole hour to disentangle everything wrong with what he was saying. I only had a brief span before we were at a commercial and then on to other topics.

Where finally my patience ran out was after he ran what’s called a “Gish Gallop” of bigotry. A Gish Gallop is when someone expresses a rapid fire of confused points that are easy to say in just a matter of a few minutes (or less!) but which it would take their debating opponent considerable time to thoroughly debunk since there are so many false things being knotted together that carefully separating all the strands and explaining what is wrong with all of them one by one takes a lot of patient accurate care.

So, Jesse started Gish Galloping me with a flurry of slanderous attacks on gays and flagrant mischaracterizations of those of us who defend their civil rights and the civil rights of atheists.

But, I was trying to be patient. I bit my tongue and let him go through his toxic soapbox speech about how evil feminist women and atheists and LGBT people were, assuring myself I would at least have a turn to speak. But then he started cutting me off before I could finish addressing so many as one or two of the many unfair and deceptive things he was saying. And then when I tried to stop him from interrupting and cutting off my points before they could be fully made, he muted me. Twice. And I couldn’t even hear him saying he was muting me so I was at a loss to know what the audience heard or didn’t, what I would have to go back later and repeat or not.

So, when we went to commercial I complained to the producer who assured me I would be allowed to speak again. Then Jesse tried to play “gotcha!” with me by getting me to say I was against all discrimination whatsoever so that he could supposedly catch me in a contradiction because I “discriminate” against incestuous sexual relationships. As though sex between parents and children had anything to do with the sex or love relationships of LGBT people. It was tedious. Then he brought on a caller and in trying to answer her thoroughly I tried to also take the opportunity to address a claim he had left hanging earlier in the show and he again muted me.

So, I hung up. I decided that it’s one thing to have a dialogue with a bigot, but it’s another to be literally silenced by that bigot after he has invited you into his forum. I didn’t go on the show to be an acquiescent audience to his sermons. I went on to have a discussion or a debate in which both of us would express our ideas. As a host, he should have used his powers to moderate graciously, as he had in my first two visits and mostly in the third, to make sure his guest was allowed to communicate himself and answer all the charges against his views coming at him. He didn’t do that, he used his powers to moderate to intolerantly silence me and sent the message that he was not interested in hearing me. Under those circumstances I refused to speak. If I couldn’t make my entire points, I wasn’t going to risk being caught out with half-formed thoughts. I wasn’t going to allow the impression that things that he left hanging in the air were irrefutable because I was unable to ever given the breathing room to respond to them.

Finally Jesse decided, against his producer James Hake’s protestations on my behalf, to declare me a coward and play the “chicken song” for leaving the show before the segment was over. This too was unprofessional. I wasn’t the slightest bit afraid to engage with Jesse. I was responding to someone cowardly using the mute button rather than arguments to refute me. Had I been using abusive language towards him or screaming at him, he would have had the right to mute me in order to restore civility to the discussion he was moderating. But I did no such thing, I answered incendiary charges he was making and was refusing to let him interrupt me before I could finish responding to the issues he had laid out. I couldn’t stay on the show for as I couldn’t tell which of the things I was saying were even being heard and knowing that I was not being afford the right to answer challenges to my own position that I was invited to discuss.

So I won’t be returning to the show without an apology from Jesse. And if I were to return it would only be with an understanding that I will not tolerate being muted when I am not breaking radio network rules and when I am taking turns speaking and only interrupting as a response to others interrupting me.

Here’s the audio if you would like to hear all this for yourself. If you want to see what a thorough, uninterrupted reply to his claims that it’s somehow offensive to compare discrimination against gays to discrimination against blacks, here’s a post that I wrote responding to such a criticism in depth.

All my radio, podcast, and video appearances are all regularly archived here if you want more. I recommend my dream-come-true visit to Reasonable Doubts, recorded on my birthday this year, as a tonic for anyone frustrated by my Jesse Lee Peterson interviews.

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