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On Politicizing and Civility

July 27, 2009

scoutsRecently I was chatting with a friend of mine who works for the Boy Scouts, and the Scouts’ anti-gay policy came up. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Boy Scouts have a rule forbidding gays. There was a lawsuit over it a few years ago. The courts ruled that as a private institution, the Scouts had the right to discriminate in that way. This ruling was unsurprising; in many cases an institution’s charter or mission has partisanship or discrimination built in. Churches are allowed to employ religious discrimination when hiring, for instance.

In any case, my friend said something like this:

We don’t have a problem with gays in the Scouts; we just don’t want them to come out and say “I’m gay and I work for the Scouts.”

In sum, he was suggesting that they have a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He went on to add:

There’s nothing wrong with being gay in the Scouts, but they shouldn’t politicize it.

I held my tounge—it wasn’t appropriate for me to argue with him at that time—but I wanted to say the following.

Here’s the problem: the opposition to “politicizing” is a defense of the status quo. What you’re doing when you say they should keep quiet is forbidding them from doing anything to disrupt the existing social relations.

Bourdieu notes (as have other social theorists) that “civility” and “playing nice” and “getting along” almost always are preferred by dominant or hegemonic groups. The dominant groups with privilege can afford to be nice to one another, because the system is set up to serve their interests. They’ve got little to complain about.

By contrast, minority groups, dominated groups, or oppressed groups do not benefit by keeping quiet. When they are told by the dominant groups to be “civil” or “play nice,” this is tantamount to saying “don’t rock the boat” or “don’t complain about the fact that you’re dominated.” This is like a wife-beater telling his wife not to mention the beatings to anyone: “No one wants to hear you complain.”

Domination and privilege work better if they are invisible or go unnoticed. Once some individuals start complaining and drawing attention to unfair social relations, the dominant groups feel threatened—and rightly so, as they stand to lose their privileged status.

Saying that gay men in the Boy Scouts shouldn’t draw attention to the Scouts’ discriminatory policy protects the status quo, i.e., the privileged status of straight men.

Civility is not an end in itself. I recommend politicizing, being uncivil, not playing nice, not getting along with others.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2009 12:56 pm

    If someone wants the status quo not to be disrupted it is only normal and natural that they would want to forbid people from actively disrupting it. To imply that there is something wrong with reacting in that way is to say that the only acceptable thing to happen is that the status quo is disrupted.

    Well you probably believe that, but you speak as if it were objective fact.

  2. Vidya permalink
    July 27, 2009 1:37 pm

    The ironic thing is that it’s not gay people who are ‘politicizing’ their sexuality (in this or other contexts), but straight people/privilege who/that politicize queer sexualities. There’s nothing inherently political about sexuality — it’s just something that exists in our lifeworld, as part of our embodied experience — but human choices are made to transform it into a politicized phenomenon.

  3. July 27, 2009 3:09 pm

    What ever happened to that polite and unassuming gentleman? Oh right, he got his internet turned back on. Another interesting thing is the use of liberal rights in defence of the status quo (who suck, btw) by ppl or groups claiming the right not to be offended – keep it behind closed doors. Religious groups are very good at this, and take it further, implying that by stopping them from discriminating you’re actually discriminating against them. Like a mate told me once, “it doesn’t matter what a man hates, just so long as he hates.”

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 27, 2009 9:32 pm

    Sophia, I don’t think the status quo in itself is a bad thing—just when the status quo involves relations of domination.

    Vidya, yes, I think you’re right: queer sexuality is only politicized IN RELATION TO a social system that makes it somehow significant.

    ibs says, “by stopping them from discriminating you’re actually discriminating against them”

    Yes! In a sense, they’re sort of right, but only because the liberal vocabulary is ambiguous—any opposition to any group can be construed as discrimination or bias or being unfair. Liberalism—especially the kind that attempts to be neutral—tends to leave its central concepts fairly vacuous and capable of being monopolized by the dominant group in support of its own interests. Its pretty easy for the dominant group to claim that minorities are being “intolerant” of them; the concepts in liberal discourses are easily abstracted from the uneven playing field in which social actors wage war.

  5. July 28, 2009 7:35 am

    Why should we hide who we are to please them? They flaunt their chosen religious beliefs in countless ways and bristle at the notion they should change in any way so why do they insist we should live in the closet to avoid their antagonism and discrimination?

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 28, 2009 9:16 am

    Buffy, right on. Over time I get more and more angry at conservatives who think they can say and do what they want with impunity but, in turn, react so negatively if anyone else speaks or acts boldly. They expect all the authority and respect in the world, but they deny it to just about everyone else.

  7. August 7, 2009 2:04 pm

    I get really angry when religious and non-profit organizations get to discriminate based on some ideology. I fail to understand why a business could be sued for discrimination but churches cannot. I’m sure there’s an answer, but I know it wouldn’t stand up to Vulcan logic.

    Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Voyager, lately.

    I loathe when seminaries can hide behind being a business when they need to fire staffers (many who are needy ethnic minorities) and then hide behind their religious privileges when they need to discriminate against women or queer people. Grrrr.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 7, 2009 2:27 pm

    I intentionally tried to dodge the issue of whether ideological discrimination in private institutions should be regulated by the state. On the one hand, it seems like permitting it allows too much abuse to take place. On the other hand, if we forbade ideological discrimination, that would amount to preventing groups from having substantial missions. Vegetarians would have to let in meat eaters, Marxist groups would have to let in republicans, and so on. This is a messy issue!

    Voyager was a great show, although I do think it got a lot better when that one woman left (at the end of the 2nd? 3rd? season) and Seven joined the show. B’lanna (or however the heck you spell her name) was my favorite.

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