This last weekend, a volunteer firefighter showed up to a Fourth of July parade in Albert Lea, MN, having placed a confederate flag on the side of his organization’s fire truck. When controversy broke out, the man responded with the contradictory statement that he was trying to take a stand against political correctness, and didn’t mean to offend anyone. Roughly translated from racist defense lingo, he meant to offend brown people but wasn’t expecting white people to show up to the fight, too.
His statements are curious for another reason – the idea that someone can purposefully set out to offend and then backtrack by saying it wasn’t their intention to do so. I was thinking about this when I read over the comments on Dr. Roger Olson’s post, “Must the Gays Be Offended?” Olson has always been a conservative evangelical with a veneer of liberalism because he supports women in ministry. But the long game of his writing and his rhetoric has reflected an anti-feminist, anti-gay, and anti-progressive bent. He is living proof that being somewhat ahead of the political/theological curve on one thing is no real indicator of actual progressive values or empathy in any form.*
And in Olson’s latest argument, he says that gay people – “gays” – don’t necessarily have a reason to be offended if someone refers to their marriage as a “civil union,” because that person is speaking out of sincerely held religious beliefs. By way of analogy, he discusses his friend, who is a Catholic priest, referring to his Protestant Baptist church as an “ecclesial community,” and not a church. He (Olson) is not offended by this because he understands that the priest says these things out of religious conviction. He then pre-empts any disagreement with a blanket assertion that it is a valid analogy to the civil union vs. marriage issue, and he won’t hear anything to the contrary.
Shorter Olson: “I’m not offended by this totally unrelated charge that has no legally injurious consequence and does not recall recent marginalized legal status, therefore The Gays don’t have a reason to be offended when religious people call their marriages ‘civil unions.’”
The problem here with this bald assertion is so obvious I’m amazed it needs to be stated: the people doing the offending don’t get to choose or erase the offended person’s offense.
If I, speaking out of some deep religious conviction, assert that I can refuse to call pansexual pan and instead insist that they go by “bi”, they very much have a valid reason to be offended. And, what’s more: they do not owe me an explanation for that offense. Once you have engaged in the activity of oppressing someone, you lose your right to demand that they listen to you further or that they explain their problems to you. The onus is on you to figure out why your words were a problem.
Just because you, in your straightness, in your whiteness, in your privileged position as a leader of the church, can’t logic yourself out of your own mindset long enough to imagine that someone could actually be hurt by someone else’s beliefs doesn’t mean that hurt does not exist. Nor does it mean that the hurting owe you an explanation for their pain.
Additionally, if you choose to inquire anyway as to why someone is offended, you have to be ready to listen to the answer. You have to be ready to be indicted for that offense. You have to be ready to admit that you may have, probably were, wrong.
If you’re not prepared for that kind of answer, you have no business asking the questions. If you are going to ask supposedly genuine questions, we need to know that you expect genuine answers – and that you’ll accept that these answers include things you may not like. “Why are you hurt by what I said?” is not necessarily a question you want answered unless you are prepared to actually allow the answer to change how you perceive the world.
Just asking the question isn’t enough. You must demonstrate a willingness to listen, a trustworthiness that you might actually change, and an actual desire for knowledge. This is why I don’t buy that someone is just “taking a stand” and “not looking to offend.” Stands and stances and flags and words don’t happen in vacuums. They carry with them histories of oppression, a lifetime of burdens, and often threats to our very survival. That the privileged do not understand our pain does not erase the existence of that pain.
*This is the same reason I ask for receipts when people who have decided it’s okay for the gays to get married call themselves progressive. What else are you doing to help us?