Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Politics of Division: A Case Study in Anti-Gay Rhetoric

Last month I devoted a blog post to picking apart the anti-same-sex marriage argument of Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum—what we might call his “napkin gambit.” The other day I was reminded of that post—and the YouTube clip of Santorum’s campaign speech that inspired it—by a cartoon that a friend called my attention to. As a reminder, here is the campaign speech at issue:

And here’s the cartoon:

Now Santorum’s hopes of winning the GOP nomination are thankfully slim, but he's still pushing remorselessly at the same themes. And the ideas driving his campaign are not restricted to him along. Of those ideas, the ones I find most disturbing here aren’t his opposition to same-sex marriage as such (although I think that is unjust), or his argument in support of that opposition (which I find as flimsy as, well, a napkin). I know people who oppose same sex marriage--often on the basis of arguments I find flimsy--whom I'd describe as decent, well-meaning human beings. If they have a reason for standing where they stand, it's neither hate nor homophobia. You can talk to them about the issues, and they'll listen to you with (it seems to me) an openness to being persuaded.

In fact, I know opponents of same-sex marriage who actually seem to want to be persuaded--who feel compassion for the plight of their gay and lesbian neighbors and wish for their sakes that they could endorse a different view. But something--usually what they take to be the necessary implications of their religious faith--has led them to regretfully take the stand they've taken.

Now I think there are things going on in these cases that are troubling, but they aren't nearly as disturbing to me as what I see going on in the Santorum clip. What’s so disturbing here is the in-group/out-group ideology which frames Santorum’s perspective, his arguments, and his campaign.

The cartoon above exposes part of the dynamic that defines such bifurcating ideologies. But I think it’s worth digging a bit deeper into this dynamic. If we look carefully at the clip from Santorum’s campaign speech, we see Santorum framing his candidacy in terms of an epic struggle between two communities: “the faith community” and, of course, gays and lesbians.

In the spirit of the bible-thumper in the cartoon, Santorum goes so far as to describe LGBT responses to his attacks on marriage equality as a “jihad against Rick Santorum.” But this labeling is the culmination of a broader effort to paint LGBT efforts for equality as an attack on the faith community as a whole. Referencing the landmark Lawrence vs. Texas case which declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, Santorum catastrophizes the implications of allowing that ruling to stand uncontested:
…we will see not only marriage destroyed but we will see ultimately the faith community destroyed and...ghettoized as bigots because they stand up and preach biblical truth.
With a final flourish, he represents himself as, among the presidential contenders, the best defender of the faith community—the one who cares enough to fight the LGBT community’s supposedly sinister efforts to realize marriage equality.

In evoking the language of jihad—which the American religious right takes, however imprecisely, to be Islam’s equivalent of “holy war”—Santorum not only frames himself as a soldier in a war against Christianity’s enemies, but seeks to place the pursuit of marriage equality into the same category into which so many conservative Christians locate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Muslims and homosexuals are battering at the gates of the faithful, and the very survival of Christianity is at stake.

There is nothing especially new about this pattern of thinking, nor is there anything novel about using it to pursue political power. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the structure of Santorum’s rhetoric—because it helps reveal why this campaign speech before an anemically small gathering is not something to be laughed off or dismissed as just the ideas of a harmless crackpot who’ll never get elected. After all, he did get elected to the Senate.

Santorum’s rhetoric is dangerous precisely because of its structure. In fact, the ideological picture that Santorum paints on the campaign trail has precisely the same structure as those ideologies used to support what John Ladd, the recently deceased Brown university philosopher, has called “collective violence.”

Ladd argued that there’s a crucial difference between private violence pursued for personal gain and “collective violence,” by which he meant violence done by people who see themselves as agents of a larger whole, and who target their victims not for personal reasons but simply because those victims belong to the enemy group.

So, for example, Anders Breivik—the homegrown Norwegian terrorist who perpetrated July’s horrific attacks—saw himself as an agent of a culturally Christian west struggling against a hostile Islamic world and its enablers. He was not acting for personal gain but to further a conceived group mission. His victims were not chosen because of any personal qualities, but simply because they attended the wrong summer camp—and so identified themselves as members of the wrong group.

Ladd pointed out that collective violence occurs within the framework of a justifying ideology. And what does that ideology look like? Santorum’s recent campaign speech is nothing short of a blueprint. First, the world is divided into groups—a chosen group and the “others.” Ladd called this the “Doctrine of Bifurcation.” Next, the groups are represented as being locked in a zero-sum struggle, one in which any gain for one group means a loss for the other. Members of the chosen group are faced with a solemn mission to defend their group—and by implication all that is good and right—against the dire threats posed by the others. This is what Ladd called the “Doctrine of Group Mission.”

These elements are clearly present in Santorum’s stump speech: There’s us, the chosen group, the heterosexual Christians; and then there’s them, the jihadis, the Muslim terrorists and the homosexuals. We’re locked in a struggle in which any gain for them—even so modest a gain as no longer being subject to criminal prosecution for having a consensual sexual relationship—is perceived as a threat that may very well destroy us.

Sometimes, within such ideologies, a case is given for the direness of the threat. But such a case needn’t be especially compelling (and Santorum’s clearly isn’t), since its function isn’t to undergird a substantive philosophical position but to set up the ideological divide. That ideology, in turn, serves a function of its own, one which becomes clear at the close of Santorum’s speech, where he announces himself to be the agent who will defend the chosen group. This becomes elevated to a sacred mission, a duty that others are shirking but that Santorum is prepared to live out, even at risk to himself.

Let me be clear about some things. I’m certain that Santorum has no plans of going on a killing spree. The fifty or so people in the room with him have no such plans. There is nothing about his ideology of division that explicitly promises violence. And just because collective violence is embedded in ideologies of division, it doesn’t follow that every ideology of division gives birth to a murderous Anders Breivik. In fact, it may even be true that the impact f Santorum’s message is partly sanitized by the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra, which operates (most of the time) to keep the violence against gays and lesbians covert and psychological rather than overtly deadly.

Nevertheless, ideologies of division are a stewpot for a distinct kind of violence. Not long ago the ideological message of “Islamic invasion” hit home with murderous consequences in Breivik’s twisted psychology—causing quick defensive responses from some of those who had been preaching this message. They’d been preaching it not because they wanted anyone to go on a killing spree, but because they wanted to promote restrictive anti-Islamic policies. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see how supporting their agenda in these ideological terms could breed self-styled soldiers willing to take the war to another level.

Likewise, Santorum likely doesn’t see how his rhetorical choices contribute to the patterns of thought that culminate in gay bashing. He and others will continue to paint overt violence against gays and lesbians as born out of the twisted individual psychologies of the perpetrators. But Ladd’s message is that we make a grave mistake when we confuse collective violence for individual violence, precisely because we fail to see how our broader social patterns of thinking feed into the motivations of those who do the killing.

I need to stress here what I am not arguing. I am not arguing that Rick Santorum and his conservative followers are the enemy, an “other” group with whom we, the chosen ones, are locked in epic struggle. It would be frightfully easy to fall into that pattern of thinking—but to do so would be to fall prey to the very thing I am criticizing, a phenomenon so seductive that even moral outrage against it can easily slip into its perpetuation in another form.

What I am arguing is that Santorum is promulgating a dangerous pattern of thinking, dangerous in part because it is so seductive. It is a pattern that doesn’t fall on just one side of party lines. On the contrary, the hostility across party lines is one of its effects. Santorum is a case study of how easily and naturally we fall into ideologies of division, without ever seeing the role that such ideologies play in fomenting the range of social problems we bemoan, from congressional deadlock to hate crimes.

And refusing to see this, we behave as if the rhetoric of holy war, the message that we are doomed unless they are stopped, is just a way to drum up votes.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis, and thanks for the link to Ladd. Sounds like his work in this area is worth following up on. I wonder if someone pointed out to Santorum and others how they fit into Ladd's framework, if it would make them think or if they would even care.