The Trouble with Common Ground

First published at on April 4, 2009

Readers of this column occasionally complain that I’m too nice to our enemies. They may have a point.

I’m an easygoing person by nature. It’s not a deliberate strategy; it’s just who I am. Most of the time, the trait serves me well, though there are times I wish I had a reputation as more of an asshole. People generally steer clear of assholes, for fear of provoking them, and sometimes it’s good to be feared.

Even though my being “Mr. Nice Guy” wasn’t chosen for strategic purposes, I try to use it to my advantage. It gives me influence with a certain group of people. And it’s shaped my career as a gay-rights advocate, one who aims for thoughtful engagement with the other side.

Such engagement can be productive. For one thing, the more our opponents know us personally, the harder it is for them to demonize us. (Not impossible, obviously, but harder.) Part of my life’s mission is to create cognitive dissonance for those who would label all gays as angry deviants.

But engagement is also important because, like it or not, our opponents still capture majorities in most states. I don’t doubt that the tide is shifting strongly in our favor, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. One effective way to reach the movable middle is to take opponents’ concerns seriously.

I say “one effective way,” not “the only effective way.” There’s a place for militant activism. And I’m not just saying that because I like getting along with people—militant activists included. I really believe it.

There’s a character type in the GLBT community that I sometimes jokingly refer to as the Angry Lesbian. You know the type. They need not be lesbian, or even female—indeed, some of the best examples I’ve known are men. But they’re angry, and they want you to know it.

They’re angry at our opponents. They’re angry at me for civilly engaging those opponents. They’re angry at the schools who host our debates—for giving the opposition a platform, as well as for not providing (take your pick): (a) free parking; (b) accessible seating; (c) more Q&A time; (d) universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they’re going to let everyone know it.

There are times when I’m sincerely grateful for Angry Lesbians. They jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that these issues can have life-or-death implications. Yes, they make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

So they have their role, and I have mine. Both have their uses.

It’s tempting to cast the resulting alliance as a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” strategy. Tempting, but not so easy. For when it comes to moral issues, “Good Cop/Bad Cop” seems unstable—maybe even unsustainable.

In this debate, the Good Cop tells opponents, “You have reasonable concerns—just like the many other decent people who share your views. Let’s hear those concerns so we can address them thoughtfully.”

The Bad Cop tells opponents, “Your ‘concerns’ are prejudice, pure and simple. And the best way to stamp out prejudice is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for anyone who tries to express it. That’s how society handles bigots: we don’t accommodate them; we ostracize them.”

Needless to say, these strategies are at cross purposes. One cannot simultaneous tell people that one wants to hear their concerns and also that they’d better shut up if they know what’s good for them.

I don’t pretend to have an easy answer to this dilemma. The debate is unlike, say, the health-care debate, where everyone agrees that healing the sick is a good thing, and the disagreement is over who pays for it and how.

The gay-rights debate is a debate about whether our deep romantic commitments are a good thing. It’s about the nature of family, the authority of scripture, and other core moral issues. It cuts far deeper than “who pays for it and how?” (which, admittedly, has its own moral entanglements).

I agree with the Angry Lesbians that the other side is wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that profoundly harm innocent people. And I can understand their desire to marginalize anyone who doubts the moral value of our relationships. I get it. I get it strategically, and I get it personally.

But, for reasons both strategic and personal, I can’t join their approach. So I keep doing my “Good Cop” thing, hoping for synergy in this unstable but necessary alliance.