There is a free-floating sense in some activist communities that the most powerful and compelling thing one can do is to stop something. Certainly it has emotional impact and allays a creeping sense of powerlessness. And we prove the case, or perhaps only justify it, with iconic images of marches and rallies and a man standing in front of a line of tanks. Compelling though it is, I think the ideas of stopping things appeals a bit too rashly to emotion. It encourages us to measure change by its impact on ourselves rather than its impact on others. So, important work though it be, I think merely stopping things is too narrow a focus.
When I realized that ideas, even those that are bizarre and divorced from evidence, have functional value, it changed my conception of how those ideas fit into the bigger picture. If ideas meet structural needs for individuals, groups, and societies, simply attacking those ideas will not do. If by some chance you succeed against in defeating a bad idea, there remains a void to be filled in the social and ideological structure.
Unsurprisingly, people do not like it when you take away something they were using and offer nothing in return. Often the people using that structure will just defend the idea, regardless of its value, to maintain the whole. Quite probably they’ll resent you. And maybe they’ll find an idea that’s even worse and grab ahold of it to fill the empty slot.
Thus, I think it is not enough to understand the failures of an idea—we must also understand it’s uses and value for those who hold it, and make sure whatever idea we offer in replacement does those things as well or better.
For example, consider fundamentalist Christian opposition to same-sex marriage. Understanding that opposition, for me, means recognizing the purpose limited marriage serves in an evangelical community. Many fundamentalist Christian groups are patriarchal, and some have argued (convincingly in my opinion) that opposition to same-sex marriage is about preserving male power within those groups, and especially about preserving a subservient position for women. The “traditional” marriage under threat, for them, is a marriage centered on control rather than partnership, a tool for maintaining the property of the powerful. The growing institution of same-sex marriage is too egalitarian to mix well with that old idea.
Thinking more broadly, we can see how same-sex marriage can be part of how we define gender roles: the very egalitarianism it entails is the core of the threat. Likewise the idea being replaced is not an idea about marriage so much as it is an idea that different genders ought to have different roles and different levels of power. These ideas answer a need for society, but in dramatically conflicting ways.
If I needed any more encouragement to support same-sex marriage, that knowledge would provide it. I believe in the egalitarian answer, and not in the patriarchal answer, and I’d be perfectly happy to do away with the latter.
But by thinking about these ideas as serving a purpose, I also begin to understand that changing old ideas about patriarchal, “traditional” marriage requires more than attacking the conceits of that idea, or advocating same-sex marriage alone. We need to meet the need that “traditional” marriage currently fills, and we need to meet it with something better; in my view, that means we need to build, within evangelical communities, the idea of egalitarian gender roles and egalitarian distribution of power.
Of course people are already doing this. There is a growing community of progressive Christians who embrace same-sex marriage, gender and sexual pluralism, feminism, and a host of other ideas that touch the central point. From the outside of that community, it’s easy to see that as an internal issue—but maybe instead more of us should be finding ways to amplify those voices.
Helping progressive Christians advocate less restrictive gender roles in Christian communities may not feel as impactful as staging a protest or picketing the Westboro Baptist Church. It may not have the same emotional punch as passing a law or winning a Supreme Court case. After all, it isn’t about “stopping” something so much as it is about doing the much harder work: creating a functional alternative.
There’s more glamour and excitement in tearing down houses than there is in digging new foundations. But I think if we want to change minds and ideas, we can’t just stop the bad ones—we have to help build what comes next.
Image Credit: Rebecca Siegel
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