Savage bullying controversy!!

I’ll be doing my usual SiOB later today, but there was one incident that everyone is talking about that deserves separate attention. By chance, I read about it first on JG-W’s blog:

The worst part was not his referring to parts of the Bible as “bullshit” in front of an assembly full of high school students. The worst part was mocking those who got up to leave the auditorium as Christian pansy-asses, while those remaining in the auditorium laughed at them.

I’m glad to see that our culture is growing to understand that bullying isn’t some inevitable part of youth and childhood — but rather it’s something that kids can be taught not to do. (Check out this new book!) And I love Dan Savage’s work on this front.

Naturally, I think it’s important to make it clear that expecting kids not to bully other kids really is about this particular unacceptable behavior (bullying), and it’s not some sort of culture-war smokescreen that one culture-war team is using to attack the other. And I recall giving Dan Savage a similar criticism earlier…

However, the more I read about this particular incident, the less cut-and-dry it seems.

The only part of the speech that might reasonably be called “bullying” was when he called the students who walked out “pansy-assed”, encouraging the remaining kids to laugh (and some claim even that wasn’t bullying). Here’s Savage’s apology for that:

But gay people feel insulted by “love the sinner, hate the sin” because it is insulting. Likewise, my use of “pansy-assed” was insulting, it was name-calling, and it was wrong. And I apologize for saying it.

However, Savage’s remarks about the Bible seem to be what offended a lot of people. Personally, I think the fact that this wasn’t some ordinary school assembly — it was a journalism conference — makes a big difference:

The program listed the goal of the keynote this way: Students will get ideas on how to cover the topic of bullying in their student media. Keep in mind its virtually impossible to talk about anti-gay bullying without mentioning the Bible.

Plus — as many people pointed out — Savage’s criticisms of the Bible (and Bible-based hypocrisy) may well be right. Look at this post for references to the Bible commandments Savage mentioned that modern Christians ignore (plus the Bible’s “moral” guidance on slavery…). Christians pick and choose:

They hold to the homosexual passages because THEY WANT TO. Every Christian self selects the passages of scripture he or she wants to live by. let’s quit blaming the bible and start taking responsibility for our own positions. The anti-homosexual position does not belong to a deity…. it belongs to you.

Also, a pastor made the news for recommending that if a boy is effeminate, his father should beat him, and some saw the connection with this incident.

Indeed, even the Savage’s most questionable comment (“Its funny, as someone whos on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back”) may be right. Does that make it reasonable in context?



C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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16 Responses

  1. I think the problem all along was the tone and the language. Even Dan has admitted he was wrong to mock the students who walked out… I think we should take him at his word.

    On that note, it’s worth pointing out that it would be hypocritical on our part (by “our,” I refer to the pro-gay, anti-bullying folks) to suggest that Dan didn’t do anything wrong because it was “just words.” The anti-bullying folks have proven to everyone’s satisfaction, I think, that sticks and stones do break my bones AND names DO hurt me… Words are powerful enough to drive teens to suicide. So, Dan, shame on you for not paying more attention to the impact of your words.

    Nevertheless, his point about overreactions to criticism of the Bible is right on. He does (we do) have a right to self-defense.

  2. Having said that, I’d also like to point out that while folks have a right to criticize the Bible in any way they’d like, if their agenda is to promote dialog or to persuade people to look at things differently, it behooves them to speak and reach out in a way that is more likely to be received by the folks they disagree with.

    I’m not persuaded Dan Savage has any idea how to do that.

  3. chanson says:

    Yes. Of course he has the right to self-defense and to criticise the Bible — but given his position as a major spokesman against bullying, he would do well to be very careful about what he says to teens that he disagrees with, and how he says it.

  4. chanson says:

    However, regarding tone and persuasion, vis-a-vis his apology for name calling:

    I think he should get some credit for not giving a “not-pology” (eg. I’m so sorry you took offense at my totally justified words) but rather made it clear that he understood why people were offended and admitted that it was his own mistake.

  5. Alan says:

    John @2:

    Im not persuaded Dan Savage has any idea how to do that.

    I’m not persuaded his agenda is necessarily to “promote dialog or to persuade people to look at things differently” so much as it is to call out hypocrisy.

    The situation reminded me of this post of mine: How Much Space Should we Leave for Homophobia?. Is it even possible to prevent conservative Christians from claiming the victimhood weapon on this issue? No, it’s not.

    First off, we don’t need to respect beliefs that are harmful or hurtful (e.g., “homosexuality is sin”), although yes, we do need to respect people. At some point, of course, the two blend together where if you attack a belief enough, the person feels bullied, and you end up doing more harm than good. But as I write in the post:

    “I dont think there is a dichotomy between ‘opening eyes’ and ‘slapping faces.’ Its not like a good person will eventually come around to thinking homosexual intimacy is not a sin simply because goodness or reasonableness [or respect] win in the end. Plenty of good people will die believing homosexual intimacy is a sin long after there is gay marriage nationally. … Eventually, reasonableness and dialog run their course because policy must be put into place and those who wont open their eyes will get their faces slapped. It wont be anyones fault but theirs, although we could try to limit the sting.”

    Savage calling hypocrisy “pansy-assed” might sting, but I agree with chanson one of the posts above, that in this context, it was [almost 100%] justified. It’s up to Savage as to whether he wants to tailor his rhetoric to better reach conservative Christian audiences (which I doubt he will); he’s certainly not morally obligated to.

  6. Taryn Fox says:

    @4, I agree, if there wasn’t anything else in the context of what he said that would mitigate that. It does sound like a real apology.

    @2, 3, I think that in many ways it’s wasted effort to spend time and energy trying to figure out how to be inoffensive to them. It’s a foregone conclusion that if you call them out for being jerks, they’re going to find something to be offended about, from your tone to the language you used to your “persecuting” their religion.

    John Dehlin may be the only person I know who can do that, who has the patience to reach out consistently and in a spirit of love and empathy to both sides. I greatly admire him for that. But as one of the people whose hurt and abuse he tries to bring to Mormons’ attention, I personally can’t do what he does, and I’ve never seen good things come from trying.

    Another thing to consider is the GSRM (gender, sexual, and romantic minority) people in Savage’s audience, and their allies. What’s the most empowering message he can send them? What’s the most straightforward message he can give anyone with any amount of open-mindedness about it? Parts of the Bible are bullshit, and they are in fact the parts that the people who got offended here staked their identities on. Savage may well have saved someone from suicide, not driven someone to it.

  7. Kristen says:

    The whole thing, from start to finish, was unconscionable. The person who hired DAN SAVAGE to come to a conference to speak to high school students is an idiot. His choice of topics was asinine. He was supposed to be speaking about ‘how to cover bullying.’ At a journalism conference. That topic should be about how to interview, how to approach subjects sensitively, how to be more aggressive uncovering bullying, etc. The talk he actually gave was about how Christians who use religion to cover up anti-gay bullying are theologically wrong and morally bankrupt. That’s true, but completely off-topic, and (I think) unsuitable for a school-sponsored trip. I say this as an atheist high school teacher. There are a lot of true things I could tell my students, but my job is to help them learn to think for themselves, not hit them over the heads.

  8. Chanson – actually, I do think Savage’s apology did sort of morph into a not-pology at the end, where he accused everyone who doesn’t agree with his view of the Bible (i.e., the students who walked out) of being hypocrites.

    Alan – I get that dialog is not Savage’s “agenda.” I’m just saying that there’s a great need right now for people who have that as an agenda, and a shame that he does not.

  9. chanson says:

    @8 — Yes, he gave a real apology only for the part that merited an apology. Whether his topic was relevant for a journalism conference (re: @7) is a separate question. Certainly the journalism students learned a thing or two about sensationalism and the media covering itself. 😉

  10. chanson says:

    p.s. to Kristen @8 — I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “The whole thing, from start to finish, was unconscionable” or that “The person who hired DAN SAVAGE to come to a conference to speak to high school students is an idiot.” But you have a valid point.

    I would guess that their primary motivation for inviting him was his star power — his ability to draw attention, and maybe even controversy!! — rather than inviting someone who might have more useful advice about journalism. Thus, the students are learning some real lessons about how modern journalism (unfortunately) works.

    It would have been better if the conference had been organized by people who had better ideals about how journalism should work. Youth is a time to build ideals to live by — why start the kids jaded right out of the gate…?

  11. @9 – except that in calling those who walked out “hypocrites,” he more or less exchanged one epithet (“pansy-assed”) for another (“hypocrites”).

    “Sorry I called you ‘pansy-assed.’ What I actually meant was ‘hypocrites.'”

    I think if you want to talk about the Bible (and of course, that wasn’t even his central topic of the day, so he could profitably have just stayed away from the topic all together, especially since his skills as a biblical exegete are anything but impressive) it’s better if you acknowledge that different people have different ways of interpreting it, and that failure to interpret it your way doesn’t necessarily make a person a hypocrite or an idiot or whatever…

    Just my two cents…

  12. chanson says:

    If he had said that, I might be inclined to agree with you.

  13. “Some read it hypocriticallyand the hypocrites react very angrily when anyone has the nerve to point that out.”

    That sounded to me like a very thinly veiled way of calling the student protesters hypocrites. Did you read this differently?

    (I don’t think you are a hypocrite if you did.)

  14. Alan says:

    John, someone who commented after your post said that
    (a) Savage asked the people running the conference whether he should tone down his words, and they told him “no, don’t tone it down” and
    (b) the students’ protest was planned beforehand; they started walking out before he used the word “bullshit.”

    If these two facts are true, they certainly change the dynamics, IMO. The whole thing seems like one big performance.

    I’m a little confused by your position now, after reading @11, though (confused in a devil’s advocate sort of way :p ). You say in response to the comment after your post: “Had Dan spoken about the Bible in a more respectful manner in the first place, their staged walkout would have just looked stupid and intolerant.”

    Yet, @11, you say that “different people have different ways of interpreting the Bible, and that failure to interpret it your way doesnt necessarily make a person a hypocrite or an idiot or whatever”

    So, are you suggesting it’s okay to think of the walkout as stupid and intolerant (which sound like “epithets” to me) provided Savage was respectful of the Bible? Why is not okay to think of it as stupid/intolerant/hypocritical/pansy-assed just because Savage wasn’t as respectful as he could have been?

  15. kuri says:

    [Savage] could profitably have just stayed away from the topic [of the Bible] all together

    I think his point was that no, you can’t stay away from the topic if you’re going to talk about the bullying of gay people in America. It’s too important of a factor.

  16. @14 – Alan, all I meant to say is that had Dan kept his cool, the students would only have managed to embarrass themselves instead of embarrassing Dan. If their purpose had been to make the gay rights activist look bad, he sort of walked right into it.

    @15 – Kuri – Maybe you can’t avoid it, but honestly, I don’t think he had anything terribly insightful to say on the topic.

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