Perhaps you’ve heard of Godwin’s Law, a geek’s theorem about Internet conversations that states, as a “discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1″, which is to say, just about every controversy online eventually leads to the Hitler card being played.
We’d like to add a new term to the lexicon: Prejean’s Law, named after “marriage should be between a man and a woman” Miss California Carrie Prejean, who is now the most famous Miss America contestant since the last one that did something that touched on a social issue of the day. An instant celebrity, Prejean’s comments about gay marriage have transformed the discussion into a three-ring circus of celebrities, douchebag blogger wannabe celebs and Miley Ray Cyrus’ Twitter. Prejean’s Law, then states– The national conversation about a social issue is meaningful up until the point it gets a national beauty pageant contestant in trouble– after that, all bets are off.
It’s not that we’re not mildly, reflexively outraged and have though to ourselves, “Hey, why not make this a teaching moment?” and we even sort of side with Perez Hilton for making Prejean’s comments into a cause d’affair, but this week it sort of feels that our little civil rights struggle has packed up for college, left us at home and the first call we get from it is at a drunken sorority party where we hear it go, “Woo-hoo! I’m so fucking drunk, Dads!”
Maybe this is snobbery. We would like to see the gay civil rights debate occur in the streets and in public forums and you know, be ready made for historical patina later on, so the idea that the gay marriage debate is now centered on a feud between Ms. California and Perez Hilton is a bit of a bummer, if for no reason, but it makes the issue seem frivolous– the sort of thing that two airheads would get in a tussle over.
At the same time, beyond simple snobbery is the fact that images do matter and even from a short remove, this debate is a ludicrous one. Prejean’s certainly not the first person to state that she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman and Hilton’s decision to call her a “bitch” is ratings worthy, but I’m not terribly sure it does any good for the gay community.
Here in brief is the case against thoughtless, knee-jerk outrage: It’s incredibly easy to call anyone you dislike a homophobe and a bigot. Heck, we use the phrases fairly liberally ourselves from time to time, but when the conversation ends at “You are a bad person”, you’re only making yourself feel better and further solidifying the impression that the differences you have are intractable.
Essentially, this is what happened with the abortion debate in this country. Roe v. Wade flash froze opinions to the point that anyone who was pro-choice was a baby murderer and anyone who is pro-life wants to have state-controlled wombs. Here’s a shocker: Most social issues are complex. They don’t distill down into easy talking points nor do they have obvious permanent solutions.
So, this week’s massive dumbing down of the marriage debate may very well have an impact on the long-range prospects of gay civil rights. The less we engage in conversation and the more we simply hurl barbs at our opponents, the more entrenched everyone gets in their own positions. This strikes us as a pretty stupid strategy, since so many moderates and traditional conservatives have shown a willingness to change once they understand the issue better.
Certainly, the Fred Phelps’ of the world don’t deserve the time of day, but does the same hold true for Carrie Prejean? Is she truly ‘homophobic’ or just uneducated? It might be the tiara and sing-song cadence, but she doesn’t come off as an especially hate-filled person, she comes off as an ignorant and uniformed person– That is, she really is a good “Miss California” in that she’s like many Californians who senselessly voted for Prop. 8, based on beliefs they clearly had never examined before. I know it’s hard to be a grown-up sometimes. It’s easy to hear someone say something you find offensive and write them off, but so long as there are more straight people than gay people, some of them are going to have to be won over– and that takes time, patience and an open-ear, not a high-pitched hysterical yell.