A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the fact that dialogue over matters of human sexuality does not exist in America today — or many other parts of the Western world. If we are being honest, much of the current public discourse regarding sex and marriage falls into two different categories — politically correct or politically incorrect. The idea of dialogue–an ongoing and respectful back and forth between individuals with different perspectives–has been completely unvalued and non-existent in mainstream media today. I realize that my traditional, Catholic views on sex and marriage are not culturally popular ones, but I still found it frustrating that asking certain questions and discussing the value of differing perspectives was considered politically incorrect.
And then I came across Damon Linker’s column, “What Religious Traditionalists Can Teach Us About Sex.” Here’s a guys who disagrees with my perspective and the Church’s perspective on matters of sexuality and marriage, but he wants to have a dialogue with me about it. He wants to have a dialogue because he thinks that I/we might have something valuable to share on the topic. His perspective is not only refreshing; it’s courageous. He has probably ticked off a lot of people who share his personal views on the subject. Linker writes:
“I am not a religious traditionalist (at least not anymore). I don’t think sex is profoundly dangerous. I usually feel at home in sexual modernity. I don’t think sexual pleasure outside of wedlock is inherently sinful. I vastly prefer a world in which people have been liberated from sexually inspired suffering, shame, humiliation, and self-loathing.
“But I also take the traditionalist critique of sexual modernity very seriously. The objections aren’t trivial. Western civilization upheld the old sexual standards for the better part of two millennia. We broke from them in the blink of an eye, figuratively speaking. The gains are pretty clear — It’s fun! It feels good! — but the losses are murkier and probably won’t be tallied for a very long time.”
I have profound respect for individuals who welcome outsiders to question and critique their comfortable worlds. When I encounter them I am encouraged to maintain an openness to questions from outside my perspective. Such is the (healthy) behavior of critical thinkers. They don’t run from questions that pose challenges to their deeply held beliefs or presuppositions about the world. They welcome them. They are not afraid of what dialogue will bring.
Linker mentions various reasons he is more comfortable with the modern sexual environment in America today than with previous eras that celebrated religious/traditional sexual conventions. But he acknowledges the counter-point: “At what cost?” He is honest about the conclusion with which he feels most comfortable, that which seems correct to him. But he is willing to enter a dialogue with “the other” about important questions. He doesn’t think that asking important questions about human sexuality should be politically incorrect, and he doesn’t fear the result of a respectful and articulate dialogue on matters of sex. In fact, he is arguing that we need it if we care about the impact these new cultural norms will have on our society.
After reading Linker’s piece, I am encouraged that someone who generally disagrees with my perspective still wants to hear and discuss it. I am hopeful that there are others–on both sides of such debates–who welcome the hard questions, rather than deflect them as politically incorrect. If more and more such people exist, then true dialogue is something for which we can hope. And why should we hope for dialogue? Why do we need it? Because it does two (among others) really important things.
First, engaging in dialogue forces us to understand another’s perspective or argument. There is a world of difference between expressing your view of someone else’s ideas, which conflict with your own, and being able to articulate those ideas from that person’s perspective. As an example, Linker is invested in a spirit of dialogue to the point that he seems to understand why certain questions about sexuality/marriage/family are significant to traditionalists, as well as why they take them so seriously. In his article he articulates these questions in a way that reflects the perspective from which traditionalists pose them:
“What will become of childhood if our culture continues down the road of pervasive sexualization?
“Do children do best with two parents of opposite genders? Or are two parents of the same gender just as good? Or better? How about one parent of either gender? What about three, four, five, or more people in a constantly evolving polyamorous arrangement?
“Can the institution of marriage survive without the ideals of fidelity and monogamy? What kind of sexual temptations and experiences will technology present us with a year — or a decade, or a century — from now? Will people be able to think of reasons or conjure up the will to resist those temptations? Will they even try? Does it even matter?” (Linker 2014)
These are the kind of questions that most media voices vehemently dismiss as politically incorrect, asked by people they often characterize as simple-minded bigots. Yet, Linker argues that these questions, and the dialogue that would flow from a discussion of them, are valid and should not be dismissed outright: “What I do know is that the questions are important, and that I respect those who are troubled by them. And maybe you should, too” (Linker 2014).
Yes, respect! Here Linker points us to the second important result of dialogue. Engaging in dialogue makes us see people as human beings–not ideologues, not talking heads, not caricatures–human beings created in the image of God. Of course we “know” people are human beings, right? But we seem to forget it daily, as we reduce them to 140-character summaries of their political and religious views. The other day I came across (thanks to The American Conservative) one of the best (and most convicting) exhortations to view every person as a human being deserving of love and respect. In his column on the Village Voice, Andrew W. K. responds to a reader’s frustration with his father, who he describes as “a 65-year-old super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total [a**hole] intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics” (W.K. 2014). Andrew’s firm rebuke may not have been exactly the response the reader was expecting:
“You’ve reduced your father — the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you. And you don’t consider your dad a person of his own standing — he’s just ‘your dad.’ You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two. The humanity has been reduced to nothingness and all that’s left in its place is an argument that can never really be won.” (W.K. 2014)
Read Andrew’s whole response to this reader; it is powerfully written! We have to view the people with whom we disagree as human beings, and as such, we have to respect them. We may not like their ideas, politics, or perspectives; but people should not simply be reduced to the sum of these things. When we do this to them, we cease to be human ourselves. As Andrew puts it: “When we lump people into groups, quickly label them, and assume we know everything about them and their life based on a perceived world view, how they look, where they come from, etc., we are not behaving as full human beings” (W.K. 2014).
Political correctness often prevents us from being full human beings, because it renders dialogue on certain important subjects impossible. It prevents us from engaging opposing viewpoints in ongoing conversation; it prevents understanding other humans and learning from each other. Let’s not let dialogue about issues of sexuality and marriage be labelled as politically incorrect. We should not fear dialogue, because the purpose of dialogue is not to silence voices; the true purpose of dialogue is to understand our fellow human beings and become more fully human ourselves.