Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sex, Religion and Politics

The other day, I posted an item from Merlene Davis announcing the local screening of the documentary film Straightlaced: How ­Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. At the heart of the film is an underlying question. What kind of disciplinary code ought to be employed in the schools?

Davis's piece drew a protracted response from Martin Cothran on his blog - which used to speak truly, but now is clinging to the
vestiges of western cultural domination.

Cothran makes final policy decisions and manages strategy for the Kentucky Family Foundation. According to their writings, the Family Foundation apparently believes in Mom and Dad, more Bible than Jesus, and hopes to “encourage, equip and empower educators according to Biblical principles” through its Christian Educators Association.

He opens with a little innuendo,

Merlene Davis of the Lexington Herald-Leader doesn't miss her chance to promote the movie, which was shown this weekend and sponsored by the Central Kentucky Council on Peace and Justice.
Similarly, Cothran doesn't miss his chance to detract.
The film is about a boy named "Josh," an openly gay student at Lexington, Kentucky's Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School who committed suicide and a fellow student name "Hannah" who was his friend and who later died in a car accident. Josh is described as having a "flamboyant personality," which attracts the negativity of his peers. It's never stated outright, but you get the definite impression that Josh's death is to be laid at the feet of anyone who has a traditional view of human sexuality.
A traditional view of sexuality? Really?

Is Cothran suggesting that the nail that sticks up will be hammered down; or should be; and somehow, that's OK? ...because it's majority rule?'s traditional? ...because the kid's asking for it by daring to be different? Shipman seems to be cast as having caused his own torment.

Hummm. I had the idea that Josh was repeatedly bullied by stronger kids acting in concert.

Now, let me quickly add that I have not seen the film. But my limited research reveals a very mixed picture of Shipman that is likely to defy the kind of easy (predetermined) conclusions we bloggers love.

Shipman's young middle school friends decried his school experience on the Josh Shipman Foundation MySpace page. It's pretty much what you'd expect.
Many of You Knew Him. But For Most of You Not In A Good Way. Most of You Picked On Him and Called Him Names. Most of You Called Him "Wierd" or "Fag". Joshua Shipman died Thursday night. He hung himself in his room and his father fount him...people called him a queer and a fag. Why do you care about his sexual life unless your involved in it? Seriously!

In the 7th grade he would come to school everyday with bruises...He tried so hard everyday for people to like him. He would talk to you and you'd laugh. He'd smile at you and you'd look away. He'd claim you were a friend and you would deny him. It's really sad that it takes someone losing their life for people to get the hint.

...i knew josh during my 6th-7th grade year...i considered him a friend to me and i always tried to be there for him whenever he was teased...after he left winchester, i never saw or talked to him...but i always remembered who he was...i will never forget him... was my friend since the 5th grade you was the first person to talk to me .. when i moved here to winchester.. you was always nice to me 7th grade before u moved away i told u bye .. and never saw u agian ... until i was told what u have done i dont blame u .. its everyone else u treated you the way they treated you.

Middle school is no place to be too different.

But Shipman made it to high school, and following his suicide in November 2006, Raviya Ismail wrote in the H-L (no longer available at H-L but reprinted here):

Josh Shipman made an impression. From his tightly wound corsets to his dark clothing, he was both an enigma and an open book.

He'd strut the halls of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in his signature black boots and fluorescent pink hair. Goth and colorful, gay and Wiccan, open and reticent, Josh was a walking contradiction. But friends best remember him for the kisses and tight hugs he gave so freely. Those friends crowded into a funeral home recently to pay their respects to Josh, who committed suicide at home on Oct. 5, a week before his 16th birthday. Many dyed their hair pink and wore gay-pride ribbons in remembrance.

Was it a fear of those who are too different that caused Shipman's pain and prompted these traditional kids to torment him - when they might have chosen, rather, to love their neighbor or at least leave him alone? Were they allowed (or encouraged) to bully the quirky student? Did Shipman, by virtue of being different, invite his tormentors - or was there something more?

Shipman had every citizen's right to be whatever his creator made him. Shipman's father told H-L it was pretty clear that Josh was gay from the age of 4 or 5. That does not sound like a choice to me. It sounds more like a natural inclination.

Straightlaced is described as being about the acceptance of others regardless of their dress, sexual orientation or desire to wear a particular color. But Cothran's not buying any of it.
What, exactly, does "acceptance" mean here? Is this, like, some neutral kind of acceptance that just means I'm supposed to recognize and respect others as human beings despite the fact that I think their lifestyle is abnormal and in many cases self-destructive (and in some cases just silly)? Wait. Self-destructive?

How could I say that? That's so insensitive and intolerant. Am I not ashamed of myself for saying this?

Well, actually, no. I know that in modern liberal secular society, which has constantly championing social policies that contribute to the disconnection of people from real cultures and real relationships, we are supposed to have compassion for people we don't know.

Cothran is a smart guy and I sure he understands Shipman's rights. But here he subordinates them in order to better assert his own. Then he gets mired in his defense of traditionalism. Cothran makes it sound like there is only one culture - his. One lifestyle - his. ...the traditional western civilization WASP heterosexual culture, one supposes. (Hey wait. That's my culture too.)

It ought not escape us that suicide has traditionally been considered a crime in that tradition. Ireland, for example, decriminalized suicide as late as 1993. (I never really understood what good it did for a secular government authority to criminalize the last act of a dead man. Is there money in it for someone somewhere? Does it make church leaders politically stronger somehow? I don't have a clue.)

But all of this assumes that Josh's suicide was a simple matter of bullying. As I learned a long time ago, people are very complex and there's almost always more going on than appears on the surface.

Ishmail reported other serious complicating factors - Shipman's self-mutilation problem, feeling rejected by his mother and battles with his dad. "Josh was diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and an attachment disorder -- characterized by becoming overly close to people who expressed even a minor interest in him. Josh was medicated for some of these problems." In September 2005 Josh was placed in a group home in Louisville, which he ran away from; he eventually spent 10 months at the Barnabas Home in Annville getting treatment and counseling for his problems.

The living now speculate on what really caused Josh's life-ending decision. He left no note.

But Cothran knows. It was another of his regular strawmen who did it - the "modern liberal secular society" which is "constantly championing social policies" that allows folks to be different. That's the problem.

I disagree.

I think it is the modern liberal Christian society that contributes to Cothran's consternation. It seems to me that those who think Jesus trumps the Bible have a much clearer notion of what the Golden Rule means in practice. These mainstream Christians would make the Golden Rule the foundation of every school's disciplinary code. If the Family Foundation finds fault with Christ's teachings, Cothran will have to let us know.

Now, it matters not at all what Cothran (or I) believes, but any scholar ought to get his attributions straight. There is a long-standing (dare I say, fairly traditional) Christian impulse that is alive and well in America. These mainstream Christians don't think Jesus was kidding and might not appreciate Cothran misnaming their motivations for some perceived political gain. The entire social gospel movement is clearly not secular. Many Christians see it as obedient. Many are writing checks to Haitian relief today.

Behind all of this is an underlying attitude at the crux of traditional western civ thinking. It is superiority. Cothran is sure that, if he had known Shipman, he would have "felt very sorry" for him. And there's his notion of "an exercise in tolerance" which, as Washington understood, presupposes that one is superior and may tolerate his inferiors, or not, at his choosing. If that's not a secular view, I'm not sure what is. What lesson from Jesus have I missed that promotes intolerance and injustice?

I wonder if part of the issue involves how folks see human sexuality. Many heterosexuals, it seems to me, see sexuality as a dichotomy. You have "outdoor plumbing" - you're a man. Act like it. Indoor? Get in the kitchen. Fix me some meatloaf.

I wonder if it isn't more of a continuum, albeit bimodal.

The sooner we realize that someone will always defy our categories and yet still maintain their rights as citizens, the sooner America will approach the teaching of Jesus.

But maybe I have misjudged the Family Foundation's idea of what it means to follow Christ, or be a Christian.

Isn't it a secular impulse to use religion for one's own political purposes?

Now this is a lot of religion talk from a public school guy, so let me be clear about where I'm coming from. I am NOT arguing in favor of establishing Christianity as the basis for discipline in the public schools. But I am suggesting that the central principle of Christianity should undergird the disciplinary code in all American schools, including Jewish schools, Muslim schools....all.

No ancient law or prophesy could possibly be more "Christian" than the direct teachings of Jesus himself. Clearly "the Golden Rule" is central to Christianity. A public school disciplinary code that keeps the Golden Rule, keeps the faith.

But that's NOT why it should be the basis for student discipline in the schools.

The Golden Rule should be the basis for all student discipline because it is also central to all other major religions as well - and I've never heard an atheist or agnostic object to its principles either.

Because of its wide-spread acceptance among the world's religions, it does not establish religion the way that posting the Ten Commandments would. ...or requiring daily reading from the Qur'an would. ...or requiring transcendental meditation would. ...or teaching transubstantiation would. Those acts would be specific to a particular religion, and would therefore be unconstitutional.

Our schools, and our world, would be better if more of us followed the Golden Rule - and if it was enforced in the schools, just maybe, Josh Shipman would still be alive and getting the help he needed.


Anonymous said...

Once again, thank you for standing up for gay teens. Your very public stance is impressive.

When the true story is written of how Kentuckians did and did not stand up for decency and inclusion of gays and lesbians in the schools and elsewhere, I hope this blog will offer researchers a place to find the supporters and detractors. Naming names is important for the historical record.

I recently finished reading an oral history of the civil rights movement in Kentucky published by the UK press. When I read about black experiences in Clay and Sturgis in 1956, and the accounts of the first black students at UK and the discrimination they faced, all I could think of was the fact that the haters have restyled themselves. They cloak their hatred with scripture. They insinuate that Josh Shipman could have lived had he been not so flamboyant.

To those whp promote hatred, I say shame on you. To the educators who ignore gay insults in the schools, I say the spectre of litigation is real.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Yeah, that White Citizen's council sure knew how to draw a crowd. They were known as the "white collar klan." Same attitude. No sheets.

Anonymous said...

"The Golden Rule should be the basis for all student discipline because it is also central to all other major religions as well - and I've never heard an atheist or agnostic object to its principles either."

Then you haven't read widely enough. Nietzsche is the obvious example of someone who rejects the doctrine; but you can add Bertrand Russell, Immanuel Kant, Slavoj Zizek, and others to that list.

And just because it is accepted by all major religions (though you omitted that it is understood in very different ways, making your claims very dubious generally) that doesn't mean that it is right.

And functionally, the golden rule is basically an excuse to enforce your sensibilities on others. You treat others as you want to be treated, but you would like to be treated differently than me. So if we differ on what is self-destructive, then we differ on the practical application of the golden rule. And since conservative Christians think being actively homosexual is self-destructive, the golden rule in that case would be to prevent such behavior.

A golden rule, without a normative ethical position, is abjectly useless for something like school discipline, since it determines how the golden rule is to be used.

Richard Day said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the comment.

I've worked on discipline codes with tons of parents over decades and I've never run into anyone who advocated anything other than teaching children to share, respect one another and get along without fighting. Granted, the Nietzsche child wasn't in my school.

No one can ever read widely enough; and that certainly includes me. Nietzsche is far from my area of expertise, so I could be wrong about all of this, but wasn't Nietzsche arguing in defense of aristocracy? ...which was butting heads with church officials all the time? I remember him as anti-Christian. It's no surprise that he disagreed with the church. I, too, object to oppressive acts justified by sectarian beliefs. What do you imagine Nietzsche would say about the church deciding about someone's personal liberty? And too, Nietzsche was skeptical about teaching virtues by way of reason, so....there's that.

You're correct to infer that my ethical position assumes something that is not necessarily agreed upon. It assumes an effort toward love, non violence and compassion. Feel free to propose an alternative.

Any rule enforces the majority's sensibilities on others, at a given point in time. I have no idea what you mean when you say that I “would like to be treated differently” than you. How so?

As for the Golden Rule as an ethic: Since humans are social creatures our natural tendency toward reciprocity is fueled by a natural desire for those things that make life worth living. But some folks may have the natural desire to kick your butt and take your stuff away, so we need laws. Our school rules must prepare students for society's rules.

Most folks don't want to be hurt physically, emotionally or any other way. The Golden Rule does nothing but inspire people to act in some kind of harmony which allows our society to become more productive than if we were fighting all the time. It is largely aspirational so far as I can tell, but billions of folks act in accordance with it everyday and I'm glad they do.

At heart, it is about compassion. Religious historian Karen Armstrong, who has studies this in depth, would disagree with your suggestion that the Golden Rule “is understood in very different ways.” If you'll forgive me, for now I'm going to agree with her studied interpretations. The”fact” that it is acceptable to all major religions may or may not make it “right,” but it makes it constitutional.

In Descent, didn't Darwin see application of the Golden Rule as the natural tendency of self-interested human beings to respond in kind - rewarding those they trust and punishing those they don't? Jesus wasn't the first to think it up and it is not exclusively Christian, nor is it dependent upon Christianity for its ethic. Earlier religions espoused the same ideal in an apparent effort to stop the rampant violence of earlier times. Jesus reinforced a natural lesson derived from human experience. I say, so be it.

But school is not some abstract philosophical island where the ethics of mankind will get worked out. It is an established institution that is anything but devoid of normative ethics. We have a bookshelf full of laws we must follow which provide an ample ethical framework for any school discipline code. Those laws require folks to behave themselves to get along. In our society you can't (legally) shoot someone; we've agreed to drive on a certain side of the road; and as the adage says,”your right to swing your arm stops where my nose begins.”

The Family Foundation cites Christian motivations but seems to look for opportunities to oppress gays politically. That confuses me, and makes me doubt the former.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but did you just use Nietzsche - whom we can say with certainty conservative Christians would reject; as he has them - as justification for the conservative Christian position?

Anonymous said...

The point of bringing up Nietzsche (and Kant, Russell, and Zizek) was that the golden rule was not universally accepted as you asserted it was. In fact, it was rejected by some of the most influential thinkers of the modern period.

It's simply false to say the golden rule is understood the same way by most religions. I would treat women as I would want to be treated; and if I were a woman, I would not want to be forced to wear a burkha. However, a fundamentalist Muslim, applying the same golden rule, would come to the exact opposite conclusion.

The point is that the golden rule yields a different outcome because some people want to be treated differently than others, and this is highly dependent on their ethical and religious beliefs. A masochist, applying the golden rule, would assault others.

The golden rule is a typical liberal device where liberal foist their beliefs on others while hiding the fact that they are doing so. It allows them to point to the golden rule which is supposedly universally accepted (actually it is not) and similarly understood (again, it is not), and say: it's not my personal beliefs I'm pushing here, it's a universal rule of human behavior everyone can agree on. This is just cover so that the liberal can treat others as he or she, the liberal, would want to be treated, which is just a way of pushing your own beliefs on others.

Richard Day said...

Again, I asserted I had never heard an agnostic or atheistic person suggest a problem with it at any time over the years. But I take your point.

Let's be clear, in this space, I am most definately expressing my own opinions and sensibilities, as reders are invited to do.

For the sake of argument, let me grant everything you say. Then what, in your opinion, should form the basis for a school disciplinary code that can be taught, modeled and understood by young chilldren?

Anonymous said...


That's a question I'm not entirely sure about. I think it's clear that there is a covert ethics behind what we think of as "public morality" (which to be clear, most conservatives now buy into too, to a large degree, they just interpret it a little differently). So in terms of the golden rule, we say that one ought to do to others as one would have done to oneself, but we also have implicit expectations about a person should want to have done to himself that govern how the rule would be used. I don't mean to say liberals or conservatives do this dishonestly or intentionally, what's right and normal just seem so obvious that it's hard to think critically about it. So some kind of ethics is already being used, and I think we could call it something like a secular ethics, which has liberal and a conservative varieties. I think it's important to be able to recognize it as a particular kind of morality, and critically evaluate it.

For myself, I think Aristotle's virtue ethics is a better candidate. It has the advantage of not being religious, which avoids Constitutional problems, but it's not inconsistent with religion either. And although virtue ethics sounds rather dated, it has a good deal of intellectual energy behind it even today (Alasdair Macintyre is an example of a fairly popular philosopher that writes about it). It's difficult to summarize in a comment like this, but generally what it says is that people ought to aim for excellence in all aspects of human experience, and there are certain specific practical ways to do this. (This fits particularly well with the agenda for schools, as Aristotle's ethics are a practical guide to achieving moral, intellectual, and physical excellence.) And while it does make normative judgments (some ways of living are inferior to others), it's flexible and intentionally situation specific, and has been adapted for modern life by people like MacIntyre.

There's a decent summary of virtue ethics here: It's a little long, but if you skip to section 2, you'll find the gist of it.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the input. I'll give it a peek. It does bother me that it's difficult to explain. The point, for me, it a code that is eaasily understood by young and older students alike.

I am concerned by Aristolte's sexism and acceptance of slavery, but my "presentism" may not be fully appropriate.

Fundamentally, "excellence" is not a behavior, so it can't be taught directly. example perhaps.

I still like the Golden Rule, and believe that even if it is not perfect, it does no harm; but I'll give this some thought. In the end, the disciplinary code has to work.

Anonymous said...

Both Aristotle's sexism and his acceptance of slavery don't really fit with his thinking. It's one of those examples of a thinker who allowed cultural biases to keep him from thinking his positions all the way through. And, an advantage with Aristotle is that his ethical thinking has been refined over thousands of years, so it's not limited to his personal opinions.

There are different kinds of excellence, such as courage or magnanimity that can be taught both through example and through principle.

It's important to see where Aristotle's view fits in with the golden rule. It's not an alternative so much as it is a way of understanding the golden rule.

When one says: "treat others as you should be treated" a question arises -- how should you be treated? How should you want to be treated. Some people may want to be treated well or poorly.

The golden rule relies on its application has an element in it which needs to be defined: how one should be treated. I may want to be treated in a certain way, but that doesn't mean I should be treated that way. I may want to not be held responsible when I do something wrong, but I should be anyway, and I would be better off in the long run if I were.

We need further ethical principles to say how I should be treated, so that I can know how to treat others. If there aren't any, then the only guidance is my own will, and if I am a vicious or an irresponsible person, then applying the golden rule would never work in a disciplinary situation.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Day,
I am Joshua Shipman's mother and for four years I have been reading comments and opinions of why my son committed suicide and how bad Josh's life was but now it's time that I speak up. There are so many things that factored in Joshua committing suicide. It amazes me how all of these strangers are drawing their own conclusions on how Josh led his life and why he decided to take his own life on that awful day in October, 2006, when in fact the only ones who truly knew Josh are his family, and Josh has a big family! It has been 4 years since Josh's death and still I see him in the newspaper periodically and last night he was on the 11:00 news. You have no idea what it is like to be watching television and when the news comes on there is a picture of my son, we have no notice, no heads up that we would be seeing him on T.V. To some that may not be a big deal but it is to me and Josh's family.

I guess what I am trying to say is that if everyone is going to continue to use my son as an example, I really wish that his (Joshua) family's feelings are taken into consideration and if you are going to write about Josh please for the love of God talk to the ones who knew him best and get the facts.

Mr. Day, I want to truly thank you for your comments as you have made more sense than most when talking about gay teens and the problems they face today. I accepted that my son was gay as I knew at a very early age that Joshua was different than my other boys and as a mother you just know. I have a sister that is a lesbian and so accepting Joshua as my gay son was NEVER difficult for me nor did I ever feel that I had to “deal” with it. It breaks my heart every time I hear about Josh being bullied. After I hear someone talking about it (like I did on the news last night) it takes days to get it out of my head. It’s a horrible feeling to know that your child was being tormented on a daily basis and you weren’t there to protect him. At one point and time the kids from Josh’s school threatened Josh’s life so the school was put on lock down for 3 days and Josh’s friends escorted him from class to class just to make sure that nobody harmed him! What has this world come to? Why? But, bullying was not the only fight Joshua was up against, it goes much deeper than that. Josh was diagnosed with Bipolar and unfortunately, I did not know enough about this awful disease to help my son or to even understand it.
I just wish that those who are so interested in my son will talk to the ones who knew him best. I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like to see in print all of the articles, comments and stories that they have done on my son without input from Josh’s Dad or myself and what it is like to hear strangers talk of my son. There was even a documentary that featured Josh (Straightlaced) that I had no idea was in the works.
Anyway, thank you for your time and for allowing me to share this with you. I guess I used you as a sounding board but no one else seems to care about the true facts that lie behind my son’s suicide.
Again, thank you so much for your thoughts and opinions. One could only wish that everyone could feel the same way as you do.


Coretta Lyons

Richard Day said...

Thanks Coretta.

As you gatherd, I see this as a very complex issue.

But hold on. The recent spate of suicides by other similarly affected teens has caused a spike in media attention recently. More media stories may be on the way.