Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hyperbole May Be Hazardous

Words are important. Especially today, when credibility is thin and sensitivity to hypocrisy is high. It was unfortunate when earlier this month, Anmesty International damaged its own credibility with an ill-advised hyperbole, calling Guantanamo a "new gulag". (A Soviet dissident provided an eloquent criticism, hat tip Finocchio.) Then, we had the now-infamous comment of Senator Durbin, trying to chide the Senate's sense of conscience to hold America to a high standard. Alas, even though his comments were perfectly reasonable, his hyperbole tripped the offense-sensitivity of many. Right-wing partisans drew immediate comparisons to the unfortunate statements of Senator Lott which lead to his stepping down as Senate Majority Leader (though these comparisons are inapt, as Bilious Young Fogey explains.) Observers may conclude that hyperbole and analogy have become hazardous, to be deployed with extreme consideration if at all.

With that background, it was especially interesting to read the recent spate of reflection on the gays/blacks analogy. For most of us in the gay community, it is very clear that the equal rights we seek (employment non-discrimination, equal access to marriage and military service) are a matter of Constitutional civil rights. This draws an inevitable comparison to blacks, the original model of civil rights struggle. I can see that sometimes the analogy works well, for instance, in looking at the claims made today about gay marriage and the claims made a few decades ago about "miscegenation". I can also see that sometimes the analogy doesn't work: blacks grow up knowing they are black, with no fear of being rejected by parents who are also black, and blacks can never hide or "pass" as being not black. But until just the other day, I hadn't appreciated how some black people might be strongly offended by the analogy. I was jolted to that realization by the comments of a friend on the recent Senate apology for not outlawing lynching sooner, when he wrote that "society's prevailing psychological and emotional lynching of homosexuals today is just as vicious and inhuman." While I certainly understand his feelings (and in fairness this comment is lifted out of a much larger, thoughtful and heartfelt email), this struck me as one of those out-of-bounds hyperboles. We homosexuals may experience alienation from our families, discrimination in jobs, and societal approbation that on occasion leads to suicide or violent attacks, but our experience does not sink to the level of slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, and bodies swinging from trees. And when the analogy is put so baldly, I can see why it is not only inapt but offensive to some.

This is not to say that gays do not have legitimate civil rights grievances that bear some similarity to issues blacks have faced. But it is to acknowledge that the analogy is imperfect, and should not be stretched to the point of offense and loss of credibility. Andrew Sullivan and Jon Rowe have made arguments that rather than the "new blacks", gays are the "new Jews". Andrew notes the parallels to anti-Semitism, including ability to pass, fear out of all proportion to the size of the minority, and the alleged links (both actual and metaphorical) to the spread of disease. Jon Rowe cites Posner to note that an imperfect analogy to blacks by no means invalidates a claim to civil rights, the same claims having been made by a number of other groups. And before anyone jumps to offense at analogizing gays to Jews on account of the Holocaust, it should be noted that homosexuals were in the concentration camps too. No hyperbole foul there.

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