Friday, January 28, 2011

Arkansas Store Censors Magazine Cover with Elton John's Family, Then Rethinks Its Censorship

This local (local for me) story illustrates why I wanted to stress the role of unvarying principle recently, as I thought about the story of Peter and Hazelmary Bull in England.  The Bulls are the English couple who refused a room with a double bed at their Cornish hotel to a gay couple in a legal civil union, and whom some sectors of the British media are now defending, though the court has fined them for contravening the nation's anti-discrimination laws.  

My last posting about the Bull case (to which the link above heads) made two points that are pertinent, I think, to the story of the grocery store in Arkansas that recently put a shield up to hide the cover of a magazine showing Elton John and David Furnish with their son Zachary.  First, I noted that, if the principles underlying laws that forbid discrimination aren't applied universally and without any waffling, we open the door to discrimination that has a spiraling effect.  Permitting one kind of selective discrimination that appeals to religious warrant as its basis inevitably opens the door to other kinds of selective discrimination on the same grounds.

And second, I noted (I spelled this out most clearly in the comments section of the posting) that those prone to one form of discrimination are often prone to other forms of discrimination.  Discrimination has a way of cloning itself, both in societies that permit any one form of discrimination (which then becomes more forms of discrimination), and in individuals prone to discrimination.  As Beverly Wildung Harrison's classic collection of essays entitled Making the Connections (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) powerfully demonstrates, there are compelling, unavoidable links between various "-isms" including racism, militarism, homophobia, and misogyny. All derive from a worldview in which men—straight men—take for granted that they have the unquestioned right to rule everyone else and to punish those who will not submit to their rule.  

And so people who are homophobic are likely as well to harbor discriminatory ideas about women and their place in the world, or about racial matters, and so forth.  One form of prejudice fits into another like one of those Russian dolls you open up to find the next doll inside the first.  And in cultures with a Christian heritage, each of these forms of prejudice--from homophobia to misogyny to racism--is likely to appeal to theological and scriptural warrants to keep itself alive.

And so the local story to which I link at the start of this posting: a few days ago, a grocery store in a smallish north-Arkansas community placed a shield across a display of U.S. Weekly magazines that featured John, Furnish (who are in a legal civil union in England), and their son.  When the screen drew national attention through various blogs, the store began to receive complaints from all over the place, and eventually withdrew the screen, stating that only one store in their entire chain had chosen to screen this magazine cover while claiming it was offensive to the sensibilities of some shoppers.   And that "the young" might be led astray by the magazine cover.

Read the comments at the Arkansas Times blog summary of the story to which I've pointed you, though, and you'll discover the following, from folks who live near or know the community in which all this happened: there's a strong church influence in the community; some of the leading local churches are hotbeds of various kinds of prejudice and ugly right-wing political activism; and that church influence has, according to a number of folks, succeeded in controlling some of the practices of the business in question.  And this community has a history of both anti-gay and racial discrimination. 

And back to the Bull case: as I noted in my summary statement about that case, the culture in which I live, the culture of the American South, has moved significantly away from overt displays of racial discrimination in the past half century.  We had to do that.  The law forced us to do so.

Even though many folks in my local culture firmly believed (and may still believe) that racial discrimination is not merely warranted but commanded by the scriptures.  However, once federal (and then, dragging their feet and following suit, local) laws informed us that we might believe anything we wanted to believe about racial matters, but we weren't going to be allowed to continue to discriminate in businesses, schools, public life, and so forth, we began to get over our discriminatory behavior.  At least in public.

And so today, it's almost unthinkable that anyone, even in a small, church-dominated Southern town, would choose to put a shield like the one used to hide a gay couple over the cover of a magazine featuring an interracial couple.  People may still think their private thoughts about these matters.  But they know better than to try to discriminate overtly in this area any longer.  Or to drag out the tired old biblical arguments about Noah and his son Ham and about how slavery was not merely permitted by the Jewish and Christian scriptures, but commanded by them.

A principle has been established by the law forbidding racial discrimination, and it has had an altogether healthy effect in our society in blocking many open forms of racial discrimination, even if it does not root such discrimination out of the hearts and minds of all citizens.  With regard to the Bull case, I'm arguing that the same principle also needs to be firmly in place re: anti-gay discrimination, and when it's held to with unwavering conviction by democratic societies, I think we'll eventually see the same process that I've seen in the American South in the past half-century.

That is, people may well go on talking about what (they imagine) the bible says about homosexuality.  They may go on disliking and even hating, and using God as their reason for disliking and hating.  But they'll eventually have to stop discriminating--in public.  While claiming that God is their reason for public discrimination.  Because in developed, pluralistic, secular societies, God (or the bible, or "the church says") is not an acceptable basis for discrimination.

And a society that wants to be healthy will block any form of discrimination, once that discrimination has been declared out of bounds by law.  Because permitting any one form of discrimination to display itself openly--even when it cites the bible or church teaching as its basis--leads to other forms of discrimination, and the end result of that process is a very unhealthy society.  Unhealthy for everyone.

You'd better believe that the very same folks who went to the manager of this Arkansas grocery store to complain the other day that their religious sensibilities were offended by Messrs. John and Furnish were complaining a few decades ago about magazine covers featuring black and white couples.   And the society those folks built when they were in charge of things, and when the law protected their right to discriminate racially while spouting bible verses, was decidedly not healthy.  For anyone.

In order to justify their desire to discriminate against gay people, the few remaining homophobes have concocted a scenario where they are The Real Victims. They can say what they want, set up churches or mosques that preach what they want, and turn away gay people from their homes every day of the week if they so desire – and I would defend every one of those rights to the last ditch. There is only one thing they can’t do. They can’t choose to offer a service to the general public, and then turn people away on the basis of race or sexuality. They can’t put up de facto signs saying ‘No blacks, no Irish, no gays’ at their B&B.

This isn’t a form of prejudice – it is a way of preventing prejudice. Nobody will ever force you to work in a registry office or open a B&B, but if you choose to, you can’t reject the gay couples and expect to remain in post.

As Hari also notes, those basing discrimination on biblical or theological warrants tend eventually to have no choice except to deal with significant moral shifts in their societies, which sometimes expose their prejudices (and their appeal to the scriptures) as immoral.  If the bible looks askance at homosexuality, it simultaneously supports slavery and commands us to stone adulterers.  We've managed to deal with how the growth of moral awareness in society at large affects what believers think in those areas.  And we can manage to do the same in the area of sexual orientation.

I do think there's reason to hope.  Look at what just happened with the store in my state that placed that  shield in front of the magazine cover.  By the end of the day, the store had removed the shield, after having received complaints from all over the place.  By the end of the day, the owners of this chain of stores had begun to realize that permitting one of their stores to engage in this open display of homophobic prejudice--no matter how satisfying that display was to some of their customers in the local community--was bad for business.  It was bad for their image.

The satisfaction gained from bashing the gays was outweighed by the trouble, negative publicity, and likely loss of revenue when the anti-gay display became widely known.  It became widely known because the internet permits the instant transmission of information that, in the past, would not become so widely known in such a short time frame.

And that seems all to the good, to me.  I see hope in the way in which the internet allows instant worldwide communication about this, and gives open bigots fewer and fewer hiding places.  People are able to know more and to know better these days--if they take the trouble to be informed.  And that puts the haters on guard.  And on guard is precisely where they need to be.

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