Noted contrarian questions #GLAADCAP; We answer

Not sure how I missed it, but it turns out that public thinker, same-sex marriage opponent, and Prop 8 star witness David Blankenhorn weighed in on GLAAD's Commentator Accountability Project  around the time of the much discussed project's launch. Since he plays such a unique role in this whole "culture war" (Blankenhorn identifies as a liberal Democrat, despite his conservative ties) and raised so many points that I feel worthy of address, I thought it'd be good to take a few better-late-than-never minutes and go over some of the untruths, unfair associations, and outright misrepresentations Mr. Balnkenhorm directs at the project.

Let's start with his initial blog post. Here's the bulk of it:

Of the 36 people on the list, I think I know, either well or well enough to say hello to, about 8 or 9. At least some of them, I am confident, should NOT be on such a list.

But my question is (and it’s not rhetorical, I mean it as a question): Should there be such a list? I can think of valid reasons to make such a list, among them being an effort to rebut what is viewed as homophobic public speech. And I don’t believe that making such a list in and of itself constitutes an effort to violate anyone’s right to free speech. But something about these lists also makes me nervous. Palmer had lists. McCarthy had lists. Hoover had lists. There is something about these lists that smells bad.

Gladd [sic] to help? [Family Scholars Blog]

Okay, so let's stop here and mention a few things that will hopefully serve as clarification, not just for Mr. Blankenhorn, but for others who have weighed in on GLAAD CAP.

First the matter of whether someone should or should not be included. I've heard this mentioned a few times in association with CAP, usually coupled with personal anecdotes about how congenial this or that person may be. Well, okay—who's denying that? No one at GLAAD is saying that anyone whose rhetoric has been detailed is a "bad" person. These kinds of personal character judgments have no place in this project. The sole focus is on the words, actions, and outreaches that these individuals have put out to the public for the sake of political gain, personal profit, and the fostering of a worldview that stigmatizes and marginalizes LGBT people. Whether or not an individual is good at witty repartee over coffee is completely irrelevant.

Then as for Blankenhorn's other chief criticism, that lists are innately scary because people like J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthey made and kept them? That's, quite frankly, a preposterous point for a scholar to make. For starters, no one's really calling CAP a "list" except its critics. While any assortment of data can be reaonably referred to as a list, CAP's critics pointedly use the term to do exactly what Blankenhorn is helping them do here, which is invoke images of "blacklists." Fair enough, they have the right to make such assertions.  But it's their doing, not GLAAD's.

Pressing on—Blankenhorn went on to expound on his thoughts in the comments section that followed his post:

I can suggest four reasons why I think you and others of good will who reject anti-gay bias might need to be nervous about this kind of list making.

1. It purports to be a public-service effort by an organization accurately to represent the views of the organization’s ideological opponents to third parties who have decision making authority that is of interest to both sides. Now, maybe you think that that can be done honestly and fairly in this case, but if you do, you must think that the folks at GLADD are bucking for sainthood. It may be possible for Newt Ginrgich’s [sic] press secretary accurately to represent Barack Obama’s views to a third party in the media that has decision making authority that matters to both Gingrich and Obama. Sure, that is theoretically possible.

2. It seeks overtly to create a stigmatized group. It doesn’t just say, I think Billly [sic] is a bigot. It says, Billy is a member of the bigots [sic] group. I think there is a difference — and so, apparently, does Gladd [sic], or else they would simply continue to say, Billy is a bigot (which they already do). That’s why McCarthy rarely said, “Billy is a communist” but instead usually said “I have list” which (sometimes) did have Billy’s name on it.

Gladd [sic] to help? [Family Scholars Blog]

Great, so let's take another pause, as the inaccurate presumptions are too many to hold off on.

In point one, Blankehorn seems to be suggesting that because GLAAD holds a differing point-of-view from those in the CAP project (at least on LGBT matters), then GLAAD is incapable of objectivity. This might be a fair criticism (or at least point of discussion) if the CAP project was made up of anything more than the commentators' own words. Sure, in Op-Eds and in blog posts like this one, people involved with the project have expounded on the CAP's purpose and intent. But as for the project itself? There is virtually no editorializing, and no point of view other than those of the people profiled is employed. It's nonsensical to raise questions of accuracy about a project in which almost every piece of information is a direct quote, and which backs up every single bit of information with the related audio, visual, or print data (often times linking out to sites hostile to GLAAD's own cause).

In point number two, Blankehorn tosses out the "bigots" card. Again, these are his own words, not GLAAD's. The project simply notes the reality of these commentators: who they are, who they work for, and, most importantly, what they themselves have said to build their profiles. If there is a stigmatization attached to that, it is self-crafted.  The only label GLAAD is applying to these indivuals is "Pundit of some note who has a documented record of harsh anti-LGBT rhetoric."

Let's move on:

3. It purports accurately to convey other people’s inner, rarely-revealed motivations and beliefs. This can get a little, dicey, don’t you think (esp. given point one)? I see this all the time in the Arab public debate, in which I’m tangentially involved. People who want for whatever reason to discredit Arab public intellectuals constantly say, “That’s what they say in English, but wait til you hear what we heard them say in Arabic! We have a file …” I’m always uneasy when I see that tactic (even though sometimes the shoe does seem to fit).

4. It’s almost certain to coarsen the discourse. The “I have a list” meme almost always uglifies the overall public conversation, in part because, even if done with care, it comes reasonably close to character assassination and has, as it is intended to have, an ominous, threatening, aggressive quality to it. By the way, the people who do this kind of thing almost always say...that their special status as victims, or as keepers of some flame of world-historical importance, ethically justifies the activity (which otherwise might come off as a kind of bullying).

Overall, the list may produce the result of reducing the public visibility and general reputation of the people on the list, at least in the eyes of the third parties who have some authority. (In other respects, it may backfire, just as those who were on Nixon’s list became sort of folk heroes to many, and just as Dalton Trumbo, who was on McCarthy’s list, is now widely respected, whereas Elia Kazan, who named names to the the House Un-American Activities Committee, is now widely disrespected in some circles for having done so.) But in the main, this effort at list making may damage the ability of these 36 to be heard and/or respected in the media
Gladd [sic] to help? [Family Scholars Blog]

Blankenhorn negates his number three point himself, with the last line about the shoe-fitting. Because the difference between his setup and the CAP project is that the CAP project isn't making claims about what anyone supposedly said in another language—the project is presenting what was said, verbatim, nothing lost in translation. The shoe undeniably fits, regardless of personal view; the only variable is how favorably or negatively one may regard said shoe.

Point number four is particularly rich. Blankenhorn worries that CAP will "uglify" the debate. He accuses it of "character assassination." He suggests the project has an "ominous, threatening, aggressive quality to it." To which I seriously have to ask: Have you read any of the CAP profiles, David? The sole reason CAP exists is because people like the forty or so currently on the project have made it a mission to knock the character of LGBT people and the LGBT rights movement, often in EXTREMELY aggressive ways. If a project that does little more than round up these very quips and blips comes across as ugly, then it's only because one finds the rhetoric that led to its creation ugly. Without that rhetoric, there would be no need for CAP. Scratch that—without that rhetoric, there would be no possibility for CAP. All CAP is is a collection of quotes. That's it.

Then Blankenorn wonders about how the media will receive CAP, suggesting that both aggrandizement and effacement could produce unintended consequences. This one is interesting, because this consideration is precisely what the project is asking of the media and the public at large. All GLAAD is asking is for people who utilize these commentators' services to take a breath, take a look, and consider some of the things that these same commentators have said about LGBT people in order to become known commentators. GLAAD is of course of the view that the great majority of American citizens who do so will see the harsh statements in a similar light that GLAAD and most LGBT people do.  But it's those who read the CAP profiles who ultimately make that choice, not GLAAD.

We also can't move on without mentioning merit. Here again, in the above block, Blankenhorn throws out Nixon's list and the House Un-American Activities Committee, as if these are fitting parallels. If you know anything about American history, you know offensive this is. Both of those lists, with varying degrees of brutality, made crude, inaccurate assumptions that were meant to demonize undeserving people with false information and histrionic witch-hunting. GLAAD CAP, however, is a reference guide crafted by an organization that fights back against the continued inaccuracies lobbed at a long-marginalized minority. GLAAD is not threatening anyone's livelihood or rights (CNN punditry is not a right, FYI). Also, because it bears repeating: GLAAD is not even threatening anyone, but simply hosting data that is only available to any of us because these commentators put it out to the public.

Asking "Are you now or have you ever been on air with Chris Matthews?" is worlds away from asking "Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?"

Now we can move forward:

More broadly, it may work indirecty [sic] to drive from the public discourse — from mainstream conversation — certain words, phrases, and arguments, in particular the words, phrases and arguments that are especially disagreeable to the folks at Gladd [sic] and those who support them. (Gosh, I hope I never say any of those words! Maybe I should learn what arguments are on their list, and make sure always to denounce them and never even indirectly endorse them! I wonder, is silence on these bad words acceptable, or, in order to make sure I avoid being on the list, must I affirmatively repudiate the bad words? Staying safe can get complicated … )

Finally, this kind of thing may also set an example for others to follow. Pissed off at secularists who say bad things about religious people? Pissed off at religious people who say ugly things about secularists? One, two, many lists!

Speaking to the first paragraph: If GLAAD CAP leads to more measured discourse or, better yet, the affirmative repudiation of the harsh words that are housed in the project, then how is that not a good? GLAAD will more than welcome someone like Tony Perkins denouncing the purposely harsh things he has said in order to increase his profile! I really can't see how a less hostile discourse is a negative. For anyone.

On his second point: The possibility of derivative projects is not a valid criticism. Human beings have free will, and we are all responsible for our public engagement. If someone on the anti-LGBT side wishes to hoist a pro-equality commentator by his or her own petard, then that someone has that right. Those who have said unfortunate things (on any side) must own these things that they have said. There is nothing unfair in any of that!  When you choose to become a public debater on matters of human import, you take on a responsibility.  With responsibility comes accountability! 

My overall take on David Blankenhorn's view of CAP is that it is skewed because of his relationships with certain people whoe work is documented in the project. In two more lengthy comment blocks from which I didn't quote, Blankenhorn talks about his personal friendship with NOM co-founder (and GLAAD CAPper) Robert George. He also mentions that he has at least a congenial relationship with eight or nine others. As someone who has relationships with all kinds of people on the other side of the political, ideological, and theological fence than myself, I understand how these personal dealings can shape things.

Though if I am right and personal dealings do make it harder for Mr. Blankenhorn to see and judge CAP on its merits, then he is actually falling victim to the same sort of traps that he attaches (wrongly, in my view) to the project. Namely, Blankenhorn is letting character judgement and/or personal biases shape his view of the concrete, fully documented CAP data. I think the burden for all of us who engage on these kinds of matters in the public space is to try our darnedest to focus on the actual facts, words, and deeds rather than physical characteristics, personal motivations, or preconceived notions. For instance, I personally very much applaud the work a group like Focus on the Family has done in terms of feeding and clothing the homeless. That said, the reality of positive FoTF outreach doesn't change the fact that one of this organization's top voices has called my sexual orientation (and by extension, my marriage and family) a "particularly evil lie of Satan," or that its staff members work against my rights in every single public policy area on both a state and federal level.  

Heck, someone who works at Focus on the Family once bought me a veggie burger, on the organization's dime. It was really good, as was the conversation. A few days later, I still slammed this special interest group—quite hard, in fact—for once again pushing scientifically-discredited "ex-gay" therapy. Those are not irreconcilable positions.  The people are the people, and the work is the work.

But going back to Blankehorn specifically—I think he knows that GLAAD CAP is perfectly fair and even good for people like him, who oppose same-sex marriage but also oppose hostility. He says in one of his final expressed thoughts on the matter:

Finally, I want to say again, in case it’s not clear enough, that I detest and reject anti-gay bias and anti-gay hate speech. My point is, that I don’t think that this list, or this type of list-making in general, is a good or fair way to combat the disease.
Gladd [sic] to help? [Family Scholars Blog]

So I have to wonder now: Is it fair that I just documented public person David Blankenhorn's words for the post you just read? Is it good that I publicly presented things that he himself expressed in a public forum? It this, my greater sunlight that I shine for the purpose of better understanding, an acceptable way to treat a highly polarized conversation that often turns harsh and disagreeable? Is it right for me to want to opine on these subjects, not so much to "combat a disease," but rather to push back against those who oftentimes make my life and love sound like a threatening ailment?  Is the transparency and insight that I hoped to achieve in this blog post beneficial to all of us who might want to better understand the subject? 

If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then that is the place to end this post. Why? Because those are the exact same questions that led to GLAAD CAP's creation.