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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

We can be better than our principles

Behind the curve

As I've confessed elsewhere [here and here and here, for example], I was behind the curve when it came to gay rights. Or maybe I was with the curve, but barely. The point is, I came to publicly support gay marriage and tolerance and acceptance only at about the time publicly supporting them became a mainstream view. In the meantime, I missed opportunities to help others, even in the limited sense of offering my moral support when my own mind had changed but the mainstream view remained decidedly anti-gay. Late was better than never, but it was still late.

In part, I hesitated because I was working through my sincerely held beliefs. My beliefs about sexuality, identity, morality, and civil rights were in their own way thoughtful and coherent and at least partially came from a place of love and empathy. The worldview on which I based my beliefs wasn't necessarily more unfair than some of the supposedly "welcoming" worldviews I've encountered since then.

And in a wider sense, there was and is a certain imperative to be true to myself. I ought to forbear embracing that which I'm not ready to embrace honestly. It's a balancing act of sorts. I must honor a disposition to the truth even as other things make me question the truth as I currently discern it.

At any rate, adhering to my anti-gay views entailed tolerating and gainsaying certain real dangers that gay persons faced. Whatever justification I justly marshaled in support of my views, I helped in my own way to create a space and set of policies under which people were bullied or assaulted for being gay, where people were being disowned by their families, and where a devastating disease that disproportionately affected gay men was publicly (and with minimal censure) touted as just deserts for a lifestyle choice.

That problem--holding sincere beliefs while also creating real harm--is always with us, and ultimately I don't know how to resolve it.

I can advocate one step, however. That step is, don't insist on a final resolution. Sometimes when the issues are fraught with competing moral claims, or when the right outcome (whatever that is) is either impossible to fully implement or comes with disturbing collateral damage--in those cases, we should sometimes just address the question and situation before us. We should put aside our honestly and deeply held theories about how things should be and instead focus on immediate situation.

Sometimes is not always. On some occasions, we have to settle on our principles and stand by them. Those occasions are interesting but rare, and are not usually of the sort we want to experience. Or maybe those occasions are more common than that. But the point is not to get bogged down in resolving all the world's problems or coming up with and enforcing a complete system of thought unless we really, really have to.

I am thankful that for most of the very contentious issues these days, I am not responsible for determining their resolution. I don't have to set immigration policy. I don't have decide how to use U.S. military forces. I don't even have to ultimately decide on how to enforce such seemingly trivial (to those to whom it's not an everyday issue) concerns about preferred pronoun usage. [UPDATE: It's not that I surrender the prerogative to opine about those issues and others. But I should keep at least one eye focused on what I can and should do personally, in my daily interactions with others, even while I explore broader concerns.]

On a day-to-day basis, I'm fortunate to have less monumental concerns, to be confronted merely with treating people well or at least treating them less poorly than I could. While I fall short even with those responsibilities, I'm thankful my responsibilities aren't even greater.

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