I finally figured out what I dislike most about fundamentalism, what I find most toxic: it cannot and will not accept other people’s experiences, claims, intentions, motives, explanations, or observations as real.
I found this out, ironically, through observing liberal arguments on Facebook. It’s standard fare. Some poor unsuspecting soul will say something like, “I want safe bathrooms for everybody. I am concerned for trans people. I am concerned for sexual assault victims who might feel unsafe with male anatomy in their bathroom too. Can we come up with a bathroom solution that protects all people?”
The response is — I guarantee it — something like this: “YOU HORRIBLE TRANSPHOBIC HATEFUL PERSON. How dare you. HOW DARE YOU. YOU HATE TRANS PEOPLE. YOU THINK THEY’RE PREDATORS. I am SICKENED by you.”
The unsuspecting soul grovels before them: “I am so sorry I offended you. I do care about trans people. I never said they were predators.”
“YES YOU DID, YOU DISGUSTING EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING. You hate trans people. You spew hate.”
“But I just said I don’t hate trans people.”
“YES YOU DO!”
Et cetera. Another big step forward for LGBT+ rights.
I walked away from viewing this cage fight considerably shaken. It reminded me exactly of the fundamentalist mindset: the inability to allow someone who disagrees with you to mean what they say.
Since we’re on the topic, that’s why any sort of dialogue between the LGBT+ community and the conservative Christian community crashed and burned a long time ago. Gay people cannot actually mean that their love is real and healthy; their children cannot actually mean that they grew up just fine with two dads or two moms; their sexual orientation cannot actually be as unchangeable as they claim, because the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination and the heart is deceitful above all things and Rosaria Butterfield changed her sexual orientation, so there you have it.
This line of thinking may or may not be expressed in the manner seen above (i.e., you disgusting excuse for a human being), but it’s equally damaging.
This is not a strictly “conservative problem” or “liberal problem” or “internet problem” or “LGBT+ issues” problem.
It is an all-of-us problem.
A friend of mine confronted some friends, once. This friend expressed concern, hurt, and discomfort at the language they used and the jokes they told. At first, the friends were angry and offended; they thought my friend expressed herself poorly; they thought she was just stirring up the pot and throwing around devastating words.
Then — as my friend put it — “they realized the problem was different: I had meant exactly what I said.”
I meant exactly what I said.
That. That is the realization many of us need to come to in our conversations with those who disagree with us.
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to dismiss somebody’s perspective and experience because of their word choice or their emotional state.
You’re overreacting. You’re on your period, aren’t you? You just want attention. You’re a white, cisgender male. You always were dramatic.
That’s why many Christians cannot accept as factual the feelings and experiences of a black person or a feminist or a Christian who walked away from their faith. And many secular people cannot accept as factual the feelings and experiences of white people or complementarians or religious people.
Generally, we don’t want to hear anything that contradicts our narrative of the world, that disrupts our “us vs. them” ideologies, that challenges our beliefs that we want to believe are universal.
I use the word “narrative” because I think it’s more important to know why we believe the things we believe than to know what we believe. Why we believe can divide us just as much as what we believe, and what drives us to believe can unite us with others different from us. Even if we don’t share the conclusion, we share the process, we share the motives, we share the goals.
I think the key to understanding people, to loving them, to making peace between them, is understanding their narratives — and by “understanding,” I mean letting them mean what they say they mean, even if it contradicts your worldview.
As a fundamentalist Christian, I thought I knew everybody’s narratives. There were only three: those who knew God, those who didn’t, and those who “tasted the heavenly gift” and walked away.
If you knew God, it was because he predestined you, because the Holy Spirit enlightened you, because all along, he was what you were searching for.
If you didn’t know God, you were miserably unhappy and sinful, lost, desperate for escape, incapable of morality or self-control or love. There was a God-sized hole in your heart that nothing could fill.
If you walked away, it was because you hardened your heart; you were bitter and angry against God and others; you threw out the baby with the bathwater; you were deceived; you let your hurt blind you to the truth.
Those narratives dominate and subsume all alternative narratives.
Because of the narrative of those who know God, it’s difficult to be a Christian with doubt, a Christian with the testimony that God doesn’t show up when you need him and that your spiritual life is a source of struggle, not comfort.
Because of the narrative of those who don’t know God, it’s difficult to believe unbelievers who claim to be happy or good without God. “Do you feel like you’re missing anything by not believing in God?” I asked my nonreligious friend. “No,” she said. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. (I didn’t know what to make of that.)
Because of the narrative of those who walk away from God or Christianity, it’s difficult to take them seriously; it’s difficult to see how droves of Christians are abandoning ship for legitimate reasons; it’s difficult to understand how they could have been unhappy within Christianity and how they could be happier elsewhere.
So we resort to shutdown tactics: “You’re deceived. You’re not seeing the full picture. You’re overreacting. You’re just bitter. You’ll come back to the truth eventually.”
And if your worldview requires that your worldview always be right, you have to resort to shutdown tactics. You have to reimagine somebody else’s narrative. You must, or your whole worldview will crumble around your feet.
I did a lot of explaining away as a fundamentalist Christian. Lots of it.
I call that explaining away “hijacking narratives.”
When atheists help the local poor, Christians report how amazing it is that God can work through unbelievers. Hijacked narrative.
When a Christian tries to ask an honest, well-meaning question about homosexuality, secular people report how amazing it is that Christians can be so bigoted and heartless. Hijacked narrative.
When you claim that egalitarianism is a more faithful, Biblical reading than complementarianism, people jump all over you for disrespecting the inerrancy of Scripture. Hijacked narrative.
When you claim to be abused, people roll their eyes at the self-centered victimization going on in today’s youth. Hijacked narrative.
We’re not going to get anywhere with anybody if we cannot allow people to mean what they say.
Of course, this is not a simple path to truth.
People say things all the time that they don’t mean. Not everybody is self-aware. People can be deceived, duped, swayed, and manipulated into believing things that harm themselves and others. And even when people mean something, meaning something doesn’t make it true.
I say this as someone who thought for my whole life the truth was one thing and then realized I was lying to myself. I am hyper-aware of my own ability to deceive myself, my frequent inability to be honest with myself — this, as a someone who prides herself on self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity.
I hijacked my own narrative. That’s the worst part of fundamentalism, for me — it trains you to doubt your own observations, thoughts, and feelings on the empirical fact that we could all be wrong. And when you’ve hijacked your own narrative to keep it in line with the “truth,” it’s incredibly difficult not to hijack the narrative of somebody who grew up with different experiences or observations. It’s hard not to jump to conclusions or have concerns or questions.
This is why I beg for grace, understanding, and patience for everybody — including fundamentalist, religious, cisgender, straight, white, middle-class people, including secular, atheist, transgender, gay, colored, poor people. I beg everyone to listen. I beg everyone to allow people to mean what they say they mean. I beg everyone to meet people where they are — even if their idea of “love” includes elements of bigotry, even if their idea of “truth” includes elements of narrowmindedness, even if their sincere meaning seems out of touch with reality.
Everybody, on all sides: Give people the dignity to know their own thoughts and motives best, even if there’s evidence they don’t.
No more hijacking narratives.