When Is It Wrong to Ask Questions and Express Opinions?

A dust-up occurred earlier this year among certain people of influence in the loosely-woven halls of power of a minor religious denomination that I choose not to name. The brouhaha erupted over publication of an essay that recounted a woman’s experience as she attempted to be supportive of her cisgender daughter’s close relationship with a person who was in the midst of transitioning from the male gender assigned at birth to the female gender. The writer apparently had always been a supportive ally of gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, etc., etc. The story is more complex, but I’ll try to simplify it by saying this: the writer expressed the difficulty she found in understanding and engaging in conversations about non-binary sexual identities. She was surprised to be told, when she asked questions to satisfy her curiosity about the journey between the gender a person had been assigned at birth to the gender with which the person identified, “You really can’t ask about that. The only thing you can ask is which pronoun someone prefers.”

The article raised the hackles of some influential people in the non-binary community within the denomination. The editor of the publication wrote, in an apology about the essay, that it became apparent after the fact that “Additionally, it was hurtful to put a straight, cisgender person’s experience in the foreground, especially as one of the first major articles in the magazine on this topic.”

I have read literally dozens of articles asserting it is absolutely wrong to expect Blacks to educate Whites about how to correct the legacy of slavery and racial prejudice (and I understand the legitimacy of that position).  I find it hard to comprehend why our position should be absolutely reversed for a different population (non-binary people). Why should we expect them to educate cisgender people about how to overcome the bigotry of sexual-identity superiority? While I concede that only non-binary people have the personal experience of facing that bigotry and, therefore, their personal experiences alone can lead to complete understanding, I believe the same is true for Blacks and Whites.  The perspective of the oppressors, who are trying to understand the facets of their behaviors that are offensive, can be just as educational, I think, to both parties. But perhaps my perspective as a cisgender male is invalid because…I am a cisgender male? Why, then, is my Whiteness not just as invalid when trying to change the racist behaviors of my fellow White males? Why, in that set of circumstances, must I take responsibility, but when it comes to my sexual orientation and identity, it is wrong for me to write an essay from my own personal perspective?

My confusion here is, I think, legitimate. Frankly, I cannot understand how an essay (an ESSAY, I say) written from the perspective of a cisgender woman who, from all outward  appearances appears to be an ally of non-binary people, can be viewed as hurtful. She wrote from her experience, from her perspective, and asked questions that I certainly understand her having. I would find an essay written by a transgender person about their perspectives in maneuvering a cisgender-biased world to be equally illuminating; and I would not find it hurtful to cisgender people. I would find it educational.

I read the original offending article and the responses by the editor, the church leader, the original essayist, and others (all of whom apologized). Even so, I could not understand why the original essay was considered hurtful. Instead, it seemed to me that the original essay upset some people whose upsets were simply accepted—not necessarily understood, but accepted—and treated as legitimate and deserving of apology. Though an apology is appropriate for an action that unintentional offended another person, I think a much more thorough explanation of the offense is required before simply saying “what we did was wrong.” Why was it wrong? Why is it wrong in this circumstance but not wrong in another circumstance that ultimately led to a civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths? An automatic “mea culpa” is, in my view, just as damaging as an unintentional offense. An insufficiently explained apology tends to teach others that any offense by one person taken automatically leads to blame of another…even when no offense was intended and when the legitimacy of the offense is open for debate.

A reactive “we did wrong and therefore we apologize” is, in my view, an invitation to close discussion. Rather that acknowledging the very real questions and the legitimacy of dealing with an unfamiliar experience, it says “your perspective doesn’t matter—what matters is someone else’s perspective, so tread carefully…always vet your point of view to ensure that it is innocuous before sharing it.”

My reaction to the brouhaha would have been the same, I think, had the issue not been one of sexual identity but, instead, religious affiliation. I would argue that my questions about religious beliefs should be freely asked without concern that I might cause hurt to someone’s deeply-felt religious convictions. I realize religious convictions are choices, whereas sexual identity is not, of course. But matters about which one feels strongly tend to correspond to fragility. I should be conscious of the potential for fragility, but I should not bury my questions for fear I might crack something.

Finally, I do not advocate (nor do I accept for a moment) that questions on what can be delicate matters should be asked without regard for feelings. Sensitive issues should be approached with sensitivity and regard for the feelings of others. In the matter of the essay mentioned above, it seems to me those issues received ample consideration. Perhaps the honesty of the questions triggered the responses. One can be sensitive but at the end of the day some questions simply cannot be asked without being somewhat blunt. Bluntness should not be viewed as synonymous with insensitivity; it can and should be viewed as honesty on display.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to When Is It Wrong to Ask Questions and Express Opinions?

  1. Well-stated, Warren. As much as I hate to say something that suggests even a tiny suggestion of agreement with the current abhorrent occupant of the White House, I think we can overdo political correctness, especially in matters with the potential for wounding sensitive feelings; rather than avoid the conversation or condemning those who converse, we should be bluntly compassionate. If that’s possible. Sometimes, it’s not, I guess.

  2. Warren A Searls says:

    John, I may have already sent you an incomplete response. My philosophy is if you don’t inquire you don’t acquire. Knowledge that is. Your penultimate paragraph says it well. I would just add political beliefs as well as religious beliefs or any beliefs for that matter. Perhaps use the word opinions rather than beliefs.

    At an institution we both attend there seems to be a strong reluctance to ask political questions, but even a reluctance to discuss political issues and the people who espouse them. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning requires that one unearth the untruths and those who perpetuate them.

    If a person denies the inherent worth and dignity of another human in words or deed, I feel I must rise up against that person if I am to preserve the worth and dignity of the other. Warren

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