Friday, May 06, 2005

Stop Labeling and Start Organizing!

More than a decade ago I sat in a conference room in Washington D.C. and was told I had to start using the phrase "religious political extremist." This was the new way for people on the political left to frame our opponents on the political right. It made me unhappy. I already had problems with language such as "radical religious right," "lunatic fringe," and "wing-nut." This new phrase just seemed wrong to me.

I'm uncomfortable when I hear people of sincere religious faith described as religious political extremists. What does that term mean? I worry that many people hear it as a term of derision that says we're good and they're bad. There is no topical content. It's a label that says folks are outside the mainstream; and it lumps together leaders and followers, and blurs distinctions within the Christian Right that I think are important. Most conservative Christian evangelicals do not want to impose a theocracy on our country. I'd like to be able to talk to them about the issue of Christian dominionism within the Christian Right.

Polls show that most people in the United States do not agree with the narrow legislative agenda of the leaders of the Christian Right. Polls also show that most people think of themselves as part of an organized religion, and that as many as 100 million of our neighbors think of themselves as Christian evangelicals or "born again." Why would an organizer start out by offending half their potential audience with language that is abrasive?

We need to challenge conservative policies as part of a progressive grassroots organizing effort based on civil and constructive dialog. The whole idea of grassroots organizing is to reach out to people who may not already think they agree with you. As a community organizer, when I heard discussions about slogans, I always asked: "What’s my next line?"

Let's role-play. So here I am knocking on a door in Emporia, Kansas, and when the door opens I lead with "We have to stop the religious political extremists!" What’s my next line? (That's assuming my nose wasn't broken when the door was slammed in my face). Unless the person already agrees with me, there is no constructive next line.

I think it's time to stop using phrases such as "religious political extremist" and "radical religious right." A lot of my friends and allies use this language, but what are friends for if they can't tell you when they think you are wrong? I also think that we should be asking folks in the Christian Right to stop pasting labels on those of us who are liberal or progressive. I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

Over the next few days I will be expanding my arguments for this position.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog

9 Comments:

Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...

My brother is on the religious right, and I don't like calling him an extremist.

I want to be able to talk to him from time to time.

In fact, he has suggested to me that he and I write dueling, paired opinion columns.

In other words, he's extended the olive branch in a fashion.

I never have thought much of name calling.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Hutson said...

In the South, we used to say "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." It's true. This morning, I looked inside my honey jar and found a Christian. It was my own reflection. I was raised a conservative Christian in Alabama and Texas, and gradually shifted toward progressive politics. My thinking was helped along the way by kind folks who didn't condescend or call names, but took more of a "come, let us reason together" approach.

5:38 PM  
Blogger rhetoretician said...

Recognizing and choosing to get past one's anger, I think, is key. The labelling (which I've done many times myself) seems to be an expression of the anger that arises from:

- A feeling of powerlessness against a seeming juggernaut.

- A response to vicious anger being directed toward one for having the audacity to exist.

- Distrust of the "other."

- Deep-seated frustration at the unwillingness among so many of the opposition to engage in honest discussion (for example: Coulter, Limbaugh, Hannity. O'reilly).

That last one is most interesting to me, because I think many who parrot those pundits' opinions do honestly believe what they're saying. But it's hard to trust anyone who shares those opinions, because the opinions are tainted by the dishonesty of the pundits who promote them.

The punditocracy creates a distrust filter that colors all people with opposing views a distasteful shade.

8:47 PM  
Blogger duranta said...

I believe we need to be compassionate with those who are being deceived by the religious right leaders. These leaders are deceiving themselves, and willing to lead others down the wrong path.

Many have difficulty thinking for themselves. I have relatives who support Bush, and his extremist beliefs. Yet I want to maintain a dialogue with them. I refrain, for the most part, with responding directly to their most extreme beliefs.

But I must tell you, that an occasional, in your face comment, can do a world of good in helping to snap someone out of self-deception. I don't mean literally in your face, but I do mean aggressively.

We have a responsibility to each other, to help care for each other and to be honest with each other. Sometimes honesty requires me to say, my friend, I think you are wrong, and here's why.

We have a responsibility to speak out.

If I absolutely feel a need to call someone a label or "name", then I must be ready to define it, and state the reasons why.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Incognita said...

So much can be implied with a few words. I think the the term "Religious Extremists" is alienating to those with faith.

I have a much better term: Religious Opportunists

2:33 AM  
Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...

Hey! I like that.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Sunfell said...

Religious opportunists is good. The leaders use the opportunity that religion gives to them to take advantage of the trust their congregants automatically give them for being in authority. This trust is generally blind, because, sad to say, a lot of these leaders teach their followers to not think for themselves, because it lets doubt and the Devil in.

8:58 AM  
Blogger janinsanfran said...

Confronted with your example, that is, knocking on a door to talk with whoever answers about my concern that the Christian faith is being used by the political right, my object would be to find out how the person answering thinks about religion in public life. Above all, I want to know what bothers them, if anything? Are they ever bothered by pronouncments from religious leaders that seem to dictate what other people should do? Or dictate how the government should be organized?

My object would be to elicit what language they use about these issues, if any. It takes a lot of talking to get people beyond their just repeating phrases they've heard in the media, or in church, or, above all, have somehow decided will keep them from looking stupid. When you begin to get below all that stuff, then you are having a conversation. And I find, at that level, you'll both find language that is meaningful.

This is real organizing work -- and also respectful communication, something we practice little with people we don't know.

3:04 AM  
Blogger janinsanfran said...

Confronted with your example, that is, knocking on a door to talk with whoever answers about my concern that my faith is being misused by the political right, my object would be to find out how the person answering thinks about religion in public life. Above all, I want to know what bothers them, if anything? Are they ever distressed by pronouncments from religious leaders that seem to lay down what other people should do? Or that dictate how the government should be organized?

My object would be to elicit what language they use about these issues, if any. It takes a lot of talking to get people beyond their just repeating phrases they've heard in the media, or in church, or, above all, have somehow decided will keep them from looking stupid. When you begin to get below all that stuff, then you are having a conversation. And I find, at that level, you'll both find language that is meaningful.

This is real organizing work -- and also respectful communication, something we practice little with people we don't know.

3:06 AM  

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