“The universe is [most fundamentally] made of stories, not atoms.” -Muriel Rukeyser American poet
“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.” –Noam Chomsky
On a basic level, we are having an argument about reality in America right now – with many different interpretations of what that reality is.
As long as ONE version of this reality is the only thing in front of us, however, it’s pretty hard to make any progress in a conversation – “if you could only accept…umm, REALITY, everything would work out just fine!”
The moment when things start to change is when we realize, “hey wait a minute – your version and vision of reality…feels super different than mine…Hmmm, wonder why that is?”
The narrative nature of reality. If you asked Hans-Georg Gadamer, Charles Taylor and other continental philosophers, their answer would go something like this: “hey, congratulations, you’ve discovered the interpretive nature of reality – at least human reality – wherein all experience is mediated by interpretation and narrative.
From this perspective, interpretation just a part of human experience – nothing to be feared or avoided.
If these smarty-pants philosophers are right about interpretation-as-unavoidably-central-to-human-experience, then what would it mean to get curious about it?
That’s pretty much what this whole book is about…By turning attention to the many varieties of interpretation across many kinds of questions, we hope (among other things) to open up an LGBT-RC conversation that seems deeply constrained in its best moments – and chock full of aggression at its worst.
How about making room for all of us to find a voice and space to explore in this conversation? What exactly would that take?
Mapping narratives. For beginners, we think that some kind of a fair “map” of the different interpretations (and questions) at play would be pretty huge. I (Jacob) first cued into the power of personal narratives and interpretations several years ago during research exploring conflicting narratives of depression treatment – with particular attention on: (1) how various narratives were adopted over time and (2) how those distinct stories played out practically in shaping diverging trajectories of depression treatment.
If that’s true for depression, what about the rest of life?
It turns out that we hold narratives of all sorts of things – including sexuality itself. Creating our best attempt at a “map” for this conversation about sexuality is something we are seeking collaborators for right now.
Below, you’ll see the 15 questions that we propose as ‘centers of gravity’ in the conversation between LGBT and religious conservative communities – issues about which substantial disagreements hinge. Like cartographers touring Africa to try and make sense of how to describe and articulate the various climates, geographies and peoples, our hope is to find ways to delineate the various boundary lines in the discourse about sexuality in America. Ultimately, our goal is to work collaboratively with others to create interpretive “maps” that represent our best attempt to summarize key issues, interpretations and associated implications within each topic area – the ‘anatomy of a discourse.’
Even with abundant attention on LGBT issues generally, only a few of the following questions seem to be receiving serious and sustained attention on the national level:
These maps remain a future project under construction, and will be released when they are finished. If you have an interest in joining the project – or know other collaborators who would be helpful, please let us know!
Story connections. Although sub-divided here into these fifteen question categories, obviously none of these questions exist in isolation – instead, clustering together in meaningful ways. For instance, if you see the body as primarily unchanging, on one hand, you’re more likely to see choice as largely irrelevant to the whole conversation. And you’re also more likely to see sexuality and emotion itself in a similar way (unchangeable-and-irrelevant-to-choice). In turn, you’re also more likely to see all three aspects of life (body-emotion-sexuality) as a primary and central reflection of identity – and centrally reflective of who you are. Religious faith, by contrast, becomes more likely (from this vantage point) to be seen as a distraction and distorting veil of one’s true nature.
By the same token, if you see the body as fundamentally fluid, you’re more likely to believe the sensations of the body can be worked with in different ways. And you’re also more likely to see sexuality and emotion itself in a similar way (malleable, workable). In turn, you’re also more likely to see these three factors (body-emotion-sexuality) as more secondary players in identity to some degree – and less centrally reflective of who you are. Religious faith, then, becomes more likely to be embraced (from this vantage point) as a trustworthy guide to one’s true nature.
There are lots of other 1-to-1 if-then-likelihoods that are also evident – examples of certain beliefs making another more likely. Here are a few more examples:
As reflected here, various interpretations and narratives all pretty much “hang together” in one set of beliefs or another. Getting more specific, the following eleven views are more likely to hang together:
For our purposes here, we’re calling this cluster of beliefs “Narrative A.” In parallel fashion, these other eleven views are also more likely to hang together:
For our purposes here, we’re calling this cluster of beliefs “Narrative B.”
By this point, some of you are probably thinking: Why (again) does this matter? Remind me once more about the point of this strange mapping exercise you’re trying to do?
Stay with us…there is a method to the mapping-madness!
It may be no great revelation to you that the above beliefs “hang together” in different clusters or narratives – or even that they diverge so much.
Even if that is all old news to you, this may not be…
Story consequences. Depending on which narrative cluster of beliefs you have adopted, your entire universe of experience will likely end up looking fundamentally, profoundly different than it otherwise would – with some things making sense, and other things not…with some life experiences embraced, and others rejected.
More than simply your perception of the universe changing, your choices and the ensuing details of your experience will also likely diverge considerably.
Exploring your own narrative then, is far more than an intellectual exercise. These are practical, intimate and personal matters of extremely sensitive meaning – some would say “live and death” meanings. As Arthur often says, “The lines of the culture war run through my own soul.”
More than beliefs merely influencing other beliefs, then, these beliefs influence how we feel and what we end up finding a sensible action. To illustrate on a practical level, if you believe that current physical, sexual and emotional patterns reliably reflect who people fundamentally are (Identity Narrative A), then it makes sense that you may also:
By comparison, if you believe that people’s fundamental identity is distinct or goes beyond one’s current physical, sexual and emotional patterns (Identity Narrative B), then it makes sense that in the rest of your life, you may also:
Depending on which general narrative one adopts, then, a surprising number of other things may follow. Although those reviewed here are simplistic examples of far more complex decisions, the consequences and implications of one’s narratives run through all sorts of things – including whether or not:
In addition, this influences how you come to see other, more specific circumstances. For instance:
If nothing else, we hope this fairly arcane inquiry reflects one thing: Depending on what you and I think and believe about identity, sexuality, emotion, the body, choice, change, God etc. – depending on ALL THAT – we subsequently come to really different conclusions about A LOT of other stuff.
In simple summary, if you believe “this is who people are,” then you’re going to act a particular way. Whereas, if you believe something different about “who people are,” you’re likely going to act in a very different way.
If that’s true, then what would it mean to actually acknowledge these dynamics and bring awareness to the varying ways we’re conceiving of these questions – all while getting curious about how these differences play out in real life? What would that kind of awareness mean for these ongoing conversations about sexuality happening in America?
Our answer: it could (and we believe would) make this whole conversation a whole lot easier.
Balm for the suffering American conversation. The current back-and-forth between LGBT and religious conservative communities seems chronically beset with underlying resentments associated with personal character accusations (e.g., who is “more loving” or “hateful” or “faithful” or “godly” or “bigoted” etc.)
Rather than getting preoccupied and mired down in this, we think it could be a huge step to simply acknowledge that there are honest disagreements underlying much of this. Rather than calling someone a [fill in the blank, put-in-their-place word], this expanded understanding of how stories play out in real life would inspire a response like- “hey, you know – we’ve got some pretty profound philosophical differences going on here…”
Of course, if we’re hardly aware that these interpretive differences exist (which is typically the case), then it’s nearly impossible to consider what they might mean in real life. And if we can’t see these different narrative pathways, then our ability to choose between them is fairly limited.
And that’s why we’re doing this! By clarifying these distinctive interpretations, our hope is that others can broach the interesting ways they play out in real life – for the express and primary purpose of better understanding others.
On a most basic level, we believe this could open up the conversation quite a bit more – inviting people, for instance, to acknowledge that there is more than one way to think about offering support to those who identify as gay or same-sex attracted – and that for those identifying with Narrative A, (real) love, (authentic) compassion and (legitimate) support might look quite a bit different than for those identifying with Narrative B.
And for those making decisions about their own lives and future, we believe this conversation would and could multiply space that would allow (all) people to consider and chart their own course (much more) free of control or coercion.
My freedom and yours. After all, if we can’t or don’t see another’s world, we’re especially likely to assume those who can’t see it are merely stupid or evil or hateful, etc. Then, as often happens with de-humanization – aggression soon follows. [In other words, once we see our opponents as despicable, malevolent, evil, etc. – we’re willing to FORCE them to do what we want].
Our experience is that we’re very rarely aware of any of these narrative dynamics, which makes our choices less conscious, more driven and more prone to exerting subtle, inappropriate pressure on others…
Translation: since this awareness is usually absent from conversation, coercion becomes much more likely to enter the space between us (see next chapter).
That’s one reason we’re so passionate about at least beginning to acknowledge narrative/interpretive differences in our conversations…
To summarize: rather than (automatically) assuming a difference in people’s ability to love or faith or intelligence (all which obviously do exist as well), maybe we can get curious about how profoundly our conception of love or faith (or lots of other things) might also vary according to our different overall convictions, beliefs, and narratives at play?
Rather than a mortal battle between good and evil – love versus hate – suddenly we might just have on our hands…an interesting conversation about honest disagreements?!!
We don’t know about you…but that sounds a whole lot more enjoyable than stewing in chronic resentment about ‘those evil people’ on the other side of this conversation.
So are you in?
 One person asked, “Why does Christianity get the only religious say here on the gay rights movement?” Our answer – “it doesn’t! It’s just that most people we’ve spoken with and read are coming from that tradition…we can only stand where we stand – and are eager and anxious to expand the conversation from here to include more perspectives?” Another person might add the Christians have been at the forefront of resistance and opposition to the LGBT rights movement – and thus, it makes sense to have them over-sampled and over-represented. Clearly, there is opposition in other faiths as well.
 These distinctions are not intended as universal or clear-cut boundary lines between people – as much as useful and real distinctions between ideas. In actual practice, things can get quite a bit more murky and complex. For instance, one of our review team pointed out, “a lot of people can identify with both sides – and I think that also – makes for a more interesting discussion.”
Jodie Palmer’s thoughts from our review team are especially powerful on this point:
Yes, yes, yes. If we can see how different narratives give rise to different versions of reality, then our ability to sit and hear another would become significantly easier. What specifically bugged me was how stereotyping your Narrative A and B were. I get why you did, because the stereotype bears out, but it also doesn’t, I suppose because of the “clustering factor.” Narratives don’t come in just one flavor. They are complex because different clusters of narratives result in the many different conclusions we come to. Everybody is coming to the table with different clusters of narratives.
The way you set up and designed Narrative A and B just makes me feel bad as a gay person. It makes me feel like, “If I say that I’m gay, then I am what they tell me I am, a radical liberal, morality destroying, god-less atheist.
There are hundreds of thousands of gay people who do not believe in sexualizing children, and who also believe in fidelity and the sacredness of marital commitment, on and on and on. There is an assumption here that if you identify as gay, then you are more likely to identify with narrative A. I identify as gay, and even go so far as to feel that sexuality is an eternal identity, meaning supremely fixed, and I share very few of the ideas of Narrative A. Although, possibly a minority, I am certainly not alone. I’m part of a huge number of gay Christians who feel broken between the rocks of what conservatives label the “gay agenda” and the waves of our own “identity.”