she / partner / god

Cyberporn & Society is about all the hot-button topics you aren’t supposed to bring up in polite company: sex, politics, and religion, especially. Not surprising, then, that there are postings that tend to step on people’s toes, or go further than this. One student, for example, suggested that those who performed in “gay for pay” videos (pornography in which those who identify as heterosexual in everyday life have intercourse with other men on camera) “should be hung.” Heck, I think you could reasonably argue that writing this publicly would even be illegal in places where hate speech is not allowed. As it is, I assume the student resorted to hyperbole in order to be controversial–I always assume the best of people–and only commented sternly on his blog.

Last week, we got visited by the Porn Nation tour. This is a multimedia presentation that has been touring campuses warning of the dangers of pornography addiction and providing signposts toward the road to redemption. The campus was plastered with lots of slick, suggestive 4-color glossy posters and postcards, and in small print at the bottom was the attribution to Campus Crusade. (“We’re not just for Christ any more!”–Oh, wait, yes we are.) I encouraged students to attend, and many posted comments on their blogs.

Among these was a posting that decried the ignorance of religion, something that ruffled the feathers of a few students. One was particularly upset that the student wrote the word god with a lower-case “g,” rather than the traditional “God” for the Christian god. While I understood and sympathized with the potential this had for offence, I came to the defense of the offender, suggesting that spelling isn’t really something to take particular offense over, when there are plenty of other offensive things to notice.

That night I got to thinking about my own use of language, and I wrote an email to the student who had been offended by the little-g-god. In edited form, it went something like this:

I had dinner with a group of friends tonight: professors and lawyers. They were largely godless, or at least fallen. The consensus was that you use big-G for the Christian God, for reasons of tradition if nothing else. However, they also agreed that this had clear overtones of the supremacy of Christianity in the English-speaking world. I try to walk the edge in class of being as open as possible and not letting my personal attitudes and opinions cloud my judgment. Chatting with some disinterested folks, though, was informing for me.

In case you’re curious, I do use lower-case god in my own writings is as an expression of my beliefs. I am somewhere between an atheist and theosophist (some would see them as the same thing), and I think that sometime in the last five years or so, on the rare occasions I write the word “god” it has come to be in lower case. Before that, I think I would probably have used upper case, as is more customary.

It’s a small way of expressing what I believe. It is akin to my using “her” as a non-gendered third person. It is non-standard–standard English expects you to use “he” for a third person of unknown gender–but I think an important way of problematizing that understanding. I’ve been doing this for a bit less than a decade. About seven years ago, two students challenged an exam question I wrote in a course on media law. I had referred to the judge as “her,” and the students argued that this was confusing. Why? Because they expected the judge to be a man. That experience really cemented my use of “her.”

I’ve also actively tried to change my speech to refer to my spouse as my “partner.” This has been very difficult for me to do–“wife/husband” is a pattern that is very prevalent–but again, it’s a change I am making in order to support something I believe in (that same-sex partners should have the same respect as mixed-sex partners). It can also be confusing to people, but I hope in a useful way.

In making these language changes, I no doubt offend people: those who believe in God (particularly within institutionalized Christianity), those who believe in traditional gender roles, and those who believe in the primacy of man-woman unions. When people disagree about strongly-held beliefs, some offence is bound to occur. I seriously find it offensive when people suggest that something other than a natural evolutionary process is responsible for the creation of humans. But I also know that they do not always intend to offend, and I recognize how hard it can be for everyone to engage in these differences.

I think it is absolutely possible to both offend and to be respectful. I think that I can wholeheartedly believe that I am right, and still respect someone and their differing opinions. I guess what I am saying is this: I think probably that standard English dictates that God be capitalized. But if someone chooses not to capitalize it–particularly when trying to make a point–I don’t think that this goes so far as to constitute a serious insult. When someone suggests that believing in God is ignorant, I think this is a poor argument and will fail to persuade. I think it is much more clearly disrespectful. I happen to agree that I don’t understand how intelligent people can believe in an imaginary person without (by definition) empirical evidence. But that said, I also know some brilliant people who do believe that, and I have enough humility (not much, but enough!) to recognize that (a) belief in a super-natural supreme being does not necessitate ignorance and (b) it is more than remotely possible that I am absolutely wrong.

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  1. Posted 3/12/2006 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Well, maybe the student meant “hung” and not “hanged”.

  2. Posted 3/12/2006 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    great post, alex. your course pushes all the hot buttons but it also pushes forward the teaching of internet studies in really interesting directions.

    it would be great if — or, it will be great when — your students begin critiquing each other, thereby taking the prof out of the mediator/head cop position.

  3. Posted 3/13/2006 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    Dr, H,

    I ::heart:: you.

    – Matt

    P.S. I just got back from Salem, MA…awesome place…awesome, awesome place.

  4. Posted 3/20/2006 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    God is real!

  5. Posted 3/23/2006 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Which one?

  6. Posted 3/23/2006 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    This from the Arabic student? There is no god but god.

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