Sunday, May 26, 2013

Measuring Scouts in Binary Oppositions

 On Thursday, May 23, 2013, the Boy Scouts of America voted on whether to allow (openly) gay members to join the organization.[1] By Friday eve, the Associated Press reported that the proposal carried the day, garnering 60% of the vote by the 1,400-member National Council. The vote was held during the Scout leaders’ annual meeting in Grapevine, Texas amidst significant lobbying efforts on both sides of the issue. I am sure you heard about the hoopla.

In following this development, my thoughts lit upon two former Eagle Scouts with whom I am familiar who embrace opposite points of view as to the efficacy of this policy change.

On one hand, I know personally a former Eagle Scout who is now a very successful Texas businessman. He is openly gay. He has been with the same person for nearly thirty years, ever since they met and fell in love as undergraduates. The state does not permit them to marry, but it has permitted this couple to adopt two special needs kids who had been wards of the state and who were in dire need of a safe passage out of the mire of chronic abuse to which they had been subjected since their time in the womb. This former Eagle Scout is for allowing openly gay boys to participate in scouting.

On the other hand, I know of a former Eagle Scout who is now a long-standing governor of the state of Texas. He too has been successful in his sphere of influence. He has had the same partner for a long time, with whom he has had two children. He has not had to worry about whether the state would sanction either his marriage or paternity. This former Eagle Scout has taken a public stand against allowing openly gay boys to participate in scouting.

What might Shakespeare say about these people who share characteristics, yet have adopted polar opposite positions with regard to a public policy?

Shakespeare was fond of using mirroring techniques to further a theme—two characters who seem similarly situated but who end up occupying diametrically opposite positions with respect to a set of values. The audience, in watching the interplay of these binary opposites, is able to glean a theme, some deeper truth.

Audiences, like members of the Boy Scouts’ National Council, are more likely comprised of people who do not occupy the space at either pole. Most people in scouting leadership are not openly gay—only about 10% of them may even qualify; and most people in scouting leadership do not believe that gay people are three-headed beats whose existence is a threat to heterosexual marriage and the very fabric of civilization—probably only about 10% of them hold such beliefs. So that means 80% have to determine what they believe based neither on personal experience nor apocalyptic vision. If Shakespeare were writing the script, he would construct a plot such that the two poles’ interaction would nudge the audience in a certain direction. But he would do so in a way that is psychologically interesting—i.e., through a prism that is complex and thus realistic. Shakespeare rarely crafted caricatures or mere foils. Consider, for instance Edgar and Edmund in King Lear. While Edgar is the good son and Edmund the treacherous one, the former is not a pallid saint and the latter is not a cartoonish villain. Both are fascinating, intelligent, and thoroughly believable. But all is not relative either. What Edmund believes is right, which amounts to the ruthless pursuit of his own self-interest, is not right. He believes that it is okay to exploit his Edgar “a brother noble,/ Whose nature is so far from doing harms,/ That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty/ My practises ride easy!” (I.2)

By contrast, Edgar is willing to assume the disguise of a madman—not only to escape capture but to find a way to protect his foolish father who has believed Edmund’s machinations, designed to suggest that Edgar (as opposed to Edmund) is plotting to assassinate their old dad, thereby inducing the old man to turn on Edgar and elevate Edmund.

I am happy to see that a majority of the Boy Scouts’ leaders did not follow the leader lobbying for a position designed to induce turning on their gay brethren and calibrated, perhaps, merely towards making certainly leaders “grow” and “prosper” politically (Edmund, King Lear, I.2). The position that was rejected is, in my view, illegitimate because, like Edmund’s consciously false portrayal of Edgar, it is based on a falsely dichotomous view of nature.

[1] The group is not yet ready to consider changing its policy regarding (openly) gay scout leaders.

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