The chapel session about homosexuality created a firestorm. Ricky Chelette (the speaker) managed to alienate men and women, gays and straights, Christian and not, in one fell swoop. He made crude jokes and sweeping statements, and as a result many people assumed the worst about him. But much of this was based upon things he never said, and does not profess.
Chelette was demonized before anyone understood what he meant. Within minutes, Facebook, Yik-Yak, and the general conversation were bursting with rants against his “hate speech” and “bigotry.” Words such as “condemnation” “dehumanization” and “hate” dominated the campus conversation. To hear people talk about it, one would think that Chelette had just given a fiery sermon condemning half of MC to Hell.
But was that even remotely true? Did Chelette actually talk about how much he hated gays and women, or try to force everyone into his own stereotypes?
The answer is a resounding no. Rather, many people assumed that he did, based on how he delivered his message. Specifically, he over-simplified complex issues due to time constraints. Chelette made it sound as if he were stereotyping people, when in fact he was not. This lead to him being vilified unjustly.
While he may have delivered his message poorly, that was not the whole story. Many of those who listened to him, both in chapel and in the discussion panel, came to realize that he didn’t actually believe the things attributed to him.
Chelette shared his personal story in the panel, and revealed that much of what he said about sexual development and the emergence of homosexuality was in fact his own testimony. He himself has homosexual tendencies, and that has given him a great compassion for gay people. Not only that, he said that many of the most admirable people in his life are, in fact, gay.
This message was not clear in chapel. But in light of it, was it really fair to accuse Chelette of hating and dismissing gay people, especially considering that he is one of them?
Even with this clarity, people (myself included) still took umbrage with his theories and generalizations. Several people told him as much in the discussion.
He admitted that they were largely right, and clarified that his theories were not all-encompassing or absolute. They simply came from what he had observed and experienced.
Thus, Chelette wasn’t actually hateful or ignorant about gays. People simply assumed that he was. This trend continued when he talked about women.
In chapel, he said women were “too complicated” and would not be discussed, and also that they were created to be “nurturing.” Many listeners thus assumed that he was a sexist and had a low view of women and their roles.
But, in both the panel discussion and the chapel session, Chelette spoke extensively about how he admired men who treated women with respect, and lamented that the gender roles in our culture often lead men to treat women poorly. He made it clear that he didn’t see one sex as superior, just that they were different from each other. Indeed, some of these arguments could have come straight from a die-hard feminist. More importantly, none of them indicated that Chelette had a derogatory view of women.
Chelette’s vaguely sexist jokes and broad statements about women’s roles lead people to assume the worst about his beliefs. But just as with gays, he wasn’t in fact being hateful, but merely presenting his message poorly.
Chelette never preached about the inferiority of women, his hatred for gays, or the like. In fact, he spoke highly of both groups. He merely oversimplified his message, and people assumed the worst about him for it.
The problem was never that anyone criticized or spoke poorly of Chelette. The problem was that they demonized him for things he never said. He said controversial things, and many assumed the worst about him.
This assuming was the linchpin of this entire debacle. Rather than attempting to understand what he meant, or even listen to him at all, people based their views on a few out-of-context quotes, or the frantic testimony of their friends.
If someone came into chapel and attacked gays and women, trying to force everyone to conform to his stereotypes, then they would deserve the anger Chelette received. But this was not what happened, and it helped no one to vilify someone who didn’t deserve it. After all, aren’t there enough problems in the world without creating more?