I think the 'dialogue' with James McGrath is over for now. Those of you who are sick of it, don't worry - I'm just going to do a little analysis before moving on to other things. Still, a few things came out that are worthy of notice, at least for those of you who enjoy engaging in discussion about the gay marriage topic, particularly with those of a liberal bend. Because the fact is? That whole discussion went well. McGrath was caught without having much on his side other than a few sloppy thinkers, bad arguments and a meager at best ability try and paint his intellectual opponents as evil men. I doubt I changed his mind, but I was able to highlight exactly where someone like McGrath is coming from, and why their position is illiberal and bigoted.
This is an extremely long post, so those of you who aren't interested in the finer points of debate may find it completely uninteresting. Those of you who are? You may want to read, because I'm going to try and concisely communicate some lessons about discourse that I've learned over the years.
The important lessons.
* We got to see an interesting bit of rhetorical sleight of hand in play - namely, how the relative importance of the very same act changes drastically depending on whether it's a Christian or an LGBT brigade member whose perspective we're looking at. If you're a baker who doesn't want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, then suddenly the act of making a cake is tremendously minor - who cares? It's just a pastry, not the end of the world! Why won't you make the pastry instead of raising all this fuss? But if you turn the logic around - if it's 'It's just a pastry, who cares! Get your pastry somewhere else for your wedding.' - then all of the sudden pastry-making is a direly important act - nay, a bulwark against the inevitable wholesale gas-chambering of the entire LGBT populace. It is of dire importance that people get pastries from ANY baker they choose, so important that the apparatus of the state - the men with guns who can take your money and lock you up - must be rallied to put that cake in the right hands.
Relevant lesson? When someone tells you that a given issue is tremendously minor, not worthy of making a fuss over - see if that means they'll concede the issue. After all, if it's of no importance, then surely they'll be willing to drop the subject, right? I doubt you'll be surprised to find out how often they refuse to do that.
* It's important to call out obvious bullshit rather than let it slide because you're used to it. McGrath drew a direct line of equivalence between nazis, racists and people who don't want to make wedding cakes for a same-sex wedding. I think conservatives are punch-drunk about this kind of thing - it happens and they roll their eyes, maybe make a passing comment, but ultimately ignore it. Don't do that. Don't get used to people spitting in your face, don't think you're the mature one for letting it happen and not making a fuss over it. That comparison was completely unsustainable, and I made sure to point that out - especially when charges of 'You, Crude, are being too aggressive here' started to surface. I was dealing with someone who was bringing in the nazi comparisons from his very post, without so much as an example of condemnable rhetoric from his opponents to rely on.
Relevant lesson? Be aware of insults, and speak up about them. And don't take that as a license to fire back with an even greater insult, because - on its own - an uncalled for bit of smearing is offensive to an onlooker.
* Also notice that eventually, McGrath started to complain about my tone, and began talking about the wish for a calmer, more civilized debate. Be advised: when someone opens up and attempts to follow through with slander and attacks, once they start complaining about how you're just being so mean to them - that's a signal that things didn't go as planned on their part. McGrath wanted to be a bully, painting Christians as nazi-monsters who he was going to gallantly stand up against. Once he started to look like a hypocrite and a petty thug, that's when he began lamenting just gosh darn blunt and uncivil people can be. It's also when he started to look for some way, any way, to discount what I was saying - from getting his middle initial wrong, to writing under an internet handle. Also note that I didn't heed those calls for 'nice' discussion, precisely because McGrath didn't actually want that - that entire exchange was an attempt to show how mean he was, and how nice he was. At which point the reminders of the nazi comparisons and other rhetoric he opened up with became inconvenient - at least, so long as he refused to apologize. But to apologize about that would mean to give up a comparison between his intellectual opponents and historical monsters - which is too high a price.
Relevant lesson? Never accept a call for civilized dialogue that comes from someone A) after they've been slandering you and people like you left and right, and B) only after they've started to do poorly in the exchange. Opening up with 'you people are horrible monsters who want to put gays in gas chambers' imagery has an intellectual cost - and you're not the more mature person if you design to overlook that without a clear apology from them. You're just getting suckered.
* Focus. I threw in some asides to some of McGrath's fans, but I kept most of my time for McGrath himself. I don't really need to answer everyone who's coming at me (this is a hard lesson to learn, but important, because a major point of swarming-tactic responses is to overwhelm your time and energy) - it's McGrath's blog, and if he's the one making the mistake, he should get my attention. Not the guy with the double-digit IQ repeatedly quoting a single line from Kennedy after his point on that front has been disproven. That doesn't mean ignore everyone, but it means manage your time wisely. If you're going to waste it arguing online, at least waste it well.
Relevant lesson? Judge who is and isn't an important conversational target in a given discussion. Ignore swarms, because their job isn't to bring up great points you won't be able to answer - it's to distract you and bog you down with nonsense.
* Specifically on the gay marriage front - the hardest lesson to learn is to treat LGBT activists and 'people with same sex attraction' as distinct groups. I didn't target 'the gays' because 'the gays' aren't a relevant target. They never were. Some of 'the gays' oppose same sex marriage and sodomy. Some of 'the gays' marched against it in France. Some of 'the gays' find these LGBT antics as insulting as you do. To that degree, they are on your side. Recognize it, and use it. People feel sympathy - not all of it unwarranted - for 'gays'. They have far less sympathy for 'LGBT groups'. Highlight that distinction.
Relevant lesson? Recognize 'gays' aren't your enemy in discussions about gay marriage. Check your language, hone it - focus on the groups and the activists, because the groups and the activists are the real problem - and your dialogue will go better when you speak as if this is the case.
* Word the problem properly, and keep repeating it. You'll notice that repeatedly this issue was cast as 'refusing service to someone, just because they're gay!', when what motivated the argument in question were same-sex couples demanding services to be supplied for their wedding. There's a reason McGrath and company chose to frame the issue from the start as 'denying service to someone, just because they're gay' rather than 'not wanting to supply a service for a gay wedding' - because the latter sounds (and is) obnoxious and totalitarian, and is actually opposed by most people to this day. But that's not the motivating concern, and the attempt to change the topic is a case of re-framing. Don't let it happen.
Relevant lesson? Framing matters. Don't let your opponent set the frame to something other than what it really is.
* You have your victims too, historically. McGrath and company attempted to draw parallels between people who don't want to serve gay weddings, and people who want to actually exterminate gay people. Please remember - because it seems so many Christians forget - that secular forces have exterminated Christians by the boatload, and persecute them in many areas to this day. If they bring up gays being beaten by idiots in the past, bring up Christians being beaten and starved for their 'irrational' beliefs by secular forces. If they want to turn denials of wedding cakes into a step on the path to The Final Solution for gays, then turn legal forcing of service to same-sex weddings into a step towards purging of Christians from a country.
Relevant lesson? You're arguing on behalf of victims, against bullies. Don't let yourself be tricked into arguing against a group - argue in favor of one too.
* Sexual orientation is irrelevant to the specific question of same-sex marriage and Christianity. This is a tougher idea to communicate, because it involves nuance - but it has intellectual force. If someone tells you that refusing to cater a same-sex wedding is discrimination against homosexuals, point out that there would be a refusal even between two heterosexual males marrying each other. The problem in that case is the act, not the individual. One person attempted to respond that this amounted to a kind of sex discrimination, but as I said in reply - the moment they walk down that path, they're done. Sex discrimination exists in bathrooms, lingerie shops (effectively) and more - and at that point, they've fallen back to conceding that this is about an act, not an individual.
Relevant lesson? Think about what you're arguing. Look for novel rhetorical and intellectual approaches. Think them over, test them out - and if you're unsure of the arguments, be cautious with them, give necessary qualifications.
* Christ was more than a smiley face. Early in, McGrath tried a typical move: he attempted to argue that Christ didn't believe in 'marginalizing' people, but opposing gay marriage was a marginalization. I pointed out straightaway that Christ flat out called a woman accused of adultery a sinner, and told her to go forth and sin no more. I also pointed out that Christ condemned divorce and remarriage - which also meant that Christ Himself 'stood in the way of two people who loved each other getting married'. I think of all the points I made against McGrath, this alone was enough to cripple his argument early in. Note that it didn't take long after that for him to pretty well drop appeals to Christ.
Relevant lesson? Christ is the Prince of Peace, but He took positions that frankly nowadays would have some people up in arms. When someone attempts to paint Christ as someone who would attend a gay wedding, be sure to point out what He would likely do when He showed up.
* Call bluffs. McGrath himself was the one who brought up Christ's teaching on divorce, and he probably gambled that I defended divorce. I don't, Catholic that I am. But once McGrath himself not only brought up Christ's teachings on divorce, but tried to turn it against me, that gave me more reign to point out just what that meant about Christ - and also to press McGrath on what he thought about that teaching. Remember, a big claim here was that 'conservative Christians' tended to ignore Christ's teachings - but not a progressive like McGrath. He didn't have anything to say there, because - let's face it. He's not going to start condemning divorce while defending gay marriage. That was a topic brought up purely to try and trip me up - and he wasn't prepared to be pressed on HIS thoughts about divorce, and the relevant sinfulness of divorcees.
Relevant lesson? Pay attention to likely bluffs, and call them. More than that, be consistent in your positions - and never bluff.
* Above all, keep calm. You'll notice that I was mouthy, I was curt, I was even rude - but I never lost my cool in that debate, despite being in a moderately populated 'liberal' territory with people namecalling. I don't get worked up. I don't namecall. If I mock, I have fun with it - I go for humor, not insult, first and foremost. I realize an internet debate is almost always ultimately penny-ante shit, and I keep my thoughts focused and relaxed. Panic is a testament to intellectual weakness. Don't do it, even if you think it will be cathartic. If you want to work out stress, get a punching bag. Don't debate, at least if you care about what you're communicating about your beliefs and to onlookers.
Relevant lesson? Relax. Even if you're angry, burn easy.
I could go into more, but I think this is lesson enough for now. Hope someone finds it useful.