Friday, September 24, 2010

Leather Generations: Dialectic or Debate?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #400, September 24, 2010)

Over the years, this column has dealt several times with issues of intergeneration and intercommunity conflict. This conflict often is characterized as between the “Old Guard” (those who value, and try to preserve, the community hierarchy and other traditions that leather culture inherited from its military beginnings) and the “New Guard” (those who either don’t care about, or who outright reject, these traditions). But sometimes conflict also surfaces between other community groups: those who identify as “leather” and those who identify as “BDSM” or “fetish,” for example, or between various combinations of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and heterosexuals.

When conflict happens, communication between the groups in conflict can take several forms. One is debate, in which each group tries to convince the other group that its way is correct and the other group’s way is incorrect. Sometimes one side is convinced; sometimes each side just digs in its heels.

Another way to deal with conflict is through dialectic, in which the two sides engage in discussion that eventually produces a third viewpoint that is superior to either of the original viewpoints. I recently heard the concept of dialectic described in a sermon preached by the Rev. Keith Hohly, pastor of First Lutheran Church, Mission Hills, Kansas. (Sometimes the universe speaks to us when we least expect it.)

Dialectic goes all the way back to ancient Greece, and discussions of it have filled many books throughout the centuries. In his sermon, however, Rev. Hohly discussed dialectic as a style of communication between parents and children, and I recognized right away that what he was saying applied also to intergenerational and other struggles within the leather/BDSM/fetish community.

Here’s how Rev. Hohly explained it: Parents have values which they wish to impart to their children. This part of the dialectic is called the “thesis.” Children rebel against these values—“antithesis.” Ideally, out of the combination of thesis and antithesis comes “synthesis,” something that is different from but better than either the original thesis or the antithesis. The synthesis becomes the new thesis, and the process starts over again. This is how people and communities evolve and progress is made.

It’s not that children should not rebel—on the contrary, it’s part of their job to rebel as a way of declaring their independence from their parents. It’s healthy for them to rebel. Parents sometimes might wish it were otherwise, but good parents know that part of raising the next generation is enduring the process of having that next generation assert its independence.

But sometimes parents or their offspring refuse to be part of the process, as in “My way or the highway.” With no willingness to try to understand the other side’s position, the discussion then often turns into a debate that convinces no one and solves nothing. In a debate there is no middle ground and no synthesis.

Now let’s apply all of this to ourselves. Consider how leather arose in the first place. Our community took the rebel role against then-mainstream society’s vanilla values and practices. There was no attempt at dialectic then, and history shows what happened: leather culture was underground, and divorced from mainstream culture, for many years. It is only relatively recently that mainstream society has seen any value in our culture, and then often only as a way to shock people and sell things. But it’s at least some kind of dialogue.

Within our then-underground community, however, the early history of leather seemed to be free of intergenerational conflict, in that the community’s values and traditions were passed from one generation to the next through a very effective system of mentorship.

But that system was torn asunder by the AIDS epidemic. Today we have traditionalists, most of whom are older, and we have rebels, most of whom are younger. Too often, the two groups seem to be arguing in endless debate, when what would be more constructive would be dialectic between the two groups—between every group, actually, that has a stake in this community and in its future.

The next time you hear an argument in leather circles, listen closely. Do you hear debate or do you hear dialectic? Which would you rather hear? Which would you rather contribute to?


Shameless commercial message: Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness, the new book by your humble columnist, is now available locally at Cockpit Project, Gray’s Leather, Rainbow Road, Smitten Kitten and True Colors Bookstore (the former Amazon Bookstore), or from your favorite bookseller.

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