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Monday, July 12, 2010

Codes and Community in TLP: Looking at Jed (and Jackrabbit)

So, we've been talking a little about how language is often a marker of certain social groups, that what we say, and how we say it, changes with one group to the next.  We code-switch into the codes of one social group into another.  When there's tension between those groups, like, say, the "town and gown" conflict in Laramie, choosing one's language is important because navigating between groups gets perilous.  And, if there's one character who is literally stuck in this divide in The Laramie Project, it's Jed Schultz.  

Jed interests me because I totally understand his plight.  Before I say anything else, let me assure you that Jed was a good kid when I knew him; he was always extremely outgoing and energetic, fun, easily overemotional, and he had a craving to fit in socially with the people he was around.  He also loves his parents.  Never doubt that.  I knew him a little bit from high school, but after I was baptized and attending The Baptist Church, I'd see him come to church with his dad occasionally.   I found him... interesting.  Jed still knew all the codes, from the shiny polyester button-down shirt and pleated slacks to the monogrammed Bible he carried in its nylon zip-up cover and handle, but he never seemed quite at ease.  Before that point, I had never known Jed to seem ill at ease anywhere. 

That sense of ill ease is where I can sympathize; I'm not in the SBC anymore, probably for the same reasons that he was uncomfortable in that church back then.  At the time of the first play, Jed was caught between two different societies, transitioning out of one and into another.  On the one hand, he was born into a Southern Baptist Convention culture with some pretty legalistic ties and proud of its religious independence and political conservatism.  I should know-- I was there.  On the other hand, he was heavily involved in theater in high school, which tends to be a fairly counter-cultural group anyhow, and then he was a theater major at the college.  Those two worlds can't be more opposite.  Again, I should know.  I spent most of my spare time in Fine Arts, just like Jed, and most of my friends were in dance, music or theater.  And in the course of the play, I think that Jed is trying to keep a foot in each world and having trouble figuring out where to stand.  His language, I think, betrays a little bit of that attempt to fit in.  Jed has to switch codes between different groups as he tries to navigate from one to the next. 

Take, for instance, his first discussion of homosexuality with the theater company:
And the reverend will tell you flat out he doesn't agree with homosexuality-- and I don't know...  you know I don't feel like I know enough about certain things to  make a decision that says, "homosexuality is right."  When you've been raised your whole life that it's wrong-- and right now, I would say that I don't agree with it-- yeah, that I don't agree with it but-- maybe that's just because I couldn't do it-- and speaking in religious terms-- I don't think that's how God intended it to happen.  But I don't hate homosexuals and, I mean-- I'm not going to persecute them or anything like that.  At all-- I mean, that's not gonna be getting in the way between me and another person at all. (57)
You can almost feel the discomfort radiating out of the pauses in this passage.  For one, I found it interesting which words he's not saying-- religious words like sin, forgiveness, or moral.  He's dancing around a lot of the usual code words that are normal in the religious community, trying to fit in with this social group, and he's having trouble because he's discovering his normal codes aren't going to work in this social sphere.  That last line is just a tortured, roundabout way of saying "love the sinner, hate the sin," but he's trying to say it in different language.  He doesn't talk about sin, but instead talks about "agreeing" or "disagreeing" with it. He neither directly says that God forbids it nor says that he personally thinks it's wrong. That's a lot of verbal hopscotch for one small paragraph, which suggests that Jed is self-conscious of his words and trying to find a way to sincerely express his beliefs in terms that his interviewers will understand and accept. 

Then there's what Jed is saying.   Jed's still trying to take that Christian idealist route of love the sinner, hate the sin, and it's falling flat.  His language is still one of the church no matter how hard he tries: persecute, how God intended it, homosexuals...  That language is a religious perspective looking outward on the issue of sexuality, which is why it doesn't work to bring him inside Tectonic's social sphere.  He's using the language of the church, naturally, for what for him is ultimately a religious distinction, but that's not how his audience (Tectonic) approaches the same thing.  That language is an acceptable way to justify one's views among like-minded evangelicals because it makes us feel comfortable, open-minded and benevolent about our moral rejection of same-sex desire; however, it's not language that works outside of that sphere. He can't import that language of "love the sinner" outside of his church community and make it work. 

Things really change the next time we see a passage from Jed in the play, when he discusses the fight he has with his mother: 
And we got into this huge argument... and she goes, "Well, you know homosexuality is a sin"-- she kept saying that-- and I go, "Mom, I just played a murderer tonight.  And you didn't seem to have a problem with that..."(85)
The words that basically Jed had said before, Jed now parrots back to his interviewer for a completely different reason: to differentiate between himself and his mother.  The language of the church here-- about homosexuality and sin-- is actually invoked this time, but it has a different purpose now.  It divides Jed from his parents and aligns himself with the theater community.  And, by the end of the play, Jed's own terminology shifts, from the language of an external standard-- "that's not how God intended it"-- to interpersonal comparison: "How did I ever let that stuff make me think that you were different from me?" (98).  The phrase that stuff here is telling. Those previous, important moral standards no longer have the language of respect and reverence attached to them. 

But then there's the first few lines of the play to consider.  Which Jed is speaking here? 
We've become Waco, we've become Jasper.  We're a noun, a definition, a sign.  We may be able to get rid of that... but it will sure take awhile.  (9)
Even though this is his first speech in The Laramie Project, I'd be willing to bet this is from one of the last interviews just based on the tone.  This language of abstraction, of being a sign, just strikes me as particularly academic for Jed.  So I wonder if this is spoken a year or two later on reflection, looking back at Laramie's status with the distant eye of a college student rather than just another kid from Laramie with a religious background and disagrees with his parents.

So you might ask-- is there any way to know if any of this analysis is true?  Not a bit, actually.  This is all pure supposition, a mental exercise to see if these ideas of communities and linguistic belonging can give us any insight.  We can't take it for anything more than that. 

But it has been helpful for me on a personal level, however.  There was a time that Jed's lines in this play made me shrink a little in discomfort because I felt like he was throwing his parents under the bus for the sake of his new home, the theater community.  I know Jed's parents, particularly his dad.  Jed's father would give a needy guy the shirt off his back, and he wouldn't stop to quiz the guy on his doctrinal stance on sexual orientation first.  For a time, it seemed unfair to me to focus on his family's intolerance of just this one issue so much, like he was setting them up to be a villain in a tragedy where the only true villains were Henderson, McKinney and Phelps. 

But now that I've started writing my own narrative, one that involves the same tensions with my own identity, I don't think that anymore because I can see places where I speak the language of the academic  community against my family, or the language of the West against academia.  I can especially see my own ideas about the Lord and sexuality undergoing some kind of uncomfortable transformation; I can no longer just stick to traditional interpretations and time-worn soundbytes and feel reassured about what's right and wrong.  Sometimes I look at what I have said about my family and I am ashamed; and sometimes I speak with the Lord about how I've approached the GLBT community and my faith, and I'm ashamed then, too.  I can see where my view of others has stopped short of complete love and acceptance.  

As Jed is probably well aware, these are uncomfortable codes to navigate, ones that sometimes require sacrifice of one side for another.  You can't always speak two different languages at the same time; you can't support every part of whatever community you're inside of. And that's how I see Jed Schultz trying to navigate through these different communities through his language-- and how Jed made me finally realize that I was doing exactly the same thing.

Thanks, Jed-- that honesty of yours has helped me a lot, too.

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