The many (unfair) shamings of Kim Davis

Let's begin with the slut-shaming. Yes, it's time to stop slut-shaming Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who has been jailed and released for defying a court order to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Kentucky. Sure, I smiled when I learned that the family-values clerk had been married four times, as I, like many of you, am gleeful when the self-righteous are exposed as hypocrites. What I didn't expect was the vitriol directed at her looks or her hairstyle. To me, she looks like lots of regular women most of us see in America every day. She's just a normal person without a wardrobe expert or Hollywood makeup artist and hair stylist.

But what I see in some of the media — especially on social media — is that she's a slut, she's ugly, frumpy and deserving of our ridicule. To add to that, she's also a bigot.

Really? Let's think about all of these labels. My thoughts on this started to come together when I read a short piece by Matthew Facciani at the blog Patheos.


Facciani's conclusion is simple: We should stop slut-shaming and attacking the looks of women we disagree with. Is anyone slut-shaming Donald Trump for his three marriages and probably countless dalliances? And God forbid, conservative icon President Reagan for his two marriages? Men, in general, get a pass unless they post dumb Anthony Weiner pics or tap another's foot under a toilet stall. David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana, at first denied associating with prostitutes, only to admit it later. One might think that he would have been slut-shamed out of office. It didn't happen.

And let's get real. Let's say Davis was a knockout. Out of this world beautiful. She would likely get shamed for that as well. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who has seen the Internet memes making fun of — and yes, slut-shaming — potential first lady and former fashion model Melania Knauss-Trump. If she were a knockout, Davis would probably be called a "bimbo," no matter how smart she is. Does it matter what these women look like if we disagree with them? It shouldn't.

Now for the hillbilly-shaming. Libby Anne comments on Facciani's post and adds that not only should we quit slut shaming Davis, we should stop “hillbilly” shaming her, which is mocking rural people for their accents and/or lifestyles. Anne points out Davis is often depicted as a redneck, hillbilly or backcountry hick, and says that it is classist. She says we should call out people for their bigoted beliefs, but not make fun of them for the way they talk or where they are from. She's right.

Most of us from rural America have felt the brunt of hick-, or hillbilly-shaming, but most of us ignore it. I assure you that when city folks from other states arrive in rural America, we too have reactions to your accents, habits, manners, etc., but most of us are polite and don't say anything about it. Perhaps to put too fine of a point on it: Some of you have the manners of a goat. Since we don't control the media, our "ridicule" of you, if it becomes public, isn't common knowledge. Yet, one's cultural and geographical context controls in large part how we sound, dress, etc., and it doesn't mean that one group of us is better or smarter than the other, hillbilly-shaming aside. So just stop it.

And now for for bigot-shaming. The shift in America in support of same-sex marriage has come about remarkably quickly. In Pew Research polling in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57 percent to 35 percent margin. Pew researchers conclude that since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown. Based on polling in 2015, those numbers are nearly reversed: A majority of Americans (55 percent) support same-sex marriage, compared with 39 percent who oppose it.

So, are those 39 percent of Americans bigots because they don't support same-sex marriage? Some of them likely are, but certainly not all of them. It's also possible that some who do support same-sex marriage are bigots as well. I personally know one person who is certainly bigoted about ethnicity and race, but supports gay marriage because an acquaintance he admires is gay. Also, were the people who support same-sex marriage now who opposed it in 2001 bigots then, but not now?

There are several consequences to bigot shaming — 39 percent is a lot of people who are not going to like being called bigots. The word "bigot" loses its power, and it likely builds resentment and perhaps resistance to the idea of same-sex marriage. Of course, the opposite may be true as well — people may at least publicly say they support same-sex marriage to avoid the stigma of being called a bigot. Then they are just closet bigots, which is just as bad, if not worse. Those on the right would also say that the word "bigot" cuts both ways, that it is those who reject Davis's traditional view of marriage who are the real bigots. The problem with this of course is that no one is using their views to force Davis into a same-sex marriage; instead, she is using hers to stop the free expression of the now legal concept of same-sex marriage by others.

America is undergoing a major transition. It's not going to be helped by calling 39 percent of the population "bigots." And let's just guess that many of that number are Christians. So are you really Christian-shaming? How do you think that is going to work out? How is the current Muslim-shaming of law-abiding American Muslims going?

Davis may be a bigot. I don't know her. We're learning a lot about her: that she was married four times, that some of her office staff don't like her, and we will probably learn more as the weeks go by and the legal challenges unfold. Some of what we learn may even be true.

Bottom line, the issue is actually more complex that it seems on the surface as a matter of law. Eugene Volokh, in The Washington Post, considers the situation of when your religion can legally excuse you from doing part of your job. Volokh argues that there's a lot of appeal to "you take the job, you follow the rules — if you have a religious objection to the rules, quit the job." He goes on to say:

But it's not the approach that modern American federal employment law has taken, or the approach that the state religious exemption law in Kentucky and many other states has taken. Muslim truck drivers who don't want to transport alcohol, Jehovah's Witnesses who don't want to raise flags, Sabbatarians (Jewish or Christian) who don't want to work Saturdays, and philosophical vegetarians who don't want to hand out hamburger coupons can take advantage of this law. Conservative Christian county clerks who don't want to have their names listed on marriage certificates and licenses likely can, too.

Volokh concludes that perhaps the courts will allow for an exemption, maybe for her office to issue licenses without her name on them. Rightly or wrongly, under the rules for religious accommodation, she may yet prevail.

So while many are laughing at the ugly slut of a hillbilly who went to jail for standing up for her religious beliefs, would they have the courage to do so for their own? Would you really? Or would you fold?

So let's stop slut-shaming, hillbilly-shaming and bigot-shaming Kim Davis. Deal with the issue as an intellectual matter. I know it's hard, and it's a more interesting narrative to demonize the enemy and glorify those on your side. It's our instinct to tell stories this way, but sometimes it serves to obscure not only complex issues, but also the truth.

But for those of you who continue to fail to deal with the topic as a matter of law, logic and justice, and continue to hurl insults like "slut," "hillbilly" and "bigot," go look in the mirror. There you will see kin of the most reviled of all modern creatures: the Internet troll.

Leonard is an anthropologist who produces a daily public affairs program at KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa. He is the author of Yellow Cab and can be reached on Twitter @robertleonard.