Leather Generations: Dialectic or Debate?

By Steve Lenius September 24, 2010

Categories: Lifestyles & Communities, Our Lives


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 leather culture inherited from its military beginnings) and the “New Guard” (those who either don’t care about, or who outright reject, these traditions).
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 GLBT 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 superior to either of the original viewpoints.

I recently heard the concept of dialectic described in a sermon preached by the Reverend 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, Hohly discussed dialectic as a style of communication between parents and children. 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 Hohly explained it: Parents have values that 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 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 shouldn’t 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 ones know that part of raising the next generation is enduring the process of having it assert its independence.

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 often turns into a debate that convinces no one, and solves nothing. It has no middle ground and no synthesis.

Now, let’s apply all 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. No attempt at dialectic took place then.

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.

That system was torn asunder by the AIDS epidemic. Today, we have traditionalists, most of whom are older, and 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 all groups, actually, that have 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 (formerly Amazon Bookstore), or from your favorite bookseller.

One Response to Leather Generations: Dialectic or Debate?

  1. Dave DarkLight says:

    Well, said, Steve. Thank you for being a voice of moderation, tolerance and respect within the community, Steve!

    In order to have a dialectic, both sides have to have some willingness to admit that the other is correct in some way. It saddens me to see how infrequent this occurs. Or maybe it’s just appearances, since the side that digs in its heels frequently seems to be the side that makes the most noise, and argues most vehemently.

    It feels to me like a lot of conflict arises because too many people seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between “this is how I do things” and “this is the right way to do things.” Few people wish to admit they’re wrong, and this is often confused as being the same as admitting that someone else has a valid view.

    Perhaps that’s changing, though. The Twin Cities community has expanded greatly in the dozen plus years that I’ve been a part of it, and for the most part it has grown in a good way. But then again, I choose to surround myself with others of a like mind, and with more people there are more like minds. The few Old Guard that I’m in touch with seem to have an appreciation for the benefits that the New Guard bring. The New Guard I’m most familiar with have a reverence for the traditions of the Old Guard, even if they don’t feel it’s the way to go. The coexistence that I see now makes me thrilled to be a part of a growing, learning community.

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