Friday, April 25, 2014

Tolerance, Acceptance and Approval

Recently the CEO of Mozilla Corporation, Brendan Eich, was pushed out of his job because of his failure to support same-sex marriage.  It was discovered that in 2008 he donated $1000 to the campaign for California’s heavily contested Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting gay marriage.  He had never shown any animus toward gay subordinates and he earnestly promised as CEO that he would protect the equality of all employees.  But what doomed him at Mozilla was the persistence of his opposition to same-sex marriage; while much of the country has become more friendly toward the idea, Eich has not.  After a week of boycotts and protests, the board of directors nudged Eich out the door.

Many liberals see Eich’s semi-firing as something to celebrate, as a victory for gay rights.  A bigot has been punished, sending a salutary warning to bigots everywhere.  But many observers – mostly conservatives but some liberals as well— see this incident as a worrisome bit of McCarthyism, as possibly the herald of a new age of liberal witch-hunting in which insufficient deference to received leftist truth can damage or end one’s career.  That is, gays are winning the cultural argument, they have achieved some measure of social and economic power and they and their supporters are ruthlessly and carelessly using that power to punish and demonize even the mildest dissenters.  Last year’s heretics have become this year’s Inquisition.

But many of Eich’s supporters speak as if there is no political position one could take that would justify removal.  But this is foolish and everyone knows it.  Every society holds certain views to be self-evidently intolerable, that is, so outrageous or so destructive that anyone professing them must be denied any influence.  Would it be OK to fire a CEO who was a member of the Klan?  Or a blatant anti-Semite?   Or a supporter of al Qaeda?  This sort of social condemnation is one of the inevitable limits of freedom, even in a society with free speech.  No society is possible or sustainable without a short list of unacceptable ideas.  The argument over Eich really amounts to this: Should opposition to same-sex marriage be on that list? 

Conservatives make fun of liberals for claiming to be oh-so-tolerant while stomping on those with un-liberal opinions, but liberals (in effect) counter with the perfectly defensible argument that there’s nothing wrong with being intolerant of intolerance.  If one really believes irrational disapproval of a group undermines that group’s equitable treatment then it’s acceptable to socially punish those perpetuating that inequity.  For a very long time it was widely considered acceptable to fire, deny service to, ostracize, humiliate and even harm gays; in many quarters it still is!  Liberals argue that it’s OK to shame the shamers; not because turnaround is fair play, but because unjustified shaming is so destructive.  That is, intolerance of intolerance is not as objectionable as intolerance of racial or sexual difference, since the latter can’t be justified.  To punish someone for anti-gay actions is defensible in a way that punishing someone for being gay is not.  This is the crucial point: there is no rational basis for anti-gay or anti-gay-marriage sentiment.  Gay love, desire and commitment are morally no more or less than the straight versions.  In a decent world homophobia and opposition to gay marriage would easily and inarguably be on the unacceptable opinion list.  In a thoroughly decent world, of course, they wouldn’t need to be, since in a thoroughly decent world homophobia would be as unknown and as unimaginable as hatred of left-handed people or curling enthusiasts or tulip lovers.

The more sophisticated Eich supporters concede the necessity of the list, but argue that there are good reasons that resistance to gay marriage should not be placed upon it.  Unorthodox conservative Conor Friedersdorf, himself a supporter of gay marriage, makes a strong case here, arguing that not all such resistance arises from animus toward gays.  Many Eich detractors have compared anti-gay-marriage views to anti-mixed-race-marriage views, but Friedersdorf sees a difference:

Opposition to interracial marriage was all but synonymous with a belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another. (In fact, it was inextricably tied to a singularly insidious ideology of white supremacy and black subjugation that has done more damage to America and its people than anything else, and that ranks among the most obscene crimes in history.) Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but it's also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.

But Friedersdorf doesn’t explain why the belief in marriage as a “procreative institution” doesn’t lead to opposition to marriage for the infertile or the elderly.  Are there those who consider childless marriages to be somehow lesser?  If so, even they wouldn’t prohibit such marriages.  Friedersdorf points out that there are many who oppose gay marriage but support civil unions, but racists never suggested anything like civil unions for interracial couples.  But if they had, wouldn’t we have rejected the proposal as still grounded in racism?  Friedersdorf’s point is that opponents of gay marriage are not as morally repugnant as the segregationists who opposed interracial marriage, and that seems quite true.  But even though they’re clearly not bigots in the most hateful sense, their opposition is just as irrational and indefensible.

Some writers argue that since resistance to gay marriage is largely based upon religious dogma it’s not fair to characterize opponents as bigots or to characterize that resistance as irrational, at least not in the usual sense of that word.  But frequently religion is not the source of political belief so much as its alibi.  That was clearly true with many of the religious arguments that Jim Crow-era racists made in support of white supremacy; they used the Bible to buttress cultural and political prejudices they held independently.  But some, including Damon Linker, think that sexual issues are different:

Racism — along with opposition to interracial marriage — received its primary historical validation from ideas, prejudices, and economic circumstances that have nothing directly to do with the message of Judeo-Christian scripture.  The same cannot be said about Judeo-Christianity's normative teaching on sexuality, which is rooted in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. It is deeply intertwined with the authoritative dogmas and doctrines of churches followed by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, and has also been repeatedly reaffirmed and elaborated on at great length and with considerable theological sophistication throughout a nearly 2,000-year tradition of thinking that runs right down to the present.

That is, Jewish and Christian dogma has much more to say about sex than about race.  Linker states the obvious, that opposition to homosexuality per se is central to traditional monotheism, but he states is as an excuse.  They may be bigots but it’s OK because their God endorses it.  It should be noted that this is a very different argument from Friedersdorf’s claim that many reject gay marriage who don’t reject homosexuality itself.  If someone disputes gay marriage because they’re sincerely convinced that the creator of the universe declares homosexuality repulsive and morally wrong then it’s ridiculous to deny that such a person is anti-gay.  Just because anti-gay belief is central to Judeo-Christian dogma should not make us give that belief a pass.  Maybe it should make them question that part of their dogma.

Religious conservative Peter Wehner argues that many religious objectors to same-sex marriage wrestle earnestly with the moral confusions raised:

Let me speak from a perspective within my own faith community. Based on conversations and having written and taught classes on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, my sense is that many evangelical Christians are working through how to approach the issues of their faith and the gay rights movement with a good deal of care and integrity. They are attempting to be faithful to Scripture in a way that is characterized by grace rather than stridency. Even as they continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they are asking whether their own attitudes have been distorted by their own cultural and political assumptions and that the focus on homosexuality is, as I’ve put it elsewhere, wildly disproportionate to what one finds in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Particularly among younger evangelicals, there’s a palpable discomfort with the approach taken by prominent figures over the last few decades – people like (but not exclusive to) Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. They are not the spokesmen they want to represent them or their faith.

Wehner is asking, in effect, for a little understanding of the difficult position in which many religious opponents find themselves.  They find the crude gay-bashing of some religious right leaders – Graham, Dobson, Robertson, Falwell – to be deeply offensive.  But at the same time the centrality of their religion’s sexual teachings makes them uncomfortable with things like gay marriage.  Are such people bigots?  Should their discomfort with gay marriage bar them from positions of power and influence?  How about the ones who support civil unions, should their attempts at conciliation illicit any from liberals in return?

Consider that even gays have had an ambivalent attitude toward gay marriage.  Before gays petitioned for marriage they asked merely to be left alone, they asked to be tolerated.  And for years, many straight Americans responded with what we can fairly call libertarian homophobia.  They looked down on gays, but allowed them their repugnant pursuit of happiness as long as it occurred behind closed doors, in their own neighborhoods, etc.  After a time and with the growing awareness of perfectly respectable gay individuals in their midst, that tolerance turned to something like acceptance, including the belief, for instance, that no one should be fired or denied housing simply for being gay.  Acceptance also ushered in the era of civil unions, which gave gay relationships the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, but without the name and the social status it implies. 

Strange as it may now seem, many gays initially resisted the notion of gay marriage (some still do).  They saw themselves as cultural separatists, licensed by their disparaged sexual desires to be rebels against silly bourgeois institutions like monogamy and marriage.  Conservatives like to remind us that marriage is a traditional institution with a venerable conservative pedigree.  Its goal is social stability; that is, it redirects the sexual urge into socially constructive channels, it tames sex.  And many gays were quite happy to see their urges remain un-channeled and untamed.  But the present-day fight for marriage equality seeks neither to ignore marriage nor to remake it; crucially, it seeks admission to the institution without wishing to change it.  It sees gay desire and gay life as no threat to anyone, not even middle class convention.  Gay couples can live in split-level suburban homes and drive their children to soccer practice in gas-guzzling SUV’s as wantonly and thoughtlessly as any heterosexual couple.  It turns out that Cam and Mitchell are just Ozzie and Harriet with different parts.  The 50’s absorbed the 60’s.  It fits perfectly that a transplanted Tory like Andrew Sullivan was the earliest prominent exponent of gay marriage.  It’s liberal to perceive that homosexuality is morally equal to heterosexuality, but it’s conservative to perceive that a traditional institution should express and nurture that equality.  Gay marriage isn’t the great uprising of sexual corruption and social destruction that it seems in the darkest conservatives fears; it’s not the end of traditional society, merely the accommodation of gay life to it.

But it’s an accommodation that forces the issue of approval.  Friedersdorf is right that marriage is a special case, but not because of its procreative function, because of its social function.  It may seem strange to be so vehement over a word, but the fight over the word “marriage” is so important because it conveys approval in a way “civil union” does not.  Marriage is crucially a social institution, a relationship that the entirety of society endorses, celebrates and blesses.  The push for gay marriage means gay equality can no longer be an issue of individual choice, one that I support and you oppose.  There’s always the right to disagree, of course, but society as a whole is being forced to choose one way or the other.  Society will either bless gay love and commitment the same as straight love and commitment, or it will it not.  There is no third option.

Now we see what’s at stake.  Gay marriage supporters are asking religious opponents to approve – not merely tolerate or accept – something that contradicts their fundamental views on the nature of morality and society.  Think about that.  That’s asking a lot.  That doesn’t mean that gays don’t deserve that approval; they do.  And it doesn’t mean there are defensible reasons for opposing gay marriage; there aren’t.  All arguments opposing gay marriage boil down to the inferiority of gay love, and are therefore fundamentally false.  But even though we can’t call that opposition defensible we might consider it understandable.  It’s not easy to remove one’s cultural prejudices – or even be aware of them! – and we could be a little more forgiving of those who find it so difficult to do so.  We all carry the weight of history, we are all unwilling products of our upbringings, and none of us is remotely free of prejudice or irrationality.  That doesn’t absolve anyone of the responsibility to examine and justify their beliefs, but it should make us a little less eager to punish dissent.  And we can be a little patient with religious objectors especially, particularly those of the good-faith variety that Wehner highlights, not because religion justifies their bigotry, but because it helps explain it. 

That intimate connection between Christianity and anti-gay feeling in a country as religious as ours is the greatest obstacle still facing the struggle for gay equality.  Gays understand the great power homophobia still commands and they fear its intractability.  Intolerance of anti-gay-marriage dissent is a manifestation not only of growing gay social, political and economic strength, but of gay vulnerability as well.  Gays now have some power, but without security.  They fear backlash and they fear reaction.  It’s that fear – plus justified righteousness and good old-fashioned vengefulness – that makes them strike where they can at hapless holdouts like Brendan Eich.

But generosity would suit the cause of gay equality more than crusading vindictiveness.  We are in the middle of an evolution, a process.  That process has brought us from a time only twenty years ago when gay marriage was seen as an impossibility to its near triumph today.  The pace of that evolution demonstrates the openness of the American people to such a clear and simple call for justice.  The end of that process will be a society in which rejection of gay marriage will be treated as social anathema, as the foolish and unjustifiable prejudice which it is.  But pluralism and prudence demand that our list of unacceptable opinions be kept as short as possible; it must include only those ideas that are the most objectionable and most destructive.  This is crucial to the kind of society we will be; only a scrupulously limited list is compatible with freedom of thought and expression.  It’s terribly dangerous to add to it too readily; that would stultify discourse and deaden our intellectual and social life, and possibly even lead to something like the left-wing McCarthyism envisioned in conservative nightmares.  That we’ve come so far so fast makes it more understandable that a large dissenting minority still exists.  Human minds can evolve only so fast.  And pushing too far, too fast can create just the sort of backlash that gays and gay supporters fear.  That practical concern, plus faith in the open society, plus charity toward our common human frailty, should keep opposition to same-sex marriage off the list, for now.  We shouldn’t try to force it before its time.  When a critical mass has been persuaded by reason, not subdued by threats, it will happen of its own accord.