There are only a few issues in which the rhetoric of human rights needs to take the front stage, where the utilitarian calculus needs to take a back seat to considerations of morality.
Torture is a good example: torture is wrong. Period. The struggle against slavery and for civil rights is certainly one of the best examples.
Moral considerations are paramount when discussing any policy issue, and they should always be there because they always are there. Our policy preferences, no matter how much we dress them up as the product of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, always reflect our deeper-held values. But the problem about putting those values front and center is that it turns the debate into a war of absolutes. When a policy question becomes primordially a moral question, opponents become enemies; they don’t have a different opinion, they are wrong. To oppose X, Y or Z does not mean having a different worldview, it means undermining the foundations of democracy, it means becoming the enemy.
Again, there are cases where this is warranted, because the question at hand is primordially a moral one.
But in most cases, doing so is unwise. It is unwise as a practical political matter, because it radicalizes your opponents, who do not see why a difference of opinion or belief should make them enemies of democracy. It is also unwise morally, because the number of issues where there truly is a black or white answer is actually very small. We are imperfect creatures, groping in the dark for solutions to moral and practical problems, very few of which are optimal.
This long-winded prologue brings me to the subject of this post. Change.org, an organization with which I am sure to disagree on many issues (but agree on many others), and which I respect, published on their gay rights blog, a post titled thus: The National Organization for Marriage Practices a Kinder, Gentler Form of Gay Bashing
The author goes on to dissect an article in the Washington Post on the organization (I guess we could call it NOM, although that makes it sound like a support group for lolcats), whose members explain that they try “to help people see that opposing gay marriage does not make them bigots, that the argument should have nothing to do with hate or fear, and everything to do with history and tradition.” NOM members “pride themselves on being rational, mainstream and sane.”
Rational, mainstream and sane opponents to a policy you favor! Isn’t this anyone’s dream? Now we can have a sane, rational discussion on the issues!
The author calls NOM homophobes, the article sleazy. And who knows, maybe NOM are homophobes! Maybe the article is sleazy! Maybe there’s a dark side to NOM and the journalist is remiss in taking NOM at face value! That Change.org post, however, does not lead me to believe that.
But what is the worst about the post is its title: NOM practices “gay bashing.”
Now maybe this is because I have a flawed understanding of idiomatic North American English, but it seems to me that the expression gay bashing does not refer to the kind of bashing that goes on in IRC channels. It seems to me that it refers to the sickening act of physically assaulting, sometimes raping and killing, gay people because they are gay.
In other words, Change.org likens NOM, an organization which ostensibly (perhaps disingenuously!) tries to distance itself from the repellent, violently homophobic fringe opposition to gay marriage, to a criminal organization, which routinely practices one of the most heinous crimes there is. Basically, NOM and the KKK are the same thing. Puts that whole Obama-is-a-socialist thing into perspective, doesn’t it?
To oppose gay marriage is always, always to be a homophobe; always, always to be an enemy of everything that is right and good. It is black and white.
Thus people like Benedict XVI and Barack Obama become the moral equivalent of Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, the murderers of Matthew Shepard.
It seems to me to be self-evident that this is both politically suicidal and morally very misguided.
Look. I support gay marriage. I probably disagree with NOM on most of what they say. One of their spokespeople puts forward “history and tradition” as reasons to oppose same-sex marriage, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of history will know that these are not sufficient reasons to oppose anything. But I also agree with the same spokesperson that not all opposition to gay marriage is driven by “hate and fear.” And I believe that in the interests of a healthy body politic, both opponents and supporters of gay marriage should support gay marriage opponents who reject “hate and fear” — or at least engage them instead of, well, bashing them.
I have no doubt that there are plenty of homophobes among gay marriage opponents, both of the virulent and of the casual kinds, both kinds of homophobia which are awful and should be combated.
But there are certainly sane, rational reasons to oppose gay marriage, just as there are sane, rational opponents of gay marriage. They are the ones that supporters should engage.
And they should always, always think before they speak. And try to refrain from acting like jerks. That would make us all better off.