An interesting article appeared recently on the web site of The Atlantic. The article, written by Conor Friedersdorf, was posted on the morning of April 10 and is entitled “Why Gay Marriage Opponents Should Not Be Treated Like Racists.” It was interesting both because of the way in which it addressed this issue and because of where it was published. I am not a regular reader of The Atlantic but I have certainly read its pages numerous times over the years and I have to confess I was a bit surprised–pleasantly–to find this article there.
Friedersdorf begins his article this way: “Liberals generally think of themselves as proponents of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity. Some liberals are also eager to stigmatize and punish opponents of gay marriage.” He then asks if this stigmatization is a betrayal of liberal values. Excellent question, that. In response, Friedersdorf writes that if it is a betrayal it is one that most liberals find justified, one that “is no more problematic than the decision to exclude white supremacists from polite society.”
In support of this position Friedersdorf cites an e-mail correspondent who said that objecting to a boycott of a company whose CEO gave financial support to California’s Proposition 8 (which defined marriage as between a man and a woman) was akin to finding the Montgomery bus boycott objectionable. Friedersdorf went on to cite Will Oremus who said, in Slate, “Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.”
Interestingly, Friedersdorf agrees with Oremus that homosexuals should have the right to marry. He disagrees with him, however, in the comparison of gay and interracial marriage. Why? “Opposition to interracial marriage was all but synonymous with a belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another,” Friedersdorf writes. But, he continues, “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.” The end of that sentence is followed by an asterisk which refers to this footnote: “One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians—that is to say, they haven’t interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive.”
Now it will not come as surprise to anyone who has read my opinions on this issue before that I absolutely disagree with Friedersdorf on the matter of gay marriage. I am wholeheartedly opposed to allowing marriage to be defined as anything other than the union of one man and one woman. I appreciate Friedersdorf’s recognition, though, of the fact that homosexual marriage is not a civil rights issue and is certainly not akin to segregation of public buses in Montgomery or interracial marriage. Friedersdorf believes just as passionately as I do that I am wrong, as are those who think like I do. Refreshingly, though, he recognizes that we can disagree for legitimately held beliefs and we can disagree without calling each other names. Referring to those who believe as I do he writes, “But it’s not credible to argue that they’re in the same moral category as the bigots who sustained Jim Crow, or that the narrow right they’d withhold has done similar harm and thus warrants the same response (even if you believe, as I do, that withholding the name marriage is wrong and harmful).”
Friedersdorf–again, refreshingly–also makes the point that the idea “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others” is a position held by many people based on many factors and characteristics yet somehow only those who oppose gay marriage seem to be vilified by the political left. Why?
As he wraps up his column Friedersdorf makes a couple of very astute observations about the use of stigma as a strategy in what should be intelligent debate. First, “What I think, in fact, is that stigma is an overrated tool for effecting change, because once you’ve gotten to a threshold within a community where lots of powerful people will stigmatize a behavior, the point had already been reached where it would be defeated without stigma.” I don’t know that I agree with him that the behavior in this case–the opposition to homosexual marriage–would be defeated without stigmatizing it but I certainly agree that stigmatizing is not an effective means of achieving meaningful change. What I think is that stigma tends to be used most often and most loudly when there is no legitimate and coherent argument to be made in opposition. Thumper famously said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Those who wield stigma tend to abide by a different adage, one that goes like this: “If you can’t say something logical and effective to counter their argument, call them names and compare them to horrible people of the past instead.”
Second, Friedersdorf writes, “Those who rely on stigma are tied to a tactic that is employed most when needed least, often against groups already marginalized within a community; no wonder stigma is correlated more strongly with signaling self-righteousness than effecting change. That isn’t to say stigma is never appropriate—just that engagement and persuasion is almost always the better option, as it is on gay marriage.” Again, I disagree with Friedersdorf that those who oppose gay marriage are “already marginalized” but I agree entirely that engagement and persuasion is the better option. Not just with gay marriage, either. You will see the stigma attack unleashed by liberals in the evolution versus creation debate, too, among other examples.
So…what’s the bottom line? Conor Friedersdorf and I completely disagree on the issue of gay marriage. But we disagree respectfully and without calling each other names or attaching stigma. We might even, if we had a sit-down face-to-face chat, find other areas in which we agree. One thing we definitely do agree on is this: stigma is a wimpy weapon, one that brings nothing valuable to any discussion and, in fact, does more to demean and belittle those who employ it than those again whom it is being employed.