Responding to Differing Views:

The Objection From Bigotry

Is opposing same-sex marriage bigotry?

Objection: Many believe that those who defend traditional marriage are motivated by bigotry and assume that those who oppose same-sex marriage would not do so if it were not for their deep-seated, perhaps even unconscious belief in the inferiority of homosexuals. For this reason, many see the same-sex marriage movement as not just about extending the institution of marriage to include homosexuals, but also about ending age-old, unfounded prejudices.

Response: The definition of a bigot is "someone who, as a result of their prejudices, treats or views other people with fear, distrust, hatred, contempt, or intolerance on the basis of a person's opinion, ethnicity, race, religion, ... sexual orientation, ... or other characteristics." This objection proposes that we treat everyone of a particular opinion (and in some cases religious background) with contempt and hostility! Or, at least, that we marginalize their viewpoints and ignore their perspectives. Not all arguments against same-sex marriage are advanced by bigots (even if some of them are), but assuming that they all are just might itself be bigotry.


The Objection

Many supporters of same-sex marriage believe that those who defend traditional marriage are motivated by bigotry. This does not mean that they think that everyone who defends traditional marriage is a bigot — they might know many good people who support traditional marriage. Rather, it simply means that they assume that those who oppose same-sex marriage would not do so if it were not for their deep-seated, perhaps even unconscious belief in the inferiority of same-sex attraction and relationships, or perhaps an irrational suspicion of or aversion to all things related to homosexuality. Part of the definition of bigotry is just that: treating people with fear, distrust, or intolerance on the basis of some characteristic about that person (such as sexual orientation).

For this reason, many see the same-sex marriage movement as about more than just extending the institution of marriage to include homosexuals — it is also about ending age-old, unfounded prejudices against homosexuals. When approached from this view, arguments against same-sex marriage can be dismissed as an attempt to rationalize what is really a deep-seated and unconscious bias against a particular demographic. To end bigotry, it is argued, we must be willing to open our minds to systems of thought that were once forbidden (such as same-sex marriage), and to systematically marginalize those who cling to older, bigotrous belief systems. To this end, bloggers, news commentators, and even some scholars have denounced supporters of traditional marriage as bigots.


Our Response

There is perhaps no more serious charge than that of bigotry. If all arguments in favor of traditional marriage were inherently motivated by bigotry, we might very well be right in marginalizing those views. In addition, anti-gay bigotry is incredibly and tragically real. We do not deny this, and we condemn it whenever we see it. Bigotry can and does lead to violence, and sure enough, homosexuals have faced physical and emotional violence, even murder, because of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.1 This is wrong on every level, and we condemn it whenever we see it.

We need to learn to live peacefully and amicably with our family, friends, or neighbors, regardless of their sexual orientation or their views on marriage. We need to end personal or systemic prejudice against any particular group of people. We need to open our hearts to the idea that people can practice beliefs wholly different than our own, and which we find morally wrong, and still be good friends and neighbors. We need to learn to affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every human soul, regardless of their views on sexual morality or public policy. This is an achievable goal.

Traditional Marriage Is Not Bigotry

Ultimately, however, the debate over same-sex marriage does not — or at least should not — center on issues of sexual morality or the moral status of homosexual persons. There are good arguments for traditional marriage laws that do not depict homosexual persons as inferior or less worthy of public accommodation. There is nothing about these arguments that invites us to look on homosexual persons with suspicion or hostility. It is possible to meet the legal, relationship, and emotional needs of all citizens without dismantling vital marriage norms, and it is possible to support traditional marriage without being a bigot.

In fact, many of the best arguments in favor of traditional marriage laws are compatible with a wide variety of moral and religious belief systems. Arguments for traditional marriage have been made or affirmed by scholars at prestigious institutions such as Oxford, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale.2 Some arguments against same-sex marriage have been published in prestigious journals that are known for publishing work of only the highest quality. For example, Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George recently published an argument for traditional marriage in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy,3 an article that has since become one of the top five most downloaded articles of all time (by some measures). Andrew Koppelman, a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage, admits boldly: “Opponents of gay rights are often dismissed as thoughtless, with views that cannot be expressed in secular terms. They are neither.”4

Admittedly, there are some who argue against same-sex marriage and who use divisive and even bigotrous rhetoric to do so. Rhetoric such as “gays will destroy our nation” or “homosexuals shouldn’t be parents” is hurtful, repugnant, and false. But notice that none of that rhetoric is employed on this website, and yet we have advanced numerous academic arguments in favor of a public policy that distinguishes between conjugal, man-woman marriage and other companionate relationships. And notice also that none of the public sphere arguments presented here even require that public policy adopt the Christian view of homosexual conduct as morally wrong. Now, we do not believe that even those moral belief systems are necessarily bigoted — but to the extent that some might be, they are irrelevant to the arguments advanced here.

Note, however, that prominent supporters of same-sex marriage—from academics (Alex Worsnip and John Corvino) to popular lay reviewers—acknowledge that these arguments cannot be understood as stemming from bigotry (whatever they think of the merits). In fact, even gay, non-religious people advocate for traditional marriage using these arguments.5 We have tried our very best to include those arguments that we think our free of malice towards or fear of homosexuals as persons, and which are grounded in sound historical, philosophical, legal, and sociological considerations. If others choose to see these arguments as motivated by bigotry, we cannot stop them, but we can invite them to consider the arguments on their merits instead.

The Consequences of the Bigotry Objection

The Objection from Bigotry is often used in ways that commit the ad hominem fallacy.6 Instead of trying to understand and thoughtfully respond to those who oppose same-sex marriage, some who use this objection attempt to undermine the credibility of the people who oppose same-sex marriage. The truth is, they may be right, or they may be wrong: some who oppose same-sex marriage may be bigots, while others are not. But the challenge with the ad hominem approach is that it is immaterial to the merit of the arguments in question (unless the argument is about the person’s character to begin with). Even if the person in question is bigoted, all this means is that the argument against same-sex marriage presented by the person should be treated with suspicion, but then still examined on its merits — not that it should be ignored entirely.

The true effect of the bigotry objection is that it prevents others from thinking about and considering the actual arguments on their merits. Two ways this happens are worth noting. First, many simply rely on, and parrot, the conclusions of popular opinion leaders. Second, those who do consider the arguments can already be so predisposed to inferring malice, that they unconsciously or unscrupulously misread and in some cases even incorrectly fill in where they think the arguments are headed. As a prominent advocate of same-sex marriage noted a year ago in a prestigious law journal, “those arguments have not even been understood.”7 Thus, academics and non-academics not only fail to even get the arguments — let alone engage with them — they allow thick suspicion and aversion to supplant mutual understanding. In our experience, many people have simply refused to read or take seriously the public policy considerations at play in the marriage debate, because for them the debate has already been settled: those who oppose same-sex marriage are no better than racists, to be treated with as much disdain as we might treat supporters of the KKK.

This is a problem — the Objection from Bigotry has not reduced the total level of bigotry involved in the marriage debate. If anything, it has increased it. The definition of a bigot (taken from Wikipedia) is “someone who, as a result of their prejudices, treats or views other people with fear, distrust, hatred, contempt, or intolerance on the basis of a person’s opinion, ethnicity, race, religion, … sexual orientation, … or other characteristics.”8 The Objection from Bigotry can invite people to treat those who support traditional marriage with distrust, contempt, or intolerance on the basis of their opinion on public policy, even when that opinion is grounded in terms that the intellectually honest on all sides can see is not bigoted. In short, the Objection from Bigotry can, if not used with caution, make bigots out of those who use it.

Indeed, accusations of bigotry against those who oppose same-sex marriage have brought about troubling injustices. In one recent, high profile example, Brandon Eich (the inventor of the web development language Javascript) was pressured in 2014 to resign as the CEO of Mozilla because he donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8 in California in 2008 (six years previously).9 Some employees at Mozilla learned about the donation, and launched a campaign to oust him as CEO — a campaign that culminated in the boycotting of Mozilla’s products — despite the fact that Eich was on record as respecting the rights and dignity of gay employees at Mozilla. As a consequence, Eich lost his job.

Eich is just one example of many similar stories where people have been publicly stigmatized and their voices marginalized because of their support for traditional marriage. There is a real public pressure to support same-sex marriage, for fear of being labeled a bigot by those who disagree. Because of the social costs of speaking against same-sex marriage, commentary on the issue from those who oppose same-sex marriage is not well known, not treated seriously, unconsciously avoided, misunderstood by academics, and often misrepresented by the media. This unbalances the public discourse in ways that are unhealthy — public policy should be decided by level heads who are privy to the best arguments on either side, not by social pressures that threaten those who dare to entertain arguments in favor of traditional marriage.

Several prominent supporters of same-sex marriage have released a public statement, stating, “The test of our commitment to liberal principles is not our eagerness to hear ideas we share, but our willingness to consider seriously those we oppose.”10 They continue, “Is opposition to same-sex marriage by itself, expressed in a political campaign, beyond the pale of tolerable discourse in a free society?”11 These supporters of same-sex marriage conclude that opposition to same-sex marriage is wrong, but should not be treated or considered intolerable. We think that opposition to same-sex marriage is right, not wrong — but we agree that neither view should be treated as intolerable. And we think that the Objection from Bigotry — when used indiscriminately — contributes to an environment of intolerance towards those who support traditional marriage.

A Blunt Instrument

As stated before, we condemn anti-gay bigotry whenever and wherever we see it. Homosexual persons should be free to publicly hold to whatever sexual beliefs and practices they choose without fear of social or legal recrimination. Institutional efforts to end anti-gay bigotry should be applauded. However, we question the use of marriage policy as an effective vehicle for ending bigotry. First, as we explain in our article, the Argument from Civil Unions [Coming Soon], we do not believe it is necessary to change marriage norms in order to eradicate anti-gay bigotry, or to meet the legal and emotional needs of homosexual persons and relationships. We can publicly accommodate homosexual persons and relationships in our legal system without jeopardizing the norms of conjugal marriage and the public interests those norms serve.

Second, a regime of marriage that recognizes same-sex couples but not the increasing number of polyamorous unions (500,000 households as reported by Newsweek12) will continue to marginalize others. The more the revisionist view of marriage as the apex of adult fulfillment is enshrined—as opposed to one that is about the good of raising children—the more those who fail to be married will be marginalized as they see themselves as lacking not just one form of relationship with a good among many, but rather, the height of emotional closeness. By the same token, as the sexually romantic aspect of marriage becomes preeminent as opposed to its orientation around child-rearing and family life, those who self-identify as asexual—a now estimated one to two percent of people13—will see themselves as unable to form the kind of bonds that society has deemed the central feature of marital union. In this way, the move to legalize same-sex marriage and further enshrine the revisionist view will actually marginalize other, much larger groups within society.

Third, we believe that adopting the revisionist view of marriage — something that formalizing same-sex marriage requires — will have a tremendous impact on marital norms of monogamy, fidelity, and permanence, norms which serve vital public interests (see, for example, the Argument from Marital Norms or the Argument from Public Interest). In this way, marriage policy is a blunt instrument for ending bigotry that may harm innocent parties with its collateral social costs. Instead of narrowly recognizing the inherent human dignity of homosexual persons (and encouraging others to do the same), we believe that changing marital norms will have cascading, unintended consequences that extend far beyond the lives of homosexual couples and into the lives of all families generally over time. Further, if marriage policy is seen as a vehicle for ending bigotry, one consequence will be that anyone who calls into question these changing norms may become thought of as a bigot, or at the very least a supporter of bigotry.

Conclusion

Society thrives on intellectual freedom and the marketplace of ideas. Enforced orthodoxy — that is, placing strong social pressures on others to conform to a particular worldview — generally signals that members of a society are intolerant of the views of others, and are unable or unwilling to engage in measured and reasoned conversation with those who disagree with them. This is a weakness that we must all overcome, no matter what our beliefs on the topic of marriage.

The truth is, there are relevant public interest considerations in how state policy acknowledges and supports marital norms. Marital norms affect family stability and the lives of children just as much as they affect the lives of homosexual persons. It is important that we are able to discuss these matters in the public sphere, and give each perspective a fair hearing, without demonizing those who disagree with us. To make or change public policy without this free and open discourse would be reckless.


References and Further Readings

  1. Wikipedia: Violence against LGBT people
  2. For example, Robert George at Princeton, John Finnis at Oxford, Mary Ann Glendon at Harvard.
  3. Girgis, Sherif, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson. “What is marriage.” Harv. JL & Pub. Pol’y 34 (2011): 245.
  4. Andrew Koppelman, “Judging the Case Against Same-sex Marriage,” University of Illinois Law Review, 13(8).
  5. Doug Mainwaring, I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage, The Public Discourse.
  6. “Ad hominem,” Wikipedia entry.
  7. Koppelman, “Judging the Case …”
  8. “Bigotry,” Wikipedia entry.
  9. Alistair Barr, “Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich Steps Down,” Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2014.
  10. “Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Dissent: Why We Must Have Both,” Real Clear Politics, April 22, 2014.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Jessica Bennett, “Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution?” Newsweek, 28 July, 2009.
  13. Wikipedia: Asexuality

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