Against Bullying

by Michael Potemra

Speaking of Ross Douthat, he has an especially important column up at the NYT today. He says that the Supreme Court will probably, in the next few years, declare gay marriage the official policy of all 50 states — and that the current controversy over Arizona’s legislation is a dry run for the eventual settlement of the question of how society treats the remaining dissenters. The body politic can either find a reasonable accommodation for those who object to gay marriage, or try to bully them into a pariah status similar to that of race segregationists. What happened in Arizona is not a good sign:

Such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one another, and encouraged to conform.

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

I should point out here that I disagree with Ross that the victory of gay marriage is inevitable. But I agree with him that there is a harmful rush, among gay-marriage advocates and their sympathizers, to create a culture of hate against those with a moral objection to the social normalization of homosexuality and, more specifically, of gay marriage. Ross finds it encouraging (as do I) that a prominent leader in the gay-marriage movement defends the freedoms of those who are opposed. But the ease with which so much of the mainstream media’s commentary has segued into demonization of opponents is genuinely alarming. It’s the price we pay for our coarse political climate, a culture in which French fries can become “freedom fries” overnight. (“Gays are trying to destroy the family!” “Oh, yeah!? Well, not baking a cake for gays means you’re Jim Crow!”)

Ross concludes: “We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.” Again, I don’t think the “final victory” Ross mentions is either total or imminent. But that the pro-gay-marriage side has strong momentum right now is undeniable, and I think that it therefore has the duty, as well as the leisure, to reflect on whether it’s right to seek this kind of scorched-earth solution. Contrary to the lessons being taught by our toxic culture, not every momentary advantage needs to be followed up with the crushing and humiliation of one’s enemies. So the question should not be, “Can we succeed in getting society to treat those who disagree with us as moral lepers?” but “Is it right to do so?” Churchill famously started one of his books with a credo that included the phrase “In Victory: Magnanimity.” Magnanimity is definitely not a virtue that today’s culture prizes — but this is a moment that calls for it.

N.B. Because I’m sure many people will read this post and be tempted to dismiss it as whiny special pleading from a defeated foe of gay marriage, I feel the need to point out that I have been a supporter of gay marriage for a very long time. (Here’s one post from 2003; and another from 2011.) In other words, I was for it way back when it was a losing issue in all the polls — so I know that while disrespectful treatment of those with a minority view may succeed in intimidating many people into silence, it will not, in the end, persuade intelligent people that the majority’s view is right. There’s a lesson there for today’s gay-marriage advocates.