The Weakness of a Word

While many Harvard students are willing to engage in intellectual conversations about the marriage issue, some Harvard students cop out of respectful dialogue by pulling the hate card on True Love Revolution, denouncing members as homophobic and hateful merely because they believe in conjugal marriage, where the public purpose is to attach each child to a father and mother. In the past month, email list debates about True Love Revolution were speckled with accusations of homophobia; though some other students defended the right of their peers to support traditional marriage (and in some cases, were subsequently insulted as well by their peers). As NYU legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron says, “many who are convinced by the gay rights position are upset” that many people “refuse to take the liberal position for granted.”

Traditional marriage supporters at Harvard are hardly alone. This week, the Washington Post published “In the gay marriage debate, stop playing the hate card,” by Matthew Franck, Director of the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. Franck begins the article by giving many examples of gay marriage supporters pulling the hate card on anyone who refuses to conform to their policy agenda, drawing on diverse examples like TV shows, faculty firings, Apple ridding itself of the Manhattan Declaration iTunes app, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent publishing of “anti-gay hate groups”. Franck criticizes gay marriage supporters for refusing to even have a conversation, despite the fact that voters have repeatedly voted to protect the traditional definition of marriage. He wonders why gay marriage supporters are so quick to leap to accusations of hate, rather than engage in discussions about the massive policy suggestion that is clearly widely controversial. Franck goes on to ask,

What’s going on here? Clearly a determined effort is afoot, in cultural bastions controlled by the left, to anathematize traditional views of sexual morality, particularly opposition to same-sex marriage, as the expression of “hate” that cannot be tolerated in a decent civil society. The argument over same-sex marriage must be brought to an end, and the debate considered settled. Defenders of traditional marriage must be likened to racists, as purveyors of irrational fear and loathing. Opposition to same-sex marriage must be treated just like support for now long-gone anti-miscegenation laws.

This strategy is the counsel of desperation. In 30 states, the people have protected traditional marriage by constitutional amendment: In no state where the question has been put directly to voters has same-sex marriage been adopted by democratic majorities. But the advocates of a revolution in the law of marriage see an opportunity in Perry v. Schwarzenegger , currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. In his district court ruling in the case in August, Judge Vaughn Walker held that California’s Proposition 8 enacted, “without reason, a private moral view” about the nature of marriage that cannot properly be embodied in public policy. Prop 8’s opponents are hoping for similar reasoning from the appeals court and, ultimately, from the Supreme Court.

The SPLC’s report on “hate groups” gives the game away. It notes that no group is listed merely for “viewing homosexuality as unbiblical.” But when describing standard expressions of Christian teaching, that we must love the sinner while hating the sin, the SPLC treats them as “kinder, gentler language” that only covers up unreasoning hatred for gay people. Christians are free to hold their “biblical” views, you see, but we know that opposition to gay marriage cannot have any basis in reason. Although protected by the Constitution, these religious views must be sequestered from the public square, where reason, as distinguished from faith, must prevail.

Marginalize, privatize, anathematize: These are the successive goals of gay-marriage advocates when it comes to their opponents.

First, ignore the arguments of traditional marriage’s defenders, that marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that children will have mothers and fathers, and that same-sex marriage is not an expansion but a dismantling of the institution. Instead, assert that no rational arguments along these lines even exist and so no refutation is necessary, and insinuate that those who merely want to defend marriage are “anti-gay thugs” or “theocrats” or “Taliban,” as some critics have said.

Second, drive the wedge between faith and reason, chasing traditional religious arguments on marriage and morality underground, as private forms of irrationality.

Finally, decree the victory of the new public morality – here the judges have their role in the liberal strategy – and read the opponents of the new dispensation out of polite society, as the crazed bigots of our day.

American democracy doesn’t need civility enforcers, nor must it become a public square with signs reading “no labels allowed.” Robust debate is necessarily passionate debate, especially on a question like marriage. But the charge of “hate” is not a contribution to argument; it’s the recourse of people who would rather not have an argument at all.

That is no way to conduct public business on momentous questions in a free democracy. “Hate” cannot be permitted to be the conversation stopper in the same-sex marriage debate. The American people, a tolerant bunch who have acted to protect marriage in three-fifths of the states, just aren’t buying it. And they still won’t buy it even if the judges do.

The use of the word homophobic is gradually being drowned in numerous definitions, and while users of the word may sincerely believe what they deem homophobic is indeed homophobic, I think it may be more useful to constructive discussions about the nature of law and society to use terms that more adequately represent the specifics of a situation, rather than surrender to the proclivity to categorize all that we disagree with to a word with powerful discussion-halting connotations. If we strive to understand each other, rather than merely label, I think we will be much more respectful and constructive to the world that we live in and the issues that we face. When the word is used to mean so many different things, we lose our ability to control the outcome of our words, and I think that in many contexts, the word has been used to silence and also to stop considering a difficult topic. But the outcome of that use is quite different, because once people feel like they are being intimidated, they feel more impassioned. To me, when the word is used so freely, it justifies TLR’s existence, and the need to articulate and re-articulate the philosophy behind our beliefs.

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