Sympathy for the Opposition, Respect for Its Rights
Reacting to a comment of mine (in the conversation appended to a previous post) concerning the inevitable collision of the gay rights movement with certain fundamental freedoms, such as that of religion, Matt, of Unlikely Words, posting as MRH, writes:
Two very interesting cases. I’m going to have to think about my response a bit. I think your hypothetical invitation company ought to be free to refuse any customer they want, and I’ll have to think a bit more about the Christian adoption agency.
In my view, these are two examples of groups that are indefensibly discriminating against homosexuals. From my own personal moral point of view, I have no sympathy for them if, in a hypothetical world where two men can get married, they are barred from such discrimination. In general, my sympathies attach more strongly to the victims of discrimination than to agents of discrimination. As a matter of law and policy, however, it’s a bit more complicated, and I need to mull it over a bit.
My first response — said, given my appreciation for Matt’s cordiality, with no intended slight — is: What a strange thing for the ostensible champion of liberty and tolerance in this exchange to say! I certainly have sympathy for those who desire same-sex marriage. I think they’re wrong, and I think the factors that lead them to their conclusions are ultimately detrimental to them and to society, but I can assure readers that you would find me neither gloating nor joining any spontaneous parades were the traditional definition of marriage to be affirmed with the maximum solidity available in law. Above most issues, matters of love and family affect people very personally — and are bound up with their visions for the future — and for me to have a lack of sympathy for those whose conclusions I oppose would require me to believe that they are all lying about their motives and are, in fact, consciously striving for the downfall of our society. It is disheartening to think that the courteous and discoursive MRH might believe something equivalent from the other side.
My response to the expression of sympathy for “the victims of discrimination,” rather than “agents of discrimination,” is to wonder whether Matt’s sympathies are applied on the basis of individual cases or he’s speaking of victims and agents as class distinctions. If the former, one would expect his sympathies to cycle: The Catholics who are rebuffed for discriminating against homosexuals for purposes of adoption (to keep with the prior example) are, in turn, being discriminated against by the government in relation to the their ability to take private initiative in keeping with their beliefs about the most beneficial homes for children. If the latter, the application of sympathy — presumptuous in its assignment of roles — amounts to declaring a moral preference for homosexuals versus traditional Christians.
Either way, it oughtn’t take but so much intellectual distance to realize that the struggle isn’t between religious dogma and objective civil rights, but between two competing ideological worldviews with different understandings of what marriage, in its essence, is:
- On one side is the romantic vision of two people drawn together by love and a desire for each other’s intimate, usually sexual, company. (I’ve felt there to be evidence of this ethereal romanticism in the incredulity with which some proponents of same-sex marriage react to suggestions that polygamy could follow in the redefinition of allowable “soul mates.”) Clearly, if this is the vision of marriage that one holds, and if one believes that homosexuals really do have these feelings in equal capacity to heterosexuals, then it is nothing other than invidious discrimination to deny them equal rights.
- The other side incorporates a healthy dose of this romantic vision, but it is sublimated to the utility of marriage to bind the genders in biologically affirmed union and to tie generations in an historical thread of ancestry and progeny, often with religious underpinnings. If this is the vision of marriage that one holds, then homosexual relationships, whether they inspire approval or disapprobation, are simply not marriage, and to redefine marriage to include them would inevitably erode the institution’s utility.
Understanding that a critical component of our argument is our claim to a right — through the democratic process — to help to determine marriage law, many who oppose same-sex marriage have striven to express our views in ways that discard diversions and murkiness. That our position remains inexplicable to many on the other side strikes me as an indication that they lack either the sympathy and tolerance to think through foreign arguments or the respect to make the effort.