Allow me, dear reader, to walk you through a little internet contretemps that gives us a glimpse of the depths to which the battle for gay rights is rapidly sinking.
Last weekend, Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote a column reflecting on what its headline described as "the terms of our surrender" — with "our" referring to those (including Douthat himself) who continue to believe for religious reasons that marriage should apply only to heterosexual couples. Note: Douthat was conceding defeat in the fight against gay marriage, and merely discussing how the losers should be treated by the victors, including the expression of a meager hope that his side not be uniformly consigned to the category of bigots.
For Mark Joseph Stern, this was an unacceptable outrage. Writing in Slate, Stern denounced Douthat for daring to suggest that opponents of gay marriage deserve anything but contempt for their hateful views, which must be understood as expressions of "raw hatred" and "base bigotry."
This, in turn, inspired The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf to mount a defense of Douthat's position. Stern's article "is implicitly trafficking in its own sort of prejudice," Friedersdorf wrote, because it assumes that "homophobia, anti-gay bigotry, and hatred are obviously what's motivating anyone who declines to provide a service for a gay wedding," when in fact, plenty of gay marriage opponents merely reject it because they regard "marriage as a religious sacrament with a procreative purpose." And that is fundamentally different from bigotry.
And finally (for now!), Friedersdorf's post provoked a sharp response by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, a political theory blog. Like Stern, Farrell believes that those who oppose gay marriage are obviously displaying bigotry — and that Friedersdorf's position amounts to saying, absurdly, that the true bigots are those who denounce that bigotry.
As I've made clear repeatedly in my writing, I support gay marriage and am cheered that advocates for it have made such stunning legal and cultural gains so quickly. I consider these gains to be broadly harmonious with recent legal precedents and cultural trends, as well as the deeper political implications of liberal democratic government and theological implications of Christian egalitarianism.
But I'm also troubled by the equally stunning lack of charity, magnanimity, and tolerance displayed by many gay marriage advocates. This very much includes Mark Joseph Stern, Henry Farrell, and others who are cheering them on.
Roughly speaking, for all of recorded human history until a couple of decades ago, virtually no one even entertained the possibility that homosexuals might seek to marry, let alone advocated it. In that brief span of time — a figurative blink of an eye in cultural terms — gay marriage has gone from being an oxymoron to a lived reality in several states and an institution accepted by majorities or pluralities in most demographic categories. If that isn't a cultural revolution, then nothing is.
Yes, it's still underway. But at this rate, Nate Silver's 2009 prediction that gay marriage would be accepted in all 50 states by 2024 is going to prove to be too pessimistic.
And yet, that appears to be insufficient for some gay marriage proponents. They don't just want to win the legal right to marry. They don't just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life.
That is an unacceptable, illiberal demand.
As I've argued before, liberal democracy is a political theory designed to allow people who disagree about the highest human goods to live together in peace and civility despite their differences. Like it or not — and a certain militant class of gay marriage proponents clearly do not like it at all — traditionalist religious believers are our fellow citizens and neighbors, and the United States is as much their country as it is ours.
That's why the premier liberal virtue is toleration and not recognition. Toleration is perfectly compatible with — indeed, it presupposes — a lack of unanimity, or even majority consensus, about ultimate goods. It leaves the diversity of views about ultimate goods intact, forcing consensus on as few issues as possible, so that people belonging to specific regions, classes, ethnicities, and sociocultural and religious groups can build rich, meaningful lives together in freedom.
Recognition, by contrast, requires much more from one's fellow citizens — because the end it seeks is far more demanding. Instead of aiming to "live and let live," as toleration does, recognition strives for psychological acceptance and positive affirmation of one's vision of the good from all of one's fellow citizens, including from those whose vision of the good clashes with it. That makes it a zero-sum game.
Don't believe me? Check out the remarkable (and moving) clip that Farrell embeds in his post, showing public remarks by an Irish drag queen named Panti who makes it very clear that he believes both that homophobia is omnipresent (including in himself), and that this informal, extralegal, often purely psychological form of "oppression" simply must be eradicated.
That's recognition's goal: to stamp out rival visions of the good when they stand in the way of unconditional acceptance.
And that brings me to the sloppy way the most strident gay-marriage proponents have been throwing around the term "bigotry." A bigot is someone closed-minded in some respects — someone who evaluates or judges certain groups of people on the basis of prejudice, or pre-judgment, about them, who does not greet all people and ways of life with complete and unbiased openness. Someone, in other words, who does not grant automatic recognition and unconditional affirmation to everyone.
I submit that, measured by this standard, virtually everyone involved in the gay marriage battle is a bigot. Someone who considers homosexuality an abomination that should be a criminal offense is certainly expressing bigotry. But so is a traditionalist religious believer who professes to hold no animus toward homosexuals and yet opposes gay marriage because she conceives of marriage (in Friedersdorf's words) as "a religious sacrament with a procreative purpose."
And so, also, is a gay marriage supporter who can see no relevant moral distinction between these two positions — and is willing and eager to hurl insults as a means of bullying them both into submission.
Bigotry is endemic to social life, and it will be until there cease to be serious differences among conflicting goods and ways of living.
Which is, once again, why liberal toleration is such a crucially important ideal. Now as much as ever.