Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moral Minority

A 2009 San Francisco protest against gay marriage.
(David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
Ross Douthat congratulates the gay marriage movement on President Obama's announcement of support yesterday. He does so with a bare-knuckled back-hand:
[O]ver a longer time horizon, the most enduring victories are often won by movements and factions that succeed in branding opposing views as not only mistaken but unthinkable, not only foolish but immoral, and that use stigma as well as suasion to cement the gains that they’ve achieved. This is what’s been happening in the gay marriage debate these last 10 years and more: At the popular level, the country is still divided (and perhaps more divided than polling suggests), but at the elite level and within the Democratic Party’s upper reaches, especially, what was a consensus understanding of marriage just two decades ago has become so associated with bigotry and reaction that a sitting president facing a difficult re-election campaign has been forced to abandon the politically-safer “civil unions yes, but marriage not just yet” position for the uncertain consequences of being for marriage, period. Given the landscape of the 2012 election (and the results yesterday in North Carolina), Obama’s prior attempts to finesse the issue made a lot of sense. But the moral ground had shifted underneath him — to the point where even his own cabinet wouldn’t risk the taint of bigotry in order to give him cover on the issue — and such finesse was no longer an acceptable option.

As a gay marriage skeptic, I’m obviously on what’s likely to be the losing end of this shift. But as an observer of politics and culture —and someone who thinks that moral absolutisms have an important place in both — I can’t help but be impressed by the gay marriage movement’s ability to transform the terms of the marriage debate so completely and comprehensively. Politics is mostly the art of fighting over a muddled middle ground, but this is the way the world gets well and truly changed: Not through conciliation, but through conquest.
Let's get a few things straight, so to speak. The issue of same-sex marriage in itself is not and has not been framed as a moral absolute. Legalization is. It is a yes-or-no proposition. But even if legalized SSM became the law of the land tomorrow, the question of whether a couple should get married, and whether individuals and organizations should marry them or refuse, would be individually decided. The debate has always been about legalization, not mandates. The freedom to marry or not marry is by its very nature non-absolute.

The idea that gay people should not be married, however, is an absolute, which is why the whiff of sour grapeshot in Ross's post is so irritating. He says he admires the SSM movement for its use of stigmatization, to paint the opposition as backward, unenlightened bigots in order to corner Obama into giving his support. His 'admiration' conveniently avoids the arguments over SSM--and the absolutism of his own side in forcing others to abide by standards that affect his side not a bit--and turns the issue into a matter of tactics.

Even on those grounds his argument fails, for what has the opposition to gay rights been but a long exercise in stigmatization and demonization? The counter-gay kulturkampf has ever been waged with accusations and insinuations of perversion, child abuse, and civilizational collapse, none of them being remotely true. That gay marriage proponents 'stigmatized' their opposition is thus an academic point, true in itself but also completely irrelevant.

All moral issues, when it comes to granting or restricting freedoms, will be couched in moral terms. What matters is the particulars of the issue up for debate. Lest we forget, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace too were on the losing end of a cultural shift.

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