Gay Marriage and the Right to Be Wrong

Gay Marriage and the Right to Be Wrong

On gay marriage, we have to protect the freedom to say and do things that the mainstream finds repugnant.
Robert Tracinski

After writing about the secular inquisition that is intent on forcing the proprietors of the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, to perform gay marriages in violation of their religious beliefs, I have been assured by some commenters that this is not a real case. The city of Coeur D’Alene, they tell me, was never really going to throw the book at the Hitching Post, and it’s all a fake controversy.

Except that the city’s intentions have since been confirmed by the city’s attorney. Furthermore, those who dismiss this as a fake controversy would be a lot more convincing if they didn’t go on to tell me that if it were a real case—which it is—they’d be for it.

What’s conspicuously missing from this whole debate has been any sense of the right to be wrong. For most commenters on the left, it is enough for them merely to declare the Hitching Post’s proprietors to be ignorant, backward, and prejudiced, and this automatically justifies the mailed fist of the state coming in to set those bigots straight. They remind me of the old Tom Lehrer joke: “I know there are people out there who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that.”

The left’s operational concept of freedom is that you are allowed to do and say what you like—so long as you stay within a certain proscribed window of socially acceptable deviation. The purpose of the gay marriage campaign is simply to change the parameters of that window, extending it to include the gay, the queer, the transgendered—and to exclude anyone who thinks that homosexuality is a sin or who wants to preserve the traditional concept of marriage. Those people are declared outside the protection of the law and in fact will have the full weight of the law bear down upon them until they recant their socially unacceptable views.

The point is not whether you agree about which views are or should be socially acceptable. The point is that this is not a concept of freedom. It’s a regime of state-controlled ideas, softened by an amorphous zone of official tolerance.

That’s the only reason I’m interested in this controversy. My own stance on gay marriage can be summed as: “whatever.” I would feel no need to say anything about it, if not for the insistence on the part of gay marriage advocates that any dissenters must be forced to submit.

My interest is in protecting the freedom to say and do things that the mainstream finds repugnant. I’ve got a few of my own out-of-the-mainstream views, and I hope you do, too. I would not want to live in a society where all such dissenters are forced to conform.

As I’ve been saying: the test of freedom is not the liberty you allow to people who agree with you. It’s respecting the freedom of those whose views you regard as distasteful, irrational, immoral, unsupportable, and yes, even bigoted.

But that brings us to the one argument that the left thinks is final and unanswerable. What about the Civil Rights Act of 1964? What about the laws banning racial discrimination? If the state can intervene to prevent you from discriminating against black people, why can’t it force you to offer services to homosexuals? If it’s not a defense to say that your religious views require racial segregation, why should it be a defense to say that your religious views require you to oppose homosexuality?

Translation: Anyone who disagrees with us must be a racist, so why don’t you just admit it already?

You can see why the left would love this argument. They’ve worked for decades to assert exclusive ownership of any moral high ground won by the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago, and they are never more comfortable than when they can dismiss an opponent as a just another racist. When you think about it, this is all they’ve got left in their ideological arsenal, and when all you have is a hammer, everything had damn well better be a nail.

Yet by arguing for the extension of anti-discrimination laws to basically cover any behavior they don’t like, they are unintentionally undermining the case for those laws by pointing out how they violate the freedom of association.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, there were a few people like Barry Goldwater who opposed it on principled libertarian grounds. These were not southern rednecks or Dixiecrats, and they were glad to see the end of Jim Crow. But they were concerned about giving the state a new power to dictate who people have to do business with. Jim Crow had violated the freedom of association in order to make racial integration illegal. But the new system violated the freedom of association in order to make discrimination illegal.

The current argument about gay marriage vindicates those concerns.

You could make an argument that the Jim Crow laws were a special case, that slavery and segregation had left a legacy so poisonous and deadly—how many hundreds of thousand of Americans died for these sins?—that some form of harsh overcompensation was necessary.

I would argue that moral reform, persuasion, and the pressure of new social mores are far more effective. The whole movement for the eradication of Jim Crow was an example of precisely that kind of peaceful social change, and it succeeded so well that today, the slightest hint of racism can be enough to ruin a career or a business. (Ask Don Imus. I hear he used to be on the radio.)

But if the argument is that segregation is a unique evil that justified curtailing the freedom of racists, that is undercut by the whole current context, which is to cite anti-discrimination laws as a precedent to be extended indefinitely—in effect, to cover any behavior the left regards as outside the window of what is socially unacceptable.

The purpose of the Civil Rights Act was to redress the injustices against people who were being lynched or denied the right to vote. Now, the same principles are invoked to redress the injustice of having your feelings hurt when someone doesn’t want to bake you a cake. Which means that this is an unlimited warrant for the state to regulate our behavior.

Am I defending the freedom of bigots? I’m defending the right to be wrong. Racists are an extremely unsympathetic example, anti-gay Christians less so, depending on where you stand. But the point is that no one’s freedom should have to depend on our sympathy.

When you think about it, there is something twisted, something deeply illiberal, about using the occasion of your own wedding to force someone else to comply with your social orthodoxy. For advocates of gay rights, I think I understand the source of this compulsion. As someone on Facebook put it to me, “Forcing ministers to marry you is the end zone dance of the culture wars.” That just about sums it up. It’s not enough to get the courts to recognize gay marriage. You also have to coerce the very opponents of gay marriage into going through the motions of supporting it. It’s even more delicious when you can do it in Coeur D’Alene, in Idaho for crying out loud. Take that, you knuckle-dragging redneck bigots!

This is a barbaric concept of victory. They’ve won the battle, and now the defeated enemy must be paraded in chains through the streets and forced to kneel before the emperor. There’s a natural tendency, I suppose, toward excess in victory, a natural temptation for the oppressed to want to become the oppressors, just to give them a taste of their own medicine. But in a civilized, free society, this is a tendency that must be suppressed.

Even a defeated enemy in the culture wars still has the right to be wrong.

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Photo By: David Goehring

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