July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
The month of June is LGBT pride month, pursuant to a Proclamation issued by President Obama on May 31, 2011. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this June was an historic month for the LGBT rights. Early in the month, the U.S. Department of Defense updated its equal opportunity policy to protect service members against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Two weeks thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage would henceforth be legal in all 50 states, and each state must recognize same-sex marriages performed in any other state. This landmark decision is known as Obergefell v. Hodges. James Obergefell was the named petitioner among a total of 14 consolidated cases of same-sex couples seeking in some manner the legal recognition of their unions, with Richard Hodges, director of the Ohio Department of Health as the respondent.
By now I expect almost everyone has heard of this decision in some form or another, whether through the various talking heads in the media or the pride-flag profile pictures taking over Facebook. I happened to take more than just a personal interest in these developments, because in my capacity as an attorney I was called upon to participate as a subject-matter expert in a panel discussion explaining the legal implications of these, and other developments affecting LGBT rights, including discussion and a question-and-answer session.
While preparing for the event, I had decided to make a point of focusing on the ‘human element’ and the emotional appeal of the stories of James Obergefell and the other petitioners, as a means of underscoring the real world impact of this decision. I made sure to learn about the people behind the case, their struggles and their stories. It is no secret that lawyers seek out likeable plaintiffs with compelling stories to carry the cause for the greater good. The petitioners in this case certainly succeeded in gaining the sympathy of the court, and justifiably so. I won’t recount the details here, but profiles of three of the couples in question are available to read in the decision itself.
My strategy proved effective. The impromptu confessions of some of the speakers proved that my telling the stories of petitioners’ personal struggles was just the right emotional incentive to encourage their participation in the discussions. The audience had become emotionally invested. As a result, they became more involved. As a rhetorical device, emotional appeals can be very effective.
However, resorts to emotional appeal should be limited to sparking interest, and thus encouraging, not stifling discussion. In the context of the event, I feel confident that my strategy was effective and appropriate. But too often we are blinded by our convictions, and fail to even recognize our own biases. Many of the oft-debated political issues of our day are polarizing, with forceful expressions of conviction on opposing sides, leading to too much talk but no dialogue.
The Obergefell case was decided by a sharply divided court, on a 5 – 4 majority vote. Though the court’s divide is one based on judicial interpretation, it nonetheless may well parallel a political and cultural split that runs across the United States itself. My sense is that despite fiery rhetoric over opposing views, most of us actually agree in more ways than we realize in our fundamental beliefs. Yet, unlike the verbal jousting in the opinions and dissents of varying eloquence announced by the Supreme Court, whose Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia for example are usually on opposing ends of interpretive philosophy and political spectrum, they nonetheless are very good friends, whereas the fiery, antagonistic one-liners and inflammatory comments on social media through which the general public prefers to conduct its ‘debates’ about the same issues leave us with sentiments that lead to name-calling, not discussion. Take for example George Takei, and his recent comments about Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the dissenters in the Obergefell decision, whom he called a “clown in blackface” among other derogatory terms (for which he later apologized).
Such name-calling is unjustified. Disagreements with views need not lead to derogatory ad hominem attacks.
Just as the Supreme Court recognized in the Obergefell decision that reasonable people can have reasonable differences of opinion on the topic of same-sex marriage, even as it struck down bans against it, it is better to take a charitable attitude toward opposing views. As John Stuart Mill cautioned, we cannot adopt an air of infallibility. We could, in theory anyway, prove to be wrong in our own views. It’s never happened to me, but it is theoretically possible…
Later, I again engaged in a discussion about the Obergefell case in a different context. This time, rather than extrapolating the legal significance of the Obergefell decision in a setting that celebrated the recent advances of LGBT rights, I was involved in a casual discussion with friends. I mentioned that I have several friends who are opposed to same-sex marriage, yet they are not homophobes. This was not something that was easily accepted in the discussion. The idea that opposition to same-sex marriage can be rooted in anything but bigotry was seen as almost paradoxical. I tried to explain that there is no clear, black-and-white division between “us the good guys” and “those bigots” on the opposing side. Most issues, this one included, are more nuanced. And most issues can have reasonable arguments on both sides. Yet the notion that a lack of support for same-sex marriage may not necessarily be indicia of intolerance received much resistance.
To one who has been described as a ‘contrarian’ (such as I), this was good. I took it as a sign that I have managed to isolate a barrier against dialogue, which needed to be addressed. We can only grow through debate, and no debate can take place without some struggle. Call it a Hegelian synthesis. But I digress…
To engage in constructive dialogue, the parties must first be open to the possibility that their own views are flawed in some way, and that the opposing side may have valid points, too. It requires respect. Yet in an emotionally charged issue where discussion is replaced by Facebook memes, the notion that anyone who is not in favor of same-sex marriage might NOT be a homophobe or bigot proved to be a challenging one to defend. I then pointed out that the friends I had mentioned had one thing in common:
They were all gay.
Yes, it seems that I have more gay friends who have expressed views in some form opposing gay marriage than straight friends. To me, this is very revealing for various reasons. It illustrates that there is no clear dividing line on any issue, and our constant urge to reduce everything to neatly digestible superficial sound-bites is flawed. Also, I think it shows a phenomenon that is equally well illustrated by all those trendy rainbow-flag profile pictures that popped up on Facebook during the days leading up to this decision. It shows almost a compulsion by the some members of the ‘majority’ group to identify with and show public support for a cause on behalf of an ‘oppressed minority’ group.
Perhaps it would be overly cynical to speculate that it was all a social experiment by Facebook to see how easily such ‘memes’ can spread and influence users. It may also be an over-generalization to say that things like the ‘Celebrate Pride’ rainbow covered profile pictures on Facebook are shallow, narcissistic expressions evidencing a superficial, sanctimonious identification as “one of the good guys,” which lacks depth or a true investment in the issues.
But maybe, just maybe, our shallow way of understanding issues we digest through the click-bait, sound-bite culture of social media, have a tendency to build up resistance against the notion that those of opposing views might nonetheless be reasonable human beings.
In the context of this issue, one of my friends who had expressed a well-considered opinion against gay marriage argued that marriage itself was a problematic institution with a troubling history rooted in property rights and so on; and furthermore, that the attempt to “normalize” gay relationships through “marriage” unnecessarily imposes an inferior status upon gay relationships, and seeks to fit them into a “straight” mold for which such relationships are not suited, among other things.
It is not my intention to relay second-hand information about arguments I did not make. The point is that he, as a gay man, was philosophically opposed to gay marriage. He was not a “self-hating” gay person, nor was his view motivated by religion. So it would be difficult to describe him as homophobic or bigoted.
These days, when everyone screams as loud as they can form their own personal social-media pulpit, where the internet provides us with the largest engine of confirmation bias in human history, we ought now, more than ever, to take a step back and try to listen to the other side. I admit, at times I can be as guilty of the sort of tunnel vision I am describing as anyone. But, for one, I’ve never found hypocrisy to be a personal obstacle… And this here is my pulpit, and the message is: try to find common ground, even with those with whom you disagree.
In closing, this past June has been a month of very significant developments for the LGBT community. This is certainly cause for celebration for many who, much like the sometimes heart-wrenching stories of the petitioners in the Obergefell case, had finally achieved a goal after decades of struggle. Others, such as polygamists, continue to be refused official recognition of what they perceive as their marriage rights. Whether it is time to reconsider our views on polygamy and whether this is a step toward that direction, remains to be seen. For now, it is cause for much celebration in the LGBT community and those who support same-sex marriage. While it is true that there is plenty of bigotry, prejudice, and other distasteful tendencies left in the world, my hope is that the Obergefell decision reminds us try to reduce intolerance with a spirit of civility that affirms the dignity of all human beings, whether or not we agree on every issue. Social media makes it easier than ever to fall into the temptation of categorization, of labels, of jumping to conclusions, and reducing people to representatives of various groups, refusing to see the complexities of individuals that make them fully human.
There is profit in whipping up hysteria about whatever latest issue sparks outrage. Let cooler heads prevail. Avoid buying into the temptation of “righteous indignation.” Let us also resist the temptation to reduce each other to headlines and sound bites, and let’s try to affirm the dignity of all human beings, not just those with whom we agree. And, let’s try to avoid calling each other clowns in Blackface…