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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Culhane: But are they “bigots”?

John Culhane
, Professor of Law, Widener University -
It’s been much remarked lately that those who oppose marriage equality have been trying to stand the facts of the world on their heads. In a move that’s been at least partially successful, some of them claim that what we’re trying to do is to silence them, to drive their views from “the public square” (one could create a drinking game based on Maggie Gallagher’s use of that term), and to label them “bigots.”
So they are the “victims” – not those of us who are denied basic equality. Read this recent interview with Gallagher in the wake of the New York victory – it won’t take you long to find the words “bigotry”, “silenced,” and – of course – “public square.” [Glug.]
This strategy makes sense, from their perspective. As it’s become glaringly apparent that they don’t have convincing legal or policy reasons for excluding us from the benefits of and protections of marriage, they attempt to shift the terms of the debate by labeling us intolerant.
Broadly speaking, this move generates two responses. One is to try accommodating this view by compromising with civil unions and religious exemptions. That this move can be effective is shown by current events in Rhode Island, where the governor seems poised to sign a civil unions bill with exceptions so broadly written that they erode existing state anti-discrimination law. This is hardly progress, and in any case doesn’t appease the oppositions – the Rhode Island arm of NOM still opposes the measure.
The other is to yell back: “Well, yes, you are bigots! Own it!”
This is tempting. It’s worth noting that many of the marriage equality opponents have resisted every single advance in LGBT rights along the way, not just marriage. Gallagher, for example, once wrote a column in which she belittled the idea of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by enclosing the word “discrimination” in ironic quotation marks.
But to those of us insistent on full equality yet determined to be respectful to our opponents (no matter whether such decency is reciprocated), this primal response also seems unwise. But is it?
Let’s take a hard look at the word “bigot.”
Here’s a fairly standard definition of the word, drawn from my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”
Let’s concede (maybe not accurately) that at least some of the oppositionists aren’t “intolerant” – that’s a fuzzy word, anyway.
But the definition provides a choice: to meet the definition, devotion to an opinion can be either intolerant or obstinate. — it doesn’t need to be both. And I do think that at least those whose opposition is based on religious can fairly be called “obstinate.”
Here’s the first definition of obstinate: “…adhering to an opinion, purpose, or course in spite of reason, arguments, or persuasion.”
That exactly what’s going on with those who insist that opposite-sex marriage is “God’s plan” or who rail against (sigh) “Adam and Steve.” Nothing will persuade them otherwise, because religious belief isn’t based – isn’t even supposed to be based – on reason or logic. It’s based on…belief. And that applies across the political spectrum. Whether religious folks are for us, or agin’ us, to the extent they base their views on religion, they don’t ground them in “reason, argument, or persuasion.”
Is this perverse? The dictionary says it is; I left that adverb out of the definition above in order to discuss the point without characterizing it. I’d say that some of those who aren’t religious find this impermeability to reason perverse; religious folks, of course, disagree.
Does that mean that everyone who opposes marriage equality is a bigot? Not at all. But it does mean that anyone who opposes it without “reasons, arguments, or persuasion” – in short, based on belief alone – is, in fact, a bigot.
Deal with it.

John Culhane is a law professor, a blogger, and a contributor to Slate Magazine. He is also the editor of, and a contributor to, Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Approach.

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