Monday, June 1, 2015

Three more thoughts on the left’s response to the Indiana RFRA

This post is a sequel to my first four thoughts on the RFRA, which discussed the right to freedom of association and the silliness of boycotting an entire state (whatever that even means). It is a little more aggressive in tone than my last one, so it’s important to preface these comments with an admission that I am using the words “the left” rather loosely, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Hundreds of millions of people in this country self-identify on the leftward half of the political spectrum, and this entry is targeted at a vastly smaller number of them than that. What I mean by “the left” is perhaps more accurately specified as “the portion of politically progressive people who were vocally outraged by the Indiana RFRA, who were sympathetic to efforts to boycott the state as a consequence, and who prominently, enthusiastically support forcing unwilling businesses to take part in marriage ceremonies they feel uncomfortable taking part in.” Sadly, that doesn’t much lend itself to frequent repetition, so I’m settling for inexactness in the absence of a better term. In other words, I use “the left” as shorthand for “the side of this debate with which the left is generally associated.” If you count yourself a member of the left, but are not in lockstep with the progressive orthodoxy on these issues, the criticism that follows is not directed at you.


1.  The left’s reaction to the Indiana RFRA was spiteful, not compassionate.

The political left has successfully framed all issues regarding gay rights in the public eye as a choice between love and tolerance on their side, and hateful bigotry on the other. Even if opposing gay marriage is equivalent to bigotry, this is a false dichotomy, because the idea that theirs is always the side of love and acceptance just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The protests surrounding the Indiana RFRA were primarily animated by animosity towards those who disagree.

A cursory glance at the tone of the average #BoycottIndiana tweet shows overwhelmingly more venom than sympathy. Of course, it’s rather easy to find angry dolts on Twitter. But even prominent public figures have been astoundingly hyperbolic. Rod Dreher’s excellent post Into the Christian Closet documents the insanity:

“This is not the Indiana I remember as a kid,” said David Letterman last night about the new RFRA. This is a guy born in 1947, old enough to have already been in elementary school before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, who was well into his 40s before the first gay-marriage blip appeared on a state’s judicial radar. But that’s the way most people on my side of this issue roll these days. Culturally we’re in the midst of a great forgetting, where those who were themselves agnostic about SSM or even opposed to it 15 minutes ago simply cannot imagine a mindset that would be agnostic about, or opposed to, the practice….[Letterman] hasn’t realized yet that the reason he doesn’t remember stuff like this happening when he was a kid is because gay Hoosiers had little choice at the time but to stay deep, deep, deep in the closet. The suggestion that Indiana is less accommodating to gays now, when reporters have to go door to door in small towns to find even one business willing to deny service to them, than it was in the 1950s is revisionism so egregious that gay-rights activists should be in his face about it, insisting that he recognize what America used to be like for them.

Instead they’re in the face of some pizzeria owner from a small town, who’ll almost certainly never be asked to cater a gay wedding — except maybe now as a pretext to coax her formal refusal and trigger a lawsuit — and who, like every other Christian business owner who’s run up against antidiscrimination laws thus far, isn’t refusing service to gays as a rule. She’s refusing compulsory participation in a wedding ceremony that violates what her religion tells her is permissible. And she’s getting destroyed for it on Yelp.

Watch the clip, then read the Yelp comments and ask yourself on which side the malice in this debate, which is supposed to be about hatred and prejudice, truly lies. There’s no Internet mob these days quite as nasty as a mob of pro-gay social-justice warriors competing to win the outrage Olympics.”

And of course, major politicians couldn’t miss the opportunity to feign outrage either:

“Two years ago, Hillary Clinton was saying that she changed her mind on [Same Sex Marriage], but that ‘people of good will’ could disagree with her. Now she’s saying that those same people of good will are sad bigots, and how on earth are troglodytes like that still around in 2015?... [W]hen it might have cost them something to stand for gay marriage rights, many, many politicians and celebrities did not do so. Now, when America is on the verge of having SSM everywhere, people like Hillary Clinton were always for gay rights….

[T]his has as much to do with opportunism, tribalism, humanity’s love of bandwagons, and political positioning as it does with advancing gay rights, which have advanced thanks to persuasion, not coercion.”

Ross Douthat rightly hypothesizes on how recently liberals themselves held the positions they know denounce as bigoted:

If a religious conservative (or anyone on the right) had said, back in 2004 or even into President Obama’s first term, that they accepted that marriage should be redefined nationwide to include same-sex couples, that they further accepted that this would happen swiftly through the courts rather than state-by-state and legislatively, and that all they asked of liberals was that this redefinition proceed in a way that allowed people like Barronelle Stutzman some wiggle room about whether their businesses or facilities had to be involved in the wedding ceremonies themselves — with the mechanism for opting out being something like the (then-still-bipartisan) RFRA model – this would have been treated as a very reasonable compromise proposal by a lot of people on the center-left, gay as well as straight.”

But not today. Today, $135,000 fines are considered justly proportional to the emotional damages suffered by lesbian couples who are temporarily denied a confectionary item.

Now, being a privileged straight man, I cannot personally relate to the distress such denial must provoke. As it happens, I also cannot relate to the emotional damages a mother must feel when her child is killed by a drunk driver. In that latter case, my powers of imagination are sufficient to conceive of how a $135,000 transfer from the responsible party to the victim’s family might be appropriate recompense. But relative to the indignity of having to drive to a friendlier bakery, I needn’t be lesbian to understand that it’s massively disproportionate! Their argument is essentially “you made us feel badly, for a silly reason…so we get your retirement!”

The primary hardship endured by the gay couple suing this family was the inconvenience of finding another baker – not for all time, mind you, just for the festivities taking place on a single day of their lives. The hardship endured by the couple being sued was the forfeiture of $135,000 at implied police gunpoint, the loss of their beloved business (and only means of supporting themselves), and going bankrupt. Which of these hardships amounts to persecution? Which sparks public outcry? There is a clear victim here, and only a worldview that’s hopelessly wrapped up in which macro-demographics generally oppress which macro-demographics could possibly confuse which it is. Person A feels sad that their relationship is devalued by someone they know to be ignorant, and has an entire nation rush to console them. Person B could potentially lose their fucking house, and the Huffington Post is “not sure we care.”

This is the party of empathy? No. It’s the party of empathy for people who agree with you. Truly empathetic and compassionate people would understand the feeling of being trapped between what is easy and profitable on one hand, and your deepest held beliefs on the other – whatever those beliefs happen to be. When poor, uneducated Muslim terrorists set off bombs in crowded markets overseas, the left finds it within themselves to feel compassion for the circumstances which led them to such views, sometimes even blaming the West for the perpetrators distorted interpretation of religion. But when poor, uneducated Christian pizza chefs express reservations about hypothetically baking somebody a cake, the well of liberal sympathy has apparently run dry.

The left is only pretending that sympathy is their rallying cry, shedding crocodile tears for fanciful, completely hypothetical harms that not one documented gay person has yet experienced in Indiana. What it really boils down to is that they just don’t like conservative Christians. They want to make them do things against their will not because it will make life noticeably easier on gay people in practice, but just to gloat and jeer and rub it in their stupid, ignorant, hillbilly faces. It’s not about being supportive, it’s not about being sensitive: it’s about being vindictive. Matt Welch said it best:

“too many people are acting like sore winners, not merely content with the revolutionary step of removing state discrimination against same-sex couples in the legal recognition of marriage, but seeking to use state power to punish anyone who refuses to lend their business services to wedding ceremonies they find objectionable. That's not persuasion, that's force, and force tends to be the anti-persuasion among those who are on the receiving end of it.”

To fight uphill all these long decades, then get to the top, only to start wielding majoritarianism against the suddenly disfavored minority position? That's ugly stuff.”


2. Whether or not you agree with my prior points, the left’s reaction was a setback for progress.


Even if the law were about whether or not discrimination shall be legal, and even if you don’t care a lick about private property rights or freedom of association in this context, and even if you feel not a wink of sympathy for anyone who opposes gay marriage, it is still counterproductive for you to support coerced participation in gay marriage ceremonies. The line I just quoted from Matt Welch explains why very succinctly:

“force tends to be the anti-persuasion among those who are on the receiving end of it.”

Whether or not the left considers them hateful bigots, the fact remains that somewhere between 36% and 41% of Americans still oppose gay marriage. This number has gone down in recent years and decades precisely because we’ve a had a loud, robust public debate on the issue, and in most people’s reckoning, the arguments against gay marriage have been soundly defeated. The continuation of that dialogue is crucial to showing those who are still wrong why they are wrong. But when we adopt a worldview so intolerant of dissent that it not only shames and boycotts those people, but even boycotts any supporters of gay marriage who dare to speak to those people (even when they themselves are homosexual!) that dialogue is severely suppressed.

Scorn and state punishment alone is not sufficient to root out bad ideas – only to push them underground. As this excellent blog post eloquently laid out, the result of liberal bullying on this will only be to send Christians into a closet of their own. Describing the furor over Memories Pizza, Dreher writes:

“What we have here is — as we called in journalism school jargon — “no story.” Nothing happened. Nothing was about to happen…Memories Pizza didn’t blast out a news release. They didn’t contact the media, nor make a stink on Twitter or Facebook. They didn’t even post a sign in the window rejecting gay-wedding catering jobs. They merely answered questions from a novice reporter who strolled into their restaurant one day – who was sent on a mission by an irresponsible news organization…Twenty-four hours ago, nobody had ever heard of these people. Now, their business may have been destroyed….

“Here’s what any traditional Christian business owner or employee with a brain in his or her head must do now: keep your mouth shut. 

Do not talk to the media. You will almost certainly not get a fair shake, and even if you do, it’s not going to matter. The SJW mob will do what it can to destroy you. Do not talk to anybody about your thoughts or opinions unless you know you can trust them not to out you…do not give them any more information than you absolutely have to. It can and will be used against you. Unless you are already out, stay in the closet. This is where we are in this country. You think I’m exaggerating? You think I’m being alarmist? Ask the O’Connor family of Memories Pizza how quickly your livelihood can be taken from you in the cause of Social Justice™.”

This slows the march of gay marriage acceptance for two reasons. First, it silences discussion, which prevents the clash of ideas that’s so crucial to evolving ignorant views. I have written extensively on this in the context of sexism and misogyny, which you can read here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. The central thesis of these writings is that healthy debate is the process by which, over time, good ideas win and bad ideas lose, even if that happens at a slower and less constant rate than we might prefer, so we should prioritize the stewardship of healthy debate over competing values. Liberals agree with me that more educated people are less likely to be socially ignorant, but seem generally slower than me to embrace the work of actually educating the rest.

You don’t have to agree with the Memories Pizza lady’s viewpoint – in fact you can find it reprehensible – but you should recognize that she believes it very strongly, and that from her viewpoint it is you who’s being hateful and intolerant. You don’t have to frequent her business, but you should permit her to stand up for that unpopular opinion in public view (while risking only rebuttal and loss of revenue, not vandalism or death threats or heavy fines). If you’re as confident in your own correctness as you claim to be (and should be!), you should be equally confident that such permissiveness will hasten the demise of incorrect alternatives. Impatience with the pace of progress, on the other hand, will not hasten it.

Second, the punitive reaction hurts the liberal cause because it creates a legitimate claim to persecution on the part of people who previously had no such claim (or at least, a more plausible and rhetorically compelling claim than they previously had). This obfuscates your narrative of who the real victims are to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you, hindering the effectiveness of what little debate remains on the subject at winning people over to your side.

Even if you think persuasion is generally useless or too slow, and are content to just rely on actuarial tables to dwindle down the population of people who are anti-gay, reacting this way hurts your ability to do so. The reason is that homophobia, like terrorism or Nazism or racism, is not a fixed pool of people who can be eradicated by the force of the state: it is an amorphous idea, and ideas cannot be beaten by men with guns. This is partly why  huge swaths of progressive Europe, despite all their ill-conceived and longstanding prohibitions on hate speech and holocaust denial, are still plagued by stubborn underground racism and anti-Semitism. Just like counterterrorism efforts oversees, you have to win the hearts and minds. The US military learned this the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so did American conservatives on the domestic front. If liberals continue to squelch dissent with fines and force, they will too.

Children in conservative Christian families who previously would have gone to college and rebelled against their parents’ illogical mindset will now be less likely to do so, because the intellectual appeal of the position they were raised to believe is strengthened (and the task of overcoming that bias made much more difficult) when the homophobia is no longer isolated from distinct and more easily defensible freedom of association arguments. Potential converts who would otherwise start to doubt their positions will instead harden their hearts, and preventing or delaying victory in the ideological battle.

“If we are about intimidating the free speech of others,” argues gay marriage supporter Andrew Sullivan, “we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.” I disagree with him in a nitpicky sort of way: you are slightly better, on account of holding better ideas than those homophobic predecessors. But your bullying people is no better as a tactic, and no more likely to lead to permanent long term victory than it was for social conservatives.

A far more effective strategy to enable productive discussion that might actually change some minds is to bully their ideas instead, without attacking them on a personal (much less a financial) level. That’s the strategy adopted by Matt Stolhandske, a pro-gay-marriage Christian who is raising money to cover the Klein family’s fine. Stolhandske explains:

“this is what an olive branch looks like. I am not rewarding their behavior, but rather loving them in spite of it. It is time for these two communities, which both cite genuine love as our motivation, to put aside our prejudices and put down our pitchforks to clear the path for progress."

Hear hear! The left’s reaction to persistently conservative people in Indiana, Oregon and elsewhere has been excessive, illogical, intolerant and counterproductive to their purported objectives of diversity and social harmony – but it’s not too late to change that.

3. This reaction illustrates why social conservatives should embrace libertarianism.


I’ve criticized liberals plenty in this post, so I’ll close with a message to social conservatives. For you, this whole affair is an ominous foreshadowing of things to come if you do not come to terms with some obvious truths: you’ve lost the culture war, and that defeat is permanent as it relates to public policy.

You will never again muster majorities of the population that want obscenity, adultery, unwed parenthood, fornication, drinking, divorce, smoking pot, birth control or gay marriage to be illegal. Very soon, you will also not be able to muster a majority of the population that wants to prohibit gambling, prostitution, physician assisted suicide, or polygamous marriage either. Religious affiliation rates will continue to decrease for the foreseeable future, and there is nothing you can do about this.

Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority is now the moral minority, and you had best get used to it.

Furthermore, because of your long history of indiscriminately imposing your will on anyone who disagreed, the new majorities have a lot of pent-up animosity against you. They are all too eager to turn the tables. If the country continues to embrace the majoritarianism long since trumpeted by social conservatives like you, such that whichever faction is presently in the majority gets to use the force of the state to impose their will on the minority, this could get very ugly for you.

First, everything you’ve decried in recent years will only become more widespread. In more and more states, traditionally-minded bakers and florists and photographers will continue to be forced to participate in ceremonies they find unconscionable, or to close, or to pay enormous fines. Administering gay marriage may be made mandatory for any religious figure or institution that also administers straight marriage. Private adoption agencies which decline to place orphans with same sex couples will continue to be shut down, as they already were in Massachusetts and Illinois.

Then, it will get worse. Churches who believe things liberals don’t like may lose their tax-exempt status, even as other non-profits maintain it. The same will go for any religious university whose administrators maintain a traditionalist view of marriage, and students who attend these universities will be barred from receiving federal tuition assistance as well. Businesses like Chick-fil-A, or really any organization remotely affiliated with people like you, may be legally barred entry from certain towns or states. Teaching children that homosexuality is wrong in Sunday school, or even at home, may be prohibited. Protesting abortion outside abortion centers, with or without the use of graphic signs, may be prohibited. In fact, expressing your opinions in any location may be deemed “hate speech” and also prohibited. “Sensitivity training” may be required for anyone the left deems insufficiently sensitive. Your tax dollars may go to fund this training, as well as abortion clinics and charities promoting liberal cultural values. Birth control will not just be legal, it will be provided for free, to every one of every age, at taxpayer expense. Lawyers and doctors and teachers and taxi drivers and hair stylists who think like you will be prevented from receiving a license enabling them to conduct their business, or have their licenses rescinded once they’re “outed” as a social conservative. The fines which are presently levied out in places like Oregon for breaking these laws will escalate into jail time, until your very existence as a person in the United States who holds opinion X, Y or Z will be deemed illegal – just as communism and homosexuality were punished at the behest of people like you back in the 1950’s.

At each step of this progression, libertarians will begrudgingly come to your defense, perhaps in blog posts like this one. But almost nobody reads my blog, and if you don’t start embracing some more ideological consistency yourself, our pleas may well fall on deaf ears. The hypocrisy in your own positions – demanding taxpayers fund the enforcement of your preferred values, but crying foul when other people’s values are enforced on you – will be too obvious to resist giving you a taste of your own medicine. So long as the state’s long assumed (and euphemistically phrased) role of “promoting good cultural values” persists unchallenged in the minds of most people, it will very shortly begin “promoting” values you think are very bad. So long as the state retains its cultural bludgeon, the left will see no reason not to wield it, smacking down dissenting “bigots” with the same giddy enthusiasm as a child playing whack-a-mole at an arcade.

It behooves you, therefore, to help us strip that bludgeon out of the state’s hands.

Becoming libertarian does not mean your personal views about marriage need to change. It does not mean you have to become sex-positive, or feminist, or refrain from judging other people for personal choices you disagree with (though you should consider doing those things too!). In fact, you can still oppose each of the things social conservatives have traditionally opposed. You can still oppose premarital sex. You can still oppose homosexual sex. You can still oppose divorce. You can still oppose marijuana use. You can still oppose adultery. You can still oppose contraceptives. You can even still oppose obscenity or fornication or drinking liquor or doing work on Sundays or playing Twister or whatever the fuck else you think is leading to the moral downfall of society. And sometimes, I might even agree with you, because there are enormous elements of truth to some of your basic claims about humility and patience and human happiness.

All you have to do to become a libertarian is refrain from forcefully punishing, or endorsing that others forcefully punish, people who disagree with you on those matters. If you can’t see by now why that’s really in your interest, you may be beyond our help.

All I ask, all I implore of you for your own sake, is to read the writing on the wall, and deduce its implications for whether the world is really better when fickle majorities can hijack an inherently violent organization to carry out their faintest and most arbitrary moral whims. From Matt Walsh to Ross Douthat, there are people making really smart social conservative arguments that don’t necessitate any state involvement whatsoever. I don’t agree with all of these, including the one I just hyperlinked, but I have to concede they make great points – until they veer off into that territory where they want people with guns to make it so. Stop veering off into that territory, join forces with the last best ideological defense you have, and let’s make the world a little freer for people of all political persuasions.

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