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March 05, 2014 10:52 PM Principled Bigotry is Still, You Know, Bigotry

By Henry Farrell

Conor Friedersdorf makes some remarkably wrong-headed claims in a post on gay marriage in the Atlantic.

In America, there is plenty of homophobia, plenty of anti-gay bigotry, and plenty of people whose antagonism to gays and lesbians is rooted in hatred. Sometimes the language of religious liberty is used to justify behavior that is anything but Christ-like. But the Slate article is implicitly trafficking in its own sort of prejudice. The working assumption is that homophobia, anti-gay bigotry, and hatred are obviously what’s motivating anyone who declines to provide a service for a gay wedding. … . In [Christian] circles, there are plenty of ugly attitudes toward gays and lesbians, as well as lots of people who think gay and lesbian sex and marriage is sinful, but bear no ill will toward gays and lesbians themselves.

Friedersdorf has a limited point, to the extent that the Slate article that he’s criticizing suggests that refusal to provide services to gay marriages is rooted in personalized hatred. It’s entirely possible that the people in question justify their refusal on some version of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ But Friedersdorf’s suggestion that this is not itself a kind of bigotry seems to me to be very obviously wrong.

Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry. Whether the people who implemented Bob Jones University’s notorious ban on inter-racial dating considered themselves to be actively biased against black people, or simply enforcing what they understood to be Biblical rules against miscegenation is an interesting theoretical question. You can perhaps make a good argument that bigotry-rooted-in-direct-bias is more obnoxious than bigotry-rooted-in-adherence-to-perceived-religious-and-social-mandates. Maybe the people enforcing the rules sincerely believed that they loved black people. It’s perfectly possible that some of their best friends were black. But it seems pretty hard to make a good case that the latter form of discrimination is not a form of bigotry. And if Friedersdorf wants to defend his sincerely-religiously-against-gay-marriage people as not being bigots, he has to defend the sincerely-religiously-against-racial-miscegenation people too. They fit exactly into Friedersdorf’s proposed intellectual category.

This isn’t just abstract word games. Irish readers will likely be familiar with the controversy over the last few months over comments made on a talk show by Panti Bliss, an Irish drag performer about various opponents to gay marriage in Ireland, including columnist John Waters (perhaps best known as the straggly haired father of Sinead O’Connor’s love child), right wing commentator Breda O’Brien, and Catholic ‘research’ and ginger-group the Iona Institute. I don’t know the exact wording of those comments, since the media have declined to reprint them, likely on the advice of their learned friends, but they clearly involved some active suggestion that these individuals were homophobic. The individuals so described reacted with outrage, professing in at least one case their lack of bias against gay people, and claiming that the objection was to save the institution of marriage, and to protect the rights of children. They also won a substantial financial settlement against Ireland’s state broadcaster for airing these comments.

Panti Bliss’s immediate response in a after-performance oration at the Abbey Theater is below, has been viewed on YouTube half a million times, and is altogether awesome. It’s particularly well worth forwarding to any American-Irish relatives you might have intent on marching in the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade, and unaware of how things are changing in the home country.

But his follow up radio interview is also well worth listening to, as a specific response to the question of what is, or is not homophobic. His argument (starting around 17:00 or so) can be summarized thus. Ireland; especially rural Catholic Ireland, is still drenched in cultural homophobia, so that ordinary people who individually like the gay people around them, are often homophobic, and oppose gay marriage for homophobic reasons. This doesn’t mean that those people aren’t very likely nice, pleasant people in a multitude of ways, who would happily sit down with their gay friends and neighbors. But they are homophobic, and when they act on their homophobia in the public space so as to try to limit the rights of gay people, it is perfectly fair game to call them out on it. Saying that someone is homophobic is not necessarily to imply that they individually hate and fear gay people. It is to imply that they are prejudiced (whether because of principle, culture, or active detestation) against gay people in ways that lead them passively or actively to oppose gay people participating fully, with full rights, in public and private life.

Even in contexts where expensive lawsuits are unlikely, such as the US, Friedersdorf’s claims have very problematic implications. As the hed paragraph of his post describes his argument, “Some opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in bigotry and some isn’t. Assuming otherwise is itself prejudice rooted in ignorance.” These may or may not be Friedersdorf’s own words, but they do accurately describe what Friedersdorf claims. And the implication is straightforward. If Friedersdorf is right, people should not disapprove of opponents to gay marriage whose opposition stems from sincere religious beliefs. They shouldn’t push back against these views as in any way socially illegitimate. Instead, they should push back against the themselves-prejudiced and bigoted people who claim that religious opposition to gay marriage is a kind of bigotry. This seems so wrong headed to me that I don’t even know where to start.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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