Conservatives Need To Decide If Stigma And Ostracism Are Legitimate Moral Tools

One thing I wanted to discuss in my column for The Week, but didn’t have the room for, was the whole “define bigotry” question. Damon LinkerConor FriedersdorfRod Dreher, and Brandon Ambrosino all argued recently that simply thinking homosexuality is immoral or opposing same sex marriage doesn’t clear the threshold. I.E. to be a bigot, you have to behave in a hateful or spiteful manner towards gay people.

The point of my column was that conservatives are making a sudden and disingenuous attempt to back out of an established social charter. That charter was anti-discrimination law, and in recent decades it certainly seemed like everyone on both sides of the political divide agreed that the reach and framework of the law was appropriate for dealing with discrimination in the workplace and the market. Everyone also seemed to agree that the law’s protection should’t be limited to race, but should be extended to other groups that have faced oppression in American society. So calls for “religious liberty” amount to conservatives saying, “Oh, wait! No, we don’t think its reach and framework are appropriate after all!”

I think the dispute over who is and isn’t a bigot has the same basic problem. If you look at how Americans have used the word “bigot” — especially as it concerns race — I think it’s pretty obvious we haven’t been using it to refer solely to interpersonal behavior. For instance, imagine trying to argue that men like Strom Thurmond or George Wallace — men who leveraged all the political power at their disposal to preserve segregation and Jim Crow — were not bigots because they were perfectly nice and gentlemanly to the black people they met on the street or who worked in their offices. (I have no idea if Thurmond and Wallace were actual nice in that manner. But suppose for the sake of argument.) I don’t think anyone would be willing to go there.*

So the qualifications for being a bigot are not limited to interpersonal behavior. They also include holding to particular worldviews and sticking up for particular social orders. In which case, conservatives’ current attempts to redefine bigotry are, again, opportunistic efforts to duck out of an established social agreement as soon as their own oxe started getting gored.

But there’s also a deeper point here. Go back and consider Rod Dreher’s post specifically. It’s poignant because it discusses people Dreher knows — a successful lawyer and two New York City reporters — who effectively “live in the closet” when it comes to their SSM opposition, and who know they’d face ostracism from their social circles and stigmatization as bigots if they spoke up publicly.**

My initial reaction to this was essentially Andrew Sullivan’s — let me get you the world’s tiniest violin. But! Stepping back, I think any decent and gracious person has to admit there’s something a bit ugly about this. Human beings remain little more than upright apes, and what Dreher’s describing is a textbook case of the lower, lizard-brain functions by which we socially signal, define the borders of the tribe, and expel pollutants from our shared communal life. It’s the kind of thing self-presumed enlightened liberals would decry in other contexts.

But here’s the deeper point: the fact is human beings are social and emotional creatures rather than rational ones. And that means this kind of social policing, as ugly as it may be, is also critical to how our culture advances morally. In fact, given the importance conservatives place on communal moral order and decentralized social organization, you’d think they’d be the first to acknowledge this fact. Does anyone really think racism, for instance, was driven underground by civil and reasoned public discourse? Of course not. Racism was driven underground by collective social efforts to stigmatize and ostracize people who held to it. And it worked really well!

So I think we have two distinct questions to answer here:

1) Is the worldview under discussion actually morally objectionable? This is the “is opposing gay marriage as bad as supporting segregation” question.

2) Regardless of how you answer 1), are social stigma and ostracism appropriate tools for dealing with immoral worldviews?

And the two questions really do need to be disaggregated, because we’re all going to disagree on what constitutes an immoral worldview. I think opposing SSM is as bad as supporting segregation, and I think the belief that homosexuality is immoral is on par with the belief that black people are inferior to white people. I’m sorry, but I do. Dreher does not. And that kind of disagreement is going to crop up again and again across all sorts of different subjects. Which is just life in a free and pluralistic democracy. The question is: what kind of social charter do we all hash out to deal with those disagreements? That’s where 2) comes in, and there really is no right answer.

But we do have to own the consequences of our answer. If we conclude stigma/ostracism are not legitimate tools, then that means we’re going to have to accept the presence of people whose views we abhor at our gatherings and parties and workplaces and churches and dinners and so forth. Conversely, if we conclude stigma/ostracism are legitimate tools, then we have to be prepared for the day when we’re on the receiving ends of those weapons. You never know which way the winds of culture will shift.

Which seems to really be conservatives’ basic problem here. They’re just stunned by the speed with which American society has embraced homosexuality’s moral legitimacy, and by the resulting speed with which ostracism and stigma have been turned against them.

But given how American society dealt with racism and misogyny, for example, it really does seem like we’d all concluded that ostracism and stigma were legitimate tools. Which makes the complaints by Dreher, Friedersdorf, Linker, Ambrosino, et al  opponents of same sex marriage who are upset they’re being tarred as bigots look incredibly unprincipled and opportunistic. (UPDATE: My earlier version of this sentence was sloppy. Friedersdorf, Linker, and Ambrosino are all supporters of SSM, though they’ve argued against naming its opponents bigots. I should’ve made that clear.)

In short, if we’re going to change our minds and say those social tools actually aren’t acceptable, that’s fine — but in that case we all owe George Wallace a big fat apology.

Who wants to go first?

*I’d add that the problem with Michael Joseph Stern’s graceless and vindictive response to Ross Douthat was that he collapsed the bigotry/hatred distinction from the opposite direction. Conservatives are insisting bigotry cannot be present unless personal hatred is also present. Stern insisted that if bigotry is present, then personal hatred must also be present.

**Dreher also brings up the Mormon theater director in California who was driven out of a gig in 2008 when coworkers discovered he’d donated to the Prop 8 campaign. I left it out above because it deals with actual workplace retaliation as opposed to mere social stigma, and as such I think it’s genuinely troubling. There’s probably a strong case that anti-discrimination law should be extended to political and ideological beliefs. My understanding is some states already do so, with the expected carve-outs for firms and institutions with explicitly ideological missions.

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