Philosophically, recent protestations by conservatives that ‘liberals are the intolerant ones now!’ are flim-flam. I say so. Brendan Eich. Hobby Lobby. Same-sex marriage. I get why they have to play it that way, trying to turn the tables. It’s such an obligatory rhetorical gambit it almost doesn’t bother me – well, most days. In each such case the most generous possible response is: no, you are obviously confused about what liberal tolerance is, or religious freedom, or you are confused about the facts of the case, or all three.
So I’m sincerely baffled that Damon Linker – smart guy! – is apparently taken in by this poor stuff. Indeed, he’s been banging on like this for a while now, at The Week [just follow the links in the one I linked]. He dissented from our Henry’s sensible line on bigotry some months ago, in a manner that made absolutely no sense to me.
That post got almost 10,000 comments. (Wow!) So it doesn’t seem likely that Damon (I met him once, so I’m going to call him that) suffers from a lack of people telling him that what he says makes no damn sense.
What to say, what to say, when I’m already 10,000th in line to read him the riot act?
I guess I’m posting about it now because … well, I’ve been wanting to hammer out some thoughts on toleration. (Sorry if it’s long. Talking to myself, really. Go read something else.) Also, in the latest installment, Damon asks precisely the question I’ve been sort of wanting to ask him. “So what gives?”
That is the alpha and omega of what I don’t get about Damon’s recent line. And I find his short answer sheds little light. (Tolerance is always about give in the system, but I don’t get it.)
“I haven’t changed. The country has.”
The issue is a balance-of-power shift, then. But this makes all the stuff about liberal tolerance and religious freedom kind of … secondary. (Not irrelevant by any means, but not the thing.) Damon makes the case that social conservatives are now, for the first time, a true minority.
“Liberals usually pride themselves on defending minority rights against the tyranny of the majority — and above all when the tyranny threatens to become more than metaphorical through the use of the coercive powers of the government. Yet when it comes to the rights of religious traditionalists, many liberals seem indifferent, and more than a few seem overtly hostile.”
This strikes me as, at best, a parody of a bad argument liberals are supposed to love (because we are so dumb!): namely, if it’s a minority, and it wants something, it must be a right! Because minorities are always right. Right?
But seriously: Damon is presupposing his conclusion. Liberals are attempting to deny social conservatives their rights. But that is precisely what is at issue.
So: are their rights to believe and speak and personally practice being violated or not?
I’m tempted to say ‘well, obviously not’ and leave it at that. But that doesn’t seem to have convinced Damon yet, so I’ll try something more indirect. (I really regard him as an interlocutor who is open to reasonable argument, so I am trying to be reasonable about this. I really think he’s just gotten confused about this. I don’t suspect him of trolling, just to get 10,000 comments, or anything like that.)
Not all minorities are powerless or persecuted. (The 1%, anyone?) It’s understandable why social conservatives should experience relative erosion of a former position of great social and cultural dominance as a humiliating reversal of fortunes – as moral persecution. It’s psychologically inevitable that they will feel like miserable underdogs, and it’s rhetorically advantageous for them to pose as such. So here we are. But sensible people should be able to see what’s really going on. Let’s just take up the gay marriage issue. Sometimes liberals say: ‘what’s the big deal if two guys who love each other get married? It’s not like they are hurting you.’ But if you are, say, Maggie Gallagher, that obviously not true in the least. If it’s not a big deal for two guys to get married, then Maggie Gallagher is a person who has devoted her adult life to trying to inflict senseless harm on innocent people. By not hurting other people, those two gay-married guys are, in effect, turning her from a superior sort of person (in her own eyes) to an inferior sort of person (in everyone else’s). The less they hurt other people, the more they hurt her. She doesn’t want to be regarded as a bigot. Who does? All the same, liberal tolerance and freedom of religion are not ‘get out of having been a bigot’ cards you can play at any time. She can go right on believing that same-sex marriage is bad bad bad. What’s bothering her is not that someone is trying to tell her what she can or cannot believe or say. What bothers her is that more and more people think what she thinks is horrible and that, therefore, no one should think it. As is their right. Concluding that ‘no one should think this, because it’s wrong and bad’ is not, as Damon frequently suggests, a violation of liberal tolerance. Drawing that conclusion is not, per se, a coercive act. No more so than saying ‘2 + 2 is not 5’. Indeed, if you were to ask J. S. Mill what he thinks is the relationship between true liberal tolerance and claims of the form ‘x is wrong because y, so nobody should think x’, he would say that the point of toleration is always to allow people to make such claims.
Again (I’m repeating myself, but this seems necessary): I can well imagine how morally maddening social conservatives must find it to lose, culturally. People who say ‘what’s the big deal?’ should at least see that it’s very hard to say ‘well, I waged a moral crusade for decades, but the arc of history bends towards justice and all. Eventually it caught up with me and bit me in the ass.’ Maggie Gallagher is never going to swallow that bitter red pill. Naturally she is going to confabulate a blue pill to this effect: she is a Lost Cause beautiful loser on behalf of religious liberty.
You can object: sez you which is red and which is blue! Well, yeah. The point is: no one is forced to swallow either pill. She gets to pick. That’s liberal tolerance for you.
What is hurting her is not a bitter pill of belief anyone is forcing her to swallow. What is hurting her is, as Damon says, that the country is changing. There was this fight over what to think about homosexuality, and, amazingly, it had this David and Goliath quality. The good underdogs won, and the bad anti-gay bullies lost, and it all happened weirdly fast. That so many people tell the story of what happened in this way is what makes conservatives feel oppressed. But there’s nothing illiberal about this having happened.
Notice how I just slipped into the past tense? That’s sort of weird, since it ain’t over. This is another thing I think Damon gets wrong. Consider this bit from this piece:
Yes, it’s still underway. But at this rate, Nate Silver’s 2009 prediction that gay marriage would be accepted in all 50 states by 2024 is going to prove to be too pessimistic.
And yet, that appears to be insufficient for some gay marriage proponents. They don’t just want to win the legal right to marry. They don’t just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life.
There’s a weird kind of logic here, akin to certain Marxist arguments about why you don’t need to fight for revolution. (If it’s going to happen inevitably anyway, just sit back and wait.) Damon writes as though, since this will have happened by then, fighting for it now is kind of like always already having hit the poor guy when he’s down. That’s one problem.
Here’s a closely related problem. There just isn’t any way to argue for this thing that is (I agree) surely going to happen by 2024, without arguing that the people who oppose it now are morally in the wrong. The reason why it will be right for gays to have won the legal right to marry in all 50 states, when that finally happens, is that it will have been already right for all Americans to have recognized and affirmed that equal dignity, even in 2014. (Not that they should be sent to re-education camps if they don’t actually affirm it. It’s just that the argument implies that people who don’t get on board with this thing are in the wrong.)
In short, and dropping the funny tenses: there isn’t any way to argue, reasonably, for the eventual result – which Damon himself thinks is a good result! – without making arguments that imply that Maggie Gallagher is sort of a bad person, morally blind at best. Not that it needs to be made personal like that. But, inevitably, it will feel personal, by implication. Gallagher will feel she is being made a kind of pariah. That will feel like illiberal intolerance, I’m sure. But it won’t be. [UPDATE: Gallagher showed up in comments to disavow giving a damn what people think of her. If that’s true, she’s an admirably independent thinker. But the point stands. Most people give a damn what people think of them.]
Consider. If you think taxes should go down 2% and I think they should go up 2%, and you lose and taxes go up – well, that’s the sort of difference and loss that can be played off as ‘reasonable’, hence eminently tolerable. That’s the sort of thing reasonable people can agree to disagree about. Maybe it’s just a technical dispute. Maybe my party will win next time. Fair is fair. I’m not saying people will always be tolerant and level-headed like this, nor that all views about taxes are inherently reasonable. I’m just saying there’s high-stakes and low-stakes, morally, and 2% up or down is low-stakes, probably. Now, high-stakes.
Suppose I think X should regarded as a basic right (for all humans or all Americans, take your pick), such that deprivation of X would constitute a gross and manifest injustice. You think the opposite. Here we get a somewhat paradoxical result. You can presumably be quite tolerant of me. (People get these funny ideas that there are all these rights, which there aren’t! Silly people, but we tolerate them!) But it is harder for me to be tolerant of you. Because, after all, I think you are 1) fighting for an injustice that 2) all reasonable people should be able to see is an injustice. That’s hard to excuse. So if I win, and everyone else pretty much agrees with me, so you are odd man out, you are going to be surrounded by people who think you are a morally bad person. Even though your moral worth, or lack thereof, wasn’t really the issue.
Does it follow that the person opposing regarding X as a basic right is, inherently, more liberally tolerant? For most values of X?
Debates about abolitionism had this odd quality sometimes. Defenders of slavery were often quite intellectually tolerant of abolitionists – so long as they weren’t John Brown-types. (These funny philosophers, with their silly ideas about rights and what is really possible! [UPDATE: one comment has already shown that this is confusing, since it’s also true that abolitionist literature was banned in the South, and abolitionists who showed their noses could be lynched. That said, as I learned while reading an anthology of the stuff, intellectual defenders of slavery did try to turn the ‘bigot’ tables on their opponents in this way.] But it was harder for abolitionists to be tolerant of defenders of slavery. Looking back, we can easily see this for the high-stakes moral issue it was. If you think X is a view that no reasonable person can defend, then you contradict yourself by treating an opponent who defends X as taking a reasonable position. It’s harder for abolitionists to observe the niceties of debate without undermining themselves. Defenders of slavery exploited this, often casting themselves as the good liberals and their abolitionist opponents as intolerant bigots.
Of course, there is nothing that opponents of gay marriage hate more than being compared to defenders of slavery. But the analogy is a good one. Going back up to the abstract level: if you are arguing that X is a basic right, deprivation of which would be a gross infringement of dignity, then you are pretty much bound to regard whoever takes the other side as a moral jerk. This seems like a violation of the norm that you shouldn’t call someone a jerk just because she disagrees with you. But it isn’t. It’s the only consistent view to take. (That doesn’t mean you are bound to send your opponent to a re-education camp for jerks, be it noted.)
Suppose slavery had been abolished, not in the distinctly illiberal manner that it was, but by the persistent application of abolitionist suasion. Eventually everyone came around and stopped owning slaves, because increasingly most people regarded that sort of thing as just beyond the frozen limit, morally. (They watched TV shows about freed slaves, and they seemed like nice people.) It was painful to people to know that everyone thought they were bad people, for owning slaves, so they freed their slaves. Even if they didn’t own slaves, it was painful to know that people would disapprove if they said they wanted to own slaves, so they held their tongues. Some slaveowners argued that, in effect, this was reverse-enslavement – ‘slavery to the bigotry of public opinion! Where once a few were slaves, now all men are! So completely that they do not even know it!’ … But most of their kids didn’t own slaves, and eventually people stopped even saying stuff like that. It was regarded as sort of embarrassing, looking back.
Well, ok. You get the idea. The point is: this would not, in fact, be a flagrant and tragic betrayal of liberalism. Had it played out this way – and surprisingly rapidly! – it would have been the single greatest showcase for the virtues of liberalism in the history of the planet. This doesn’t prove that gay marriage is a good thing, just because slavery was a bad thing. But it does, I think, show how profoundly Damon has gotten turned around, trying to portray the system working like it’s supposed to as some alarming breakdown.
So what gives?
We’ve come to the religious part of the show, I think. I’m going to attempt one table-turn, although I know that’s always rhetorically annoying. Damon wants to say that people are entitled to tolerance, not to ‘recognition’. That is, you cannot mandate positive respect. He says this is what liberals are trying to force:
Recognition … requires much more from one’s fellow citizens — because the end it seeks is far more demanding. Instead of aiming to “live and let live,” as toleration does, recognition strives for psychological acceptance and positive affirmation of one’s vision of the good from all of one’s fellow citizens, including from those whose vision of the good clashes with it. That makes it a zero-sum game.
First of all, there is absolutely nothing illiberal about striving for psychological acceptance and positive affirmation of one’s vision of the good from all one’s fellow citizens. (Best of luck to you, but it’s zero-sum, and a lot of other people are striving, too. It’s a funny old world.) Beyond that: the shoe is on the other foot. The person insisting on ‘recognition’, as opposed to tolerance, is Damon himself. He is insisting on a special sort of status for religious claims. Being religious about it is a kind of get-out-of-being-a-bigot free card. As Henry argued in his post, it’s very strange to think this way (especially in light of the word’s etymology).
This drives Damon into some pretty awkward corners. Consider his case for why liberals should celebrate Hobby Lobby:
Couldn’t racist business owners use the reasoning in the Hobby Lobby case to claim religious exemption from statutes that ban discrimination against African-Americans?
Answer: They can try, but they will fail.
Beyond the meticulous narrowness of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, there’s the fact that racism is much less deeply woven into the fabric of Judeo-Christian scripture, doctrine, and theology than are traditionalist teachings on sex and gender. For that reason it is far more difficult to craft a religiously grounded case for racial discrimination.
Is it impossible? Since such arguments have been made many times in the past, the answer is obviously no. But at this point in history, they are extremely unlikely to be found publicly persuasive or to prevail before the court.
One thing Alito was narrow about, if memory serves, was not ensnaring the court in judgments about what is theologically deeply or only loosely woven. It’s obvious why we don’t want the government in that business. You can’t really hope to test for theological soundness, above and beyond sincerity. And there is absolutely no doubt that many man and women of faith have sincerely believed that Christianity provided moral support for what were, also, racist worldviews – the bits about slavery can help out with that, for example. It seems to me that, according to Damon’s logic, all such people are to be immunized not just against having to provide contraceptives to employees, or whatever, but against basic sorts of criticism. They can’t be called bigoted against blacks, even if they are flagrantly and openly racist against blacks, so long as they sincerely think the Bible tells them so. Does Damon believe this is the right way to score it? Also, they can’t be called sexists – in a bad sense – should it prove that the Bible advocates sexism. To sum up: it seems to me Damon is (rather vaguely) insisting that anything a religious person thinks is good, and that they believe is supported by their religion, has to be regarded as – if not good, then not bad. That is, we are obliged not just to tolerate certain views – the sincerely held religious ones – but to accord them positive value: recognition, in his terms. To many people, this actually sounds pretty good, I expect. Religion is good and toleration is good. But the view is, on further examination, absurdly strong, really self-defeating. At any rate, highly illiberal. It’s more like distributed, or federalized, theocracy.
And if coercion-by-public-opinion (by what is ‘publicly persuasive’) is fine in the racism case, what’s wrong with it in the gay case?
I’m not going to say any more about this since I am genuinely a bit unsure how he thinks this is supposed to work.
Let me conclude this very long post by making one last point. Suppose we see a big boy call a little boy ‘fag’, and knock him to the ground. I say, ‘we’d better help that poor kid.’ You say, ‘but we don’t actually know the big one is not a serious student of Leviticus 18 and 20, in which case there has to be something good about it. Best not to second-guess private acts of sincere religious practice.’ I trust that Damon would be as quick as I to regard this as a rather inadequate case for non-intervention, to put it mildly. For one thing, it’s absurd to think that there has to be something good about it, so long as it’s religious. But beyond that, it’s flagrantly psychologically unrealistic, and we all know it. No kid does that sort of thing for religious conscience reasons.
But it actually doesn’t get more psychologically realistic as the kid grows, mellows out, starts a family, starts cutting checks to Focus On The Family because it seems like a solid organization. Stigmatization of homosexuality, as a social and cultural norm, is not, in a causal sense, an effect of theology – loosely or tightly woven or any kind of woven. The thing it’s woven into is real social and cultural practice. Everyday life. In a causal sense, the explanation for why people treat and regard gays they way they do is not that they read Leviticus, or failed to read it, but that the people around them treated and regarded gays that way, and they – being people – picked up on it. The Bible, and going to church on Sunday and all that, is one factor among many. It isn’t nothing. For a lot of people, it’s a lot. But for very few people is it the reason for all the rest. Most people aren’t THAT religious.
This is not to reduce religion or freedom to sociology, just to deflate it – a bit. Put it this way: if I really believed some guy really believed that God spoke to him, personally – a real five-alarm IMAX surround-sound mystical vision – and God told him not to bake cakes for gay weddings or else! … I would like to let that guy not bake cakes for gay weddings. Whatever exceptions are on offer, this guy deserves one. The poor couple can lump it and get their cake elsewhere, because it’s going to be just awful to force this guy to go against what he believes. But, for most people of faith, inclined not to bake a gay wedding cake, it would be as psychologically true to say that the motive for refusal is that they are Republicans, or conservatives, or they just vaguely don’t like gays. It’s all tangled up, which isn’t an especially bad thing, but not anything that deserves especial deference.
There’s a kind of tension between our sense of religion as an exceptional thing – it’s revealed! – and a normal-as-houses thing – it’s weirder not to be religious! (It would be kind of funny to give a conscience exception only to atheists on the ground that they are the exceptional ones. Not that I think that would make sense either!) Our sense of how a religious liberty exception ought to operate falls, rather hopelessly, between these stools. It’s just not possible to regard normal, median, modal beliefs, in a sociological sense, as singular exercises of heroic individual conscience. In all seriousness, the only possible reason for privileging them is that normal is privileged.
This is sort of a wimpy note on which to end, but I would hope thinkers like Damon would look at the religious liberty issue like this: it’s hard to get it right. We don’t want people to have to check their religion at the door. But, in a liberal system, religious beliefs are more or less going to count as preferences. And we don’t want to weight them extra, as such. Religious liberty should be an opt-out, a shield not a sword. Of course, just as you can’t devise a shield that can’t be used to push someone, you probably can’t devise a religious liberty exception that can’t be creatively leveraged into a device for semi-nullifying legislation by extra-legislative means, for imposing one’s religion on others. Still, that’s not how it’s supposed to go.
This contrarian view that in these cases liberals are the illiberal ones, conservatives the embattled minority standing up for freedom – nope, I just don’t see the sense of it. I confidently await Damon Linker’s complete conversion to my point of view, in response to my rational arguments. But even if he unaccountably resists, I would like to reiterate my sense that he is perfectly sincere about all this, for what it is worth. I am sure he is not trolling us liberals, even though the slatepitchiness of it might make one suspect otherwise.