The Same-Sex Marriage Movement and the Dangers of Denunciation

Regardless of who prevails in the argument over marriage, the politics of denunciation practiced by same-sex marriage supporters will have damaged the public discourse.

One of the most troubling aspects of the same-sex marriage movement is the rhetorical strategy it so frequently employs: denunciation of its opponents. The most vocal and prominent advocates of same-sex marriage seem to prefer condemning those who disagree as bigots to refuting the arguments for preserving marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Moreover, this tendency is found not just among partisan activists, where one might expect it even while lamenting it, but even among the voices of the most venerable institutions.

A case in point is Frank Rich’s New York Times column of April 18. His title—“The Bigots’ Last Hurrah”—says it all. Rich goes on for more than 1500 words, ridiculing and condemning the opponents of gay marriage, including the obligatory invocation of “homophobia,” but never deigning to offer a serious refutation of their arguments. No doubt Rich would regard Thomas Aquinas as the biggest bigot of them all, since the medieval theologian not only failed to recognize gay marriage but went so far as to regard homosexual acts as contrary to nature and immoral. Yet Aquinas, unlike Rich, always explained his opponents’ positions before venturing to advance his own. Moreover, Aquinas was able to write thousands of pages on highly controversial topics without once speculating about the motives of those with whom he disagreed or running down their moral character.

It is understandable that a political movement and its journalistic cheerleaders would be tempted to resort to denunciation. In the first place, it often works. Without refuting one’s opponents, it makes them and their positions seem disreputable. It thus demoralizes them, energizes one’s supporters, and may sway those without strong convictions or who pay little attention to politics. In the second place, it is fun. After all, one never feels more righteous than when issuing condemnations of the wicked—even and perhaps especially when their wickedness consists only in disagreeing with one on a matter of importance.

Such denunciation, however, has two serious drawbacks. In the first place, it proves nothing. It is a logical fallacy, the abusive version of the argumentum ad hominem: rejecting a position on the grounds that its proponents are of bad character. Even if we assume that the opponents of gay marriage are, to a man, hate-filled bigots, it still might be the case that society would be better served by retaining the existing definition of marriage. Consider an example. One could oppose a plan to increase taxes on high income earners by accusing its supporters of being animated by hatred of the rich. One could even seek to give this argument an air of intellectual respectability by inventing a scientific-sounding name for this hatred—say, plutophobia—and implying that this condition is somehow both a psychological defect and a moral failing. Nevertheless, even if it were true that every last supporter of a tax hike for the wealthy were an anti-rich bigot, it still might be that the nation’s fiscal health would be best served by such a policy.

At the same time, the inference of bigotry on the part of gay marriage opponents is no less fallacious than the use of the supposed bigotry to discredit their position. That is, it simply does not follow that because one opposes gay marriage one is an anti-gay bigot. One can support a public policy measure that denies benefits or recognition to members of a certain group without harboring any animus against that group. One may simply think that the policy is useful and good on the whole, irrespective of the denial of benefits to some. Many gays want the same government recognition for their unions that heterosexual couples can receive. One could balk at extending such recognition—without wanting in any way to interfere with gay relationships or harboring any ill-feelings toward gays—simply on the grounds that heterosexual unions, being the source of almost all procreation and the site of almost all child-rearing, are to be encouraged and stabilized. America has adopted a constitutional policy of not extending official government recognition to religion. Obviously one can support such a policy without being an anti-religious bigot but simply because one thinks that society is better served by it. None of this is to deny that there are anti-gay bigots. Of course they exist, and they deserve to be corrected when they give voice to their hatred. It is only to point out that one can object to homosexual marriage without being bigoted against homosexual persons.

The second problem with the gay marriage movement’s resort to denunciation is that it degrades our public discourse. Irving M. Copi begins the fifth edition of his classic Introduction to Logic with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “In a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.” Copi then proceeds immediately to justify the usefulness of his volume by contending that “[d]emocratic institutions require that citizens think for themselves, discuss problems freely with one another, and decide issues on the basis of deliberation and the weighing of evidence.” No doubt this will sound very high-minded to many, but it happens to be true. To be sure, everybody wants his own views to prevail in the political marketplace, and nobody is to be blamed for arguing as strenuously and effectively as possible. But when any side resorts to such cheap rhetorical abuse as accusing its opponents of being bigots, it diminishes the public’s capacity to reason, to everyone’s eventual peril. Gay marriage proponents may prevail by denouncing their opponents, but in doing so they will have helped, to the extent that it is in their power, to foster a citizenry that can be swayed by such methods. They identify a universally accepted value—equality—and contend that whoever disagrees with their interpretation of it is a bad person and indeed a bad citizen. But this is a game that anybody can play—indeed many have over the years on both the left and the right. Thus they fall into the trap of those who invoke some universally accepted value—say, prosperity, patriotism, or security—and similarly condemn all who reject their account of what it demands. This is the road to the routinization of a cynical manipulation of public opinion. It is irresponsible for anyone to contribute to such an outcome, however sincerely he may believe in the cause he is advancing. It is especially unseemly for those on the left, who so often and so loudly claim to be the guardians of moderation, rationality, and humanity in our public discourse.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.