Sunday, February 7, 2016

Love the Atheist, hate the Islamophobia?

This time last year, LGBT people in Ireland were fighting with a conservative Catholic think tank, and courtesy-fetishizing journalists, over the right to define and use the word homophobia.

Eventually, it seems to have dawned on most people that those who are frequently accused of homophobia are probably not in the best position to define it. It also became apparent why opponents of equal rights for LGBT people needed to control the definition of homophobia: to concede that your view is homophobic is to lose the debate, at least in the minds of most reasonable people. If you hold homophobic views, therefore, only two options are available: Change your views, or change the definition of homophobic. Unsurprisingly, opponents of marriage equality opted for the latter strategy.

This year, Muslim people in Ireland are facing calls to do away with the term “Islamophobia”, from non-Muslims who sometimes find themselves accused of Islamophobia. Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent, for example, suggests that we distinguish between “Anti-Islam” attitudes (which he thinks are generally justified) and “Anti-Muslim” attitudes (which are not). It is possible, so Nugent and his followers claim, to criticize Islam, without criticizing Muslims themselves. It is Islam, they insist, that is the target of their ire, not Muslim people themselves. Those who continue to use the word “Islamophobia”, so the story goes, are simply trying to shut down debate.

If this sounds familiar, that may be because it is almost word-for-word the argument made by the Iona Institute in the face of accusations of homophobia during last year’s referendum campaign. Or it may be because some American Christians have been using a version of it to try to justify their contempt for “the sin” of homosexuality, but not the sinner (who they love, of course). Or it may remind you of those who declare that First Wave or Second Wave feminists fought against real sexism in society, and that modern definitions are so broad that they have become meaningless. Or it may remind you of those commentators on online articles who talk about “wacism”, in an attempt to imply that those who resort to accusations of racism are simply opting for a childish, emotional reaction to people who are just trying to make a reasonable case for letting refugees drown in the Mediterranean.

For a group of people who seem positively allergic to metaphysics, ideologies seem to hold a peculiar ontological status for the “Anti-Islam but not Anti-Muslim” atheists. Islam, we are told, is a powerful force, capable of brainwashing billions of adherents and motivating them to perform some of the most morally repugnant acts imaginable (not that this sort of atheist would be comfortable labelling something “immoral).

And yet, a criticism of Islam, these atheists insist, is not a criticism of Muslims.

So, a claim that a particular system of beliefs is vile and abhorrent need not imply anything about the person who endorses them. Or, perhaps a person might endorse such a belief system in a way that they don’t really understand what it is that they are getting themselves into.

Neither possibility bodes well for the critic-of-Islam-but-not-Muslims. If we go with the first option, then we must believe, for example, that it is coherent to say “Bob endorses X, X is a racist belief, but pointing that out does not entail a criticism of Bob”. But of course it does: Bob is the sort of person who endorses racist beliefs – that’s a pretty strong indictment of Bob.

If we go with the second option, then Bob is simply mistaken – he *thinks* that he endorses X, but actually we know better. If we go with this option,  not only should people like Michael Nugent get to determine whether something counts as Islamophobic or not – they should get to determine whether someone counts as a Muslim.

Here is my proposed solution for the mess that the critics-of-Islam-but-not-the-people-who-endorse-Islam have gotten themselves into: let victims of prejudice define that prejudice. They probably have a better experience of it than you do. Let members of minorities define their status as minorities. They probably have a better understanding of their religion, or their culture, or their gender identity, or their sexual orientation, than you do. If you do all of that, and express your views, and still get called Islamophobic, that’s not a reason to challenge the meaning of the word – it’s a reason to change your views.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reflections on the Referendum

I was travelling by bus to Cork as the first tallies were being announced, fed to me drip by drip via Twitter or excited texts from my friends. I relayed every scrap of information and speculation  to my partner, who was sitting beside me. Combined with the turnout figures from the night before, it was becoming clearer each minute that the Yes side was on course for a stunning victory.

Months before, we had decided to spend this day with friends, to celebrate or commiserate together. So we set up base in front of a friend’s TV, watching the crowds in Dublin cheer as each result was officially announced, sighing with relief once RTE made the official call, switching over to TV3 to witness the bizarre scene of Vincent Browne live from The George and wondering if it would have been more awkward had the referendum been defeated. We hugged and cheered, and went to get beer.

Later, I watched the scenes in Dublin as the evening wore on – thousands of LGBT people and their allies, young and old, celebrating this great historic moment. I saw the joy in their faces and heard it in their voices. And I wondered why I didn’t feel like they did.

I wasn’t happy - I was exhausted.

I wasn’t excited- I was angry.

A referendum is supposed to be the ultimate expression of democratic values, and we are supposed to value democracy as one of the highest political ideals. Wasn’t it wonderful, said the commentators, that the Irish public had had their say, and that they had given their endorsement in the strongest possible terms to same-sex marriage?

Wasn’t it wonderful to have my civil rights decided by a majority? To have my identity and the value of my most important relationship be the object of public debate? To have people give their blessing to the status of that relationship? To do so in a way that demanded balance in the media, because it is important to also hear from those who believe that people like me are not worth treating as equal citizens?

It wasn’t just the content of the debate that angered me, though that would have been enough on its own. Seeing the remnants of Old Conservative Ireland marshal their forces for yet another assault on human dignity was tolerable to the extent that every LGBT person learns to live with the kind of lies and slurs and generally toxic atmosphere that such people like to create. But never had I known it on such a scale, with posters up on every lamppost telling me that I already had as much as I deserved, and that I shouldn’t be allowed to raise children, and that asking to be treated with equal dignity and respect amounted to bullying those who thought otherwise.

That was bad enough, but what was worse was the fact that the vast majority of people, including those who voted Yes, seemed to be perfectly accepting of the premise that this was an issue that ought to be decided in this way – with public debates, and posters, and organized campaigns, and nobody allowed to use the word “homophobic” for fear of seeming negative and turning off potential Yes voters.

There didn’t have to be a referendum – the legal advice suggesting otherwise was controversial at best, and I have argued elsewhere that it would have been constitutionally required following the passing of the children’s rights referendum. But the fact that the government chose to hold one wasn’t just a reflection of a different interpretation of the law – it was a reflection of the belief of many that not only was a referendum necessary, but that it was the most legitimate way of securing marriage equality. After all, how can you get more legitimate than a Yes vote supported by the largest turnout since the foundation of the state? (And yet, I suspect we will never be asked to vote on whether straight people should be allowed to marry)

At the heart of all of this, lies the assumption that the right to be treated with equal dignity and respect should be in the gift of the majority. That this right may be extended to those of us who plead our case in terms the majority find agreeable, and that if we are successful we must be grateful to those who have offered to treat us as equals.

I am not interested in defending my worth as a human being, but I was forced to do it, as were thousands of others. I do not feel indebted to people who only did what they ought to have done, in voting to treat me with equal dignity and respect, but I am expected to be grateful to them.

I am not interested in these kinds of games, but I had no choice but to play them. I am entitled to be treated with dignity. I am entitled to be treated with respect. I am entitled to be treated as any other human being. And I am entitled to be angry when I am not. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Some more thoughts on hate speech...

Kenan Malik has been kind enough to reply to the points I raised in my previous blog. You can find his reply here and his original comments here

My original blog was written (in haste) to clarify to myself some of my thoughts about Malik's views. This blog is intended to serve a similar purpose, so again what follows will be a loose collection of points rather than a carefully constructed set of arguments. 

1. Malik describes my argument (such as it is) as follows: "Carey’s argument seems to be that any speech or text that may cause someone to commit a violent act or to perpetrate some form of harm at some time in the future should be banned."

This is not something I want to argue for. In the paragraph Malik is responding to, I argue that there is no significant distinction between "imminent" and "non-imminent" danger. That is to say, the fact that some particular danger is "non-imminent" is not a reason against prohibiting it. 

There are, of course, many things that we should consider and which can make a difference when we are considering whether to prohibiting something dangerous. For example, we should consider the harms that prohibition might cause - sometimes it can be even more dangerous to prohibit something that is dangerous, than to permit it. We should also consider whether prohibition would involve violating a person's rights. Malik asks whether my view implies that we ought to ban the Bible or the Qur'an, but it seems clear that to do so would involve the violation of people's right to religious freedom (and probably other rights as well), and that it would probably cause more harm than good.

So, I agree with Malik that such books should not be banned. It seems clear, however, that the reasons we have for not banning them have nothing to do with the fact that they can pose a non-imminent threat.

Having thought about it, however, there does seem to me to be one way in which "non-imminence" matters: the farther the distance in time between a cause and effect, the more difficult it can be to see and to predict the causal connections between the two. Sometimes there may be causes which we had no reasonable way of predicting would be harmful causes, and effects that we had no reasonable way of predicting would be harmful effects. 

This is one reason why intent matters when it comes to hate speech laws. If the intent of utterance or publication in question is clearly to incite hatred, then that makes it a lot easier to predict what the effect will be (though a mere intent to incite hatred cannot be sufficient and, to the best of my knowledge, is not, when it comes to typical hate speech laws). 

Malik anticipates that I might say something like this. He says: 

"It won’t do, incidentally, to suggest that many of these texts or speeches are not intended to cause danger or do harm. What seems important to Carey’s argument is the fact of speech causing harm or danger."

It is true that an intent to incite hatred isn't necessary to produce something that could incite hatred, just as an intent to incite violence isn't necessary to incite violence. But my argument is not that we should prohibit something merely if it is dangerous. As I suggested above, we can have all sorts of reasons for allowing dangerous things. My argument thus far is that whether a particular danger poses an imminent or non-imminent threat is not really relevant when assessing whether we ought to prohibit it. 

Malik then raises the point that "Those who want to expand incitement laws to challenge racism all too often find that it is minorities and activists that are often targeted." This looks like an objection to anti-hate speech laws in practice rather than in principle, and to the behavior of the British government in particular. I am very sympathetic to the worry that allowing states to define and enforce hate speech carries with it risks that they will use that power to oppress minorities rather than to protect them. I am willing to concede, therefore, that some governments may be so bad at enforcing hate speech laws that it would be better not to have them. However, I don't regard that as a necessary consequence of hate speech laws in principle. Consider, for example, laws against incitement to violence, which Malik and I both support. We can easily imagine a state abusing these laws as well: a group of peaceful protesters might be violently dispersed via spurious appeals to such laws, for instance. This, on its own, is surely not sufficient as an argument against incitement to violence laws, so we shouldn't think it's sufficient in the context of incitement to hatred laws.

2. Malik claims: "In inciting an act of violence, one plays a direct role in that act. In inciting hatred, one is expressing an idea or belief. That distinction is not modest but crucial."

Malik says that this distinction is crucial, but it is not clear to me. One can incite violence by expressing an idea or a belief. For example, suppose a man stands outside his neighbour's house and tells passersby of his belief that his neighbour is a dangerous paedophile who should be killed. As a result, an angry mob forms and attacks the neighbour's house This, I would hope, counts as incitement to violence on any plausible view, yet the speaker is "only" expressing a set of beliefs that he has. He is playing a direct role in the violence, because the beliefs he expresses are intended to bring harm to his neighbour. 

People who intend to incite hatred seem to me to have similar if not identical intentions. They express their ideas or beliefs in the hope that other people will come to hold these ideas of beliefs. The kinds of ideas and beliefs in question are precisely those which would (be likely to) lead to harm being inflicted on others.

3. Malik asks: "What evidence is there to suggest that it is ‘implausible to think that we cannot reduce or eliminate bigotry if we prohibit hate speech’? Carey provides none.

I provided none, because it seemed self-evident to me (but then, I sometimes have strange intuitions).

[I wonder whether Malik has misread me here, however: he may have read the above as suggesting that we need hate speech prohibitions to tackle bigotry, rather than the claim that tackling bigotry doesn't require us to permit hate speech]

Most obviously, in my view, the fact that there seems to be less bigotry today in many countries than there was in the past, even though those countries have laws against hate speech, counts as evidence that we can fight bigotry while prohibiting hate speech. If the two were mutually exclusive, then we should expect to see no reduction of bigotry in countries that prohibit hate speech, but that is not what we see. (Or at least, it is not what I see)

Secondly, not all expressions of bigotry count as hate speech. If it is necessary to be allowed to express bigotry in order to challenge it (which I suspect is what Malik has in mind) then most bigotry can still be expressed even if we prohibit hate speech. A conservative anti-hate speech law would only tend to prohibit the most extreme forms of bigotry - the sort that we are not likely to be able to change anyway. 

Malik goes on to argue that "hate speech restrictions do not reduce bigotry but merely ‘privatise’ it. The consequence, as the journalist Paul Mason has put it, is to ‘put anti-racists into a false comfort zone, where it feels like the basic arguments against prejudice no longer need to be put’ while also ‘feed[ing] the politics of the far right with the thrill of a shared defiance that all subcultures generate."

I concede that all of these are very real and important downsides to prohibiting hate speech. However, my intuition is that these potential costs are probably worth the price. Victims of hate speech can benefit if hate speech is "driven underground", even if it means that those ideas are harder to eliminate among those who share them. Some members of targeted groups simply do not wish to experience such speech in the public sphere, where possible. Providing a kind of "quarantine" effect for hate speech may well not serve to eliminate it, but as I argued previously, the point of hate speech laws is to protect people from hate. 

I don't believe we are entitled to the assumption (which goes back at least as far as Mill's defense of free speech) that if exposed to enough public scrutiny, extremely bigoted views will be defeated. In practice, this doesn't seem to happen very often, even in jurisdictions which have few if any restrictions on hate speech.

Malik (having pointed out that non-inflammatory language among politicians is often far more harmful than the odd bigot saying something crazy in a newspaper article) asks: "So should we ban the mainstream politicians’ immigration rhetoric? Or should we just ban those who use inflammatory rhetoric and ignore those who are more sober in their presentation but also bear more responsibility for creating an anti-immigrant mood? Or, should we, as I believe, ban neither, but rather challenge the anti-immigrant ideas, in particular of mainstream politicians, instead of taking the easy option of making a moral gesture by banning hateful rhetoric?"

Malik is right, of course, that non-hateful speech is in practice far more harmful than the kinds of utterances prohibited by hate speech laws. One reason they are so effective is precisely because they disguise (intentionally or otherwise) the truly harmful ramifications of the views being expressed. It is more difficult to prohibit hate speech when it is more difficult to recognize something as hate speech. These utterances may also sometimes cover views on which there may be what Rawlsians call "reasonable disagreement", at least as far as the general public is concerned.

In contrast, the kinds of utterances prohibited by hate speech laws tend to be obviously hateful in a way that politicians' rhetoric does not (with a few notable exceptions). There is a sense in which such laws represent a kind of lowest common denominator of public opinion, by prohibiting the kinds of expressions which are uncontroversially hateful. That is certainly not an ideal state of affairs, but it doesn't follow that we ought not prohibit one form of harm simply because it would be too difficult to prohibit another. 

4. "Incitement to hatred is the encouragement of others to hold certain ideas or beliefs, or to have certain feelings, that might be described as hateful. It is not incitement to commit a specific act. Incitement to violence is incitement to commit a specific act."

I don't find this distinction convincing. There are some beliefs which are hateful and which entail that one ought to commit a specific act. Indeed, any act of violence perpetrated by an agent must have been motivated in part by the beliefs of the agent in question. If I encourage you to believe that your neighbour is gay and that gay people should be killed, it looks like I have incited both hatred and violence. Furthermore, it is not clear why incitement of a specific act necessarily matters here.  Suppose that I encourage you to believe that gay people should be killed, but I don't tell you to kill any gay person in particular. Am I not (partly) to blame if you go on to kill someone because they are gay because you have been motivated by the beliefs that I encouraged you to have?

5. "The difference between us is not that one recognizes the ‘long-term structural harms’ of bigotry and the other does not. The debate, rather, is about how we should tackle bigotry. It is because I recognize the social rootedness of hatred that I recognize, too, that hate speech bans cannot tackle such hate but often makes matters worse both by putting anti-racists into a ‘false comfort zone’, in Paul Mason’s words, and by creating a backlash among those who feel unfairly silenced."

I agree with most of this, except (obviously) I don't think prohibitions on hate speech make things worse. 

My original point, which could have been clearer, is that Malik's view is extremely limited in terms of the kinds of harms that he is willing to prevent via the law. Obviously he wants us to tackle bigotry in other ways (as do I) but he limits legal intervention to only those cases involving imminent threats of violence. 

However, allowing hate speech is only a good thing, as far as I can see, if that is the most effective way to protect against the harmful effects that bigotry causes. So, for example, if the best way to stamp out bigotry is to challenge it in public, and if that requires permitting hate speech, then that would obviously be a justification for permitting it. 

In practice, though, this just doesn't seem to be what actually happens. There are many forms of bigotry which are not (and ought not to be) covered by hate speech laws, which are challenged loudly and often and even these persist today. Given that hate speech laws tend to prohibit extreme bigotry, I am not optimistic enough to think that these kinds of beliefs can be defeated via public debate.

It is, at the very least, an open question as to whether hate speech thrives or withers if permitted in public. My intuition is that there is something so toxic about hate speech that it often succeeds in poisoning public discourse whenever it is allowed to flourish. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Some thoughts on hate speech

What follows is a very loose collection of thoughts in response to some of the points raised here.

1. Malik says: "I believe that no speech should be banned solely because of its content; I would distinguish ‘content-based’ regulation from ‘effects-based’ regulation and permit the prohibition only of speech that creates imminent danger."

Here is one worry with the above. Why should we want to prohibit only that speech which creates imminent danger? Strictly speaking, the only difference between imminent danger and other forms of danger is one of time. A pedestrian who is about to be hit by a car is in imminent danger. A person suffering from terminal cancer may not be. Presumably, neither harm is more significant than the other. If the "imminence" of danger matters, surely it is only because we have less time in which to avert the potential harm. So - it seems arbitrary to think that we may seek to prohibit speech that creates imminent danger but not speech that creates "non-imminent" danger.

Note also in the above quote that Malik explicitly concedes that speech can indeed create danger. It is important to bear this in mind, as Malik seems to contradict himself on this point later (see point 4, below).

2. Makik continues: "I oppose content-based bans both as a matter of principle and with a mind to the practical impact of such bans. Such laws are wrong in principle because free speech for everyone except bigots is not free speech at all. It is meaningless to defend the right of free expression for people with whose views we agree. The right to free speech only has political bite when we are forced to defend the rights of people with whose views we profoundly disagree."

Malik is in danger of creating a straw man here. Those who argue in favour of restrictions on hate speech are not arguing for "free speech for everyone except bigots". Rather, they are arguing for something like "free speech for everyone except people who express themselves in ways that are intended to incite hatred". It is possible to express views which are bigoted yet which are not intended to (or likely to) incite hatred. Most anti-hate speech laws include these kinds of requirements.

So, a defender of anti-hate speech legislation is certainly not committed to the claim that we should only protect freedom of expression for those with whom we agree. They are committed to the more restricted claim that freedom of expression should not extend to those whom intend to incite hatred. This represents only a small subset of disagreeable expression more generally (as does speech intended to incite violence). It is hardly meaningless to support freedom of expression except when it comes to inciting violence (as Malik himself does), so it is difficult to see why it would be meaningless to modestly expand that subset of prohibited speech to include incitement to hatred.

3. On the practical point, Malik claims: "And in practice, you cannot reduce or eliminate bigotry simply by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground."

This may be true to an extent, but it misses the point - the aim of anti-hate speech legislation is not to reduce or eliminate bigotry, but rather to protect people from bigotry's harmful effects. Furthermore, it is implausible to think that we cannot reduce or eliminate bigotry if we prohibit hate speech. Malik offers the case of Britain in the 70's and 80's, but all that this shows is that anti-hate speech legislation is not sufficient to stop bigotry (but nobody claims otherwise).

4. Malik argues: "In blurring the distinction between speech and action, what is really being blurred is the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility. Because lurking underneath the argument is the idea that people respond like automata to words or images. But people are not like robots. They think and reason and act on their thoughts and reasoning. Words certainly have an impact on the real world, but that impact is mediated through human agency."

Malik has already accepted and goes on to reaffirm that people can be influenced by speech when that speech incites them to violence. To be consistent, then, Malik needs to reject prohibitions on incitement to violence (if he thinks this denies the agency of those who are incited) or to offer us a plausible reason for thinking that someone who we view as having been incited to violence does not have their agency undermined, but that someone who is incited to hatred does.

What we ought to do, I think, is to adopt the most sensible and straightforward position: People who incite (whether to violence or hatred) are performing acts which are intended to bring about certain kinds of harmful consequences. They are blameworthy to that extent. This does not require us to say that the person who is incited is blameless. If I supply you with a gun because I want you to use it to commit a crime and you do so, both of us are blameworthy.

5. Malik says: "Whether in London, New York, Berlin, or Kigali, speech should only be curtailed if such speech directly incites an act that causes or could cause physical harm to others and if individuals are in imminent danger of such harm because of those words."

It is worth highlighting this quote to show that Malik's view is extremely restrictive in terms of the kinds of harms that count, when it comes to legal prohibitions. For example:

(a) As mentioned previously, Malik's view limits us to protecting only against imminent danger (and this seems arbitrary).

(b) Malik's view is limited to physical harm. It takes no account of psychological harm.

(c) Malik's view is limited to discrete interactions between individual agents at particular (and limited) moments in time. It takes no account of long-term structural harms that can be created by a climate of bigotry, and which might manifest themselves in all sorts of complicated ways beyond the highly restricted cases Malik seems to have in mind.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Debating the debate over same-sex marriage

The biggest problem with trying to debate same-sex marriage in Ireland is not that one side wants to be able to use the term ‘homophobia’ while the other side wants to prohibit it. It’s not even that one side represents a large number of people who have been historically shut out of debate people while the other side represents a handful of conservative reactionaries (including the occasional token homosexual) who enjoy a huge platform despite representing virtually nobody.

No; the biggest problem with trying to debate same –sex marriage in Ireland is the complete and utter lack of even a single reasonable, rational argument against same-sex marriage. Setting aside a handful of libertarians (who oppose any recognition of marriage, not just same-sex marriage) and radical theorists who might oppose civil marriage because of its heteronormative implications but who have not featured at all in this debate, there is not a single reason that can be given which can explain why the state should discriminate against same-sex couples when it comes to civil marriage.

This makes the debate over same-sex marriage different from most other kinds of debate. Most other kinds of debate exist because there are reasonable views on all sides, and because each side still reckons it has a chance of persuading the other as to the reasonableness of their view.

As someone who has spent far too much time arguing about same-sex marriage with people, I’ve come across virtually every reason one might have to oppose it. Some of them we can dismiss out of hand – “the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman” is a common one in some parts of the world but usually doesn’t cut it in an aspirationally secular country like Ireland such that even the staunchly Catholic Iona Institute knows such arguments would never gain traction. Nor do the more blatantly homophobic claims tend to work outside of places like Russia, where the frequent conflation between homosexuality and paedophilia would give people obvious reasons to oppose the normalisation of homosexuality, let alone the idea of gay couples raising kids.

Nevertheless there are still some “arguments” that those who oppose marriage equality tend to make. These arguments all focus on the well-being of children, and the claim that marriage is a uniquely “child-focused” institution such that to permit same-sex couples to marry would not be in the best interests of children. We are told that “every child has the right to a mother and father”, the implication being that allowing a child to be raised by a same-sex couple is a violation of its rights. Since it’s no longer acceptable to attack gay people directly, the emphasis is shifted to the well-being of children. After all, surely we all agree that a child’s best interests must come first.

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality notes that not only do we allow infertile couples to marry, none of us consider such couples any less married in the eyes of society or the state. It’s not as though we would prohibit such people from marrying if we could know beforehand – we simply have no problem considering them to be just as married as another couple with a dozen children.

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality notes that just because marriage serves one function (providing a good environment for the raising of children) this doesn’t mean that it cannot serve other functions too (like providing a stable, legally protected environment for people’s relationships to flourish, or providing people with the opportunity of making a socially significant, public declaration of their commitment to one another).

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality would point to the overwhelming consensus among those who have researched children raised by same-sex couples, to the testimony of children who have grown up in same-sex households, and note that a policy which focuses on a supposed ideal to the exclusion of all other family arrangements is not likely to serve the best interests of anyone in the real world.

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality would point out that we already distinguish between the right to marry and the right to be considered for adoption (elderly heterosexuals may do the former but not the latter for example), and that even if it was true that a child needs a mother and a father, that would still not imply that same-sex couples should not be entitled to marry.

But this is not a normal debate. Because each and every single time these kinds of reasons are given to people who oppose marriage equality, these points are ignored, or misrepresented, or dismissed as nonsense by those who are very much interested in trying to force their views upon us, but have apparently zero interest in the possibility that they might have to change theirs.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

An offer to opponents of same-sex marriage

I propose a truce.

A truce between those of us who have been using the word “homophobic” to describe views which we feel merit the label, and those of us who believe that using the word “homophobic” to describe opponents of marriage equality is an attempt to shut down the debate, and an insult to the motivations of those who seek to preserve marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman.

To the opponents of marriage equality; I understand your concerns. You don’t feel as though you hate gay people, or fear them, or want them to be treated with any less dignity and respect than heterosexual people. You just think that a child needs a mother and a father, and that it’s not discrimination to treat different things differently.

So here is the first part of my proposal – those of us who support marriage equality will refrain from using the term “homophobia” to describe any of our opponents in the forthcoming debate. We will do so because we will accept the premise that calling your views homophobic implies something about your character which you feel is horrible and untrue.  Despite believing that it is really important to label homophobic views as homophobic, we will refrain from using this term throughout the debate.

This truce has got to be a compromise if it is to be fair, however; so here is the second part of my proposal. In the upcoming debate on same-sex marriage, we won’t mention homophobia, but you can’t mention children.

Allow me to explain. When you say something like “I just believe that a child deserves a mother and a father”, what you are saying is that you have got the best interests of children at heart, but that proponents of same-sex marriage don’t. When people like John Waters refer to campaigners for same-sex marriage as being motivated by “envy”, when people refer to same-sex couples as “acquiring” children like fashion accessories and so on, they are implying that those of us who want marriage equality are willing to put our own wants ahead of the most vulnerable people in society. That's a pretty horrible and mean thing to imply, don't you think?

If you think being called a homophobe is bad, compare it to this implication – the implication that one would campaign for the right to harm children, by exposing them to a legal system which is not set up to cater to their best interests. So this seems to me to be a fair compromise – we won’t imply you’re  motivated by homophobia, if you don’t imply that our view is not in the best interests of children.

Maybe these terms seem unfair. Maybe this is because the entire anti-same-sex marriage position rests on the claim that permitting same-sex marriage is not what’s best for children, so it is patently unfair to require opponents of marriage equality to refrain from mentioning children when trying to argue against same-sex marriage.

Well, the entire pro-same-sex marriage position rests on the claim that there are no reasonable, rational, non-homophobic reasons to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. If one side is to be prohibited from using the term ‘homophobic’ because it implies bad things about our opponents, it seems only fair that the other side should likewise agree not to claim that we don’t have anything but the best interests of children at heart.

Are those terms unacceptable? They certainly ought to be, because it’s patently ridiculous to expect any side in a democratic debate to refrain from using concepts and terms which are integral to its entire point of view.

You opponents of same-sex marriage are free to continue implying that gay people don’t care about kids ( the natural implication of your favorite refrain “every child deserves a mother and father” is “no child deserves to be raised by a same-sex couple”). We won’t try to sue you for saying so, we just want the right to argue against it. And if we are to argue against it, we need to be able to the right word to describe it – which is homophobic.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Powerlessness and Pantigate

-  Brian Carey ( @BPDCarey on Twitter )

The fiasco surrounding comments made by Rory O'Neill/Panti on RTE's Saturday Night Show, the subsequent apology on behalf of RTE and the crowing addendum offered by David Quinn of the Iona Institute have been covered and commented on at length elsewhere, at least online.

I would like to focus on one particular theme which has emerged from the coverage of these events, something which I think captures a lot of what it is that has made some people so angry (and rightly so, in my view). The theme in question, the common thread running through most of the comments which have been made, is that of powerlessness.

There are many ways that a person can be rendered powerless, and lgbt people have experienced most of these. In Ireland, until 1993, the law made it a criminal offence for consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts. The law still denies gay people the right to jointly adopt, or to enter into a civil marriage, and permits employees of religious institutions, including hospitals and schools, to be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation. Recently, the Irish government has gone to great lengths to deny transgendered people the right to have their gender identity reflected on official government documents.

Of course, the law is just one way in which lgbt people can be rendered powerless. Homophobic attitudes in general persist, even as progress is made on the legal front. Homophobic bullying is rife in schools (globally, there is an epidemic of mental illness and homelessness among LGBT youth), and there are few streets in Ireland where a same-sex couple could walk hand-in-hand or share a kiss without fear of jeers or taunts (at the very least).

Rory O'Neill's comments on the Saturday Night Show expressed sentiments which are common among every LGBT person I know. The comments were, if anything, rather mild - suggesting that homophobia has been subdued to some extent, but that we ought to be aware that homophobia manifests itself in all sorts of subtle ways, rather than describing an extreme anti-gay prejudice.

The initial response to these comments was to threaten RTE and O'Neill with legal action. The message this action sends to gay people is that people we may regard as homophobic have got the power to tell us what the term can and cannot be used to describe, and if we use it in a way that they don't approve of, they will use the power of the law against us.

In the context of the upcoming debate surrounding same-sex marriage, the message is especially chilling. Those of us who sincerely believe that most of the opposition to same-sex marriage from those who campaign against it is motivated by homophobic beliefs (as we understand the term) are being told (under threat of legal sanction) that that term is off-limits. We may engage with the debate, but only on the terms of our opponents.

This in itself would be contemptible, but then it was followed up with the apology from RTE. The Iona Institute are bad enough, but at least they are not an institution of the state. RTE capitulated to the demands of the Iona Institute, going so far as singing from the latter's hymn sheet by implying that accusations of homophobia undermine democratic debate, thus sending the message to lgbt people that the view of the Iona Institute is essentially endorsed by an institution of the state.

The final kick in the teeth comes from the general rhetoric currently being employed by the Iona Institute and its defenders, which seeks to cast those of us who use the term "homophobic" to describe opponents of same-sex marriage as being motivated by a desire to shut down the debate; in a sense, that we are trying to render them powerless. This fits with a broader narrative - one that endorses language like "the gay lobby" or sometimes "the gay agenda" as a way of implying that advocates for same-sex rights wield disproportionate power in the political arena.

It isn't enough that such people use the power of the law to render us powerless; it's got to be accompanied by the claim that it is in fact we who are trying to render our opponents powerless. This kind of dishonesty and hypocrisy is not merely the rhetorical strategy of an opponent engaged in reasonable disagreement in a democratic debate. It is disingenuous, profoundly disrespectful, and the most perfect evidence imaginable that never has the label "homophobic" been more richly deserved.