Monday, March 20, 2006

Kersten returns

Another day, another intellectually lazy gay marriage column from Katherine Kersten.

This time her trope is that okaying gay marriage will turn all sorts of "ordinary Minnesotans" into official bigots.

Amendment supporters are ordinary Minnesotans: soccer moms, Twins fans, the folks next door. But some advocates of same-sex marriage apparently view them as a sinister and unsavory bunch, even comparing them to racial bigots.

Just in passing, let's point out that amendment opponents are "ordinary Minnesotans", too. Kersten's arguments often get framed as "us" vs. "them." It gets tiresome.

Also, fear of being called a "bigot" strikes me as one of the weakest possible reasons for abridging someone's rights. Next shall we imprison people because they looked at us funny?

The money quote, though, is when Kersten argues that "if same-sex marriage becomes a civil right, the belief that one-man, one-woman marriage is best for kids becomes discriminatory, and those who hold it become bigots."

This sentence fails so many rules of logic and argument that I don't know where to begin.

First, Kersten accidentally or deliberately mixes two separate ideas: what one believes, versus what limits one can place on others based on one's beliefs. Civil rights laws are based on actions, not thoughts. You can think anything you like, but you cannot abridge someone else's civil rights regardless of what you believe. The idea -- an idea fundamental to our form of government -- is that some rights trump majority opinion. That is why we are a republic and not a pure democracy. Legal compulsions and prohibitions should be something reserved for extreme cases, where the societal interest is so compelling, and the potential harm so apparent, that it demands action. The effort to prohibit gay marriage fails both tests.

Second, allowing gay marriage would not make bigots out of people simply for thinking man-woman pairings are better for kids. That's an indefensible strawman argument, and Kersten should be ashamed of herself for employing it. Plenty of people support legalized divorce, for example, while thinking that divorce is generally bad for kids and should be discouraged. Lots of people who don't drink hard liquor, or don't drink at all, nonetheless support legal access to alcohol. In both cases, people seem to recognize that their personal view on divorce or alcohol is not something that should be forced upon others who may feel differently.

The comparisons are not perfect -- divorce and drinking are choices, while sexual orientation is not . But someone who thinks divorce is harmful is not an anti-divorce bigot; someone who discriminates against divorcees is. Someone who thinks alcohol is harmful is not an anti-alcohol bigot; someone who discriminates against people who imbibe is.

In the end, society decides who will be perceived as "bigots" -- not the law, not the activists Kersten likes to quote in an attempt to paint all gay-marriage supporters with the actions of their most extreme elements. It's the "ordinary Minnesotans" who Kersten claims to speak for. So her point is either false or reflects a lack of confidence that the majority is really on her side -- which might help explain her resorting to fearmongering instead of debating gay marriage on the merits.

It's true that over time the law can shape perceptions; gender equity laws have helped dismantle the idea that a woman's place is in the home, for example. But that's hardly coercive. It's only threatening to people who have no faith in the foundation of their beliefs.

And if that's the fear, the battle has already been lost. Young people are far more accepting of gay marriage than their parents and grandparents. If that trend continues, gay marriage will have majority support within a generation.

So Kersten's fear of being branded a bigot may be well-founded, but not for the reason she claims. It has nothing to do with whether gay marriage is legalized. It has nothing to do with the words or actions of a handful of GLBT activists. It has to do with changing societal opinion on the subject, of which the gay marriage debate is but a reflection. If I were her I'd abandon the appeal to the majority, because that appeal will stop working in a few short years. If she wants to ban gay marriage, she should start articulating why gay marriage is harmful and thus prohibiting it is justified.

And if she wants to avoid being labeled a bigot, a good place to start would be by stopping the baseless fearmongering.

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