Stifling debate on gay marriage: Political correctness is used to eliminate dissent

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Stifling debate on gay marriage:
Political correctness is used to eliminate dissent",
The [Montreal] Gazette, August 1, 2004, IN8
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

Many people are surprised to find that in debating same-sex marriage the format is often not neutral and political correctness is used to shut down debate and eliminate dissent. That is not happening by chance; it is part of an intentional strategy to promote acceptance of same-sex marriage. Understanding that strategy is important if one is to make a fully informed and free (uncoerced) decision about same-sex marriage.

The strategy was developed in the general context of seeking to change societal values through "identity-based social movements." Gay identity - any sexual-identity-other-than-heterosexual - is the basis of one such movement. The strategy functions by converting the decision that must be taken into a binary one, that is, a decision with only two response options. Other possible responses are eliminated.

In the case of same-sex marriage, these two options are that one is against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and, therefore, must be for same-sex marriage; or one is against same-sex marriage and, therefore, condones discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The possibility that one could be against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and against same-sex marriage is eliminated.

The goal is to place people deciding about same-sex marriage - and, as can be seen from the judgments in the Canadian same-sex marriage cases, those people include judges - in a position in which they see themselves as being forced to choose between condoning discrimination against homosexual people if they decide against same-sex marriage and rejecting such discrimination in approving same-sex marriage.

If that were truly the choice, we should all approve same-sex marriage. But framing the decision in that way falsely characterizes it, an outcome that has been carefully and deliberately constructed in the debate in the public square.

The first step in that construction is to label those who oppose same-sex marriage in derogatory, stigmatizing ways. Equating being against same-sex marriage with necessarily being homophobic achieves that. (I'm not denying some people who are against same-sex marriage are homophobic, but that is a separate issue.) Alternatively, opponents are labelled so as to make their views seem irrelevant to many - for instance, as "religious" - even though many opponents of same-sex marriage are not religious and approve of civil unions. Such people and their arguments are then dismissed, simply on the basis of that labelling. That means the substance of their arguments need not be addressed; for instance, that marriage is about giving children both a mother and a father.

The labelling is also meant to induce shame and silence in the opponent and to make other "right-thinking" people see the person and his or her opinions as shameful or at best irrelevant. As well, one of its goals is to persuade others to refrain from voicing such wrong and hateful opinions, lest they suffer the same fate. I just had such an experience. I responded to a newspaper editorial with a letter to the editor in which I proposed that a primary function of marriage was to give children a mother and a father. That elicited e-mails, including one from a Toronto lawyer, calling me and my views hateful and homophobic.

The choice of participants to debate same-sex marriage also can be far from neutral and balanced. Recently, I was asked to participate in a discussion of same-sex marriage on National Public Radio in the U.S. in light of the proposed amendment to the U.S. constitution to affirm marriage as limited to opposite-sex couples. (The motion was subsequently defeated.)

It was a one-hour program. The first 20 minutes consisted of empathetic interviews with a gay man - he'd been a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and had a long-term partner and they just wanted to be the same as everyone else - and a lesbian woman who wanted to be able to sponsor her partner of two years as an immigrant. They were followed by the president of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Every one of the callers to the program who were put on air supported gay marriage. And then there was me. The producer told me in a pre-interview I was chosen because they wanted someone who didn't think same-sex marriage was a good idea, but who didn't base that view on religion.

One reason political correctness is a serious threat to open debate is that it comes garbed in a cloak of doing good - inclusiveness, tolerance, nondiscrimination - which makes its dangers difficult to recognize. Another reason is that, almost always, those people who seek to suppress a discussion are acting in good faith and argue that to engage in such discussions shows disrespect and intolerance for them, their lifestyle, or beliefs and values. Indeed, sometimes they characterize just the posing of questions to which they object as a breach of their human rights.

Same-sex marriage is far from the only societal-ethical issue that raises such questions, and the debate on it is not the only one in which derogatory labelling is being used. Therefore, how we handle same-sex marriage has much wider implications.

We must be free to ask, in good faith, questions such as: "Is abortion always ethical?" without being labeled sexist or anti-feminist. "Should women past the normal age for child-bearing have access to reproductive technologies?" without being labelled as ageist or ultra-conservative reactionaries. "Should we circumcise baby boys?" without being labeled anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim. "Is euthanasia wrong?" without being labelled a religious fanatic. "Are we treating animals ethically?" without being labelled an extremist. "Should science be limited on the basis of ethics?" without being labelled a neo-Luddite or anti-science. "Should we change medicare?" without being labelled un-Canadian. And "Does a child need both a mother and a father?" without being labelled homophobic. Note that all of these labels are personal and highly derogatory. I have at different times asked most of these questions and been labelled accordingly.

We must always take care not to inflict harm or offence where it is avoidable. But we must also be free to ask and debate questions such as these, even when we profoundly disagree with one or more of the premises on which they are based. Respect and tolerance are two-way, not one-way, streets. They require that all voices be given a respectful hearing in the public square of a democratic society such as Canada, including in the same-sex marriage debate.