Bigotry and Low Expectations

No, this isn’t about the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” I just did that to catch the eye. There is no heat in my office, my hands are cold, and the only way to keep myself typing is to start with something eye-grabbing. This is actually about the state of Maine (with which I have family connections) and the results of their referendum on same-sex marriage.

1) Why a referendum at all? Since when do we put constitutional rights to a popular vote? The fact that we have done it, in California and Maine, begs the question. Holding a referendum (regardless of its outcome) presumes that we don’t consider marriage a constitutional right, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the marvelously-named Loving vs. Virginia case 40 years ago. Foo.

2) Does that mean that those who voted to repeal same-sex marriage in those states were bigoted?

3) Or does it mean that the supporters of same-sex marriage in those states were bigoted when they called their opponents bigots? Or that they were interfering with their opponents’ First Amendment rights by advocating boycotts and other non-violent demonstrations of opposition to the repealers? Conservatives seem to consider being labeled as bigots to be a fate worse than, say, Matthew Shepard’s death. Whatever happened to “sticks and stones”?

The word “bigot,” BTW, is believed to come from some Germanic sort of root meaning “by God.” There is a literal equivalent in Spanish, referring to little old ladies in black crepe who spend most of their time in churches: pordiosera. For more etymological information, see the Wikipedia entry.

Now that we’ve explicated the word as well as one can these days, let’s scrap it. It’s not useful for this discussion. Let’s, instead, use “prejudice” and “discrimination.” Mr. Wired draws a very useful distinction between them. “Prejudice” is what everybody has a bunch of, just by virtue of having been born and raised in a particular context. Most of them we don’t even notice most of the time. They’re as close to original sin as I can allow myself to believe in. But as a practical matter they’re morally neutral. It is useful to be aware of one’s own prejudices, because that enables us to avoid discrimination.

Discrimination is not morally neutral. It involves acting on one’s prejudices, to the detriment of the well-being of others. It’s a real sin. Not serving people in restaurants. Not letting them hold certain jobs. Beating them up. Hate crimes.

Very often, the way we become aware of our prejudices is by somehow associating their object with our children. Desegregating schools unveiled a lot of parental bigotry after the promulgation of Brown vs. Board of Education. White people who were willing to work with, or even for, African-Americans, or to vote for them, or to recognize the legal authority of people who had been elected mainly by the Black vote, found themselves drawing the line at the schoolhouse door.

The campaign against same-sex marriage in Maine apparently owes its success to the claim that schoolchildren would have to be taught that same-sex marriage was no different from the usual kind. So far as anybody can tell, that claim was utter hogwash, but, as other bloggers have already pointed out, it served as a proxy for the Bigotry That Dares Not Speak Its Name, opposition to allowing our children to be aware of otherwise normal people being gay. How we want to raise our children (as opposed to how we live our own lives) is often an expression of both our highest values and our lowest prejudices.

Many otherwise very decent opponents of same-sex marriage are perfectly okay with civil unions. As a practical matter, that keeps them mostly on the right side of the prejudice-discrimination line. Most same-sex couples will not suffer unduly from having civil unions rather than marriages, given proper legal drafting. Until we think about why these decent anti-same-sex-marriage opponents want to take that position. It’s really the same reason that classical and medieval authorities required prostitutes, and Jews, to wear distinctive dress. Not because Those People were so utterly different from The Rest of Us, but precisely because they weren’t. Without the yellow hat or the blond wig or the six-pointed star, they could easily be mistaken for, and treated like, Real People. We wouldn’t know whom to discriminate against.

When one of my colleagues tells me he frequents gay bars because he is “husband-hunting” (and I respond, as gently as possible, by telling him that bars are not usually great places to meet spouses), the very normality of this exchange puts any eavesdropping adolescent at the risk of concluding that gay people are just like the rest of us. For that matter, what happens when your kid’s high school class does a field trip to the local court and hears the judge, in the course of jury selection, ask a member of the panel, “Are you married or do you have a domestic partner?” (Yes, here in Cook County, they do that.) We can’t have that, can we?

Many sincere and religious people believe that homosexual behavior is a sin. Most of them also believe that adultery is a sin (one which is usually condemned in the same biblical paragraphs as homosexuality, and sentenced to the same punishment, by the way.) Many of them even believe that remarriage after divorce is a sin. But they somehow survive their children interacting with, or at least becoming very aware of, the public adulterers and remarried divorcés around them. So apparently their religiously-based discomfort with those classes of sinners does not get translated into discrimination, maybe not even into prejudice. One has to conclude that homosexuality is different for reasons that have nothing to do with biblical morality. The yuck factor, as some religious bloggers have termed it.

So, okay, I’m willing not to call same-sex-marriage opponents bigots if they’re willing to allow civil unions (or, for that matter, religious marriages) with all of the privileges that go with civil marriage in this society—so long as they don’t treat people in civil unions, and gay people in general, any differently than they treat public adulterers and remarried divorcés. Which means allowing their kids to interact with and be aware of and be taught in school by all, or none, of these public sinners.


One Response to “Bigotry and Low Expectations”

  1. Siarlys Jenkins Says:

    Oh darn, I disagree, sort of, and I like your site. We all discriminate. We must discriminate. Any degree of power must be used with discrimination. For example, we don’t allow five year olds to vote, we make them wait until they are 18, and it used to be 21, both of which were entirely constitutional. As soon as “equal protection of the laws” was enshrined in the Constitution, courts had to figure out a way to construe that so that essential kinds of discrimination were allowed, and bad kinds of discrimination were banned.

    One feature, as I’m sure you know (if you don’t work in a law office, it seems that RedEmma does) is strict scrutiny. Everybody knew that deeply established discrimination against people of African descent were to be rooted out by the Fourteenth Amendment, therefore, unless there was an awfully good race-neutral reason, anything that put them at a disadvantage was to be nullified. (People who are thought of as, or choose to claim the descriptive of, gay, or homosexual, are not unambiguously a “protected class,” constitutionally, although some state laws apply that construct to sexual orientation.

    Then for all other fields of discrimination, there is “rational basis.” If there is a rational basis to discriminate, then it is OK, if there is no rational basis, then it is not. It can be argued that there is no rational basis to discriminate against people because someone thinks they are gay, or because they define themselves as gay, or because they do things that are gay. In most contexts, this is true. It is not relevant to most job descriptions, to ability to own real estate, rent a home, drive a car, or any number of other things. They can perfectly well teach school — if any teacher, heterosexual or homosexual, is messing around with the kids, what they deserve is exactly the same.

    But it is not “discrimination against homosexuals” to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It is fundamental to the definition of marriage. It is, if anything discrimination on the basis of a plain biological difference. It may be true that biology is not destiny, but biology is real. The fact that some men, and some women, do not want marriage, as presently defined, and want something else, which they would like to also call a marriage, is not discrimination against the aggrieved individual. No law says “gay people may not marry.” No law says “gay men may only marry gay women.” Anyway, there is a rational basis for it. Biology alone provides that, never mind religious beliefs. Heterosexual is the norm for the human species. That there are some deviations from the norm is mathematically inevitable, and nothing to worry about, but it doesn’t entitle people to have every alternate preference explicitly recognized.

    Civil unions are fine with me. Don’t even make sexual motives a criterion. I don’t care why two people want to form a household. If they want to own property in common and give each other hospital visitation rights, so be it. As to religious scruples, churches have as much right to teach that homosexuality is sinful as they do to teach that consuming alcohol is sinful. That is not “hate speech.” And those who do not choose to adhere to such churches, have every right to ignore their admonitions.

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