Upset An MP On Social Media? Prepare To Lose Your Voting Rights

Intimidation in Public Life report - Committee on Standards in Public life - Parliament - Britain - UK - online social media abuse

Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit

Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.

A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.

We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speechcrime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.

The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those accused of speechcrime:

Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.

[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).

[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.

I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is defending by proposing new speechcrime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:

[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.

Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.

Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.

But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.

The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.

To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.

The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.

Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.

 

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The Cult Of Social Justice and Identity Politics Has No More Worlds To Conquer, Yet Still It Marches On

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There may be no more worlds for the regressive Left to conquer, but the warriors of the Social Justice Army still see enemies all around

This blog has spent some time explaining that the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is far less about helping genuinely oppressed people and far more about a small, snarling pseudo-intellectual clerisy seeking to use the often dubiously legitimate suffering of various proscribed victim groups as a means of wielding power and influence over wider society.

It follows, then, that for this cult to perpetuate itself there must be a constant stream of wronged victims at all times, on whose behalf the social justice priests and priestesses can claim to speak. When your career and entire worldview is built on the bedrock of seeking to end “oppression”, one inevitably sees oppression everywhere and in the smallest of things. To acknowledge that we actually live in an historically free and prosperous era would be to admit that their services are no longer required – that their whole raison d’être is no more.

And this is why even now, when the fruits of SJW hyper-sensitivity, snarling authoritarianism and utter contempt for ideological agnostics lie strewn across the political landscape in the form of President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican-dominated Congress, that portion of the American Left which has fallen under the spell of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics cannot admit wrongdoing or overreach, and refuses to change tactics or re-examine their mission.

This is why despite having lost the White House by racking up superfluous votes in liberal enclaves while actively chasing away votes in key swing states with their out-of-touch policies and narratives, the bulk of the American Left and the Democratic Party are unable to conceive of any other possible course of action than shouting the same shrill, divisive message even louder.

Ben Shapiro captures the essence of the problem in a great piece for the National Review:

For decades, the Left consistently put front and center its vision of an America in which Republicans were victimizers: Either they were evil racists, or they were John Lithgow–in-Footloose holier-than-thou sexual prudes, or they were old-style Mad Men sexists looking to shove women back into the kitchen. Celebrities helped push these narratives through the stories they told, the movies they filmed, the books they wrote.

And Americans accepted the critiques.

Americans accepted racial equality. Americans celebrated female empowerment. Americans went libertarian on sexual behavior.

And the Left had to go searching for a new civil-rights struggle with which to cram conservatives back into their “victimizer” cubbyhole.

There was, however, one problem: All the good civil-rights issues have been dealt with already. And so the Left, which focuses all of its efforts on social issues, was relegated to pushing crime-increasing myths about the evils of cops; the celebrities were forced to pretend that men peeing next to women was the next great Martin Luther King, Jr.–style struggle; Democrats were forced to march on their next target, not merely church involvement in state, but private beliefs of churchgoers.

And herein lies the biggest problem facing the American Left: America is the most tolerant country in world history. There are no more serious civil-rights struggles for the Left to push. In fact, the Left now pushes against civil rights in its ignorant search for the new struggle: Religious bakers must be destroyed if they won’t bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; young girls must be forced to go to the same bathroom as middle-aged men, hosts on HGTV must be policed for belief in Scripture regarding sexual sin.

No wonder Americans reacted by telling the Left to shove it.

That phenomenon could very well continue. The Left has run out of aggressors to target; instead, they’ve become the aggressors, self-righteous morality police dedicated to wiping out dissenting thought. Americans aren’t up for that sort of thing. We think we’re pretty tolerant people, and, by and large, we are. Trump won, at least in part, by refusing to kowtow to the Left’s newest social crusades, in word if not in deed.

And Shapiro’s conclusion may well prove prophetic, unless the American Left change course:

In Die Hard, villain Hans Gruber misquotes Plutarch: “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The Left will never recognize that simple fact — and so they will push ever onward, steadily encroaching on liberty and driving a blowback they cannot comprehend.

There may be no more worlds to conquer, but the Left is strangely unwilling to disband its standing army – or rather is unable to do so, knowing that their electoral coalition of competing special interests and designated victim classes is only held together so long as there is a clear Enemy Oppressor to fight.

Having helped to achieve civil rights, women’s equality and gay rights, the American Left should now be beating its swords into ploughshares, hanging up the social justice armour and generating a tide to lift the boats of all Americans (including the maligned white working class), not only their favoured interest groups.

Hint: this might have something to do with trying to solve the great political question of our time, as frequently mentioned on this blog.

But they can’t. There are too many greedy over-powerful generals to feed and reward with war spoils, and these generals (the leaders of the various social justice movements) in turn must keep their troops happy by providing them with bounty in the form of political victories, legislative accomplishments and tangible real-world perks – including those which encroach on individual freedom, as Ben Shapiro notes.

Thus the American Left has become an unstoppable social justice juggernaut, perpetually seeking out new offences to take outrage over, in order to give the troops something to do and keep the fractious coalition together a little longer.

Even if Democratic Party leaders could see the folly of their present path (and the re-election of Nancy Pelosi as House Minority Leader clearly shows that the vast majority still do not get it) they would be powerless to change course. The unfolding slow-motion car crash is not pleasant to watch. As Ben Shapiro notes, the fury of the American Left (and the British Left too, to a slightly lesser extent) is “driving a blowback they cannot comprehend”.

While plenty of Donald Trump supporters may spend their leisure hours percolating in an online ideological echo chamber, their necessary interaction with a broadly large-L Liberal media and culture means that they are at least constantly aware of the existence other political viewpoints. Conservative college and university students often learn how to debate, defend and refine their ideas through having them constantly challenged and disparaged on campus.

Not so for the Left. Depending on geography and occupation, it is entirely possible for many on the Left to go for long periods (interrupted only by the odd traumatic microaggression experienced when venturing beyond their safe space or carefully curated social media feeds) without ever bumping into the Other America at all. Judging by the ongoing howls of outraged incomprehension, some on the Left only ever glimpse this America once every four years, at presidential election time.

This is why the American Left is unlikely to change course, even now. When your view of the path ahead is skewed to the side so that you cannot see the iceberg field directly ahead, the first light impact may not persuade you of the need to stop or change course. Nor may the second, slightly more jarring collision with reality. And only when a massive head-on collision holes your social movement and political party beneath the waterline does the folly become truly apparent.

 

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A Sermon On Justice And Reconciliation From Ferguson, Missouri

Ferguson Missouri MO Fourth 4th July parade 2

  

What to say about the slow-motion tragedy unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri?

The few known facts – that a black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot to death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in disputed circumstances – belie the visceral anger that has consumed the town.

The subsequent actions by the authorities, notably the St. Louis County Police – stonewalling on releasing the name of the officer involved, refusing to release the autopsy details, waging an increasingly military-style war of aggression against legitimate protesters and journalists, and releasing CCTV footage of Michael Brown purportedly robbing a convenience store in what can only be interpreted as an act of pre-emptive character assassination – have only compounded the sense that a predominantly white establishment have more interest in protecting their good names and quelling dissent than administering justice.

St. Louis is a city that I know, have spent much time in, and feel close to. People should not be put off St Louis, Missouri and the surrounding area by the horrible scenes unfolding there now on television and Twitter, because the current crisis is not representative of the state and its citizens. But having personal experience of the area,  it is also glaringly evident that the violence and racial tension that forced itself into our collective consciousness with the shooting of Michael Brown last week was looming, unaddressed, for a long time.

Since I have known St Louis, it has been a city of two halves – the still somewhat dicey downtown area and select suburbs with higher black and lower income populations on one level, and the highly desirable enclaves and suburbs (such as Clayton and University City) that surround them, populated by a much wealthier (and whiter) demographic on the other. Everyone may cheer on their hometown St. Louis Cardinals baseball team on game day, but there is a clear divide between those who can afford tickets to watch the game at Busch Stadium and those who have to tune in on the radio or TV.  Tensions between the city’s two halves, while not ordinarily visible to the casual observer, have roiled this part of Missouri for years.

The New York Times thoroughly summarised the history of this divide in a recent article, revealing the underlying causes of the difference between St. Louis City and County:

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County … 

Many North County towns — and inner-ring suburbs nationally — resemble Ferguson. Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

This history lesson may seem a million miles away from the reality on the streets of Ferguson today, but it is directly relevant. It is because of structures such as this, where the now-minority white establishment continues to wield almost unchallenged control over the levers of local government, that allow the scenes of high-handed crackdowns on civil assembly and free speech as practiced by the predominantly white County Police.

The attitude – sometimes explicit, sometimes more subtle – of many of the wealthy St. Louis County residents to their St. Louis City and poorer County neighbours – has often been one of impatience and grudging forebearance on one end of the spectrum, and wilful ignorance on the other.

In 2009, St. Louis residents faced draconian cuts to their Metro public transportation service, the network of buses and light rail that connects the city. Residents of generally wealthy St. Louis County voted against an increase in the transit sales tax that would have raised $80 million to fund the Metro’s operation. They made little use of public transportation themselves – they were wealthy and drove cars. But the subsequent service cuts predominantly impacted the poorer County residents and the City residents who rely on public transport to get around. One figure implied that access to jobs in St. Louis County was reduced from 98 to 71 per cent.

Why does this matter? Because it was the poorer, predominantly black workers who served the coffee, sold the groceries and worked in the nursing homes used by the wealthy St. Louis county residents. A measure came up for vote that would have prevented it from becoming exponentially harder for these people to get to work in their low paid jobs every day. And the response of the County voters: Tough luck, we won’t pay a penny more to fund the civic infrastructure that you need. Screw you, we got ours.

Take this attitude and repeat it in every area, from education to police traffic stops, and you get a sense of the climate in which the Michael Brown shooting took place, and how little the two sides of St. Louis have historically been able to empathise with one another.

And on Saturday 9th August, it led to this:

Ferguson Missouri Michael Brown Protests Police

  

On my visits to St. Louis, a visit to the Episcopalian Christ Church Cathedral was always on the itinerary. The church and its community made a lasting impression on me with their many acts and expressions of love, welcoming and tolerance which sometimes seem so much at odds with the prevailing impression of Midwestern Christianity in America.

The way that Christ Church Cathedral (both in its grand stone home on Locust Street and its lively Facebook presence online) is responding to the crisis as it roils the city is perhaps a model to be studied and followed by all of the jostling interest groups – police forces, politicians, civil rights groups, the media and the oft-reported but scarcely-heeded residents – that have descended upon the area.

Yesterday, the Cathedral’s Dean Michael Kinman had this to say:

“The police and the justice system needs to hear the cries of the people and the people need to hear the cries of the police and the justice system, and we as followers of Jesus are the ones to stand in the breach between and even as we are being convicted and converted ourselves, help everyone on every side have their Jesus moment of conviction and conversion, of truth and reconciliation….

“The cry is ringing out from St. Louis around the world. The mothers are crying “Save my child,” and it is time for us to hear that cry and let it change our hearts and with changed hearts together lead this change in the world.

“St. Louis, this is our moment. And we know that this is not a child that will be healed instantly. The tasks are many, the obstacles are large and the journey will be long. But we are the Body of Christ and, with God’s help, together we will get the job done.”

Amen to this. Thus far, the police and the justice system have not been hearing the cries of the people. And in many cases they have conspicuously not been listening, either. Not in Ferguson, Missouri, and, sadly, not in many other towns and cities across America. For black Americans, the police are not automatically the reassuring presence on the street that they are to most whites – in fact, quite the opposite.

The protests taking place now would not be happening on their current scale and intensity if the death of Michael Brown was not just the latest of a litany of tragedies – and perhaps even injustices, depending on the outcome of this investigation – to disproportionally befall black victims and black communities. Looting and violence are reprehensible, but the situation in Ferguson does not exist in a vacuum, and it is not fair or intellectually honest to haughtily condemn them exclusively as failures of personal responsibility and ethics without taking the context of deprivation and repression in which they are happening.

That is not to say that a better, more peaceful path is not there for the taking. The police captain whose empowerment to take over control of the ongoing Ferguson situation from the hapless (and very culpable) St Louis County Police initially caused such a lull in the violence and bitter feeling showed the way with his early remarks:

“And we all ought to be thanking the Browns for Michael. Because Michael is going to make it better for our sons to be better black men. Better for our daughters to be better black women. Better for me so I can be a better black father. And, our mothers, so they can be even better than they are today. Lets continue to show the nation who we are. But, when these days are over and Michael’s family is still weeping, still on their knees praying. No matter what positive comes out, we still need to get on our knees and pray. We need to thank Mike for his life. We need to thank him for the change that he is going to make in America. I love you, I stand tall with you and I’ll see you out there.”

The difference that good leadership – and one man – can make is telling, and is encapsulated in this quote from a local resident, given last Thursday when hopes that the crisis was easing were still high:

But the presence of Johnson was clearly the difference between Thursday and the four nights of turmoil that preceded it.

 “I love this man so much,” said Angela Whitman of Berkeley. “He’s been here since the beginning,giving us encouragement and letting us know we’ll get through this.”

Conversely, the fact that the residents of Ferguson are not yet “through this” shows the limitations of good leadership and one man. Putting a local police chief – with black skin and roots to the community – in charge was a good first step, but it does not make up for the woefully slow response of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Nor does it make up for the fact that America’s libertarian political cheerleaders paused so obviously to test the waters before finally jumping into the fray.

The parachuting in of a black police captain does not make up for the many blatant violations of civil liberties – and the dignity of Ferguson protesters – inflicted by the overequipped and underprepared St Louis County Police in the preceding days. It does not make up for the flagrant inequalities in the American justice system, which incarcerates and punishes a huge number of young black men, stamping an indelible black mark on their records and making it even harder for them to ever break free from their circumstances and achieve the American Dream. And it does not make up for the false but universally known fact – reinforced over and over again, in lessons from cautionary tales like those of Trayvon Martin and now Michael Brown – that in America, a black life is worth far less than a white one.

One way or another, the protesters will eventually leave the streets of Missouri. So will the riot police, the clouds of tear gas and the world’s media filming it all. Michael Brown’s family will continue to grieve. These facts are certain, predictable, unchangeable. What remains within the power of people to influence is the legacy of this latest tragic black death on a city street. Will there be a meaningful and lasting change in police tactics, and a broader change in the way that the police seek to interact with – and reflect – the communities that they serve? And will there be a recognition that on America’s present trajectory, Michael Brown’s death was every bit as inevitable as that of the next person shot down without justification or consequences?

It takes a lot to change the culture of a local police department, let alone the judicial system of an entire nation. And for all the good that the players in Ferguson can do to bring these issues to our attention and make us face uncomfortable facts as they seek to reconcile and come to terms with what has taken place, it is usually at the state and national level where any lasting, widespread changes are enacted.

Unfortunately, this means that it is left to the slow-moving and cautious Missouri governor Jay Nixon, the vacationing President Obama (himself hamstrung in his response after failed interventions in the Trayvon Martin shooting and other incidents) and a host of national politicians who are more inclined to use the pain of Ferguson, Missouri for their own ends than to solve a common problem. With this predictable cast list, there seems little hope that we will not be reassembling in a few months’ time to beat our breasts over the next police shooting, mass shooting or other act of wanton violence.

But still, we must hope. And in the absence of any meaningful national leadership, the people of Ferguson, Missouri must lead the way themselves in turning a case study in “Community Policing – How Not To Do It” into a model of outreach and reconciliation for the rest of America.

For the sake of everyone, black and white, city and county, this dark chapter in American history must not be endured for nothing.

  

Statue of Reconciliation Coventry Cathedral Britain

  

Cover Picture: Fourth of July Parade in Ferguson, Missouri – NOCO magazine

Middle Image: Police in riot gear advance through clouds of tear gas in Ferguson

Closing Image: Statue of Reconciliation, Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, UK

  

The Morning After In Arizona

Andrew Sullivan’s reflections on the vetoing of SB1062 by the Arizona Governor, Jan Brewer. We are in agreement, with one significant exception – Andrew sees no issue with discrimination against gays (or any other minority or class of individuals) in the private realm, only the public realm where government is an actor. While I admire his magnanimity in being willing to shrug off the hate and intolerance of certain fundamentalists, I cannot agree that this is the right approach. It is all very well to favour “maximal liberty”, but taken to its (logical, not extreme) conclusion, this would open the door for arbitrary refusal of service to anyone on the grounds of anything masquerading as religious conscience.

The Dish

[Re-posted from earlier today]

Here’s the money quote from Jan Brewer’s veto statement last night:

Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated … Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value, so is non-discrimination.

As I’ve mulled this over and over, I have a few straggling thoughts. Against the bill: it had two terrible features. The first was the breadth of the religious liberty invoked. The real innovation in Arizona was the extension of religious liberty claims against other citizens, rather than against the government itself. That’s a big leap, and trivializes religious liberty in some ways. No individual can coerce, even with a lawsuit, the way the government can. The second is the environment in which this bill was…

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Triangulating On Gay Rights

gayweddingcake

 

A surprising piece today from Andrew Sullivan, in which he distances himself from certain aspects of the opposition to the anti-gay discriminatory legislation currently working its way through the usual-suspect state legislatures.

Sullivan, gradually sensing victory in his long struggle and seeking (perhaps overly so) to be magnanimous in the face of it, writes:

The truth is: we’re winning this argument. We’ve made the compelling moral case that gay citizens should be treated no differently by their government than straight citizens. And the world has shifted dramatically in our direction. Inevitably, many fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews and many Muslims feel threatened and bewildered by such change and feel that it inchoately affects their religious convictions. I think they’re mistaken – but we’re not talking logic here. We’re talking religious conviction. My view is that in a free and live-and-let-live society, we should give them space. As long as our government is not discriminating against us, we should be tolerant of prejudice as long as it does not truly hurt us. And finding another florist may be a bother, and even upsetting, as one reader expressed so well. But we can surely handle it. And should.

I have read and re-read this paragraph multiple times, and this argument both surprises and concerns me. Boiled down to its essence, it is frankly disturbing – in essence, Sullivan is saying that discrimination in the private sector should be allowed and that a blind eye should be turned, and that we only have real cause for concern if gays (or presumably other minorities) face discrimination at the hands of the government.

Sullivan is also willing to play along with the fairly innocuous example of the gay couple approaching a florist to cater their wedding. It may well be the case that such a couple, spurned by one business, will be able to find an alternative provider in their town. But equally, it may not. There may be only one business of its kind in the vicinity, or there may not be the time or money to go on a Nativity-style trek through town trying to find a spare room at the inn.

More seriously, the business in question may be more important than providing flowers for a social occasion. What if it is accounting services? Or social care? A funeral home? Or medicine? Would it be permissible to deny services to gay or lesbian couples in one of these fields? If so, which ones? And what would be the logic behind such a consideration?

Sullivan’s desire to reach out to the viscerally anti-gay hold-outs in society (and if your beliefs prompt you to deny service to someone based on them, they are visceral) comes at the expense of the logic of his own argument. Sullivan remains fully cognisant of the danger of using religious freedom arguments to permit discrimination:

But the wording of the bills in question – from Kansas to Arizona – is a veritable, icy piste for widespread religious discrimination. And that’s for an obvious reason. If legislatures were to craft bills specifically allowing discrimination only in the case of services for weddings for gay couples, as Erickson says he wants, it would seem not only bizarre but obviously unconstitutional – clearly targeting a named minority for legal discrimination. So they had to broaden it, and in broadening it, came careening into their own double standards. Allow a religious exemption for interacting with gays, and you beg the question: why not other types of sinners? If the principle is not violating sincere religious belief, then discriminating against the divorced or those who use contraception would naturally follow.

This awareness only makes Sullivan’s desire to reach an accord with those who want to enshrine discrimination in law all the more bizarre. Sullivan seems to want to have it both ways – to point out the impossibility of the “religious freedom” bills, while also holding out an undeserved olive branch to the fundamentalists and proclaiming his unwillingness to force them to stop discriminating.

Sometimes it is appealing to float serenely above the fray and call for moderation and respect. Most of the time, it is probably the right course of action. But sometimes it is not.

The people currently trying to enshrine anti-gay discrimination into law want nothing more than to hoodwink the public into fretting about an imaginary future where beleaguered mom-and-pop businesses are forced at shotgun to commit acts in violation of their religious beliefs, acts that risk sending them straight to the pits of hell.

They want to recast the ignorant, the hateful and the prejudiced in the role of the plucky underdog hero, humbly attempting to live their simple lives according to their God-fearing values, but being thwarted and dictated to by the arrogant metropolitan elites. This image is sensationalist and false.

And the last thing that these cynical people deserve is the sympathy and respect of Andrew Sullivan or anyone else who has fought so hard to end discrimination.