Thursday, March 3, 2011

We want equality, not revenge

The General Social Survey, put out by the National Opinion Research Center and the University of Chicago, goes back to 1972 and is now released every two years. Since 1988 one of the questions has been about gay marriage. 2010 is the first time responders approving of gay marriage topped those opposed. Other recent surveys don’t show us ahead, but we’re getting close.

Some commenters wonder about the Bradley Effect – people telling pollsters what they think the pollster wants to hear rather than their true opinion. If so, even that is significant. It means that many people believe the “correct” answer, the one the pollster wants to hear, is approval for gay marriage. That itself is an important change.

Jonathan Rauch notes that even if gay marriage isn’t supported by a majority the general population, the moral acceptability of gay relationships has passed the majority threshold. Rauch proposes a scenario. Gay students walk into a bakery and ask for rainbow decorated cupcakes for their National Coming Out Day observance. The business refuses, claiming they won’t work against their moral principles. Should the gay students: (1) take their business elsewhere and call for public dialogue, or (2) report the bakery to city hall in an attempt to shut the business down because it violates the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Both? Neither?

Rauch says option one is a fine idea. Option two is dangerous.

The rights battle is far from over. Much work still needs to be done. But we now have the upper hand, momentum is on our side, and we need to change tactics. In particular We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.

Being pushy and demanding (“If we’re polite they’ll just ignore us.”) is minority thinking. We and our allies are part of the majority. A “shrill, aggressive majority appears bullying and menacing, not plucky and righteous.” We don’t want to be seen as the oppressors.

Oh, yes, the irony is rich. We’re the oppressors? Tell that to the gay teen bullied by Fundie kids.

But as the Fundies are getting portrayed as the moral deviants, they are working hard to make sure we are portrayed as violators of civil rights, never resting until we eliminate our opposition (um, yeah, something like they’ve said they want to do to us). But they have a point. Our goal is to make homophobia so culturally unpalatable that churches will feel compelled to go against their own doctrine (and then eventually change that doctrine).

All that means we have to be careful not to hand them the victimhood weapon.

There are two ways to do that:

First, accept legal exceptions for religious organizations in discrimination laws, as long as the cost to gays is acceptable. Let a Catholic adoption agency refuse to place kids with gay parents if there are other agencies that will. Religious liberty is an American founding principle. Branding religion as bigotry won’t help us convince the flexible middle that we deserve our rights. Being seen as a threat to religion will harm us.

Second, stop branding the opposition as haters and bigots, even if they obviously are. At the moment we tend towards lumping the true bigots with those who don’t yet see how a particular piece of policy truly affects us. Rhetorical overkill will backfire. We are to criticize them, but not to silence them. We want equality, not revenge. We want them to be true to themselves as we want to be allowed to be true to ourselves.

Our opponents are betting heavily we won’t make the shift from a demanding minority to a tolerant majority.

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