Ryan Anderson of The Heritage Foundation just had a bracing Twitter debate about marriage and civility with Josh Barro, a reporter for the New York Times. You can read the entire exchange for yourself here, but I call attention to it as a particularly naked example of the phenomenon I posted about a few weeks ago in which increasing numbers of Americans simply reject the premise on which our nation is grounded: that all human persons have dignity and rights which are intrinsic to them, not created by government.
Barro says flatly that people who disagree with him have no rights he’s bound to respect:
“some policy views render people unworthy of respect”
It’s not that some ideas aren’t worthy of respect, notice. It’s people themselves who lose their dignity. Unstated but implicit is the assumption that Barrow is a worthy judge of which policy views cause someone to surrender his status as a full-fledged member of the human race.
I wish Barro were alone in this, but it’s an increasingly prevalent attitude: some are more equal than others and I know which is which.
We should be clear however that Barroism –subjecting people to ideological testing before acknowledging their humanity– is directly opposed to the inherent dignity of all persons. If you are not willing to respect the unalienable rights of those with whom you disagree then you do not believe in those freedoms at all. You have replaced the equality of all with the creed of “might makes right” –tyranny.
Indeed, Barro openly takes just this step when he tweets:
“a marriage is whatever the government says it is.”
If that’s true, it’s hard to see what Barro’s objection to man-woman marriage can be, or indeed how he could justify protest against any law ever, since justice is whatever the law says it is. As Anderson neatly points out in a post-debate reflection, this is precisely the question at stake in the debate over the meaning of marriage: is the law made for man or man for the law? Can those in power simply “construct” reality, or must government, in order to serve the public good, recognize and uphold that which exists by the nature of things, which is prior to and outside of government?
As Anderson puts it, here’s what we agree on:
All our fellow citizens, including those identifying as LGBT, should enjoy the full panoply of civil rights—the free exercise of religion, freedoms of speech and press, the right to own property and enter into contracts, the right to vote and have a fair trial, and every other freedom to live as they choose, consistent with the common good.
We also all want marriage equality. The question is what is marriage? Is it merely an emotional bond or is it something else? Which understanding of marriage is correct and which better serves the common good? Those are the questions we aren’t being allowed to ponder – much less openly discuss—when people like Josh Barro bowl everyone over with crude with cries of “bigot!”
At a certain moment in the discussion Barro tells Anderson he doesn’t have to be nice to someone who’s working against all he believes in. That’s understandable. Nothing says you have to like your opponents personally, and it’s natural when people debate things they feel strongly about for passions to rise.
Civility isn’t about liking your adversaries, however, it’s about recognizing them as persons. When Anderson insists on being treated with respect, he’s not being prissy. He’s defending rational debate – the thrashing out of ideas—as the only way to come to sound conclusions for the common good. When we fail to extend to one another a certain presumption of good will, when we demonize opponents rather than considering their ideas dispassionately, we not only dehumanize our fellows, but run the risk of being blinded by our own passions, ignoring information we ought to consider, and making hasty, ill-considered decisions.
Rash judgment coupled with unwarranted enthusiasm makes for bad policy. It’s the formula for New Coke, the Edsel, Prohibition, thalidomide, let’s set a speed record cutting through this ice because we’re the unsinkable Titanic, dammit.
Full-throated debate is the only way to win people lastingly to your cause. You can intimidate folks into sullen silence or polite conformity in the short term, but the result won’t endure unless they arrive at your conclusion for themselves after due consideration. When we think the truth is on our side – or when we simply wish to know the truth– we should welcome that kind of debate. The “shout your opponent down” tactic implies existential doubt about the rightness of the cause. Might makes right when your argument doesn’t.
In a follow-up post, Anderson issues a sort of challenge to Barro that ought to buck up despondent culture warriors as well:
“In all of recorded history, ours is the first time where we can have open and honest conversations about same-sex attraction and marriage. This discussion is just beginning. It is nowhere near being over.”