How are we to understand the surge in leftist intolerance? Particularly at issue recently – other than low-key if widespread academic discontent with free speech – have been the problems associated with growing acceptance of what I will for brevity’s sake term “queer” persons. The Right sees recent developments as nothing less than radically hypocritical: a movement originally campaigning publicly for tolerance now seems itself to want to repress any dissent. A few on the Left may agree, but the vast majority of its activists seem in a new generation to have shifted their tone: their demands are perfectly valid, not in the name of a mere “tolerance” but for the sake of public affirmation and the individual’s pursuit of whatever he desires.
Certainly ideologies and arguments from various assumptions – dare I say presuppositions? – play into individuals’ reasons for supporting or opposing various policies. However, taken as a whole, I believe we need to understand many events as emotionally driven. The conservative sees social habits disrupted, and often believes his essential cultural fabric is endangered by these revolutionary standards. The liberal is – despite widespread public enthusiasm, on which more later – still stuck in a pattern of thought where the opposition is not just differing but personally threatening. Emotions run high.
It is hardly surprising when a group previously marginalized gains a modicum of public standing – and decides to retaliate against its once-oppressors. It is if possible less surprising when the previously dominant group, suddenly threatened by this retaliation, takes measures to protect itself. This is what I see happening in the American political scene with regard to the social status of the “queer” group. The lawsuits against bakers, florists, and so on are hardly reasoned political actions: these are the markers of petty revenge by the recently enabled – even if cloaked in the language of vague precedents from previous anti-discrimination actions. On the other hand, the various pieces of “religious freedom” legislation which have been brought up are not themselves mainly serious attempts to deal thoughtfully with the situation, but rather emergency measures.
(I dislike laws which exempt persons from social obligations based on some “identity”; but in a society where the government makes many and great positive demands of its citizens, I am not entirely sure there is a better way to deal with stubborn and conscientious dissent from general public moral expectations. In any case, while demands on private persons are poor judgment, exempting civil servants from civilly recognized duties is idiocy – even if the result were a mass resignation of honest Christian officials, to the great loss, I believe, of us all. (Whether and how to recognize those duties to protect the consciences of public servants is a different question – and although a pressing one, not one I can address here.) Even admitting the possible necessity of religious freedom laws, it is necessary to take careful stock of what the real problems are, and to limit the exemptions as much and as clearly as possible, rather than rushing through measures only prompted by other foolishness – though in truth the majority of such laws have already been strictly limited. Better still would be to take the time, in the event of mass social changes, to recraft laws to make as few onerous demands of citizens as possible.)
The number of Americans who would demand a kosher deli make a ham sandwich, or take offense if a Muslim acquaintance opted out of attending a child’s christening, is I trust vanishingly small. I assume the number of “queer” persons personally offended by conscientious objections to their own lifestyles – who insist on believing any disagreement is motivated only by evil and ill-will – is similarly tiny. I expect that – if not exacerbated by percussions and repercussions – it will continue to shrink. That nuisance lawsuits have been allowed to proceed by the courts is a strike against the American judicial system – already plagued by other problems. That these same suits have been talked about by major public figures as entirely serious matters is distressing. On the other hand, the fact that the American media, to say nothing of corporate America, both largely bound to their pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, have largely fallen in line with the apparently socially and politically ascendant talking points is disappointing but not remotely shocking.
My concern is much more on the personal level. I have nowhere seen any evidence that, when advocates for “queer” Americans parrot talk about “homophobia” and hate as a basis for religious freedom bills or other similar measures, they realize that the activities of their own allies are in some measure responsible for that fear. Advocates for homosexual marriage treated conservative fears that it would disrupt society as a joke – and the first really public acts of those advocates, when granted legal privileges, was to turn the law on those who disagree and doubt. This is not the picture of a freedom-loving movement. That the trouble has so far been mainly limited to these relatively isolated incidents of legal pressure from either side is, in light of the narrative framework of social revolution which I sketched above, fairly encouraging. That reactions will remain limited to these incidents if those pressures continues is – doubtful.