From Ireland to Indiana, the spread of gay-marriage groupthink
Why the campaign for same-sex hitching is so censorious and intolerant.
To see how straitjacketed the debate about gay marriage has become, look no further than Ireland.
There, on 22 May, there will be a referendum, with voters asked to say Yes or No to amending the Irish Constitution so that marriage will be redefined as a union between ‘two persons without distinction as to their sex’. Sounds good, right? An opportunity for an actual electorate to have a debate and have its say on the future of marriage? Not so fast.
The run-up to the referendum has been about as far from a fair or open debate as it’s possible to get. One side in the debate – the side that is critical of gay marriage – is demonised daily, treated virtually as heretics, almost as criminals. It’s accused of causing psychological harm, branded as ‘hate speakers’, and frequently forced to make public apologies simply for expressing its belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. And as a writer for the Irish Independent says, ‘It’s not a debate if one side can’t speak’. The public discussion before the Irish referendum has not been a debate, she says – it’s been ‘a Two Minutes Hate’ against anyone who doesn’t think gay marriage is the greatest idea ever.
Pretty much the entire establishment in Ireland, aside from the increasingly uninfluential bishops and priests, backs gay marriage (giving the lie to the gay-marriage movement’s depiction of itself as a beleaguered minority bravely battling The Man for its civil rights). From the prime minister, Enda Kenny, to the vast majority of Dail Eireann, to pretty much the whole media – most notably the Irish Times, voice of the minuscule cultural elite in Dublin that sets the moral and political agenda in Ireland – every person with power is rallying for gay marriage. And barely a week passes when they don’t demonise the other side, the smaller, less powerful side, the side which, in opposing gay marriage, is apparently harming citizens, causing violence and, worst of all, jeopardising Ireland’s political future.
As with all heretics in history, Ireland’s opponents of gay marriage stand accused of directly harming the public. So last month, the Psychological Society of Ireland issued a dire warning that the propaganda of the anti-gay marriage camp could ‘impact detrimentally on people’. PSI said it is ‘seriously concerned’ that this lobby’s claim that traditional marriage is better than gay marriage, on the grounds that a mother and father make better parents than two people of the same sex, could have ‘far-reaching implications’. It chastised opponents of gay marriage for promoting ideas that ‘run contrary to the positions of professional bodies’ – that is, for daring to defy the new priests: the expert class – and said their words could wreak mental and moral havoc.
As one news report summed it up, PSI thinks that ‘the debate itself [my italics] carrie[s] the potential to have detrimental effects, both psychological and emotional, on adults and children’. So discussion is dangerous; positing a view that runs counter to the elite’s outlook could cause emotional damage. It’s remarkable how much the authoritarian boot has shifted: once it was those who denied Biblical truths who were accused of doing moral harm to citizens; now it is those who cleave to Christian views and doubt gay marriage whose words, whose desire to have a debate, are depicted as dangerous, warping things.
The PSI is not alone in demanding that the anti side watch its words, or better still, stop saying them. An Irish government minister has urged antis to ‘refrain from confrontational and offensive language’. The Irish Times has gone further, publishing a piece calling for the establishment of a ‘homophobia watchdog’ in the run-up to the referendum, so that the authorities can ‘monitor the inevitable destructive rhetoric that will colour one side of the debate’. And to those who cry ‘what about free speech?’, the Irish Times has a simple answer: ‘”Free speech” is not a free pass to inflict psychological trauma.’ That is, your words, your very thoughts, are traumatic, even socially destabilising, and thus they must not enjoy liberty; they should not be expressed.
Echoing those eco-illiberals in the UK and elsewhere who slam media outlets that offer a ‘balanced’ view in the debate on climate change, the Irish Times has also called into question the need for media balance on gay marriage in the run-up to the referendum. Too much of the media have ‘a skewed view of what balance is’, it says, feeling the need to offer a platform to ‘Middle Ireland’, ‘the silent majority’, ‘the mainstream’, when the only consequence of such ‘polarised conversations’ is that ‘facts and reason are drowned out by emotional arguments and inaccuracies’. ‘It’s pointless’, it concludes. It means, amazingly, that debate is pointless. Gay-marriage activists see themselves as ‘factual and reasoned’ and anyone who criticises them as emotional, inaccurate, traumatising, psychologically harmful. Who needs to hear from ‘Middle Ireland’ when the well-educated inhabitants of Dublin 4 know exactly what the nation needs? As it happens, the Irish media do not need lectures from the PSI about trauma or from the Irish Times about ‘skewed balance’, and nor is there a need for a speech-monitoring homophobia watchdog – for the media in Ireland have already dutifully fallen in line behind gay marriage. Indeed, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has recently ruled that too many broadcasters are showing a bias in favour of gay marriage. (There’s no need for rulings like this either, of course; can’t we just let debate flow freely?)
Experts’ and observers’ depiction of gay marriage’s opponents as emotionally harmful is having a direct impact on how the debate is, or rather isn’t, panning out. It is strangling discussion, stifling the expression of what are increasingly depicted as deviant views. In the words of Eilis O’Hanlon at the Irish Independent, the increasingly shrill proponents of gay marriage seem less interested in ‘finding the truth’ than in ‘identifying [themselves] as members of an enlightened elite’, so that the whole referendum run-up is ‘reduced to a case of kindly metropolitan liberals versus nasty Catholic conservatives’.
A writer for the Sunday Independent admitted to feeling reluctant to express her concerns about the behaviour of the pro-gay marriage lobby. Her friends warned her to ‘be careful’ because ‘anyone who sticks their oar in risks attack’. There is a ‘chilling effect’ on public discussion as a result of the treatment of one side as wicked and corrupting, she said. The bishop of Kildare, Denis Nulty, had a point when he recently warned against ‘the danger of groupthink’ on gay marriage. As O’Hanlon says, through groupthink ‘outsiders are demonised and hounded’. Referring to the Twittermobs that formed during a heated debate on gay marriage last year, she says ‘anyone who expressed the slightest reservations about same-sex marriage was howled down as a homophobe and pelted with hashtags and slogans until they either submitted to the mob or were driven offline’.
Ireland’s opponents of gay marriage have also been subjected to the kind of tabloid exposes normally reserved for social deviants. And such is the debate-allergic climate that even bishops, people who should surely be expected to hold a traditionalist view on marriage and the family, have felt pressured to make public apologies. For expressing his view that gay people who adopt children are ‘not necessarily parents’ and that ‘children need a mother and a father’, Bishop Kevin Doran was slammed and hounded, until he agreed to say sorry. He said he ‘regrets any hurt’ his words caused. Even the Primate of All Ireland indulged in a mea culpa: ‘I think that sometimes when we say things we can be insensitive, we can hurt.’ It seems the old bishops have heeded the warnings of the new secular bishops that make up Ireland’s expert and chattering classes, and have agreed to genuflect at the altar of safe, stultified discussion on gay marriage.
What is striking is the extent to which the critics of gay marriage are now treated in a similar way that gays were treated for decades. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in Ireland until 1993 – making you wonder where the Irish state gets off now posing as super-gay-friendly – and before that gays were seen as a blot on the moral landscape. They were seen as psychologically disordered (not just in Ireland, but across the West) and their words and culture were often censored for fear that they would traumatise young people and tear the moral fabric. Sound familiar? Yes, the same is now done to those who hold traditional views on marriage and the family. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the illiberal, intolerant tactics once used against homosexuals have been turned against those who dare to criticise homosexual lifestyles.
Around the world, the institutionalisation of gay marriage has been attended by authoritarianism, whether of the violent state variety or what John Stuart Mill called ‘the tyranny of prevailing opinion’. From French riot police’s tear-gassing of protesters against gay marriage to American activists’ witch-hunting of corporate bosses or small-town restaurants that refuse to cheer gay marriage, this supposedly great civil-rights issue of our age has a powerful intolerant streak to it. (The recent fiftieth anniversary of the Selma march really exposed gay-marriage activists’ claims to be the new civil-rights movement: far from mirroring the blacks who marched for their rights, the gay-marriage movement, most notably in France, looks a lot more like the Montgomery cops who batoned those marchers off the streets.)
Why is the gay-marriage movement so intolerant? Despite winning the backing of almost every powerful figure in the West, from Barack Obama to David Cameron, from Apple to Goldman Sachs, and despite being turned by the media into the great unquestionable, almost sacrilegious cause of our age, still gay-marriage activists hilariously fancy themselves as underdogs and, worse, seek to shush or shame out of existence anyone who opposes them. In the words of the American journalist Damon Linker, the gay-marriage movement seems curiously hell-bent on ‘stamping out rival visions’. Or as Reason magazine said in relation to recent intolerant activism by American gay-marriage campaigners, it seems some are ‘not merely content with the revolutionary step of removing state discrimination against same-sex couples’, but also want to ‘use state power to punish anyone who refuses to lend their business services to wedding ceremonies they find objectionable’.
What’s this all about? Why the illiberalism, the intolerance, the ugliness? It’s because gay marriage is not really about expanding freedom at all. Rather, it represents the emergence of a new, post-traditonalist morality, an attempt by at-sea elites across the West to redefine themselves and their moral missions through the gay issue. Gay marriage has become the favoured means through which our rulers, feeling ever-more detached from their old moral worldview, are institutionalising a new, pseudo-progressive, seemingly consensual morality, based, not around the old ideals of family, commitment and privacy, but around the new po-mo values of relativism (all relationships are the same), non-judgementalism (who are we to say that a mum and dad are better than two mums?), and illiberal liberalism, the central political outlook of our times, which under the guise of building a new liberal consensus seeks to censure and punish anyone who deviates from that consensus. The reason the elites, from the political classes to the influential opinion-forming set, are so instinctually hostile to criticism of gay marriage is because they have invested their very moral rehabilitation, their future political and moral legitimacy, into this issue more than in any other. And thus no ridicule of it can be tolerated. For if you knock gay marriage you are not only knocking gay marriage – you are upsetting Western elites’ efforts to establish a new morality that simplistically distinguishes between Us (good, kind, liberal backers of gay marriage) and Them (the old, the religious, the outdated, the Other).
Ireland captures this perfectly. The reason so many in the political and media classes want, or rather need, the amendment to the Constitution to pass is because they think legalising gay marriage will help rejuvenate Ireland in the twenty-first century. The minister for children said that if Ireland doesn’t legalise gay marriage, it would ‘send out a bad message internationally’. Or as prime minister Kenny put it, passing gay marriage will ‘send out a powerful signal internationally that Ireland has evolved into a fair, compassionate and tolerant nation’.
All this talk of ‘sending signals’ to the world shows how absolutely central gay marriage has become to the project of Western elites making themselves over in these post-Cold War, post-traditionalist, post-political times. The Irish state needs gay marriage for the same reason Obama and Cameron need it – to fashion a new moral worldview and ‘send a signal’ about its elitist progressivism, its decency in comparison to the old world, the old people, the old outlook. That so many gay-rights campaigners are going along with this politicisation and exploitation of their lifestyles by elites on the lookout for a new sense of purpose is remarkable. That those who hold a divergent view on gay marriage are being silenced is a scandal.
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked.
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