Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sometimes the Bigots aren't wrong

But we can't admit it.

I don't mean about their bigotries, but their predictions.  Bigots will often warn that tolerance (or rights) extended to a marginilized group in one area or in one respect will lead to tolerance (or rights) being extended to them in all respects.  The advocates of tolerance will say no, that's not true.  'We're not trying to intrude on people's private beliefs, just change the law', is a common thought.  But the bigots are often right on this one.  Equality is all or nothing.

For instance, in this typically brilliant post about the civil war, the estimable Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes James MacPherson's quote of a southern secessionist.
Georgia's commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, "we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything."
He's not wrong.  Lincoln may not have believed in black equality in 1861 or in 1865.  He downright assured people that he wasn't in favor of social equality for blacks, and that freeing the slaves wouldn't bring it about.  But the Georgian was right: in hindsight Lincoln's election was the beginning of the long road toward the US admitting black Americans as equal citizens.  Now we have a black president.

There are a number of reasons why emancipation snowballed into something approaching legal equality* in 150 years.  Social equality still hasn't been achieved, but it is far closer than Lincoln would have dared imagine in 1860.  Listing the reasons this is so would require a history of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil rights movement from 1865 through the present. But I think there are two factors in this:

  1. Those who are unequal won't stop short of full equality.  Black Americans weren't going to happily get denied the franchise and submit to terrorism after they were freed.  Even when things were shit in the 1910's Black civil rights advocates didn't stop struggling for recognition as equal citizens.  They won, through years of hard struggle and courage.  For women, it was 50 years between the right to vote and the right to work, again through years of campaigning.
  2. There is no hermetic seal between the law and social mores.  When Loving vs. Virginia was passed, on paper it only changed the law to make interracial marriage legal.  But 40 years later prejudice against interracial relationships is much less dominant (if still widespread), and in most circles it cannot be expressed openly.  Condemning something that is fully sanctioned by the law is less comfortable than condemning something that's illegal.
All this leads up to my more contemporary point:  the anti-gay bigots aren't wrong about  the consequences of gay rights victories.  Moderate gay rights advocates once said that we're not forcing anyone to change their minds, that we're not forcing homosexuality to be socially acceptable.  These days gay rights advocates say this a bit less, but the idea is still there: you and your children can keep your bigotries, we're just after legal equality.

This isn't true, at least not entirely.  True equality doesn't stop at the courthouse.  As long society condemns homosexuality (or transgender people) and makes gays feel like outcasts, young gay/transgender people are going to keep killing themselves.

So no one is going to suggest putting conservative Catholics and Evagelicals into gulags or having bonfires where we tear out the offending passages of Leviticus and Romans and burn them.  But advocates of equality DO want to change society.  We DO want to make being gay or transgender socially accepted, and to make bigotry against these people as socially unacceptable as racism is (or should be).  And the bigots know that, and we know that.

But we can't admit it.  Because there are people who are uncomfortable with legal inequality, but are equally uncomfortable with the full force of social condemnation coming down on someone else's religious beliefs.  And we need those people.  So we won't tell them that we want to make the world outright hostile to homophobia.

And I'm okay with this.  Maybe it was all those years of being taught by Straussians in Undergrad, but sometimes lies are necessary.  That's politics.

*Here I'm talking about legal equality (at least in theory) and a degree of social equality that would have been hard to imagine in 1860 or even 1960.  I'm not trying to minimize how many inequalities remain, just draw out how much more radical the consequences of Lincoln's election were than he admitted or realized.