Yesterday, the Rhode Island State House of Representatives voted to legalize same sex marriage. There is some question as to whether the State Senate will also approve the bill, but there is clearly a trend building towards state by state approval of such unions here in the United States.
I’m strongly in favor of allowing gays to marry, and I’m very happy that the marriage equality movement is starting to win, but I’d like to point out a sad side note.
Although the growing victories of the same sex marriage movement are indeed a wonderful thing, they seem to be happening for entirely the wrong reasons. That is to say, this does not seem to be a triumph for the idea of human freedom. The reason the movement for gay marriage is winning in the US is primarily because more and more people think gays are decent people, and not because they’re willing to live and let live regardless.
The true test of whether you are in favor of freedom is this: if someone else is doing something you hate, but which does no violence to others, are you willing to leave them alone on principle?
If you are willing to leave others alone even if you dislike their behavior provided that behavior doesn’t physically harm third parties, then you support human freedom for its own sake. If you are only willing to leave others alone if you actively approve of their behavior, you are simply reinforcing your own tastes.
So, if you believe the reason we should permit gay people to marry is because you think gay people are decent, normal people, I can’t give you credit for supporting freedom in general (although I am glad that you’re with me on this one cause and will in no way refuse your help). If, however, you think that group marriages or Baal worship or something else you find creepy should be allowed simply because everyone involved is a consenting adult and it isn’t any of your business, then you are truly my ally.
Frequently, one hears anti-marriage equality spokespeople say things of the form “if you’ll let gays marry, why shouldn’t you allow group marriages”. (The exact other thing they pick for comparison varies but is not important.) When this happens, many of my friends say “oh, that’s a false equivalence, that politician is such an idiot for comparing those things”, but I think that is untrue, and they’re picking the wrong answer entirely.
The right answer is “if an adult woman and two adult men or any other combination want to get married, that isn’t my business either, whether I think it is a good idea or not”. As it happens, I’m not an advocate for polygamy – it doesn’t seem like a terrific idea to me – but if it is among actually consenting adults, it isn’t my business at all, regardless of whether I like it or not. The right answer is “if a group of people want to gather weekly to pray to the ancient Aztec gods, that isn’t something I should have any say about, no matter how stupid I think it might be, since it does not involve me.” As it happens, I’m an atheist and think all religions are a foolish waste of time (if not actively harmful to the participants), but it isn’t my business if people wish to engage in any peaceful activity, and prayer neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
The politician making the comparison between gay marriage and polygamy is demonstrating that he doesn’t really believe in freedom – but so are the people who support gay marriage only because they happen to like gay people.
I’m willing to let neo-Nazis post antisemitic screeds not because I like neo-Nazis but because I believe freedom is more important than my distaste. If I only allow people to speak if I like what they have to say, I would be in favor of speech I like, not in favor of freedom of speech.
Similarly, it is not my place to tell a businessman who he should hire or fire, or where he should open his shop, or what days of the week he should keep it open, or from what countries he should buy his goods, or what he should make or sell. It does not matter if he is only selling copies of “Mein Kampf” typeset in comic sans and that he only will employ racist blond white men. I might not like what he is selling or who he employs, but it isn’t my business. If he wants to pay the racist white men he hires $2 an hour and they’re okay with that, it isn’t my business. If he legitimately buys a store 500 feet from a school, it isn’t my business if that’s where he sells his copies of Mein Kampf.
It is easy to be in favor of the right of others to do things you like them doing, of course. It is, in fact, a challenge to find anyone who wants to make activities they favor illegal. The real question is whether one accepts the right of others to do things that one does not like, on the principle that freedom is in itself a value worth supporting.