Gay marriage: a case study in conformism

Anyone who values diversity of thought and tolerance of dissent should find the sweeping consensus on gay marriage terrifying.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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I have been doing or writing about political stuff for 20 years, since I was 18 years old, during which time I have got behind some pretty unpopular campaigns and kicked against some stifling consensuses. But I have never encountered an issue like gay marriage, an issue in which the space for dissent has shrunk so rapidly, and in which the consensus is not only stifling but choking. This is the only issue on which, for criticising it from a liberal, secular perspective, I’ve been booed during an after-dinner speech and received death threats (‘If you’re dead, you can’t talk shit about gay marriage’). It’s the only issue on which both hard right-wingers and the wettest leftists have told me to STFU. It’s the only issue on which even friends have said, ‘Stop writing about it. It isn’t worth it.’

Many are commenting on the juggernaut-like rise to respectability of the gay marriage issue. Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard says gay marriage has gone ‘from joke to dogma’ in a decade. Time magazine says there has been a ‘seismic social shift’ on gay marriage, which has been ‘as rapid and unpredictable as any turn in public opinion [in history]’. Another gay-marriage supporter says ‘the pace and scale at which acceptance of marriage equality has shifted is breathtaking’, which he puts down to the efforts of the warriors for ‘marriage equality’. There has been a ‘sea change’ in attitudes, commentators tell us, especially in political circles, where everyone who’s anyone (or who wants to be) now genuflects at the gay-marriage altar. Even Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, scourge of liberals everywhere, now accepts the idea of gay marriage, leading one observer to tell gay-marriage proponents: ‘Lay down your guns… the enemy has surrendered.’

How do we account for this extraordinary consensus, for what is tellingly referred to as the ‘surrender’ to gay marriage by just about everyone in public life? And is it a good thing, evidence that we had a heated debate on a new civil right and the civil rightsy side won? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can even call this a ‘consensus’, since that would imply the voluntaristic coming together of different elements in concord. It’s better described as conformism, the slow but sure sacrifice of critical thinking and dissenting opinion under pressure to accept that which has been defined as a good by the upper echelons of society: gay marriage. Indeed, the gay-marriage campaign provides a case study in conformism, a searing insight into how soft authoritarianism and peer pressure are applied in the modern age to sideline and eventually do away with any view considered overly judgmental, outdated, discriminatory, ‘phobic’, or otherwise beyond the pale.

The shift on gay marriage has truly been remarkable. Not only is gay marriage now fulsomely promoted by the ruling parties of both America and Britain, and in numerous other nations, but is also accepted even by those who once stingingly slated it. So David Frum, right-wing journalist turned speechwriter for President George W Bush, spent the late 1990s arguing against the newly emerging idea of allowing gays to get hitched; yet now, in the words of one columnist, he is ‘energetically urging Republicans to embrace the redefinition of marriage he once warned against’. American Republicans, especially young ones, are among the most effusive supporters of gay marriage.

In liberal political circles, there has been almost a lemming-like lining up behind gay marriage. So last month, when Hillary Clinton, following Barack Obama, came out in support of gay marriage, there was a domino effect, or what one commentator called a ‘remarkably rapid shift’, in the US Senate. In three weeks, 14 senators ‘followed suit’ with Clinton, which ‘amounts to a senator changing position on same-sex marriage on average every day and a half’, as one report put it. Such is the expectation that every decent politician will embrace gay marriage that this week the Guardian published an article headlined ‘The final three: the Democratic senators against gay marriage’. It demanded to know when these three, whom of course it named and shamed, will ‘toe the party line’. Yes, that’s right – such is the entrenched respectability of gay marriage that we now see articles about the peculiar people who oppose it rather than about what would once have been seen as the weird people promoting it. Opponents of gay marriage are now treated by the press in the same way queer-rights agitators were in the past: as strange, depraved creatures, whose repenting and surrender to mainstream values we await with bated breath.

There have also been massive shifts in public opinion. In the US, a recent ABC poll found that 58 per cent of Americans support gay marriage, compared with just 37 per cent a decade ago. A recent British poll found 62 per cent in support of gay marriage and 31 per cent against. A new book by Michael J Klarman, From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage, documents the extraordinary rise of the gay-marriage idea in the US, where since 2009 there has apparently been a four-point rise in support for gay marriage every year. Some see this as a good thing; but I’m more inclined to agree with Christopher Caldwell, who says: ‘Public opinion does not change this fast in free societies. Either opinion is not changing as fast as it appears to be, or society is not as free.’

Certainly, the idea that the ‘seismic shift’ in political and public opinion is down to the fighting of gay-marriage campaigners is spectacularly unconvincing. One Guardian columnist, liberally borrowing from the black civil-rights movement, says the ‘breathtaking’ progress of the gay-marriage issue shows that Martin Luther King was right to say ‘the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice’; it shows what campaigners can achieve when they combine ‘idealism with action’. What action? Where? Bringing King into the picture only highlights the unusualness of the gay-marriage campaign: there has been no mass march on Washington for same-sex marriage; no streetfighting; no getting water-cannoned by the police, mauled by dogs, chased by the KKK, thrown in jail. There has been no real public action at all, certainly not of the sort that might have terrified the US Senate so much that its members felt the urge to bow one by one before the issue of gay marriage. If gay MLK-style campaigners are responsible for the transformation of gay marriage ‘from joke to dogma’, then they must have achieved it through osmosis, since they certainly didn’t do it through any kind of mass, messy uprising.

In truth, the extraordinary rise of gay marriage speaks, not to a new spirit of liberty or equality on a par with the civil-rights movements of the 1960s, but rather to the political and moral conformism of our age; to the weirdly judgmental non-judgmentalism of our PC times; to the way in which, in an uncritical era such as ours, ideas can become dogma with alarming ease and speed; to the difficulty of speaking one’s mind or sticking with one’s beliefs at a time when doubt and disagreement are pathologised. Gay marriage brilliantly shows how political narratives are forged these days, and how people are made to accept them. This is a campaign that is elitist in nature, in the sense that, in direct contrast to those civil-rights agitators of old, it came from the top of society down; and it is a campaign which is extremely unforgiving of dissent or disagreement, implicitly, softly demanding acquiescence to its agenda.

So for all the comparisons of the gay-marriage movement to the civil-rights movement, in fact the most striking thing about gay marriage is its origins among the elite. As Caldwell says, ‘never since the Progressive Era has there been a social movement as elite-driven as the one for gay marriage’. In his new book, Michael Klarman describes how judges, not streetfighthers, spearheaded the gay-marriage campaign; he even bizarrely calls judges a ‘distinctive subculture’ of the cultural elite, which ‘tends to be even more liberal than the general public on issues such as gender equality and gay equality’. Another favourable account of the rise of gay marriage notes how it was led by ‘lawyers and professors’, who counselled against engaging with the public since making ‘open demands for gay marriage [could] trigger a backlash’ (1).

The gay writer John D’Emilio has critiqued gay campaigners’ reliance on the courts, arguing that this ‘conviction that [the law] is the way to change the world… would have been considered unusual for much of American history’ (2). Yet this is where gay marriage emerged – in courtrooms and later in political committee rooms, among those apparently ‘more liberal than the public’ – and as Caldwell says: ‘When elites rally unanimously to a cause, it can become a kind of common sense.’ This was the first stage in the great conformism over gay marriage: its transformation into common sense through being adopted and promoted by a legal and political class keen to demonstrate its liberal credentials and to assume an historic, MLK-style posture in our otherwise flat, uninspiring and illiberal political era.

With gay marriage turned into ‘a kind of common sense’, opposing it became more difficult, potentially even threatening one’s social and moral standing. The ‘common sense’ of gay marriage has been turned into something like a dogma of gay marriage, in a very subtle way. So the very act of debating gay marriage has been implicitly demonised, since in the words of one observer, ‘The fact that there is a debate over whether to deny a group of people their civil rights is unacceptable’. Here, through further linking gay marriage to the old civil-rights movement, even discussion itself can be branded ‘unacceptable’.

Others say there should be no ‘acknowledgment of subtleties and cultural differences’ on gay marriage, since ‘there is a right answer’ on this issue. Those who insist on possessing ‘cultural differences’ on gay marriage – or even worse, opposing it – feel the fury of campaigners. A chicken restaurant in America was boycotted after its owner criticised gay marriage, while voters in American referendums who have said no to gay marriage have been called every name under the Sun by the respectable political and media classes: ‘ill-informed’, ‘deceived’, ‘plain ignorant’, ‘knuckle draggers’. This has the effect of beating down critical questioning. Gay marriage supporters actually boast of using moral pressure over political debate to win people’s acquiescence. Scientific American magazine recently discussed the apparently brilliant way that social media is being used to influence people’s ‘attitudes and behaviour’ on gay marriage. Everyone is ‘susceptible to the powers of peer pressure’, it said, so constantly saying favourable things about gay marriage on social-media websites can be a way of ‘send[ing] out a message about what’s acceptable, appropriate and… well, normal’. That is – never mind convincing someone with reason; just heavy-handedly let them know it’s normal to support gay marriage, and thus presumably abnormal to oppose it.

This is how conformism is forged and enforced today: elites devise an idea or campaign, far away from what one gay-marriage proponent calls ‘the tyranny of the majority’; that idea or campaign gets disingenuously depicted as something that protesters and campaigners demanded and actually put pressure on the elites to come up with; and through a process of debate-demonisation and pathologisation of dissent, through the treatment of acceptance as normal and criticism as abnormal, the idea or campaign is spread more widely through society. Eventually, in the words of Caldwell, even those who are unsure about gay marriage ‘quell their natural misgivings’. Indeed, when I interviewed the British pop star Dappy recently, and asked him if he supported gay marriage, he said: ‘I want to say no… but I get so much stick already. So say “yes”. Definitely say “yes”.’ How many other people are saying ‘yes’ not because they believe in gay marriage, but because they don’t want, in Caldwell’s words, to be thought of as ‘losers’ who have failed to ‘emulate their betters’?

The conformism around gay marriage cannot be put entirely down to handfuls of campaigners, of course, and certainly not to any conscious attempt on their part to enforce political and moral obedience. The fragility of society’s attachment to traditional marriage itself, to the virtue of commitment, has also been key to the formulation of the gay-marriage consensus. Indeed, it is the rubble upon which the gay-marriage edifice is built. That is, if lawyers, politicians and our other assorted ‘betters’ have successfully kicked down the door of traditional marriage, it’s because the door was already hanging off its hinges, following years of cultural neglect. It is society’s reluctance to defend traditional views of commitment, and its relativistic refusal more broadly to discriminate between different lifestyle choices, that has fuelled the peculiar non-judgmental tyranny of the gay-marriage campaign, which judges harshly those who dare to judge how people live. Through a combination of the weakness of belief in traditional marriage and the insidiousness of the campaign for gay marriage, we have ended up with something that reflects brilliantly John Stuart Mill’s description of how critical thinking can cave into the despotism of conformism, so that ‘peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes, until by dint of not following their own nature, these [followers of conformism] have no nature to follow’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse? What We’ve Learned from the Evidence, William N Eskridge Jr and Darren R Spedale, Oxford University Press, 2006

(2) ‘Will the courts set us free?’, in Craig A Rimmerman and Clyde Wilcox (eds), The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, University of Chicago Press, 2007

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Topics Politics


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