Same-sex marriage: coercion dolled up as civil rights

Stop treating Brendan Eich as a one-off – gay marriage is inherently illiberal.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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It’s four weeks since Javascript inventor Brendan Eich was hounded out of his job at Mozilla by a virtual mob of intolerant tweeters and campaigners. His crime? Failing to genuflect at the altar of gay marriage, which is now the closest thing our otherwise godless, belief-lite, morally vacuous societies have to a sacred value. For refusing to bow down before this new sainted institution, and for having the temerity to donate money to a campaign group opposed to it, Eich was found guilty by the mob of sacrilege and was hounded out of public life as a modern-day heretic.

And in those four weeks, some gay-marriage backers, feeling more than a little red-faced, have called for the zealots in their camp to get a grip. The treatment of Eich was an example of what happens when bad-apple activists turn crazily self-righteous, they say. British-American writer Andrew Sullivan says the witch-hunting of Eich speaks to the ‘fanaticism’ of certain campaigners, which apparently runs counter to the gay-marriage movement’s desire to create a more ‘tolerant and diverse society’. This week, prominent American liberals and libertarians published an open letter headlined ‘Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Dissent: Why We Must Have Both’, which says the Eich episode showed the ‘eagerness [of] some supporters of same-sex marriage to punish rather than to criticise or to persuade those who disagree’. ‘Enforcing orthodoxy hurts everyone’, the letter says, and gay-marriage campaigners must lobby for the ‘freedom to marry’ in a less hysterical fashion.

It is always refreshing to see people stand up for the freedom to dissent, especially on an issue like gay marriage, on which there’s an astounding amount of nodding-dog conformity. But there is nonetheless something off, something problematic, something wrong about the past month’s burgeoning critical response to the Eich affair. And it’s this: it treats the illiberalism and intolerance hurled Eich’s way as a one-off, an extreme case, an instance of ‘some activists’ going too far, when in truth what happened to Eich is entirely in keeping with the coercive culture of the politics of gay marriage more broadly. To view the hounding of Eich as an aberration, as a veering off the alleged path of diversity mapped out by the gay-marriage campaign, is utterly to miss the point – Eich’s treatment is better seen as the logical conclusion to what has been a strikingly illiberal movement from the get-go.

This is the thing no one in the gay-marriage lobby, or in political and media circles more broadly, seems to want to talk about – the fact that in every jurisdiction in which it has been introduced, gay marriage has been heavily attended by authoritarianism and coercion.

Sometimes the coercion is soft, taking the form of what John Stuart Mill called ‘the tyranny of custom’, where those who refuse to embrace gay marriage – the most speedily formed custom of modern times – will be branded phobic and hateful and perhaps boycotted by agitators, pressured to choose between their moral opposition to same-sex marriage and their place in polite society; you absolutely cannot have both. And sometimes the coercion is hard, involving, in the case of France most obviously, actual state violence against opponents of gay marriage. But whatever form it has taken, coercion has been the order of the day in every campaign to legalise gay marriage, meaning Eich’s fate wasn’t some abnormality – it was part of a pretty scary ‘new normal’, of a sweeping culture of intolerance that has been fostered by the political set pushing gay marriage.

It is odd that people should be so shocked by what was done to Eich this month considering that, over the past year and more, we’ve already had the hounding of individuals and businesses that refuse to go wild for gay marriage. Indeed, pre-Eich the US National Review published an article appositely headlined ‘Support gay marriage – or else’, which discussed the growing number of cases in which private businesses that refuse to cater to or work at gay weddings – that is, which exercise their freedom of association – are being threatened with punishment under hate-crime legislation. As the National Review said, ‘refusal [to celebrate gay marriage] is now considered tantamount to a crime’. Eich’s treatment only made more explicit this creeping criminalisation of opponents of gay marriage. In Britain, too, one of the first things secularist supporters of gay marriage did when it became clear that their new institution was going to come into being was to agitate against Catholic schools for failing to promote it. They accused Catholic schools of ‘politically indoctrinating’ their students by teaching them only about traditional marriage, and said such ‘encouragement to bigotry’ shouldn’t be allowed. It was another attempted assault on freedom of association, another indicator of an emerging censorious hostility to anyone who doesn’t embrace gay marriage. The mob punishment of Eich – and the stern warning it sent to other traditionalist-minded or religious folk in public life who might foolishly have been thinking of expressing their views on gay marriage – was just an extension of earlier moral assaults on any person or group that didn’t fully buy into the gospel of gay marriage.

Critics of gay marriage have for months faced ‘ostracism from public life’, as the columnist Damon Linker put it – in an article published pre-Eich. As Linker said, there is a morally coercive streak to the gay-marriage movement, which seems to desire not just tolerance of its ideas, but ‘psychological acceptance and positive affirmation’ of them by everyone. To this end, businesses run by individuals who are less than keen on gay marriage have found themselves boycotted against, protested against, demonised by Twittermobs. Individuals who have voted in favour of traditional marriage in referendums have been denounced as ‘hateful’, ‘brainwashed’, ‘knuckle-draggers’. American states that have failed to introduce gay marriage have had their tourism websites hacked and smothered in abusive commentary. The impact of all these shrill assaults on opponents of gay marriage, of this often media-led branding of critics of gay marriage as ‘phobic’ and irrational, has been to chill debate, to encourage one side in the discussion to shut the hell up or risk ‘ostracism from public life’. It was only a matter of time before this striking unwillingness to tolerate the existence of anyone who isn’t thrilled by gay marriage translated into the physical hounding-out of public life of an individual like Eich. The signs were there.

In some places, the mob pressure to silence one’s moral opposition to gay marriage has been backed by the armed wing of the state. In France, mass protests against the introduction of gay marriage have been met with the violence of the truncheon and even the copious deployment of tear gas. Parisians who have gathered in public while wearing pro-traditional marriage t-shirts – which feature a man, woman and child – have been cautioned by police for organising ‘unauthorised protests’. In the words of the Paris-based writer John Laughland, opponents of gay marriage are being treated as ‘ideological enemies’ by the French state, where ‘every effort [is made] to delegitimise those who protest [against] same-sex marriage’. The moral assault on Eich can hardly be considered special, or especially shocking, when it springs from a movement that has already physically assaulted its critics.

Elsewhere, there has been a strong strain of Orwellianism in the advance of gay marriage. States have been busy rewriting official documents to reflect their elevation of a new form of marriage to replace the old one. In France, Canada and elsewhere, words like husband and wife, even mother and father, are being replaced with what officials call more ‘gender-neutral’ – translation: utterly soulless – terms such as ‘partner’ or ‘parent’. Some campaigners claim this is merely a practical step to reflect a new reality, but as Orwell knew only too well, language itself can be used to shape reality. In gay marriage’s great rewriting and renaming of various communal identities that have been a core part of our societies for generations – from mother to wife to child – we can see the implicit diminishing of the value of a certain, more traditional way of life, with the old-style family unit itself being robbed of moral meaning and reduced to a business-like collection of partners and ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’. Here, too, there’s a coercive component, an attempted top-down refashioning of identities that emerged from within communities over a great period of time.

Anyone who over the past few years has paid attention to the moral delegitimation of critics of gay marriage, to the state attacks on anti-gay marriage protesters, to the social ostracism of those who favour traditional marriage, to the attempt to force religious schools to teach about gay marriage, and to the Orwellian airbrushing from history of the words and identities cleaved to by the already married, cannot have been surprised by what happened to Eich. His fate wasn’t the product of a handful of zealous campaigners going too far on Twitter – it was the end result of an intolerant culture, sometimes mob-like, sometimes state-enforced, that has been gaining ground for years, and which showed long before the elbowing aside of Eich that it was more than happy to ostracise, punish, criminalise and censor anyone who dared raise a peep of opposition to gay marriage. Coercion is built into gay marriage. They used to say love and marriage went together – in the gay-marriage movement, it’s authoritarianism and marriage that are bedfellows.

The question is: why? Why has the gay-marriage issue been such a shrill and intolerant affair? It isn’t because some campaigners are overly keen and a bit hotheaded; it’s because gay marriage is not actually a campaign to expand equality, far less freedom, but is better seen as the main mechanism through which modern society now challenges traditional cultural norms, through which society expresses its dislocation from, and its growing disdain for, the old-world values of family life, family sovereignty, long-term commitment, loyalty, and so on.

Gay marriage has emerged as the perfect means through which our post-traditional, relativistic elites can both subtly denigrate older values and also impose a set of whole new values, related to viewing traditional married life and family integrity as problematic, and therefore more individuated, changeable forms of human relationships as good. And because this is fundamentally about eradicating old moral values and enforcing new ones, it constantly verges on being coercive, expressing a hostility towards its opponents that tends to treat them, not simply as wrong or pesky, but as actual blocks, as ‘ideological enemies’, to the elite’s attempted enforcement of a new moral outlook.

One of the most striking developments in Western societies in recent years has been the sacralisation of homosexuality, the transformation of sexuality from a simple matter of who you have sex with into a set of values and behaviours. In a very short period of time, historically speaking, homosexuality has gone from being a crime to being possibly the most celebrated way of life in modern Western nations. Indeed, such has been the sacralisation of homosexuality, everywhere from popular culture to the political sphere, that the criminals are now those who criticise gay sex, not those who have it – as witnessed in such acts of authoritarianism as the imposing of a one-month prison sentence on a Swedish pastor who preached against homosexuality, the arrest of a preacher in Dundee for saying homosexuality was a sin, the banning of an advert in London that offended gays, the sending of American experts to Africa to preach about the virtues of homosexuality (in a similar way that Christian colonialists used to preach to Africans about the virtues of the Bible, including, er, anti-homosexual views), and so on. Gay-friendliness has become probably the key barometer of decency in the modern West; and those who fail the test can expect censorship or some other form of punishment.

There are various reasons for this move from decriminalising homosexuality, which was a very good thing, to the sanctification of homosexuality, which is just weird. But the main one is that over the past two decades, the gay issue has evolved as the perfect way for the new elites to distance themselves from values that have fallen out of their favour. We have seen the weaponisation of homosexuality, the transformation of it by sections of the political and media classes into the focal point for the expression of hostility to the straight world – which means not just people who are sexually straight, but also so-called straight culture and straight values, straightlacedness itself, ways of life that are based on commitment, privacy, familial sovereignty, things that tend to be viewed by the modern cultural clerisy as outdated or, worse, dangerous and destructive. The sacralisation of homosexuality corresponds precisely with the growing denigration by the state and others of the sphere of the family and the ideals of lifelong commitment, because celebrating gayness has become the main and most PC means through which traditional values might be dented and traditional identities called into question, even thrown open to heightened official scrutiny.

This is what explains both the peculiarly speedy and strikingly authoritarian way in which gay marriage has been adopted by governments across the West who otherwise care little for freedom and choice – because officials recognise in it the opportunity to push further their instinctive hostility towards traditional communal and familial ideals that to a large extent exist outside of the purview of the state. Understanding the impulse behind Western officialdom’s feverish adoption of gay marriage is key to understanding what makes this new institution so illiberal and intolerant. Its great driving force is not any commitment to civil rights but rather an urge to coerce, a desire to reshape the views and ideals and habits of the public, to enforce a new morality that elevates individuation over family life, risk-awareness over commitment, and an openness to being guided through life by experts over loyalty to one’s family unit or community.

So when you criticise gay marriage, you’re not just criticising gay marriage, you’re challenging a new moral framework carved out by those who apparently know better than us what our private lives and relationships should and shouldn’t look like. You’re not just an opponent of gay marriage – you’re a moral heretic whose very thoughts and behaviour are seen as deviant, as running counter to a new, apparently better kind of morality. And that, as Eich’s treatment and everything else that preceded it has shown us, simply will not be tolerated.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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