Sunday, October 1, 2017

Gay marriage: ‘We should not even be having this debate!’

The argument that political debate on gay marriage is harmful, and should therefore be avoided or at least minimized, has been voiced by a number of those on the YES side, including at the very highest levels of government, and it remains an ongoing feature of the popular public discussion.
These arguments were initially made in the particular context of the conservative side of politics aiming to undertake a plebiscite on gay marriage. And in that context it was true both that the plebiscite was not legally necessary, and that it was a process that was bound to increase the visibility and heat of any ensuing debate. (As it unquestionably has, with ample vitriol, if not violence, on both sides.)

But many of the statements made on this matter – both at the time and since – have a quite general application, in the sense of bringing into question whether it is wrong for us to be having a dedicated public debate about this issue at all. For example, such arguments would apply to making an election issue out of the topic.

No doubt there are cases when the harmfulness of political speech does indeed provide strong reasons for shutting down debate on a topic. Hate speech constraints are a well-known example, and history furnishes no shortage of links between vicious racist speech and ensuing ethnic violence.
Yet any arguments for avoiding public debate on an issue must consider the moral costs of such a policy. In my view, there are deep ethical concerns with the argument that, on the basis of concerns with potential harms, we should avoid having a political debate about issues like gay marriage.

Let’s get clear about the principle at work here
Most often when this assertion is made, it is unclear what the deeper principle is that underlies its specific application in this case. In other words, if the argument against popular political discussion works in this case, then there must be other cases where it will also work, because there is some underlying principle that tells us when and how popular political discussion should be rightly avoided.

My attempt to give a sympathetic account of the underlying principle is as follows:
In cases where experts agree that popular discussion of a particular political issue will be damaging to a particular class of vulnerable people, we have a strong reason to avoid that debate.
Now I need to stress that this is just my attempt to portray the general principle. A YES proponent might actually have something subtler in mind. But this principle will give us something to start with, and may help us devise an improved one in due course.

Some questions. Actually, lots of questions.
If something like the above principle is meant to justify calls to avoid debate, then an array of serious moral questions arise.

Question 1: How strong is this ‘strong reason’?
It’s pretty straightforward that the above considerations do create at least some reason to avoid a public debate, in the sense of not starting one unnecessarily. If there is widespread support for a policy across all major parties, or if a government that announced the policy as part of their election promises, and then was voted into power with a sufficient majority to legislate that policy, then it makes no sense to start up a debate that would carry serious costs, and with little benefit. The legislation should just be completed in a quick and expeditious matter.

But it is very different to say the reasons are strong enough to actively discourage a public debate that is already occurring – or to say that we should avoid discussion on an issue where there are large-scale (and passionately held) divisions across the voting population, for example, in a case where polls indicate that about a third of the population disagrees with the majority opinion.
Question 2: Who are the experts on whether harms will occur?

The principle above, if it were to be rigorously followed, would place an awfully large amount of political power in the hands of the ‘experts’ who make judgments about the harms involved. After all, they will be effectively empowered to decide which issues are to be quarantined from normal democratic deliberation.

Presumably these experts will be professionals (like psychologists or psychiatrists), or academics with the relevant specialities. Naturally, most of what these experts say would be accurate and evidence-based. But universities and professions are subject to the same frailties (moral and cognitive) as every human institution – especially once that institution is granted political power. I do not think one needs to be excessively cynical about human behaviour to think that there are serious worries with this arrangement. Whether or not power corrupts, there can be little doubt that it attracts the corrupt.

Question 3: Who are the experts who decide who will count as vulnerable?

The same concerns will arise for the question of who gets to count as vulnerable – and who gets to make that assessment. But the situation here is worse than with the prior question. In this case, the questions are less about strict sciences like psychology, and more about evaluations about the moral significance of different sorts of vulnerability. Apart from some really obvious cases, this is something that different political philosophies are bound to see differently. (Consider: do all vulnerabilities count? What if it turns out that some white supremacists are extremely defensive and emotionally vulnerable? Should we care? Or not?)

Furthermore, some philosophies may even wonder why we should focus on vulnerable people at all. Maybe all speech that can have significant harms should be discouraged and avoided – even if those harms would befall people who are not otherwise considered vulnerable, such as people who agree with the majority position on an issue. But making this modification to the above principle would greatly expand its application, placing even more power in the hands of experts.

Question 4: Is this a special case?
Perhaps it might be responded that it is okay to avoid debate in the special cases where the issue is a morally straightforward one, about which no reasonable person can really have any qualms or questions. But as I am hoping to show with this blog series, on the issue of gay marriage, there are certainly concerns that a reasonable person may at least want to raise, and get considered on the merits. Now I think that considering these arguments on the merits gives us very powerful reasons to legislate in favour of gay marriage. But that is a claim about the end results of a critical discussion. It is very different from the claim that we do not even need a critical discussion.

Perhaps instead it might be objected that we do not need public discussion in the special cases when the issue is really just a question of equality before the law, and of fundamental human rights. But there may in fact be arguments – such as the ones I have already made this blog series – that (at least initially) challenge whether the issue really is one of equality and fundamental rights. Shutting down the debate on these issues will shut down any possibility of debate on whether this is an issue on which we should in fact be shutting down debate. In other words, following this debate-avoiding principle on an issue also shuts down the meta-debate about whether this is an issue that should be subject to the principle.
Moreover, even if the issue is unquestionably about fundamental rights and equalities, that doesn’t necessarily tell us whether other important rights and freedoms are implicated in the policy change, and how these should be managed, and what compromises might need to be implemented. Again, we would need public debate to think through, and sort out, these issues.

Question 5: Why aren’t other things done to avoid the potential harms?
Suppose it was beyond dispute that an aggressive, divisive political dispute on a given issue would create substantial harms on vulnerable people. It may also be true that this result could be avoided by paying attention to other parts of the social context and political situation. For example, if one wanted to improve the tone of political discussion in order to bring down the level of divisive heat and anger, then political parties and activist groups could make either bilateral or even unilateral commitments to improve their own behaviour in such discussions. They could try to live up – with self-restraint, discipline and dignity – to a code of conduct that eschews any use of language the other side might find derogatory, and that tries to listen and respond carefully to other’s viewpoints. Events could be organized with like-minded discussants from the other side of the debate, where polite, reasonable and adult discussion could be exemplified. 

No doubt this sounds fanciful, and it is probably impossible to imagine parliamentary question time in Australia without our political leaders booing and hooting at each other like unruly children. But the underlying point remains true. A whole array of social behaviours and practices lead to any given social outcome. To say that A leads to B may be true. But it may also be true that A only leads to B in the context of background social conditions X, Y and Z. And it may be that if we really cared about B, and thought that B was an outcome of over-riding importance that we needed to avoid, then we should be bringing X, Y and Z into the discussion as well. (If that means we have to impose kindergarten-level codes of conduct on our political leaders when they engage in formal debate, then so be it, I say.)

Question 6: How are decisions to be made if they are not to be publicly discussed?
This is perhaps the most significant query. Once the experts have had their say about what counts as a harm, and what counts as a vulnerable person, and everyone has agreed that having a discussion would be too costly (or maybe this judgment is also made by the experts?), how on earth is the actual decision to be made? It cannot be to simply make no decision, and to leave things as they are, because, a) leaving things as they are itself constitutes making a decision, and, b) the entire point of the YES argument in this context is to change the existing law.

Perhaps the idea is that the decision-making will still occur by the parliament or the reigning political party, but without any significant public discussion. But I struggle to believe that anyone would accept this line of argument unless they knew they already had the numbers at the time they voiced it. It is also perplexing why we should solve the issue by appeal to elected leaders, given that a key part of the justification for respecting democracy is – at minimum – that the voters have been sufficiently informed about the leaders’ political views on the relevant issues. More thoroughgoing justifications for democracy can even include appeals to public deliberation itself – exactly the property that the above principle aims to shut down.

The key point here is that the arguments for shutting down public discussion look – on their face at least – to be profoundly undemocratic, and therefore to have serious implications in terms of procedural justice, public accountability, the legitimacy of law, and the human rights of communities to political participation and self-determination.

To be sure, the above arguments are not definitive, and it may be that a principle can be fashioned that avoids these moral concerns, and that shows that decision-making on the gay marriage issue (and other similar issues) should be protected from popular political discussion. But I submit that this argument has not been made. Until it is, I think it is premature to assert that this is a discussion we should not even be having.

(This post is one in a series, looking at the arguments in the gay marriage debate.)

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