“Well, it’s looks like 61% of the people in California disagree with you,” he said to me, this little turd I got into an argument with over gay marriage some time ago. He was referring to Prop. 22, that nasty little proposition which garnered 61% of the vote in 2000 and which makes it possible in California for us to say we don’t care if you are married in your country, you’re not married here.”
I can’t forget the smug look on his face. “There, Mr. Smarty Pants who thinks he knows everything,” it said. “Guess you’re wrong about this one!”
Well, no, I don’t think I was. This is another one of those dumbed-down ideas – that might (or at least majority opinion) makes right.
We forget just what an opinion is. An opinion is an idea that sometimes comes after considerable deliberation, and at other times seems to ride out on the wax out of your left ear. Opinions are like teeth. Sometimes they glisten. And sometimes they need to be yanked out.
And sometimes, to prevent yourself from being sidewindered by some smartass who thinks he’s got you by the cojones with his statistics, you’ve got to be able to dig around in those opinions and find the cavities.
This 61% figure, for example. (And I’m done with the triple body metaphors.)
It tends to be taken on face value. The arguments before the California Supreme Court by opponents of marriage equality for same-sex couples, for example, take the stance that 61% of the people can’t be wrong. Furthermore, we are told, Californians are in tune here with the majority of the American public, including all kinds of wise and wonderful people. Bill Clinton, for example. Hell, all three candidates running for president. The opinion is clear and steady. Gays may make civil unions or domestic partnerships in some places (but note the number of states where they can’t even do that), but marriage? No. We draw the line at marriage.
Now it’s no secret I am with those who argue this is a constitutional issue, and thus should be decided by the Supreme Court and not majority opinion, so arguing over numbers, actually, is a red herring to me.
But since I think it’s useful to keep the brain fresh by having a whack now and again at sloppy thinking, let’s – just to keep in practice – take a look at this “majority opinion” question here.
First off, note how the impact of this majority “opinion” changes if instead of looking at the raw bottom line figure you look at trends and at a breakdown of who the people are expressing those opinions.
For example, according to a Pew Forum report in 2006, while “Americans” continue to oppose marriage equality for gays by a 56 to 35% margin, these numbers break down in an interesting way. (1)
If you’re over 65, chances are 73% you oppose marriage equality, but
If you’re between 18 and 29, chances are 53% you favor it.
If you’re a white evangelical, you oppose it at a rate of 78%, but
If you’re a black protestant, that rate is less, at 74%, and
If you’re a non-religious American (or at least describe yourself as ‘secular’), you favor it at a rate of 63%.
Don’t miss that last bit. Non-religious people in 2006 favor extending the right to marry to same-sex couples at a slightly higher margin than the people of California as a whole voted to withhold recognition of out-of-state marriage in 2000.
Liberal democrats collectively are even more in favor than secular people collectively – 66%.
Now take this one step further. The “reason” religious people tend to give for their opposition to equal civil rights for gay people is that homosexuality is a choice, (and a bad one, of course) and not an immutable characteristic. This matters. If I am born with a natural inclination to want to team up for life with a person of the same sex, then assigning that partnership to a second class status, even a “separate-but-equal” status, is an injustice. If your “opinion” is that it is a choice, you can make decisions that hurt people, just as you can hurt kids in school if your “opinion” is that the world is only 4500 years old. The health of a majority-rule democracy depends on an informed public.
And there is more. We often set up religious people on one side and secular people on the other, as I just did, and the Pew polltakers just did. But what if they had gone beyond separating out white and black evangelicals, and correlated religion and education. Pew doesn’t do this (or, if they did, they didn’t publish the figures here), but I’ll wager the gap in the churches between the highly educated and the less well educated matches up with the figures of the public in general.
People who do science, and people who ground their opinions on evidence, overwhelmingly hold that homosexuality is not a choice. These people include the American Psychological Association and virtually every single professional psychological and social service organization in the country.(2) The opposition comes from those with their finger on the scripture (the part about homosexuality, of course, not the part about slavery and eating shellfish). The Catholic solution is for us to do as priests and nuns are supposed to do – tie a knot in it. The evangelical solution is to pray to Jesus to lift the sin. Both solutions strike the gay people who don’t buy this crap as on a par with removing the testicles with a plastic fork.
And don’t forget that while Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals oppose marriage equality in large numbers, 17 California religious organizations joined together to write an amicus brief in favor. (3) To use religion, in other words, as a crutch for your opinion against same-sex marriage, means nothing more than to listen to a more authoritarian religious organization and turn your back on less authoritarian (including evangelical) religious organizations.
When asked about whether they think homosexuality is “something people are born with.” here are the figures of those who said yes:
high school graduates: 26%
people with “some college”: 39%
college graduates: 51%
Another interesting figure is the change over time. A total of 20% said yes in 1985. In 2003, that figure had risen to 30%. And this is for the country as a whole. People on the coasts tend to express far more progressive views.
It’s worth repeating that these are opinions. They reflect beliefs, not facts. And human rights should not depend even on enlightened opinion; they should be grounded in reason, extended to all at the earliest opportunity and guaranteed by the highest law in the land.
Marriage for gay people is an idea advancing with stunning speed, astonishing to anybody like me who grew up in the dark ages when you could still hear “I thought people like that killed themselves.” I have debated this issue with gay people who are terrified of a backlash, who insist we need to go slow, give people time to get used to the idea. One of the amicus briefs against marriage equality is from a gay activist who makes the case that we put our civil rights at risk by assuming the time is here and now for full equality.(4) No, Mr. Martin Luther King, they say. Justice delayed is smart, sometimes.
Tactically, they may be right. The Supreme Court may go against us and we may be set back several years.
But I’m hoping they will not give in to “majority opinion” (if indeed that majority still holds these days.) And, if they do, I hope they will at least consider that maybe college graduates may know something high school graduates are missing.
Opinions. Let’s hear them.
And let’s use them as jumping off points for discussion. Not as the be-all and end-all of the rules we live by.
(2) http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/supreme/highprofile/ Click on: “Amici Curiae” and then on American Psychological Association et al. (Part 1) (Part 2)
(3) http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/supreme/highprofile/ Click on “Amici Curiae” and then on California Ethnic Religious Organization for Marriage
(4) http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/supreme/highprofile/ Click on “Amici Curiae” and then on “Traiman (Leland) et al.”