|Salt Lake Daddies|
On the other hand, there are times when your gut tells you that hate speech should be punished. If a vulnerable person is standing on a balcony threatening to throw themself off and you say, “Go ahead. The world would be better off without you,” and they kill themselves, I’m not going to come to your defense if you get arrested. I’ll turn the key on your cell myself and bury it where nobody can find it.
So this is why we need judges. We need people to tell us where the line is between free speech and hate speech.
The key factor, it seems to me, should be the power factor. If you’re a public figure, somebody running for office or somebody actually in office, and you’re called a twit, well tough titties. Comes with the territory. If you’re a Muslim minority wearing a headscarf and I don’t like religion in general, I should be allowed to say I don’t like religion, and maybe Islam most of all, even, but I should not be allowed to advocate action that would hurt you. I should be required, even if I think your choice of a head covering furthers the subordination of women, to distinguish between general principles and your right to express yourself, even if we can’t agree on the symbolism, maybe especially if we can’t agree on what the symbolism actually is. I say you’re insulting women; you say you’re honoring God. You should be given the benefit of doubt here until or unless it becomes clear one of us is insincere and wrong.
I would expect principled advocates of civil rights to err on the side of free speech. I don’t want to live in a world where everybody has to worry before opening their mouths that they might end up in jail for expressing an opinion. And I think the Constitution is on our side here. Free speech is a basic right. If you are a strict Kantian, who puts principled behavior above all else, damn the torpedoes, this will be where you come down. You may want to cite the moral scale that Lawrence Kohlberg came up with where he attributed to the highest stage of moral development those willing to sacrifice self-interest for principle. We feel, instinctively, that there’s something noble about going down that path.
But let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose you’re a judge and you learn about a little boy who wants to be adopted. He finds a gay couple that wants to make a family with him, take him in and give him a permanent home. The kid is on pins and needles waiting for the adoption process to be completed. It’s Thanksgiving, and his teacher asks his class to express what they are thankful for. He says, “I’m grateful for my two daddies.”
The teacher says, “That’s wrong. You shouldn’t be grateful for two men wanting to adopt you. They are homosexuals and homosexuality is wrong.”
The kid is terrified. He doesn’t want to speak out against his teacher, but on the other hand, he knows in his heart that she’s taking a position that could, theoretically at least, persuade the men to give up on their plan. Or persuade a judge to take a stand against the adoption. Never mind that we’ve come a long way toward accepting LGBT people. These thoughts are taking place in the mind of a frightened child, remember.
Should this teacher be censored for expressing her religious view that homosexuality is wrong?
There are two ways to answer the question, one from a legal perspective, one from a moral perspective. And both evolve over time. My hope is they evolve in the direction established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That's not a given, of course. Just as we can live in a democracy for a while and that democracy can give way to fascism, if we're not watchful, we can grant someone rights and then take them away again. We can take a moral stand for a while and then tire. We may not have been born in sin the way the Abrahamic traditions want us to believe, but we are not naturally given to doing the right thing, either. It takes consciousness, and it takes effort.
OK, so I haven’t been straight with you. This is not actually a hypothetical. It’s real. It took place in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon Church, one of the central organs of official homophobia in America. This teacher is expressing not only her personal views; she’s reflecting her community’s moral standards. And before you get all fired up by my suggesting that homophobia can be moral, remember that morality is not a static concept. If you are a Nazi and you believe Jews and homosexuals and the mentally ill pollute the master race, then the moral thing to do is get rid of these people. This teacher, in her own mind, is acting with moral certainty.
If that teacher wants to ask me what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, I’ll tell her I’m thankful that the good folk of Salt Lake City, Utah, have come to understand that same-sex desire and emotional attachment does not make one immoral, that that idea has to be tossed on the trash heap of history along with the notion that people of African ancestry should not be allowed to learn to read and women should only be allowed to have a credit card in their husband’s name. And, by the way, shame on you for scaring the bejeezus out of a child.
I’m thankful that we in this country - and that includes Utah - have come this far in embracing LGBT people. And I’m grateful for the two Salt Lake daddies who, I suspect, are going to make some kid very very happy.
Salt Lake Daddies photo (and story) credit