Libresco: When debates go sour

While checking Facebook during the Yale Political Union debate between Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry, and Maggie Gallagher, a leader from the National Organization for Marriage, I was pleased to see a steady stream of debate-related statuses. As the night went on, the tenor of the statuses from my mostly liberal friends began to shift. The people who referred to Ms. Gallagher as evil earlier in the night ended up with “I think I enjoyed talking to [Gallagher] … What’s wrong with us?”

Ms. Gallagher was disorienting because, after seeing the damage her organization does to gay rights, it is hard for most people on the left to understand how she could devote her life to this cause without being profoundly homophobic. The National Organization for Marriage certainly benefits from homophobia — and doesn’t go out of its way to discourage its more extreme members. But after Wednesday’s debate, I can’t believe Ms. Gallagher is malevolent, though she is wrong. And, if you want to be engaged in politics, the distinction is important.

It’s easy for social liberals to assume that the other side acts either from ignorance or closemindedness. In the case of LGBTQ rights, last week’s spate of gay suicides demonstrate the consequences of intolerance and bigotry. The trouble isn’t that the other side can’t acknowledge that these deaths are awful. It’s that they shallowly posit

a different set of morals that calculate loss and tragedy differently.

When one speaker at the debate said that it was not unreasonable to ask gays to refrain from sexual relations for their whole lives, the Left erupted in a storm of hisses. Most liberals see a healthy, loving sexual relationship as a common goal that no one should be excluded from. The speaker, a Christian, would prefer to exclude gays, unmarried straights, and people in religious orders from what she regards as a lesser good in order to point them towards a higher one.

As long as both sides hold up different moral standards, both sides can honestly say that they honestly are trying to do good, even as they argue for diametrically opposed policies. Keeping this intention in mind, I can respect Ms. Gallagher. Yet, I don’t know how to debate her in a democracy.

Ultimately, when I engage with people like Maggie Gallagher in the political sphere, there’s little point in debating. I’m better off trying to arrange a demographic shift so I’ll be able to outvote her in a decade. I do more good by supporting the efforts of National Coming Out Day than in trying to debunk all the claims of the National Organization for Marriage. After all, if you know someone queer, you are far more likely to support for gay rights.

If I have to engage Ms. Gallagher her supporters in a public forum, I’m not going to be trying to convert her on the spot. My real goal is to discredit her in front of people who don’t yet have strong opinions about these values. Anecdotal evidence trumps philosophy as both sides try to pile up more evidence, hoping to prove that the other side’s views are profoundly harmful. Ad hominem attacks are used to signal that an opponent is not a reliable moral guide.

There are plenty of political disagreements that come down to ethical differences, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that, as we enter the last month before the midterm elections, we will hear a lot of character attacks. Political strategists can’t demonstrate the superiority of a different metaphysics of morals in a 30-second ad spot any more than I can in a four-minute speech. The most we can hope for is to discomfort our audience by pointing out a difficult consequence of our opponent’s position.

It’s a pretty good strategy for quick debates, but it has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing trust in both sides. In this election cycle, Democrats have an easy out, since the Republicans don’t appear to actually support their own talking point. In the long-term, the stereotype of political leaders as amoral operators may be the cost of a pluralistic society.