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.


  • silliwin01

    A more insight column would have discussed the wastefulness of the debate. A solution exists that placates both advocates and opponents, yet both sides are so dominated by their extreme elements (or polarized in such a manner) that they are unwilling to appropriately compromise. It’s sad, really, and a bit funny to an uninvested and jaded observer.

  • FailBoat

    > Yet, I don’t know how to debate her in a democracy.

    This is a weird sentence. In what form of government would you be able to debate Ms. Gallagher? Or is this one of those Tom Friedmanesque yearnings for authoritarianship?

  • RexMottram08

    Another Libresco column…another column talking about talking about talking.

    Allow me to speak for gay marriage opponents: Suicide is awful in every instance. The individual’s sexual behavior and political beliefs do not lessen or increase the awfulness. But an individual’s decision to end his or her life should not impact our national discourse on marriage.

    Libresco can try to disqualify Christians from the Public Square, but she does so at her own political peril.

  • Leah

    @Failboat: That line is my fault. I didn’t hit the deadline to get to see the edits that would be made to the article. That line was not in my original draft. I had something more like “I don’t know how to live with her in a democracy” since, as I went on to say, I don’t have a way to settle our dispute to the satisfaction of a voter.

    @Silliwin01: I don’t think the problem is that extremists from both groups are frustrating compromise. When the issue comes down to values, compromise is not satisfactory. What would an appropriate compromise be that partially discriminated against gay couple and only partially redefined and undermined marriage as Maggie understands it?

  • RexMottram08

    @Leah: Thank you for clarification. Democracy is messy. It’s got protestors and agitators and banners and manners and morals and and traditions and financial constraints and gossip and cultures.

  • silliwin01

    The only constitutional issue gay marriage advocates can have with the ban on gay marriage is the unequal treatment inherent in letting a certain subset of the populace enter into a civil union which confers them benefits while denying another subset solely based on the specious (and prejudiced) reason that their affections are directed at a member of the same sex. Meanwhile, most rational (read: not hardcore right wing evangelicals) people desiring to maintain the sanctity of marriage recognize the cultural significance and tradition surrounding a heterosexual union between a man and his loving wife (or fearing wife, should we be discussing the many trailer parks littering the South), and feel ascribing the same title to a homosexual union as they do a standard union would be an affront to an ingrained and not particularly offensive social norm. Because of the disparity between primary objection – one being legalistic, the other cultural – it is possible to placate both sides sufficiently to arrive at a solution vastly preferable to the prevailing system, namely by permitting unions between homosexual couples that provide identical benefits (such as taxes) by law, but aren’t referred to as marriages.

  • RexMottram08

    It is true that marriage is, in part, an emotional union, and it is also true that spouses often take care of each other and thereby reduce the caregiving burden on other people. But neither of these truths is the fundamental reason for marriage. The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions. (The government does not regulate non-marital friendships, no matter how intense they are.) If mutual caregiving were the purpose of marriage, there would be no reason to exclude adult incestuous unions from marriage. What the institution and policy of marriage aims to regulate is sex, not love or commitment. These days, marriage regulates sex (to the extent it does regulate it) in a wholly non-coercive manner, sex outside of marriage no longer being a crime.

  • silliwin01

    “The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions.” -> “cultural significance and tradition surrounding a heterosexual union between a man and his loving wife “

  • yalie13

    well written