Today marks another year of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Malcolm Turnbull will be the first Prime Minister to attend the Mardi Gras. Our Prime Minister will be smiling and waving at the very people he denies the basic right of marriage to. A right that he himself enjoys.
This blog post is about a question of tolerance and if the widely accepted norm of tolerating opposing views is regressive and harmful to our progress in this debate and if there should be any debate at all. To argue to maintain tolerance of the anti-marriage equality stance, we need to recognise that democratic societies are not pure and that there is an imbalance of power in debates for progress. I will discuss this further in this piece.
In an earlier blog post “The biggest consequence of marriage equality” I said this:
Tanya Plibersek believes that the vote should be binding within the Labor Party. As a member of the Labor Party; I fully support this. I support this for the reason that it is discrimination. I listened to Anthony Albanese (Albo) on ABC Qanda on 1 June and he indicated in his response we need to tolerate and respect the views of others to bring them along with us. I question whether this is a necessary patience or a subconscious accommodation for the class of people who understand discrimination well enough in other contexts; but not when it involves stamping out discrimination for something they fear. The same class of people who use religion and/or prejudice as a shield to ward off progress. As a progressive, I do not feel I need to respect groups or individuals who actively fight against progress and who uphold discrimination.
To me, asking me to respect people’s opinions against marriage equality, is like asking me to respect people who are for racism, ableism, and sexism. I don’t respect that. It is not a question of conscience. It is a question of enabling discrimination.
I look forward to a world where I am not asked or expected to respect people who actively uphold discrimination and who stifle progress.
This, of course triggered much debate about freedom of speech and also if I considered myself a bigot. A person intolerant of other points of view. These were confronting yet important questions. This led to much soul searching and subsequent researching and this has led me to Marcuse’s work on repressive and discriminate tolerance. Marcuse is a post-Marxist philosopher, socialist and political theorist.
Repressive and Discriminate Tolerance
Repressive tolerance argues freedom of speech as underpinned by the constructs of (small l) liberalism exists to share ideas and have those ideas respected unless those ideas cause harm. Marcuse believed that even in the 1960’s that the tolerance of ideas that were harmful to society encouraged a repressive society rather than enable a progressive one.
Discriminate tolerance is framing and setting aside the ideas that should not be tolerated in a debate towards progress. We already do this as a society. We do not have complete indiscriminate tolerance, as those ideas will harm society. Our national security legislation is one example. Another example is Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act which makes hate speech unlawful.
Those who sit on the right wing and the extreme right, the Conservative-Liberals and the Libertarians argue for complete indiscriminate tolerance. They argue that unless they can be completely indiscriminate, this impedes their freedom of speech, even if that speech is harmful.
Marcuse does not argue for complete indiscriminate tolerance, but discriminate tolerance where we tolerate ideas unless they are harmful. The harmful ideas should be framed and set aside. His argument is that unless this is done, we are tolerating for the sake of being tolerant and impeding progress of the Left.
Marcuse argues that indiscriminate tolerance is indeed beneficial in many forms of debate, however “But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.”
So what of Truth?
In a democratic society, democracy is not pure. Debate exists within an unequal framework. The institutions of Government and the media as two examples, have privilege and power to define what is ‘normal’ for the majority and what is not. These entities have the power to stigmatise groups of people and spoil normal identity (see Erving Goffman). They have the power to place minority groups in the place of ‘weird and unacceptable.’
This imbalance of power in our democratic society frames truth in a frame that there is only one rational and objective truth. However, there is strong argument supported by the theory of relativism, constructivism and phenomenology as examples, that there are multiple truths and multiple realities.
The inclusion of the opposing view in the framework of this debate shrinks the space around the voices of the people who are the centre of this debate. As the voices of anti-marriage equality are given more space in the media and enabled by the laws of Government the opposing voices are enabled to take up more space, allowing less consideration for the lived experience of LGBTI people and their arguments for the right to marry.
Indiscriminate Tolerance and Harm
When we tolerate the words and actions of the anti-marriage equality voices, we also enable harm. A clear and recent example of this was on Qanda on Monday 29 February, where Lyle Shelton (Australian Christian Lobby) was putting forth his opinion that the children of same-sex couples are a stolen generation. Dr. Karen Phelps (Former President of the Australian Medical Association and prominent LGBTI commentator) retorted to Lyle Shelton “You know I am sitting right here?” His words were clearly offensive and hurtful.
The observable phenomena of LGBTI couples that they consistently reinforce to society the longevity of their relationships during debate; appears to me from the outside looking in, that they feel the need to justify or qualify their relationships in a way that heterosexual couples do not. This is an indication to me that this group is treated as a ‘lesser’ group in society in terms of relationship rights.
The toleration of the actions of anti-marriage equality protesters, the narrative, the physical symbols of anti-LGBTI propaganda, their fight for exclusion, even marriage equality marches are reminders that there is no equality and that LGBTI people are seen as ‘others’ in a world of ‘normals’ by a significant and influential group which the institutions, Government and media give space to in the debate. The inequality these institutions create for minorities is that they are powerful influencers of distributors of information, swayers of opinion and the makers of laws of the framework we must work within.
Should we discriminate?
The question of “Should we use discriminate tolerance” can by understood by identifying the multiple truths in the debate. The decision of discriminate tolerance would negate the need for a plebiscite.
The major identified truth that I have personally observed for the Pro-Marriage Equality side is that they suffer from legal discrimination and this needs to be redressed. The exclusion of the right to marry has harmful consequences to individuals, and as a group within society. If objective reality is applied to this truth, the practicalities for this is that this can be determined through logical, rational and empirical evidence. This is indeed an objective and rational truth and these individuals do suffer from legal discrimination and do suffer harm.
The wider consideration of harm to society is this: The denial of the right to marry enables critical information to be excluded from considered arguments for societies progression. For example, there is limited data (qualitative and quantitative) on single parents who have exited a same-sex relationship. The rational objective truth is that when Government is developing a policy to ensure that laws exist to ensure a fair and just life for single parents, if LGBTI single parents are excluded from the data considered, then decisions are made with the active exclusion of one group of single parents. This is harmful as it does not enable an inclusive, progressive society.
The major reality or truth that I have identified for the anti-marriage equality side is mainly identified as insular, as in how marriage equality will change the meaning of their marriage.” If the objective reality is applied to this truth, the practicalities for this is that marriage equality does not change anyone else’s marriage.
When the words of those tolerated are transferred to deed (what Marcuse argues is where harm occurs) we have inequality for a significant proportion of people in our society. We remain servants to discriminating legislation which causes harm to those affected and also to those who witness this harm as parents, friends and allies. We enable discrimination.
The much uglier reality or truth that I have identified for the anti-marriage equality side, is that LGBTI people are perverse or deviant, that marriage equality will harm children and other abhorrent arguments linking marriage equality to paedophilia and bestiality. If the objective reality is applied to this truth, the practicalities for this is that LGBTI people are not perverse or deviant and are indeed born as LGBTI people and this is as natural as being born a heterosexual. There are significant studies and empirical evidence that marriage equality has no links to paedophilia or bestiality.
When the words of those tolerated are transferred to deed through protests, visual signs, symbols, movements, vocal commentary on prominent TV Shows on the National Broadcaster and also as from the lawmakers themselves – the members of Government, these words and accusations create the stigmatisation of one group of people. This stigmatisation can have the most harmful of consequences including suicide. Through this tolerance, we enable harm.
What of progressive Government? It is time to get serious.
The overarching question is should the Government use discriminate tolerance to redress the discrimination caused by the current Marriage Act? A tolerant, intelligent, critical thinking and progressive Government would do so. They would not tolerate a public plebiscite, they would analyse the legal framework and vote on redressing discrimination, regardless of conscience. They would bind their party to this vote.
In the framework of an unequal democracy, the imbalance of privilege and power and indiscriminate tolerance, minorities are expected to fight harder, to be louder, to be more aggressive to overpower the dominance of the oppressive voices. This is seen consistently where workers have had to fight for the rights of workers, women have had to fight for the rights of women and where people of colour have had to fight for the rights of people of colour. These fights continue to this day within this same framework of inequality of voice, privilege and power.
A Government already has the power to work with the aggrieved group to measure the harm of the existing law or societal norm and use their power to redress that discrimination and to enable equal rights.
A Government which thinks deeply and critically and considers their privilege and power, the privilege and power of the media, the privilege and power of the free market economic system and how this shapes the opinion of dissenters; can place this debate in a framework to use discriminate tolerance and apply the rational outcome of redress.
A Government which thinks deeply and critically about the individuals within this framework and extends care to all people in that framework who are harmed can use their power to provide leadership to change laws which will underpin and enable the necessary societal change and mitigate or eradicate stigma.
If discriminate tolerance was enforced to frame and set aside repressive ideas and people who have stigmatised LGBTI people as others from the beginning of time, then LGBTI people would have been developed in society’s view as non-stigmatised ‘normals.’
The Marriage Act would have been developed as inclusive of heterosexual and same-sex relationships from the beginning of time. Any attempt to change this, such as in 2004 by the Liberal Party would not have been tolerated by society and this change to exclude LGBTI people from the right to marry would have been viewed as an abnormal and perverse view.
Am I a bigot? No. I am a leftist thinker who uses discriminate tolerance where thoughts words and actions cause harm. I encourage our next Prime Minister Bill Shorten to do the same and support Tanya Plibersek and lead a binding vote for Marriage Equality.