November 5, 2008

Gay marriage, plebiscites, and the tyranny of the masses

Gay marriage was struck down in three states yesterday: California, Florida and Arizona.

I'm going to keep this short and sweet: the issue of gay marriage should have never been put to a plebiscite.

Democratic governments should work to protect the rights of minorities not by querying the collective (who at the individual level tend to be ignorant of the intricacies of social justice, law and fairness -- not to mention their often prejudicial and reactive nature), but by having accountable institutions (like the Senate) recognize and enshrine civil rights and freedoms within the constitution or a bill of rights.

Otherwise, governments are enabling the majority to lord it over those who need to be protected from exactly that: the masses.


Stu said...

Here here.

Michael Anissimov said...

How is this different than saying "I believe in democracy for circumstance X, but not circumstance Y"? Democracy is not a perfect system, but appears to be the best we have, and whatever bitterness inherent in the pill needs to be tolerated. The only alternative is some form of authoritarianism. It has a tendency to be self-reinforcing. Once you introduce it somewhere, it's more likely to pop up somewhere else.

If people really aren't ready to accept gay marriage, why force them? To the extent it isn't a purely semantic choice, civil unions can be made legally equivalent to marriage, and to the extent that it is, it's a matter of waiting for culture to grow up (which polls suggest it is). An inherent part of democracy is a certain tyranny of the masses. If you don't like it, there's only "benevolent authoritarianism" and not much else.

George said...

Hey Michael, good to hear from you; hope all's well.

My position is essentially this: democracies are more than the mere expression of the collective will and majority opinion -- it's also about due process, accountability and sound jurisprudence. For me, constitutional democracies are more powerful and reflective of democractic ideals.

Moreover, democracies are inherently limited by the generalist composition of the populace; more than ever we are dependent upon experts. At best, our function as voters is to ensure that we have effective and accountable leadership and institutions.

I also recognize that democracies, as you note, are inherently limited and that we need to accept a certain amount of 'tyranny.' The challenge, then, is to minimize this effect. That's why I have no problem deferring certain issues to the courts or other institutions.

I think it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that it's a kind of authoritarianism to do this. Again, if we elected the people who are a part of these institutions we can assume that they are working in the best interests of the collective and its most vulnerable members.

I also don't think that a policy shouldn't be put into place just because the majority isn't ready to accept it. An issue like gay marriage is a constitutional one that should be settled in the courts. This isn't something that has to wait for cultural normalization.

Mark Plus said...

I suspect terror management accounts for the democratic rejection of "gay marriage." America's deteriorating economy brings up mortality salience, which makes people re-emphasize traditional values to shore up their anxiety buffers. These ballot initiatives might have passed in a better economy, when people tend to feel more benevolent towards their neighbors.

BTW, normally a black politician running for president wouldn't stand a chance in the U.S. But the Republicans' mismanagement of financial markets and Obama's calm and confident demeanor worked together to make him an anxiety-reducing alternative to the fidgety older white guy.

Aric said...

I agree there needs to be balance. This certainly could fall under the court's jurisdiction, but if the courts make too many decisions against the majority two things could happen:
1. People loose faith in the courts, democracy, and/or the constitution.
2. People battle over judicial appointments. We see this all the time as the religious right often places supreme court appointments as the #1 issue.

To me the protection of individuals and minorities is at least as important as the democracy stuff. Democracy is more of a means to an end, while fair and correct laws and enforcement of those laws is the goal. Though there is also a participation/empowerment component to democracy which also an ends, not just a means.

The religious right is on it's way out. They won't go quietly or quickly, and they could cause a lot of trouble on the way, but their numbers are shrinking and their members less focused on only a few issues. So while I'm with the gays on this one, I think we can afford to be a little more patient. Adoptions are a right worth fighting for now, but the marriage issue just isn't a life-changing matter. The time will come, it's just a matter of when. Let's not arouse religious anger any more than we have to; it could have some nasty consequences for the country. Also, many Christian and traditional types are feeling assaulted culturally, and some sensitivity and dialog may be a better way to relate to them.

Anonymous said...

Geez George, at least they GOT to vote :). I know we talked about this before last time I saw you. The Left parties in Canada were forcing their MPs to vote their way over the same-sex marriage bill. The London Liberal MP Pat O'Brien quit the party over it, as he was dead-set against it, and claimed that 90% of his constituency was against it too.

I get scared when I see people on the Left upset at the result of a democratic vote, and because they didn't like the result, they want to remove the right to vote and force it down people's throats anyway...

dharmicmel said...

the thing about gay marriages is that it is about living people, alive right now, who want to have something; it is easy enough to talk philosophically, or be glib about how in the future, things will be better, either through the courts or a change in society-- a society dominated by unthinking and unfeeling masses

meanwhile, life goes on; I do not know how this is going to be resolved, or what to say to people who genuinely feel as though they are always on the outside looking in, and who feel they are disenfranchised

there are too many comments from comfortable intellectuals here, looking from the outside in, on something that they probably don't really feel in their gut; why should they?; they're not being oppressed or denied; in a way it reminds me of what david brin said about environmentalists, to the effect that an environmentalist was someone with a full stomach

suppose we apply the same thinking to the black experience in this country?; do you actually think we would be where are right now if people did not refuse to go with the flow?; this is not an abstract discussion about X and Y; it’s about real people, about flesh and blood; we can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, and I would think that transhumanists, or those with strong transhumanist persuasions would know that; I am an enthusiastic supporter of transhumanism, but I'll be happier with transhumanists when they show more blood in their feelings, because they are not yet at the promised land; they are talking rationality and beaming over glowing promises of a transhumanist future way too much, and are getting way ahead of themselves about a future that is shaping up to be anything that even comes close to reflecting the vow of the bodhissatva; you don’t want to loose your humanity -- that is your caring and compassion -- on the road to overcoming your baseline experience as a human

I am in support of gay-marriage because I think that gays are like everyone else: they are human beings who have wants, needs, and desires like the rest of us, they are American citizens and should not in any way be disenfranchised, and they have waited long enough for the rest of society, including the courts, intellectuals, and masses, to acknowledge what is right and do something about it

meanwhile, gay marriage has been put out to dry; the setbacks for human rights and human dignity are appalling; the plebiscite does not have the right to do what they have done, as all they are really doing is extending the tyranny of the masses; it is deplorable to treat other human beings the way gays are treated

Justin said...

The "tyranny of the masses" meme implies that rule by a minority is any less tyrannical.

I'd rather have an actual vote on the real isssues than be misrepresented by a candidate I never supported. Lumping all the issues into Suit #1 and Suit #2 is not democracy, and the people who acquire power certainly aren't the incorruptible philosopher-kings you make them out to be.

Aric said...

Yes, it's about people alive now, but what is the issue about? I see two parts (please educate me if there's more):
1. Legal benefits of a spouse, like health care and tax breaks.
2. Recognition of their lifestyle.

This is certainly the next step along the journey toward equality, but it doesn't compare to the struggles that came before. Gays are not slaves, they can vote, they do not have to give up their seats on buses to straight people, we don't have separate gay drinking fountains, separate gay schools, or anti-gay groups lynching with impunity. Also, the trend of public opinion is certainly in the direction of equal recognition. For these two reasons I don't see it as that big of an issue. Yes, I have the luxury of not being personally involved. There are many such issues, and if I'm going to choose one to fight for it's not going to be gay marriage, but something like war.

I think both sides have lost perspective on this issue. No matter what's happening in the economy, or what wars we're fighting, putting a gay marriage proposition actually BRINGS MORE PEOPLE OUT TO VOTE. There are MANY religious people who absolutely will not vote for a liberal candidate, no matter how much they agree with him on other issues and how much they hate the Republican candidate, because of supreme court appointments (though this is more about abortion, gay rights is also a factor).

I think it better for the country if gay activists would direct more of their efforts towards getting the other side to change their ideas voluntarily than trying to fight this in the courts right now.

As this 'intellectual' suggests:

Nato said...

I basically agree with Michael in that we have to have a democratic process for identifying and reifying rights, because there's no other way of identifying them. Yes, it's obscene that we were voting on other peoples' love and commitment, and appalling that so many humans lack sufficient empathy to perceive the obscenity of voting to deny their fellow humans the rights that naturally (to our way of thinking) flow from that love and commitment. I donated and volunteered on the No on 8 campaign. But ultimately we have to convince our fellow humans to recognize the flaw in their empathy.

That said, if we see same-sex families amongst us, we immediately begin to intuitively understand that there's no real difference, and the democratic process becomes much easier. If prop 8 had been defeated, it would rapidly have become beyond the power of the remaining bigots to fool people. Even as things stand, people's minds are slowly changing, and the rights will come eventually, and then be as incontrovertible as universal suffrage has become.

Aric said...

nato, thanks for saying what I tried to say.

dharmicmel said...

it is true that gays are not slaves, but then again, I wasn't referring to slavery
every day, gays are discriminated against and denigrated just for being gay; they are openly laughed at, both to their faces and behind their backs; gays are beaten up just because they are gay; they are thought of by some as being an affront to humans and to God; and, in many places in this conservative country, if two gay dudes walk down the street holding hands, they are asking for trouble
how would you like it if you were offered a hetrosexual therapy, in contrast to what gays are offered, i.e., a supposed therapy to cure them of "affliction" and make of them good, God-fearing heterosexual citizens of those who are determined to protect and take care of us, even if we don't want them to?