Gay Marriage, Majority Rule, and Minority Rights

19 01 2012

As the Washington state legislature mulls a bill that would legalise gay marriage, conservatives are crawling out of the woodwork to stop its passage or to punish Republicans who vote in favour of it by attempting to end their political careers. (The National Organisation of Marriage is trying to do this.) Some of these individuals and groups also want to put the decision up to a public vote. The argument they use to justify this kind of move is that majority opinion reigns supreme in a true democracy. I will argue here that majority opinion does not necessarily reign supreme in a true democracy, and I will show why this is so in four ways: democracy is not just defined as “majority rule”, but also as “equality”; the majority have no right to speak on issues which do not affect them; courts must adjudicate the law impartially; and legislators are not obliged to represent the views of their majority constituents on issues which do not affect their majority constituents.

I want to let you know that I am not telling you how the law actually works; I am simply telling you how it should work according to the principles of ethical reasoning.

With respect to the first point, the issue of gay marriage centres around the definition of democracy. Many conservatives will argue that gay marriage should be put up to a public vote because, in a democracy, the majority opinion rules. However, the definition of democracy does not begin and end with majority rule; it also involves the concept of equality. According to the Random House Dictionary, democracy has the following senses: government by the people, a state having such a form of government, a state of society characterised by formal equality of rights and privileges, political or social equality, and commoners as distinct from the privileged class. The definition of democracy encompasses the concepts of both self-representation and equality, so any gay marriage opponent who invokes democracy on the basis of the former, while ignoring the latter, is giving us a skewed, incomplete understanding of democracy. This hardly helps validate their opposition to gay marriage on democratic grounds.

This biased preoccupation with self-representation is closely linked to the notion of majority rule, which is consistently invoked by gay marriage opponents. Gay marriage opponents constantly argue that the quintessential democracy is defined by the reign of the majority opinion. But this is not necessarily so. A lot of issues should be decided by the majority, because those issues affect the majority, but not all issues do. If we treat democracy as “self-representation”, then the majority have the right to rule on issues which affect the majority, but they do not have the right to rule on issues which only affect the minority. Gay marriage only affects the minority, not the majority, therefore the majority have no right to rule on gay marriage. Thus, the conservative argument that the majority should rule on gay rights on the basis of “majority rule” is debunked.

Immediately gay marriage opponents will point out that this argument is not sound because, when a panel of judges rule on such an issue, a majority of votes still matters. It is true that a majority of votes matters when a court of law rules on gay marriage, but there is an important distinction to make: while the public vote on the basis of their personal prejudices, judges are obliged to adjudicate the law. While popular opinion is based on popular prejudice, legal opinion is based on interpretation of the law. It is not exactly fair to compare majority rule on the basis of personal prejudices with the majority rule of judges who are obliged impartially to fulfil the law. Therefore, it is invalid to compare majority rule through a public referendum with majority rule through a court of law, and, hence, it is invalid to say that judges should be doing the same thing as the public with regard to minority rights.

But, of course, gay marriage opponents will argue that judges are only adjudicating laws which are passed by elected representatives of the people. So, now the question is, whose interests do those elected representatives actually represent? Gay marriage opponents would argue that they represent the majority opinion of their constituency. This is not necessarily so. If we accept that the majority should rule only on issues which affect the majority, and not those which affect only the minority, then elected representatives are not obliged to represent the views of their majority constituents on issues which affect only the minority. Instead, they are obliged to defend minority interests. And whose majority vote determines that, you may ask? None, because the vote would be a unanimous decision based on reason, logic, and fairness. Reason, logic, and fairness are the ultimate arbiter, not popular opinion.

Of course, not all legislators are rational, hence not all laws they pass will be based on reason. This does not, however, mean that it is right that they pass the laws that they do. It only means that they fail to acknowledge reason. In some sense, the greatest intellectual burden lies on their shoulders.

In summary, I haven’t tried to create the perfect defense of gay marriage in modern-day democracies; I’ve merely tried to challenge how we alienate minorities using “majority rule” as an excuse, even when the majority have no justifiable interest in the lives of the minority. In principle, democracy should be about how we satisfy our personal interests, not how we control the lives of others. And when there is any question about how an issue affects us, it should be boiled down to whom it affects, and this is determined by reason.

That said, if you live in Washington state, and you live in one of the six constituencies led by undecided Washington state senators, I implore you to contact your senator and ask them to vote “yes” on the bill legalising gay marriage. We are just two senators’ votes away from marriage equality. Just two! It is good for gay people and for everybody else.

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A Young Feminist Decries the “Pink Stuff”

28 12 2011

A very serendipitous gift was bestowed on me on Christmas Day: a video of a little girl railing against gender stereotypes inside a toy store. I unwrapped a present, a book called Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs (given me by my wonderfully open and progressive mother), and showed everybody the book, announcing the title for all to hear and accepting family photographs of myself, of course, with the cherished tome in hand. Noting my interest in the topic of gender theory, my elder brother showed me the video, which featured a girl named Riley critiquing the use of colour-coded gender stereotypes in marketing. This girl must have an IQ of 140, or if she doesn’t, she will when she grows up. She is precocious:

I love her! She’s like Lisa Simpson, and Lisa Simpson is like me. Watch this clip of Lisa Simpson, when she was me in, like, 1985 when I was seven years old:

Riley is a real-life version of Lisa—and me! Just like me at her age, she doesn’t buy into the marketing bullshit, and she makes no effort to hide her disgust with the crass commercialization of sex roles. It’s like she’s saying, “this stupid pink shit is fucked up, and it makes me want to vomit!” But, of course, she is a five year-old girl, so she doesn’t say that. What struck me as amazing was her reasoning abilities. She was able to create this abstract symmetry between what girls like and what boys like: “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses; some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses”. This is pretty sophisticated thinking for a five-or-six year-old.

Most amazing of all, I think, was this little girl’s ability to cut like a laser through the smoke and mirrors of the marketing industry and exclaim that “the companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want”. So now little Riley has not only identified the unfairness of pressuring girls into buying princesses and pressuring boys into buying superheroes, but she has pinpointed the commercial mechanism which exploits these gender stereotypes to achieve a profit. I’m sorry, but that is a brilliant observation for a child so small.

It’s interesting to note the way in which the father relates to his daughter in this video. The father seems to insist that boys can have pink if they want, but the daughter seems to insist that, while this is technically so, girls are still pressured into wanting the pink princess crap while the boys are pressured into wanting the blue superhero crap. And, if we think about it, that’s true. Even if our children technically can buy cross-gender toys, they are very strongly admonished against doing so. There are social consequences to it, and little Riley is struggling in the midst of this gender fracas. At the same time, I commend Riley’s father for being a true father and taking the time to nurture his child by listening to her words, acknowledging her wisdom, and taking her to the toy store himself in the first place. Not many fathers would do even that much.

This reminds me of my childhood, which was raped away by the horrid spectre of a stepfather who hated women, black people, and gay people. Until 1986, when I turned 8, I was allowed to play with “girl stuff” as much as I wanted—both my parents were mild, good-natured, common-sensical people, if a bit religious and conservative—but once my mother divorced my father and married this odious troll from the American south, everything changed. She had to try to accommodate his stupid scruples, which included the immediate eviction of any gynaecoid play-thing. Suddenly, as boys, we weren’t allowed to play with anything that resembled women (or what women were thought to be). We were allowed to watch She-Ra: Princess of Power, but we were no longer allowed to play with the action figures themselves:

I thought that She-Ra was hot! And by hot I don’t mean sexually exploitable; I mean sexually confident. This woman was a sexual agent. She was in control, and for that reason she was admirable. But for some stupid reason, my stepfather hated the idea of his stepsons watching cartoons of women dodging lasers and throwing men over their shoulders. He hated the idea of boys liking “girl things”, and, on top of that, the idea that those “girl things” involved girls who wielded power. But every faggot loves that shit. It was all just too much of a mindfuck for his dessicated brain to handle. This is the type of gender-stupidity that I think little Riley is railing against in her father’s video.

Little Riley is an inspiration. She gives us a lesson. She is a tiny girl who helps us remember how both girls and boys can be hurt by rigid gender roles. Parents should not tell their daughters that they should like only princesses and pink stuff, and they should not tell their sons that they should like only superheroes and blue stuff. Because, even at an age as young as Riley’s, the stupidity and oppressiveness of these roles are apparent. And if you want to play the biological determinist card, I entreat you to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine (who exposes the very recent, very cultural origin of the pink/blue phenomenon in her book). Reading that might make you think twice about how you treat your children. It’s all about what actually works for us as people who have to adapt to the demands of a modern world. It’s always been about that. Nothing else.