On the “Shunning” of Marriage Equality Opponent Ryan T. Anderson: A Reply to Damon Linker

Writing on his blog at The Week, Damon Linker objects to the treatment of same-sex marriage opponent Ryan T. Anderson. The recent subject of an even-handed profile in the Washington Post, Anderson was briefly lauded on the website of the Friends School of Baltimore, his childhood alma mater. Barraged with criticism for its implied support of the controversial Anderson, the Friends School removed the link and issued an apology. Linker writes:

The reaction of those who raised objections to the link as well as the decision of the head of school to remove the link and offer an abject apology for posting it — both of these are depressing signs that liberal public opinion is evolving in the direction of theological certainties and illiberal forms of intolerance. These so-called liberals want Anderson to be shunned. Expelled from the community. Excommunicated from civilized life. Ostracized from the ranks of the decent.

Though he concedes that the Friends School is entitled to link—or not to link—to anyone or anything they like, Linker nonetheless joins the ranks of those concerned about the marginalization of same-sex marriage foes. I admit to a
certain affinity with Linker’s concern, but I think it’s a little misplaced.

In December of 2013, I wrote a piece for RD on the deployment of certain liberal values in the service of illiberal policies. At the top of this list was civility. I argued that some speakers have used the charge of incivility to silence or otherwise inhibit their critics. For my case study I used Ryan T. Anderson, who had written:

The principal strategy of the forces that have worked for 20 years to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions has been cultural intimidation – bullying others by threatening the stigma of being “haters” and “bigots.”

Marriage re-definers don’t tend to say what many opponents have said, that this is a difficult question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree. No, they’ve said anyone who disagrees with them is the equivalent of a racist. They’ve sent a clear message: If you stand up for marriage, we will, with the help of our friends in the media, demonize and marginalize you.

This kind of grotesque incivility is toxic for any democratic community.

To which I responded:

Anderson’s claim that “marriage re-definers” trade in demonization and marginalization is striking given that gay rights movements have spent over four decades struggling against vicious demonization from the Religious Right, being rhetorically and institutionally marginalized to a degree entirely out of proportion to the slights Anderson’s allies face today. Yet Anderson’s focus on the civility of speech in the present allows him to simply ignore this history and treat the discussion like it was a purely academic exercise conducted on a perfectly even field. It also allows him to skirt the legal question at the heart of the debate. As long as we are talking about the incivility of speech, we won’t be addressing the far more consequential incivility of regressive laws.

In my view, this remains the crux of the issue. I happen to agree with both Linker and Anderson that it is important to maintain a—loosely—civil discourse to protect democratic community. But I would add that perhaps the three of us ought not to be the arbiters of appropriate speech where same-sex marriage is concerned. Though it is for us “a difficult question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree,” it is for the LGBT community a very intimate matter determinative of very immediate and personal consequences.

We are entitled to our opinions, but we remain largely invulnerable to their political effects.

Linker is correct that a liberal society ought to be a free and open space where ideas may be exchanged and contested in free and open fashion. He may also be correct that proponents of same-sex marriage should meditate on their individual and collective responses to those opposed.

But he is wrong to suggest that Ryan T. Anderson has been “shunned.” Anderson has been able to study at some of the nation’s top universities. He holds a position at a prominent conservative think tank. He is a regular speaker and debater at prestigious venues and law schools. He edits his own journal. And no matter where his rising star carries him in the coming years, in whatever state he chooses to reside, he has the ready assurance of marriage and family—something he has become famous working to deny to a whole segment of the population.

So let me be the first to agree with Linker on the subject of liberal discourse. But let me also add a caveat. Free and open public speech means being held accountable for the things you say. Ryan T. Anderson is an advocate of uncivil policy, and has enjoyed the perks of that advocacy. That he receives some uncivil speech in reply is not necessarily a sign that liberalism is broken. It may be an indication that liberalism is alive.