Friday, March 7, 2014

I Think The Devil Can Speak For Himself

Right now, several states are considering or have recently considered laws that allow companies or government entities to refuse service on the basis of sexual preference.  For many, this is a clear return to the days of Jim Crow policies and 'Men Only' facilities, which divided our access to services and advantages based on race and gender.  It is a battle many people were pretty certain we'd already fought and won (at least from a legal perspective).

This is a complex issue for me.  The debate covers the philosophical, the social, and the practical, and those opinions are in conflict.

On a purely philosophical level, I support icky speech.  This means that I support the right of bigots to be bigots, the right of people to make hateful comments as long as they don't incite violence against others (the "gays are going to hell" vs. "Let's send some gays to hell" differentiation), and even the right of a business to decide whom it will and won't serve -- though I think anyone who wants to do so should have to post, on its door, a list of its bigotries so that I don't accidentally support someone operating from a place of hate.  I believe that if people were required to own their bigotry, they'd fast find out it's not a very good business decision.  I'm a firm believer in the idea that hate cannot long survive the sunshine.  I'm also a firm believer in limiting the power of government to make decisions for businesses.  I support environmental controls, minimum wage, employee protections, but I find myself balking at "You have to serve people regardless of your own philosophical position."  If you don't want to make a cake for a gay wedding, I think that the hammer of government is too blunt a tool to make you; the scalpel of shame is far more effective, though slower.

However, when I consider it from a social level, I have to admit that I don't want the icky speech out there.  The idea of people walking down a street filled with signs reminding them they're unwanted, or having to explain to a child "We can't have a pizza party for your birthday because they won't serve Daddy" is horrible to me.  I have no legal justification for not wanting it, because "The law should protect you from hurt feelings and feeling excluded," is outside my acceptable scope of governmental operation.  But I don't want to live in a society that deliberately agrees it's OK to make chunks of the population feel less-than.  I don't want to be Those People, and I understand that it's very powerful and tempting to want to use the law to do that.

Ultimately it has to come down to the practical.  The reality is that we don't have equal and consistent access to resources.  'Separate but equal' does not work unless both sides are really 'equal' and that's not possible in our current culture.  It's a Catch-22 in that if we *did* have the access to truly equal resources and opportunities that 'separate but equal' assumes, we'd have had to get it by destroying the attitudes and structures that prevent it from existing, so there'd likely be no interest in the 'separate' part.

I'm watching a lot of people discuss this, and it's hard for me because I agree with positions that demand conflicting policies.

Philosophically speaking, a pharmacist shouldn't have to be forced to provide birth control if he believes it's harmful because there should be a pharmacist who will at a nearby store, and people should be able to vote with their dollars.  Practically speaking, there are large chunks of the country where one person's choice in that matter has disproportionate power to reduce the choices and access of others.  Philosophically speaking, your gas station shouldn't be forced to sell gas or bottled water to people you don't want to serve, and if people don't want to shop at a bigoted gas station there should be one nearby where everyone is welcome.  Practically speaking, if it's the only gas station on a 100-mile stretch of I-10 through Arizona, that choice can be a matter of life and death.

Philosophically speaking, a state should be able to pass a law protecting the right to serve who you choose.  Practically, several of those laws (especially in Kansas) interfered with existing federal law, including election law, and could not possibly stand a court challenge.  They were used to smoke out moderate conservatives and divert the equality movement's attention and energy from marriage equality, which has taken on a juggernaut quality in recent months.  Though the laws are indicative of attitudes, it's unlikely that they'll become real, implemented legislation.  They're the flaily hand-waving of people desperate to retain control.

But here's the thing, and the reason I'm not participating in a lot of these conversations:  it's all well and good for me to debate the role of government and the right of people to be assholes, and I'll admit I've let myself get pulled into the conversation a few times.  But when I talk about it, for me it is abstract.  My daily life is not affected by any of these laws, so it's a matter of pure theory for me.

I can't have the philosophical conversation without acknowledging that it's personal for a large chunk of the American population.  We must have the conversation, sooner or later, about how much we want government to force us to play nice with one another.  But, as Melissa McEwan points out, we should never forget that we're discussing the realities of people's lives, the practicalities of their daily experience, even if it's just theoretical for us.

What is for me a thought exercise in access, legislative reach, and the balance of social condemnation vs. legislative control, is for someone else the very real experience of "I wonder who I've been giving money to, who would rather I wasn't but couldn't refuse it."  It's the experience of "The grocery store closest to my house has better prices than the one across town, but I wonder if the very Christian owner would take the opportunity to refuse me," of being told, in small and large ways, that your life is fair game for the judgment and approval of others, and that judgment and approval has the power to completely change the way you live.

And if I can't end the hate that feeds that experience in my lifetime, the least I can do is not trivialize it with Devil's Advocacy.  Because, well, that's not actually a Devil that needs many advocates in the modern world; he's got more than enough already.

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