Discourse November 2013

The Case for Hate Speech

How Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and Orson Scott Card have advanced the cause of gay rights
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Matt Dorfman

Ender’s Game comes out November 1. If you live in a cave, you may not be aware that this likely blockbuster is based on a classic 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card. The movie version features Harrison Ford, copious digital effects, and a boycott.

Recently, a group of gay activists launched a Web site urging anyone who cares about same-sex marriage or gay equality to stay out of theaters. “By pledging to Skip Ender’s Game,” the group said, “we can send a clear and serious message to Card and those that do business with his brand of anti-gay activism—whatever he’s selling, we’re not buying.”

I have been advocating gay marriage and gay equality for more than 20 years, fighting many of the same stereotypes and slurs that have figured in Orson Scott Card’s nonfiction writing. So I understand why some equality advocates want to make a statement against Card. What I would like them to understand is why I hope they fail. In a roundabout but important way, bigoted ideas and hateful speech play an essential part in advancing minority rights. Even if we have every right to boycott Ender’s Game, gays are better served by answering people like Card than by trying to squelch or punish them.

Lately, people have been asking me why so much has happened in America, seemingly so suddenly, to advance gay equality generally and gay marriage specifically. It’s a good question, with some obvious answers. Demographics are one: younger people who are more relaxed about homosexuality are replacing older people who harbor long-standing prejudices. Also, as more gay people come out of the closet and live and love openly, we are no longer an alien presence, a sinister underground, a threat to children; we are the family down the block.

Those are important factors. But they don’t tell the whole story. Generational replacement doesn’t explain why people in all age groups, even the elderly, have grown more gay-friendly. Gay people have been coming out for years, but that has been a gradual process, while recent changes in public attitude have been dizzyingly fast. Something else, I believe, was decisive: we won in the realm of ideas. And our antagonists—people who spouted speech we believed was deeply offensive, from Anita Bryant to Jerry Falwell to, yes, Orson Scott Card—helped us win.

In 2004, when I was making the talk-show rounds for my new book on gay marriage, I found myself on a Seattle radio station, debating a prominent gay-marriage opponent. After she made her case and I made mine, a caller rang in to complain to the host. “Your guest,” he said, meaning me, “is the most dangerous man in America.” Why? “Because,” said the caller, “he sounds so reasonable.”

In hindsight, this may be the greatest compliment I have ever been paid. It is certainly among the most sincere. Despite the caller’s best efforts to shut out what I was saying, the debate he was hearing—and the contrast between me and my adversary—was working on him. I doubt he changed his mind that day, but I could tell he was thinking, almost against his will. Hannah Arendt once wrote, “Truth carries within itself an element of coercion.” The caller felt that he was in some sense being forced to see merit in what I was saying.

History shows that the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do.

A generation ago, the main obstacle to gay equality was not hatred, though of course there was a good deal of that. Most people who supported the repressive status quo meant well. The bigger problem, rather, was that people had wrong ideas about homosexuality: factual misapprehensions and moral misjudgments born of ignorance, superstition, taboo, disgust. If people think you are a threat to their children or their family, they are going to fear and hate you. Gays’ most urgent need was epistemological, not political. We had to replace bad ideas with good ones.

Our great blessing was to live in a society that understands where knowledge comes from: not from political authority or personal revelation, but from a public process of open-ended debate and discussion, in which every day millions of people venture and test billions of hypotheses. All but a few of those theories are found wanting, but some survive and flourish over time, and those comprise our knowledge.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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