The Case for Hate Speech

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

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.

The restless process of trial and error does not allow human knowledge to be complete or perfect, but it does allow for steady improvement. If a society is open to robust critical debate, you can look at a tape of its moral and intellectual development over time and know which way it is running: usually toward less social violence, more social participation, and a wider circle of dignity and toleration. And if you see a society that is stuck and not making that kind of progress, you can guess that its intellectual system is not very liberal.

The critical factor in the elimination of error is not individuals’ commitment to the truth as they see it (if anything, most people are too confident they’re right); it is society’s commitment to the protection of criticism, however misguided, upsetting, or ungodly. America’s transformation on gay rights over the past few years is a triumph of the open society. Not long ago, gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. But in a society where free exchange is the rule, that was enough. We had the coercive power of truth.

History shows that the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do. We learn empirically that women are as intelligent and capable as men; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of gender equality. We learn from social experience that laws permitting religious pluralism make societies more governable; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of religious liberty. We learn from critical argument that the notion that some races are fit to be enslaved by others is impossible to defend without recourse to hypocrisy and mendacity; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of inherent human dignity. To make social learning possible, we need to criticize our adversaries, of course. But no less do we need them to criticize us.

All of which brings me back to Orson Scott Card. Some of the things he has said are execrable. He wrote in 2004 that when gay marriage is allowed, “society will bend all its efforts to seize upon any hint of homosexuality in our young people and encourage it.” That was not quite a flat reiteration of the ancient lie that homosexuals seduce and recruit children—the homophobic equivalent of the anti-Semitic blood libel—but it is about as close as anyone dares to come today.

Fortunately, Card’s claim is false. Better still, it is preposterous. Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

I can think of quite a few reasons why boycotting Ender’s Game is a bad idea. It looks like intimidation, which plays into the right’s “gay bullies” narrative, in which intolerant homosexuals are purportedly driving conservatives from the public square. It would have little or no effect on Card while punishing the many other people who worked on the movie, most of whom, Hollywood being Hollywood, probably are not anti-gay (and many of whom almost certainly are gay). It would undercut the real raison d’être of the gay-rights movement: not to win equality just for gay Americans but to advance the freedom of all Americans to live as who they really are and say what they really think. Even if they are Orson Scott Card.

Above all, the boycott should fizzle, and I expect it will fizzle, because gay people know we owe our progress to freedom of speech and freedom of thought. The best society for minorities is not the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities (and from majorities, too). Gay Americans can do the cause of equality more good by rejecting this boycott than by supporting it. I’ll see the movie—if the reviews are good.