“Opponents of gay marriage are now treated by the press in the same way queer-rights agitators were in the past: as strange, depraved creatures, whose repenting and surrender to mainstream values we await with bated breath,” writes Brendan O’Neill in Spiked! Which raises the question: “How do we account for this extraordinary consensus, for what is tellingly referred to as the ‘surrender’ to gay marriage by just about everyone in public life?”
And is it a good thing, evidence that we had a heated debate on a new civil right and the civil rightsy side won? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can even call this a ‘consensus’, since that would imply the voluntaristic coming together of different elements in concord. It’s better described as conformism, the slow but sure sacrifice of critical thinking and dissenting opinion under pressure to accept that which has been defined as a good by the upper echelons of society: gay marriage. Indeed, the gay-marriage campaign provides a case study in conformism, a searing insight into how soft authoritarianism and peer pressure are applied in the modern age to sideline and eventually do away with any view considered overly judgmental, outdated, discriminatory, ‘phobic’, or otherwise beyond the pale.
This “extraordinary consensus” or “conformity” was not achieved by gay rights activists changing public opinion, he argues, but by elites led by judges in particular. (Judges, he notes, are described by Harvard Law School professor Michael Klarman as a “distinctive subculture,” and a more liberal one, of the cultural elites.) O’Neill then reviews the mechanisms by which this conformism was achieved, including the effective use of social media as explained by Scientific American.
But, one thinks, all this elite pressure wouldn’t have worked even ten years ago, and certainly not twenty or thirty years ago. How could what then seemed a settled conviction about sexuality (or prejudice, if you wish) disappear so fast?
O’Neill has an answer, which seems to me correct. The non-elites proved susceptible to such pressures for a reason, he notes. “The fragility of society’s attachment to traditional marriage itself, to the virtue of commitment, has also been key to the formulation of the gay-marriage consensus. Indeed, it is the rubble upon which the gay-marriage edifice is built.” He continues:
If lawyers, politicians and our other assorted ‘betters’ have successfully kicked down the door of traditional marriage, it’s because the door was already hanging off its hinges, following years of cultural neglect. It is society’s reluctance to defend traditional views of commitment, and its relativistic refusal more broadly to discriminate between different lifestyle choices, that has fuelled the peculiar non-judgmental tyranny of the gay-marriage campaign, which judges harshly those who dare to judge how people live.
Through a combination of the weakness of belief in traditional marriage and the insidiousness of the campaign for gay marriage, we have ended up with something that reflects brilliantly John Stuart Mill’s description of how critical thinking can cave into the despotism of conformism, so that ‘peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes, until by dint of not following their own nature, these [followers of conformism] have no nature to follow’.