Why are some conservative-leaning writers defending Larry Garfield? Garfield was until recently a major developer at Drupal, a popular open-source content management software. He was forced out of his position after public exposure of his involvement in a bondage-dominance-submission-masochism (BDSM) community, one that Breitbart describes as “based on roleplaying the themes of sexual dominance and submission found in author John Norman’s sci-fi ‘Chronicles of Gor’ series.”
Pure censorship, says Breitbart, calling Garfield a victim of “social justice warrior” zealotry and a “witch-hunt.” Likewise, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, in Reason, believes that Garfield is not unlike another martyr of corporate groupthink—Brendan Eich, the Mozilla executive forced out over his support for traditional marriage. She writes: “Rather than practice what he preaches about tolerance, respect, and creating ‘a culture of open-mindedness toward difference,’ [Drupal owner Dries Buytaert] offered up Garfield for social-justice sacrifice in order to appease prudes and busybodies.”
Here is an excellent example of something I’m seeing more of from the right: defining conscience freedom down. Brown’s comparison of Garfield to Eich implies a sort of equivalence between BDSM and traditional beliefs about marriage. I’m sure that such an equivalence would be alarming news to the millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who believe in the goodness of male-female complementarity and reject the normalization of abusive sexual pathologies. Trying to argue for intellectual diversity and good faith by sticking up for kink is like trying to get high-school students excited about reading Romeo and Juliet by comparing it to Fifty Shades of Grey—it’s not just ridiculous, but dishonest.
I cannot say whether or not Drupal had cause to fire Larry Garfield. Such questions are often complicated tangles of law, corporate policy, internal politics, and more than a little PR drama. Whether the ousting was justified is one question. Whether Garfield’s sexual appetites are comparable to Brendan Eich’s religious and political convictions is quite another.
The impulse of Garfield’s libertarian advocates seems to be less about the virtues of pluralism and good faith and more about holding a tight formation against “SJWs” and social progressives. If third-wave feminists and social media leftists announce the sky is blue, then we know it must be green. This kind of pathetic pseudo-solidarity amongst some conservatives is precisely why the movement finds itself ruthlessly hijacked by blowhards and hucksters, some of whom are valorized on the right even as they reject principles like the personhood of the unborn. Why? Because they’re good at ridiculing the enemy. This is not conservatism; it’s right-wing identity politics.
This mentality is a good way to cause free speech and conscience advocacy—both sorely needed right now—to backfire. Indeed, there’s a hint of this even in Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s essay. Observe how the effort to attack progressives by defending BDSM quickly degenerates into something disastrous:
But even if Garfield did hold sincerely sexist views in private, it hardly seems grounds for community expulsion in the absence of publcly [sic] articulated views or actions. The idea that women should be submissive to their husbands is a prominent feature of many religious faiths, and a value that plenty of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others still hold dear—typically with way less add-on feminism than you'll find in BDSM relationships. Would the Drupal Association feel as comfortable ousting a devout supporter of Islam or evangelical Christianity if it came out that their wives practiced voluntary submission?
The proposed equivalence of BDSM and religious liberty suddenly requires an equivocation: Traditional religious belief is now similar to whip-and-leather role-play. This is nonsense, even dangerous nonsense. Believing that men have a responsibility to model Christ-like leadership in the home is most assuredly not the same as having a sex slave—but such a comparison will certainly encourage the former belief’s many enemies.
This rhetorical looking-glass demonstrates a fundamental error of libertarianism. The unspoken fear here is that if we don’t stand up for science fiction BDSM, we are quietly conceding that some beliefs—meaning our beliefs—just don’t deserve protection from progressive policing. “First they came for the kinky software developer, and I said nothing …”
But this fear is rooted in a misunderstanding of the role of virtue in political philosophy. The work of protecting conscience against either elitism or majoritarianism is not the work of making every puerile instinct a matter of conscience, but instead of insisting that the good and true and right cannot be adjudicated by a 5-4 decision, or an executive order, or even a referendum. Conservatives do not argue that our private lives have no bearing on the public square. On the contrary, we argue, alongside Richard John Neuhaus, that the public square is not naked; it is clothed in the garments of our private lives, and these garments ultimately belong not to Caesar, but to God. If some people say “Character counts” as a way of demonizing their opponents, the correct response is not to say that character doesn’t count. It’s to say, “You’re right, and your tactics reveal a lack of character.”
There are good reasons to resist the normalization of BDSM in our time. A pornified culture may not be able to tell where the orgasm ends and the dehumanization begins, but we must be able to. I don’t believe the government should be able to enter Larry Garfield’s bedroom and prosecute him. Neither do I accept that conservatives ought to enter his bedroom and rally around him. Liberty matters. So does virtue. Kink is not conscience.
Samuel D. James currently serves as Communications Specialist to the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His writing has been featured in such places as TIME, World Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, 9 Marks, and more.