The Mask of Civility

“Proposition 8 has always been about restoring the traditional definition of marriage. It doesn’t discriminate or take rights away from anyone. Gay and lesbian domestic partnerships will continue to enjoy the same legal rights as married spouses. Our coalition has no plans to seek any changes in that law.”


Whenever I read a fictional account of oppression or discrimination, one thing that strikes me is that those who are doing the oppressing or  discriminating are always very obviously ‘wrong’. Racists are almost never portrayed in a very sympathetic light and misogynists are always clearly evil. In the land of fiction, discrimination is only something that the villains of the piece engage in.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t quite so clear cut. The quote at the beginning of this post is taken from the Protect Marriage website, which garnered support for Proposition 8 while it was still an open issue. The website is attractively designed and features the tagline ‘Restoring Marriage and Protecting California Children’. Everything about it suggests an honest, hard-working organisation whose only purpose is to act for the betterment of society.

And yet their (now successful) mission was to win votes for a constitutional change that is blatantly prejudiced, one that denied homosexual men and women the same rights enjoyed by all of those smiling couples depicted on the Protect Marriage website. Worse, it now has the potential to  invalidate the existing marriages of gay couples in California, a grossly unfair situation that Protect Marriage is keen to take responsibility for:

From the Protect Marriage FAQ.

From the Protect Marriage FAQ.

Or not. I would say that Protect Marriage views the ending of these marriages as a necessary evil in the quest to keep their narrow worldview intact, but I doubt they see it even that negatively.

The vast majority of people who voted in favor of Proposition 8 were not swastika-adorned skinheads, nor would they ever have dreamed of committing any violent actions against gay people. They were, for the most part, unassuming people who did what they thought was right, not realising or not caring that it would cause enormous heartache to a lot of people. They were wearing the mask of civility.

With some forms of prejudice, this veneer of good intentions can no longer work – racists, misogynists or extreme nationalists can no longer hide behind sugar coated rhetoric and expect to be accepted by most of society. Even when they genuinely believe that what they stand for will improve society for everyone (and they very often do), most would agree that their aims are repugnant for their sheer cruelty, if nothing else.

Religion is one force which allows this seeming paradox to exist. It is fully expected that those who adhere to a worldview which stresses understanding and benevolence will nonetheless vote for something like Proposition 8, or will stand firmly and cheerfully in opposition to a minority which still lacks some of the same basic rights shared by the normative majority. I have seen people describe their reaction to Proposition 8 vistory as ‘joyful’. I have also seen people become bitterly disappointed when the rights of gay people to marry, adopt or live without discrimination are affirmed. This is something I will never understand. Why do the Christian supporters of movements like Protect Marriage not view these undertakings as an unpleasant task which must be carried out in accordance with their beliefs? If their love for gay people is so genuine, why do they not share in the pain felt by those whose rights they have decided to take away? I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that these ugly but necessary (to them) acts  cause them some measure of discomfort, but perhaps I’m wrong?

In fiction, the prejudiced majority sneers and taunts as it goes about its destructive business. In real life, it smiles.

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