‘Clegg’s office got into trouble earlier in the month for calling opponents of gay marriage “bigots” and then recalling both the press release and the charge. Here’s the thing: they are bigots. In the end, the only reason to deny a gay couple the right to marry is a belief that their relationship is in some way inferior to a heterosexual one. That’s bigotry. I have no doubt that the opponents of same-sex marriages will be seen, in fairly short historical order, in the same light as those who opposed mixed-race marriages.’
That coming from Richard Reeves, politics’ forgotten man seeking to convince people he still has something mildly interesting to say by accusing all who disagree with him of being bigoted. The wall of noise you can currently hear is a massive irony klaxon going off in the background.
It is a useful contribution though, in so much as it gives insight into the peculiar attitudes of that zealous tribe who brook no opposition to the ‘gay marriage’ cause. For them, the issue is black and white and permits no discussion. They do not seek to understand the viewpoints of their opponents, any more than they seek to explain the logic of their own. Reeves can show remarkable ignorance of the substantive objections to ‘gay marriage’, whilst simultaneously presenting his own view as self-evident, precisely because in his mind there are no substantive objections to ‘gay marriage’, and his own view really is self-evident. So the (über-)liberal-in-chief pronounces ex cathedra. So the irony klaxon drones on.
The debate, then, is less dialogue and more an exercise in the wielding of power. Employing words like ‘bigot’ is about shutting down discourse, not facilitating it. It is proclaiming ‘this is what we decree, there is no negotiation, you better fall into line’. Whilst we might speculate as to why anyone might wish to avoid the scrutiny of debate, nonetheless words like ‘bigot’ are calculated to generate conformity through fear of denunciation. A conformity demanded primarily by the political class which pursue it, from Ed ‘No Catholics Allowed’ Miliband, to Nick ‘you’re all bigots (but don’t quote me on that)’ Clegg, to the Gospel of Dave.
All of which is revealing, since one of the principal objections to ‘gay marriage’ is the corrosive effect on liberty and the way in which those who find themselves on the wrong side of the new decree could find themselves harassed in society. The international experience seems to suggest this at least predictable if not, one must admit, strictly inevitable outcome; senior legal advice seems to think this is the likely outcome; could we be on the verge, then, of a new and updated (‘modernised’, natch) version of the Test Acts?
Which brings us to schools. The way in which any change in law could affect the liberty of faith schools to teach the sexual ethics of their own faith tradition has been consistently and convincingly made. Yet what the debate has often missed is the more insidious effect, the censoriousness that comes not directly from the state but from the climate its rhetoric and legislation creates . After all, even if all faith schools were to close there will still be people of faith working within and working through the education sector. If we, with the political classes and their acolytes, decide that orthodox views on sexual ethics are beyond the pale, that they are ‘bigoted’ and the proponents of such thinking are necessarily ‘bigots’, then what space is there left in the education sector, for teachers but also students, with orthodox views?
Or expressed differently, what does this mean for Joanne who, asked to write an essay in her Religious Studies exam on the nature of marriage, expresses the view that marriage is the monogamous union of one man and one woman? Or for Ruth, who explains that marriage is sacramental and can only ever possibly be between a man and woman, that ‘gay marriage’ is not even possible? Or for Aisha, arguing that one fundamental purpose of marriage is procreation, something that cannot naturally be achieved between two people of the same sex?
Will these children have the confidence in their freedom to make such a case? Or will they, knowing that such views have already been declared anathema, change the nature of their responses, to meekly accept conformity of thought, even if only temporarily, through fear that the merits of any ‘bigoted’ answer will not be given the kind of recognition that would lead to a good grade?
Indeed, when marriage is officially genderless and opposition to gay marriage is officially bigoted, would expressing any alternative view within the classroom or the exam hall not necessarily raise eyebrows? After all, if part of the social charter of schools includes the duty to counter ignorance and prejudice, then what school could in good conscience stand aside and refuse to intervene if they heard expressed views that are to be considered ‘bigoted’? One can feel certain that it would not take long before support and guidance would be offered to help the child think through such views. In other places, intervention might be rather less patient.
Which brings us back to institutions – would schools have to keep an incident log of hate speech to include ‘homophobia’, that word now unapologetically defined as any opposition whatsoever, on any grounds, to homosexual relations or intercourse? Will children who express even mildly dissenting opinion be called to account for their intolerance? Bullying on account of sexuality is abhorrent and ought to be stamped out without fear or favour – will reasoned objection be similarly challenged, since it is by definition ‘bigoted’ and we can all agree that bigotry is not something we wish to leave unchallenged in our schools?
At root, this is an erosion of freedom, not because the sentiment itself is necessarily an assault on freedom, but because the legislative edifice upon which it is constructed cannot help but be so. Which is precisely why, for many, the issue is zero-sum, and any dissent must be challenged. Yet if we, as a society, decide that all alternatives to political decree on sexual ethics are de facto ‘bigoted’, then we can feign no surprise when the logic of that intolerance turns in on itself. The corrosion of freedom, then, is not just religious, but intellectual and academic, spreading upwards and outward from the individual to the institution. This is the lesson we teach our children: this the educational milieu we bequeath them.
Perhaps, then, we ought to thank Richard Reeves. His intervention demonstrates the claws in the liberal settlement – and the corrosion of intellectual and religious freedom which ensues.
NB: It has been asked why, if the impact on schools and learning is so great, there has been relatively reaction from the education sector. The answer is: I have no idea. Though union hierarchy suffers from ‘progressive capture’ every bit as much as professional, activist politics has. See my letter to Christine Blower, head of the NUT, here.