February 27, 2004

Hate, haters, and gay marriage

In the course of the evening I should also mention that I browsed through The Best American Essays, 2000, edited by Alan Lightman. Having previously stuck my nose in the volumes from 1991 (ed. Joyce Carol Oates), 1993 (Joseph Epstein), and 1997 (Ian Frazier), I can say that this is one of the better quality collections.

Thus far, the best essay of the bunch seems to be none other than Andrew Sullivan’s piece that year for The New York Times Magazine, entitled “What’s so Bad About Hate?” (2000). What is so bad, anyhow? The fact is, people really know very little about hate—how it works, how it seethes. Sullivan’s target seems to be the very idea of ‘hate crimes,’ and how that idea tries to cordon off and define hate through dull abstractions.

The concept of “homophobia,” like that of “sexism” and “racism,” is often a crude one. All three are essentially cookie-cutter formulas that try to understand human impulses merely through the one-dimensional identity of the victims, rather than through the thoughts and feelings of the haters and hated.
This, I should add, is Oakeshottian conservatism at its best—paying attention to the breathing, teeming rustle of what actual people do and go through, rather than organizing life under a vapid ‘ism.’ Sullivan continues:

This is deliberate. The theorists behind these isms want to ascribe all blame to one group in society—the “oppressors”—and render specific others—the “victims”—completely blameless. And they want to do this in order in part to side unequivocally with the underdog. But it doesn’t take a genius to see how this approach too can generate its own form of bias.
Here Sullivan does what an Oakeshottian does best—and remember, Sullivan’s bio tells us that his thesis on Oakeshott won all sorts of awards—he presents us the infinite variability of hate. Gay men are assaulted because of jealousy, or insecurity, or sheer repulsion. Motives multiply endlessly. Victims become haters. Blacks brutalize whites. And so on.

There must be a moral here. The moral: All crimes involve hate, and the hate is always different. Sullivan’s point is facile, but in this day and age it obviously needs a good hammering home. “There are black racists, racist Jews, sexist women, and anti-Semitic homosexuals. Of course there are.” Of course there are.

The truth is, the distinction between a crime filled with personal hate and a crime filled with group hate is an essentially arbitrary one. It tells us nothing interesting about the psychological contours of the specific actor or his specific victim. It is a function primarily of politics, of special-interest groups carving out particular protections for themselves, rather than a serious response to a serious criminal concern.
Which leaves me, the reader, here, trying to rack my brain, thinking of why I ever supported hate crime laws in the first place. Some groupthink, no doubt. I’m a liberal, and my first reflex is always to err on the side of minority groups, women, gay people. The reflex works well most of the time, and in the case of hate crimes, I saw no reason to think otherwise. But in this case, Sullivan is right: the liberal party line really does condense a whole world of viciousness into a mere excuse for petty politics, and what’s more, it obscures our understanding—our hope of understanding—what actually drives hate. Liberals refuse to understand hatred, or prejudice, as something nuanced, and complicated.

In the current ‘culture war’ over gay marriage, the liberal side, my side, really has declared total war. There will be no tolerance for intolerance, no concessions to the very human concerns of those who really are bothered by gay marriage, for whatever reason. I don’t know what to make of this. I feel strongly about supporting gay marriage, so it’s easy to shrug and cheerily proclaim that the ends justify the means. Oh posh, go ahead, castigate the ‘fundamentalist right,’ if it’s for a good cause! But ay, those means… I can’t be happy with them, not fully.

Then again, war is war. Perhaps there is no other means with which to fight it. Would that we lived in Habermas’ ideal society, where everyone communicated properly and deliberated rationally. In so far as we don’t, it looks like we’ll have to resort once again to caricaturing hate, ignoring it, and wishing it away—hoping it away—with legislation and rhetoric.
-- Brad Plumer 4:54 PM || ||