What if hearing a man talk about marrying another man harms my sense of the true and good?

If you are a secular liberal, you might argue that the vision of the world supporting this sense is empirically untenable and normatively dangerous. Yet these responses are not as obvious as they seem. We could easily identify falsifiable claims about how LGBT+ parents raise their children (although even these, it turns out, are quite challenging to turn people around on). But most moral claims cannot really be proven wrong, at least not factually. If you are a conservative Christian (or Muslim, or Jew) who believes that gay marriage is always wrong and a real moral danger, it actually does not much matter if gay couples raise kids well and stay committed to each other. For some, growing up in a family that prioritizes same-sex love is by definition not growing up well. And even being surrounded by others who have normalized this behavior is a problem, let alone being around the families themselves.

And lest this come off as a purely religious problem, it is worth pointing out how those on the secular left and right run into very similar issues. What, for example, are the moral nonnegotiables in political alliances? What are the indignities you can swallow and those you must immediately confront? None of that is obvious or self-evidently true. Say someone comes to a Democratic Party meet-up and says they are supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights but they do not really like affirmative action, arguing that “blue lives” matter. Or, they support affirmative action and gay rights but want to make abortion illegal across the country. These are political positions, but they are also ultimately moral claims.

How does a progressive citizen respond, both in words and in affect? How does she consider the real effects such statements might have on her person or persons who are directly affected by such policies? How might such attitudes and reactions vary between a voter-drive and a neighborhood barbecue? Is holding certain positions evidence you are not even worth the work? What if you have held certain positions in the past, especially racist, sexist or explicitly bigoted ones?

We could argue that this comparison does not quite work because discussions of police violence reference real harm and even deaths. While there might be some loss of property (and depending on how you define it, freedom) regarding gay marriage, the comparisons simply are not parallel in this way. Such an objection, however, brackets both the historical contingency of our understanding of harm and, perhaps more importantly, the historical contingency of considering harm the central rubric through which we should evaluate moral life. This cuts to the heart of the problem: To call something immoral is never really a description. It is an attempt to shape the world and, necessarily then, it is an attempt to shape one another.

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So we have a few problems. First, we have trouble talking to each other because the talk itself has weight. Second, even what we should talk about is not at all obvious. Third, even if we agree on the issues, we might disagree about how to handle them and on the relative space for respectful room for difference in those disagreements.

It is obviously important to have passionate beliefs, to have nonnegotiables that get us up in the morning, and to have commitments to certain ways of living that we believe make our lives and everyone’s lives better. That is the trick with our kind of liberalism: “Well, for me . . .” we say. Or, “It’s a free country,” or “I wouldn’t do that, but if it works for you . . .” or any other version of these bromides. Yet even if you are just privately sexist with your other friends who are sexist, and you somehow (though I do not think it is possible) never affect anyone else, I think what you are doing is wrong. I do not think we should pass thought-police legislation, but I think, about some things, that my way of living is actually morally superior—and not just different—than yours, independent of your possible effect on someone else’s way of living. And you might well feel the same way about something I do or do not do.

So then we work it out by just talking, right? And the best idea wins? Well, not really. Because, again, some ideas actually do real harm, and the way we rate ideas is never really separable from the power and status we bring with them. You can go too far with that line, and it is often a lost irony how certain academics insist on the rightness of their arguments that rightness does not matter in arguments. Yet it is worth remembering that this fusion of power and knowledge is the case on all sides and not just those sides we disagree with.

When we assign labels to people—opposed to religious freedom, anti-life, anti-choice, racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, freedom-haters—we are not simply describing (or misdescribing). We could be, in some sense, describing an empirical reality: given certain definitions, a certain statement really is or is not transphobic. But more importantly, to call someone’s claim (or someone’s person) a normatively loaded term (transphobic or anything else) is to impose your power upon that person and to some degree, is to impose your power upon the world itself. Now that power might well be relatively insignificant in the broad scope of things, and it might be particularly small when compared to the power of states, social institutions, and structural inequalities, not to mention the slurs to which such terms might refer. But no description is purely descriptive. In a certain liberal frame, the question of resistance often asks about a person’s power do to something. Yet a more appropriate question might be about a person’s power over someone else.

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So what are the kinds of speech about which we are willing to have reasonable disagreement? And what are the kinds of speech that do too much harm, and which we must use our power to curtail?

There is a tremendous amount of recent political theory about these very questions, but I am struck more than anything by Teresa Bejan’s recent book on civility—which was discussed here at The Immanent Frame. Bejan highlights how the problems we find today are retreads of many of the same problems that marked early modernity. She says looking back at their challenges (and solutions) can give us a way forward, calling us to develop “the set of habits of speaking and listening that make passionate debate possible, by allowing us to disagree, and to tolerate the inevitable contempt and disagreeableness involved in doing so—rather than congratulating ourselves on our open minds and sound views, while conversing exclusively with those who already agree with us.”

I am sympathetic to this perspective, but I am also sympathetic to those who want to avoid such contempt, and to the idea that a world in which some will face contempt for their very identities while others will not is simply the best we can do. There is a humility in being willing to be corrected. There is also a humility in being willing to leave others alone, even when you have the power to correct them. That is the original insight of liberalism.

Does that mean we should leave racists and sexists (among others) alone? No, I do not think so. But it does mean we should recognize we are not simply enacting a platonic form of justice, that we are imposing our will upon the world—a just will perhaps, but also perhaps not. Sometimes we do have to use our power. But we should be aware we are using power, even if the only alternative is someone else’s power. That awareness might make us humble, both about the possibility others might use their power to silence us, or that we were so unjust that we needed to be silenced. Or maybe we already are so unjust, maybe not about everything, maybe just about one thing, and we have nobody to tell us, at least nobody we trust (even if the internet is full of complaints about others’ behavior and speech). So maybe we become humble about accepting that others are teachable, that few if any are lost, including, perhaps, ourselves.