Taking political positions in public

U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is not a man who I often find myself in agreement with. That said, I do think a recent comment of his was both true and important. Opponents of gay marriage in the United States are seeking to have their identities kept secret, because they fear that they will suffer for their views. In response, Scalia said that: “The fact is, running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage.” He also said that: “you can’t run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known.”

Certainly, it is grossly inappropriate for people to be threatening the personal security of those who oppose gay marriage. That being said, having an active and effective public debate over issues of policy and law does require people to openly and honestly express their views. Furthermore, in a free and democratic society, we retain the right to reach judgments about people on the basis of their views. It is perfectly legitimate for me to think that someone is bad at evaluating complex information, because they are a climate change denier. Similarly, it seems legitimate to say that those who do not support equal rights for gay couples don’t really take human rights or the concept of equal treatment under the law seriously.

Whether you agree or disagree with that specific perspective, I think Scalia’s argument that society benefits when people declare their positions honestly and publicly is a strong one. Serious politics, based around competing ideas, relies on that sort of open discussion and debate. The alternative is a shadowy political world in which people try to advance their preferences obliquely, using whatever underhanded techniques might be effective.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Taking political positions in public”

  1. Yes, in general, people ought to own their positions publicly.

    I’m a little confused by your reference to the rule of law as a reason for equal rights for gay couples. Can you explain what you mean?

  2. I meant ‘equal treatment under the law:’

    the idea that you shouldn’t treat one group of people differently from another, when the differences between them (such as sexual orientation) are not legally relevant.

    I changed the post to reflect that better wording.

  3. From the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Section 15. (1)

    “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

    So, the idea is not only that people are to be treated no differently from each other when the differences between them are not relevant, but they emphatically are to be treated differently when differences between them require differential treatment in order to ensure equal protection and benefit.

  4. Milan – Thanks for that clarification.

    Tristan – Your point about discrimination being required for equality before the law in certain cases is an important one. For instance, there are all kinds of laws that do clearly discriminate on the basis of age: minors and adults are treated differently in order to avoid an inequality of benefit and protection that would result from holding minors to the same legal responsibilities as adults.
    (Sexual orientation is not on that list?)

  5. It seems pretty clear that granting “equal protection and benefit” to same-sex couples would mean having laws that do not distinguish between their legal rights and those of opposite-sex couples.

    Personally, I think the state should stop trying to define marriage in social terms. It should just be a type of legal arrangement that any two consenting adults can enter into for whatever reason: from the traditional desire to raise a family within wedlock, to equally valid desires for tax or citizenship benefits.

  6. Future U.S. History Students: ‘It’s Pretty Embarrassing How Long You Guys Took To Legalize Gay Marriage’

    DECATUR, IL, THE YEAR 2083—According to students in Mr. Bernard’s fourth-period U.S. history class, it’s “really pathetic” how long it took for early-21st-century Americans to finally legalize gay marriage.

    The classroom of 15-year-olds at MacArthur High School—all of whom were born in the late 2060s and grew up never questioning the obvious fact that homosexual couples deserve the right to get married—were reportedly “amazed” to learn in their Modern U.S. History: 2081 Edition textbooks that as late as the 2020s, gays and lesbians actually had to fight for the constitutional right to wed.

    “Wow, that is nuts,” said student Jeremy Golliver, who claimed he knew gay rights was a struggle “like, a hundred years ago” but didn’t realize it lasted so long. “It’s really embarrassing, when you think about it. Just the fact that people in this century were actually saying things like, ‘No, gays should not be allowed to marry,’ and were getting all up in arms about it, as if homosexuals weren’t full citizens or something. It’s insane.”

    “I mean, was everybody just a huge bigot back then or what?” Golliver added.

  7. Byron,

    The Charter was introduced in 1982 at a time where sexual orientation did not have the same profile as now. However, it is a living document. Consistent with the at in 2003, the Canadian Parliament in the Civil Marriage Act introduced same -sex marriage following a number of court rulings in the provinces. The Act’s official legislative summary reads: “This enactment extends the legal capacity for marriage for civil purposes to same-sex couples in order to reflect values of tolerance, respect and equality, consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also makes consequential amendments to other Acts to ensure equal access for same-sex couples to the civil effects of marriage and divorce.” This Act was then sent to the Supreme Court of Canada in a direct reference case, where it was upheld, including on the grounds that it was consistent with the Charter.

    ThTo avoid further att

  8. For two cold weeks in January, a Federal Court in San Francisco heard arguments about whether the right of same-sex couples to marry could be taken away, as it was, by the referendum known as Proposition 8.

    Throughout that historic trial, supporters of gay marriage re-enacted every syllable of the testimony as faithfully as they could, videotaped their performances and posted them on the internet at marriagetrial.com.

    What was taking place in court, they said, deserved as wide an audience as possible.

    At the same time, Prop 8’s backers took the opposite approach and ducked whatever attention they could.

    They sought and won an injunction at the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent broadcast of the trial and several of them changed their minds about testifying when the trial began.
    It’s easy to see why both sides behaved as they did.

    Anyone who followed the trial closely or looked through Judge Vaughn Walker’s 136-page ruling earlier this month that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, will recognize that those who opposed same-sex marriage brought pathetically weak arguments to their cause. At times, they looked ridiculous and foolish.

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