Between the Lines: Tolerance Goes Both Ways

Is there a lesson in the Chick-fil-A controversy?

Comments (7)
Thursday, August 16, 2012

The uproar over Chick-fil-A, the fried-chicken chain that faces boycotts and threats of license denial over its conservative Christian owners' opposition to same-sex marriage, highlights a remarkable fact: in one generation, the stigma against homosexuality has been replaced by a stigma against anti-gay prejudice.

These gains in gay rights are a victory for human rights. But we run the risk of going too far in slapping the "bigotry" label on all conservative sexual attitudes—and, in the process, deepening cultural divisions and stifling legitimate discussion of social issues.

Feminism provides for an interesting comparison. While America has made huge strides toward equality between the sexes, we have been able to accommodate the fact that a large segment of society espouses some degree of gender conservatism. About 35 percent of Americans still agree that it's best for everyone if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the family. Except in rarefied feminist and academic circles, people who support some traditional distinctions between men and women have not been automatically branded bigots. Indeed, in some cases—from combat service to single-sex schools—such distinctions are still permissible under the law.

This is in stark contrast to the way society and law have treated race. There is no such thing as a benign racial distinction. A religious denomination that maintained an all-white clergy would be regarded as a marginal hate group, in contrast to mainstream churches that reserve the priesthood or ministry to men.

Yet on gay rights, we have seen a push to use race rather than gender as a model. Thus, support for domestic partnerships and civil unions with the rights of marriage but without the name is often denounced as tantamount to championing a "separate but equal" system—a term that carries a stigma only in a racial context. Old anti-miscegenation laws are often cited as a parallel to same-sex marriage bans. But bans on interracial marriage are a fairly uncommon phenomenon in the history of civilization; the heterosexual nature of marriage was until recently a universal norm.

Is this radical approach a ticket to progress? Not necessarily. When a large segment of the population finds that its cultural values are being not only displaced but stigmatized and stifled, its opposition to social change is likely to become more bitter. Religious groups may see justification for fears that even civil same-sex marriage will infringe on their freedom of conscience: For instance, could Christian colleges and universities that refuse to recognize same-sex relationships be denied federal tax exemptions, as Bob Jones University once was over its interracial relationship ban?

The reaction to the Chick-fil-A controversy shows that many Americans who sympathize with gay rights are nonetheless uncomfortable with demonizing the opposition. Ostensibly, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's free speech rights are at issue. But let's face it, not many would jump to the defense of those rights if he were speaking in favor of racial segregation or donating money to the Ku Klux Klan.

I am a pro-choice feminist who welcomes the last half-century's transformation in gender roles. I also believe abortion and gender issues should remain topics on which good people can disagree—as they can about same-sex marriage. Yes, there are gay-bashers and misogynists out there. But some decent and thoughtful people believe in biblical norms. Others believe that marriage is rooted in sexual distinctions and the mother-father bond is essential to families. Tolerance really does cut both ways.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.  


Comments (7)
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Sociologically your argument is very interesting, in the abstract. However, the Chick-Fil-A controversy is not an abstract, but concerns a particular business which donates a share of its profits to organizations which have been labeled hate groups due to their anti-gay activism. This is the source of outrage among people I know.

If anything this emerging backlash is a long-overdue resistance to conservative American Christians who want their rules to apply to everyone, whether they like it or not. Ironically, their own personal savior, Jesus Christ, did not speak a single phrase in opposition to homosexuality or homosexual marriage. Therefore Dan Cathy's objection to gay marriage is not based on a biblical norm, as you seem to posit, unless he advocates letter-of-the-law adherence to the Old Testament. And if "good people" agree to disagree on gay marriage, they will have to do so while pretending that domestic partnerships and civil unions will make gay and straight Americans equal under the law.

Posted by Jeffrey on 8.16.12 at 13:03

I could not disagree more with Cathy Young's editorial " Tolerance goes both ways" in which sh e states that "the stigma against homosexuality has replaced by a stigma against anti-gay prejudice." Valley Advocate, August 16 , 2012, page 8 , and that progressives are unfairly accusing Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, of bigotry. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bigot as "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly tolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one who regards or treats a member of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance." CEO Dan Cathy's expressed belief that same-sex couples are not deserving of the same benefits and symbolic meaning of marriage as heterosexual couples is protected by freedom of speech. In addition to donating 3 milliondollars to Christian groups that oppose gay marriage, Chick-fil-A reportedly donated $1,000 to the family research Council ( FRC), an organization that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Given the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that corporate donations constitute an act of speech, then Chick-fil-A's donation to FRC can be construed as hate speech, thus confirming that CEO Dan Cathy is, in fact, a bigot. Actions which include boycotting or picketing Chick-fil-A restaurants by those in favor of human rights for gays and lesbians can also be viewed as acts of speech. To make the argument, as Cathy Young does, that being intolerant of intolerance is itself bigotry, exemplifies the convoluted logic that pervades her editorial, and is contradictory to principles of feminism and social justice.

Posted by David Arbeitman on 8.18.12 at 14:29

"To make the argument, as Cathy Young does, that being intolerant of intolerance is itself bigotry"

It's a valid argument and the two comments so far exemplify the problem today. For Rahm and his ilk to threaten to block a business because their owner doesn't share the same values is bigotry by the MW definition cited. It's also nothing more than a misdirection to say it's not the statement you find offensive, but the donations to certain groups. So now not only does the intolerant tolerant left have a problem with what you say but what you do with your own money.

But here's the simple fact. More than half of the country for various reasons still believes in the traditional definition of marriage. Most organized religion supports the tradional definition of marriage. The current twisting of the argument by the left and their compliant mainstream media is what's intolerant. They will destroy anyone who disagrees with them... quite the model of tolerance. Dare to speak your position as a component of your faith? Not allowed.

Posted by k on 8.21.12 at 4:05
Posted by Michaelb on 8.22.12 at 17:50
It may be true that "decent and thoughtful" people choose to believe in their version of "biblical norms". However, they give up the right to be called decent and thoughtful when they use such beliefs to justify discrimination and unequal treatment under the law, which is inherently indecent and thoughtless.
Posted by Michaelb on 8.22.12 at 18:00

It's generally weak when anyone pulls the "law" card. It was once the law to not allow african americans to use public water fountains. At that point I guess you would have accepted an argument saying it's OK because it is consistent with laws?

The bottom line is you're not tolerant if you can't have people peacefully disagree with your views. It's silly to say you preach for tolerance and don't tolerate someone who is intolerant of something. It really does go both ways.

Posted by k on 8.24.12 at 4:06


When you say "organizations which have been labeled hate groups due to their anti-gay activism," are you talking about progressives who have labeled these organizations as "hate groups"? If so, I do believe you just made Cathy Young's point.

There was a social commentary made recently that rather neatly summed up the problem with the Valley's political environment these days: "It's not that progressives are angry with people who happen to have a different viewpoint than their own. They're just shocked that there actually is a different viewpoint than their own."

Posted by Bill Dusty on 8.25.12 at 21:31



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