October 24, 2008


I've written a lot about Proposition 8 recently, and I intend to let the subject rest after this post for a few days at least-- or until something happens that pisses me off again. But there is one thing I wanted to note. Proponents of Proposition 8 have adopted a new strategy, one I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen before, at least not in this exact manner.

1. The Shakedown

Here’s what’s going on.

They have scoured the list of businesses that have made donations to the “No on 8” campaign.” Each of those businesses has received a letter demanding a donation to the “Yes on 8” campaign:
Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage. ... The names of any companies and organizations that choose not to donate in like manner to ProtectMarriage.com but have given to Equality California will be published.”
In other words, “Give us money or we’ll smear you.”

I’m not entirely sure whether to condemn this or not. It’s exactly the sort of thing that, say, Jesse Jackson has done by threatening to publicly accuse a big company of racism. Whether you think the end goal is laudable or not, the tactic of extortion is very difficult to defend.

2. The Fallacy

Let’s take a look at the fallacy contained in the letter of extortion: “Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage.”

Supporting the idea of same-sex marriage is not the same thing as being “in opposition to traditional marriage.” By “traditional marriage” we can safely assume that this means the marriage of one man to one woman, although as even the bigot Dennis Prager concedes, this is not the only model of marriage to enjoy a substantial pedigree of tradition.

Just because you favor same-sex marriage does not mean that you are opposed to opposite-sex marriage. It means that you think there should be other kinds of marriages in addition to traditional marriage.

So it is simply incorrect to say that a donor to “No on 8” is “opposed to traditional marriage.”

3. Is The Tactic Defensible?

I don’t know that this tactic is entirely out of the boundaries of what is acceptable political conduct.

Let us assume, arguendo, that we’re not talking about opposition to Proposition 8 but rather advocacy of some obviously and terribly immoral cause – reinstatement of racially-based slavery, for instance. A company that donated its money to support such a cause would properly be held up to public ridicule, and people opposed to that cause would be well within their rights to publicize that true fact and encourage people to boycott that company as a means of expressing their disapproval of the cause.

Now, at least some Prop. 8 supporters really and truly cannot see that their cause is that of bigotry and discrimination. They really and truly think that they are advocates of something that is morally correct, and that same-sex marriage is a great moral problem, a danger to society.

But if we assume, arguendo, that they are advocates of a cause of great moral suasion, then they are probably right to go call people who have backed of the opposite cause as supporters of a great evil. And do the boycotts and the public exposure and all of that.

So I’m not prepared to condemn the tactic of extorting money out of hand. If they were morally in the right, I’d think that the proponents of Prop. 8 had happened across a very creative tactic – you gave money to the cause of evil, but if you give money to the cause of good, dollar-for-dollar, you can be redeemed. Back when the Catholic Church did that, it was called “buying an indulgence” and I would have thought that Protestants in particular would not indulge in that sort of thing, but there you go.

4. Effect Of Tactic

The tactic of demanding money under threat of public humiliation is clever because it has the potential to be effective on multiple levels simultaneously.

First, the mark might give in to the pressure, and under fear of boycott or ridicule, actually give money to the extortionist. This would result in more money coming in to the "Yes on 8" campaign. It would also create a publishable list of businesses who had "second thoughts" and thereby adding another arrow to the quiver of the "Yes on 8" arguments.

Second, the mark might resist the pressure and not give a check. Then, the extortionist has to follow through on the threat and attempt to ridicule and/or boycott the "No on 8" donor. Doing so attracts attention to the controversy. Writ large, this sort of thing polarizes the electorate as a whole. Polarization drives up the vote against you as well as the vote for you, but if you think you're on the majority side of something, polarization is a good gamble, especially if you think your majority is slim and you need additional outrage to get your votes out.

Third, however the mark reacts, other potential donors will see that the mark has been threatened. This will deter others from donating or publicly supporting the cause, driving down public support for the other side.

Thus, the extortion tactic, if successful, has the effect of increasing the extortionist's support by creating an environment in which the extortionist's side is made more comfortable and supported, while muting the opposition.

5. The Element of Intent

It’s clear enough to me that a lot of people who support Prop. 8, and effectively all of the proponents, are acting out of a condemnation of homosexuality. They may protest to the contrary, but for the most part, I don’t believe it.

Now, I can charitably credit a good-faith backer of Prop. 8 with a delusion of acting from an intent to do good. But the delusion of doing good is not the same thing as the reality. Slaveholders in the Old South thought that they were doing a good thing by owning slaves since that preserved the “natural order” of things, and that their black slaves would be unable to survive outside of the plantation. Therefore, the best thing for them was to be enslaved by a kindly master who would feed and clothe and provide for them. These people really believed that they were doing right by their slaves, that owning other human beings was the morally right thing to do. I can credit antebellum slaveowners with the delusion that they were acting in their slaves’ best interests, but I cannot credit them with the reality of that delusion.

So too with Prop. 8. I can credit a Prop. 8 backer with the delusion that they are not bigoted and not trying to advance the cause of bigotry by writing discrimination into the state’s Constitution. I can credit the backer with having the delusion that they are protecting morality and acting on that delusion. But I cannot credit them with the reality of moral justification that they think they have.

So while there may be the delusion of a good moral intent there, the actual objective of this tactic is not defensible at all. I may at a later date provide a deeper analysis of why I think this is the case, but for now it will suffice for purposes of this post to indicate that not very far underneath the surface of the anti-SSM arguments being floated around California now is the argument that "it ought to be okay to treat gay people differently than we do straight people." Such a statement is defensible legally, under the First Amendment. But I can find no defense to that statement in the moral arena.

That leave us with the proponents of Prop. 8 using an extortionate tactic to promote their cause -- to increase their ability to speak and argue their side of the issue, at the expense of the very people who have engaged in their free speech rights to donate in favor of a cause that they sincerely believe is right.

To sum up, this is playing rough. Now, you might defend this by saying, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen," which is a reasonable enough response. But when you play rough with the intent of doing evil, that makes you a bully, at best.

Now, I'm sure that the Prop. 8 people would bend over backwards to say loudly and repeatedly that no one should engage in gay-bashing. But what they're doing is bullying gay people and the people who support them. And when you bully a gay person, isn't that also called gay-bashing? "Oh, but this isn't using physical violence," you'll protest, which is true enough. Instead of physical violence, it's being done with blackmail. That's much better.

6. Conclusion

So in addition to needing to lie to the public to write their bigotry into the state Constitution, the bullies behind Prop. 8 need to use blackmail, too. This speaks volumes about the moral validity of their cause.

Fortunately, it isn't working. Apple donated $100,000 to No on 8 today.

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