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Contentions

On Turning Political Opponents into Moral Monsters

I want to second what Jonathan has written about the Supreme Court’s two decisions related to same-sex marriage.

The worst possible outcome was that the high court would, in an exercise of raw judicial power, invent a constitutional right to gay marriage, forcing all 50 states to abide by it. We averted that outcome, which would have split the nation in a manner similar to what Roe v. Wade has done for two generations. It is in the nature of conservatism to be grateful when things that can go wrong don’t go wrong; and in this instance, we avoided a decision that would have had ruinous effects.

I also want to focus on one section of Justice Scalia’s dissent, in which he wrote this:

In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad. A reminder that disagreement over something so fundamental as marriage can still be politically legitimate would have been a fit task for what in earlier times was called the judicial temperament. We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide. But that the majority will not do.

It’s worth pausing over what Justice Scalia is saying here, which is that we’re all susceptible to weaving narratives that are black and white, that truth is often more complicated than that, and that it’s hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one.

I’ve written in the past about this phenomenon. We often deny to those with whom we disagree any benefit of the doubt, since we assume they see facts, events and justice just as we do. This makes their differing conclusions from us very nearly impossible to comprehend–and in turn makes it easy to characterize one’s opponents as pernicious. It would help our political culture if we understood that every one of us has an imperfect angle on reality; that our perception of justice is always at least a bit distorted; and that all of us see through a glass darkly and know things only in part. 

To be sure, this is not an argument against spirited and intense disagreements (I’ve been involved in a few of those myself over the years). Nor do I mean to imply that some people aren’t closer to perceiving truth and wisdom than others. It’s simply to say that Justice Scalia is correct; in politics, in judicial and theological disputes, and in life generally, it’s sometimes hard to admit that our political opponents, while they may be wrong, are not monsters. They are, in fact, fellow citizens. Which is probably worth remembering on days like this and in the aftermath of decisions like this.


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