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When Does a Once Widely Held Opinion on a Public Issue Become Unacceptable?

The uproar over the forced resignation of Brendan Eich at Mozilla last week (see Jonathan’s excellent post from yesterday) is certainly called for. After all, Eich’s transgression was to make a donation in support of a state constitutional proposition that ended up passing with 53 percent of the vote. In other words, he agreed with the majority of California voters and donated a modest sum to the cause. But a mere six years later, he has been pronounced a moral leper for having held such an outrageous and unacceptable view. It’s no more than the same view that was held by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

I can think of no other major change in American society that has moved as swiftly as gay marriage. In 1960 it was, almost literally, unthinkable. The Stonewall Inn riot in New York in 1969 put gay rights on the political map, but gay marriage was not among the rights being demanded. By 1990 gay marriage was thinkable, but nowhere legal. Then in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage in that state. In 2007, the Stonewall Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, gay marriage is legal in sixteen states and spreading rapidly to others. Because approval of gay marriage is strongly inversely correlated with age, it is as clear as anything in the future can be that gay marriage will be countrywide in the not distant future.

I imagine that by 2030, gay marriage will be about as controversial as women’s suffrage is today. But women’s suffrage took 100 years to go from a glimmer in the eyes of its first advocates to a constitutionally mandated right. Slavery took nearly 200 years from the first objections to it among 17th century Quakers to its final abolition in this country. One can see the slow evolution of thought on the morality of slavery in the life of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1730s Franklin owned a couple of slaves who worked in his printing house. In the 1750s he wrote a famous essay on the economic inefficiency of slavery. By 1785 he was president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Still it took another 80 years, and a war that cost 600,000 lives, before slavery was finally gone.

Both women’s suffrage and slavery were highly controversial issues in their day and honest men and women could be found on both sides. (Queen Victoria, for instance, was adamantly against votes for women.) Today, of course, the arguments of the losing sides of these issues seem silly and, often, downright evil.

But we are more than 90 years since the argument over women’s suffrage ended and nearly 150 since slavery was abolished. The issues are both dead and gone. It seems to me that only two years after Barack Obama himself “evolved” on the issue of gay marriage (please note: Democrats evolve on issues, Republicans flip flop) is much too soon for opponents of the idea to be cast into outer darkness.

But, then, liberals—addicted to their sense of moral superiority—are notoriously intolerant of dissenting views.


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