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Stigma and Civilization

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This week I gave a talk at Morgan State University on gay marriage.

At the end of our panel, Kieffer Mitchell, a Maryland state legislator who voted for gay marriage, said he was grateful for the civility of the panel, that he knew good people who were on both sides of the issue, even people in his own family.


That's one America. That's the America both he and I want to live in.

But after the debate was over, an audience member was not satisfied with that ending. She stood up and pronounced an anathema on me.

A gay reporter who identified the woman as the Rev. Meredith Moise, co-chair of Baltimore Black Pride, caught her rebuke this way:

"As a student, a former student and alumni of this beloved university, having said this to this man (Mitchell), whose family shed blood and died for the rights of all people is anathema. And shame on you," she said. "And for you to support it and propagate hate in the black community. Shame on you. No human being has the right to divide people of African blood on this issue. We will remain one people."

She ended with, "I rebuke you!"

This is the language of stigma, and it is increasingly the very effective language of the gay rights movement in America.

As I said at Morgan State, again as the reporter caught it, "You can be expected fairly rapidly to be treated the way we treat, the way government treats, people who oppose equality. We stigmatize, we marginalize, we oppress racists because racism is wrong. But in my view, this traditional understanding of marriage across different races, creeds and colors is not evil. It's not discriminatory. It's good. You need to bring together male and female to make inroads in the next generation. That's the heart of the classic understanding of marriage. And it's the heart that gay marriage will change. And it will change it not just for gay people. It will change it for every citizen in the state of Maryland." And Minnesota, and Maine, and Washington state, all of which are voting in November on gay marriage.


I still get letters from conservatives who fear what they describe as the moral relativism of the left. But they misunderstand the phenomena completely and mis-describe the contest we are in.

Gay marriage advocates are not moral relativists. Progressives seek progressivism to create a new public morality, which will not be optional.

I myself am not comfortable with the language of stigma. I do not like to condemn, but to uplift. I spent several decades participating in an effort to see if we could create a new moral consensus around marriage without stigmatizing single mothers -- to make the ideal powerful enough that we could dispense with stigmas and yet protect children. It was a hopeful, innovative, thoroughly American effort, but today as a targeted object of an attempt to exercise the power of new stigma, I am not sure whether it can work.

A civilization's core values consist of what it considers non-debatable, unthinkable.

The great disruption, as Frances Fukuyama called it, consisted of making sexual norms themselves the object of stigma. In the years since the 1960s, elites have recovered something of a marriage culture for their own children.

The educated still marry far more often, divorce far less, and rarely have out-of-wedlock children. So their children have more access to "private norms" -- a form of social capital. Meanwhile, the almost punitive culture of work also pushes the educated young toward marriage as the natural fallback -- you cannot rise to high-status jobs or maintain them while catting about town very easily, at least not as the tiredness of middle age approaches!


But the elites so created continue to refuse to do what they need to do: help create norms of success for the whole society around sex and marriage.

And they stand by and watch while a tiny minority attempts to raise the cost of speaking out in favor of these norms and values.

Here's the simple truth for me -- about why I continue to withstand the abuse:

Because I think our traditional understanding of sex and marriage is good. Because I will not volunteer to live in a world where these ideas are treated as bad and discriminatory.

Others may well be able to create such a world -- that's a matter of power.

But legitimacy -- that's something that exists in the inner sanctum of the soul -- something precious that each of us controls and can give or withhold.

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