same sex marriage

A little ignorance goes a long way

There has been a ridiculous amount of media attention directed at the Rowan County (Kentucky) Clerk Kim Davis and for good reason. Currently she's in jain for being in contempt of a court order which required her to issue marriage licences for same sex couples — something she and her lawyers maintain she has the right not to do. I have some sympathy for Kim Davis, since it's been clear for some time that her attorneys have thrown her to the wolves. They seem to be far more interested in her value as a martyr driving their fundraising campaigns than they are her best interests. So whatever started Davis down this path to prison, she's likely to be completely insulated from anyone who would offer her sensible advice as to a way out.

What fascinates me — and regular readers here will know this — is what makes people behaving in absurd ways. Kim Davis is certainly entitled to her bigotry. While it's certain that she'll find herself beside people who opposed women's voting rights, desegregation or interracial marriage; on the wrong side of history, it's not as though she holds some obscure eccentric moral viewpoint. What's baffling in this case is that she seemed to have maintained the opinion all throughout that there was a way for her simultaneously not issue marriage licences, keep her job and avoid legal consequences. And while her personal history is ironic, she's also entitled to cherry pick her religious beliefs, claiming to be a virtuous Christian while leading a lifestyle that would get her stoned according to both the Old and New Testament.

The obvious way out is to impugn her intelligence. She's just too stoopid to see the writing on the wall. The other option is to take her intelligence the other way. She's crafting a gripping martyrdom narrative (as some have proposed) which she can convert into a lifetime of lucrative speaking engagements catering the American Christian wing-nut-o-sphere. I suspect the answer lies somewhere else and is much less dramatic.

The lesson which comes (quite explicit) from one of my all-time favourite books, is that when you see behaving in ways which appear foolish, irrational or just generally make no sense, the first thing to suspect is that they have access to different information. Probably it's ignorance, but it's also possible they know something you don't (like that time you're stuck behind a driver who appears to be texting, then you find out really they're waiting for someone with a cane to cross in front of them). In Kim Davis' case, I suspect a little ignorance has gone a long way.

America is supposed to have "religious freedom" but exactly what that means is a subtle and intricate concept. In particular, the religious freedom afforded the individual is radically different from the religious freedom that applies to the government. The individual gets to have the religion they want; the government has to abide by some awfully strict rules and basically keep out. Simply put the government (and its employees and elected officials, because a government has to be run by people) can't use "because my religion says so" as an excuse for anything. There are a plethora of protections for clergy who perform marriages to ensure they don't have to wed people they don't want to however Kim Davis is an elected government official. But this is clearly something Kim Davis never grasped.

Instead, she took the vague term "religious freedom" and simply interpreted that vague phrase in a manner which was most favourable to herself. "Religious Freedom" is a problematic term because many of the world's religions have tenets which require them to restrict the behaviour of others: my freedom gives me the right to limit your freedom.

It's not an unreasonable belief to hold at the start, although her lawyers or some other learned party would have been able to disabuse her of it. Instead they pushed ahead with a series of futile appeals before leaving her to what can only be described as a temper tantrum. Unfortunately, it is unwise to throw temper tantrums when it comes to court rulings and she now finds herself locked up. But ultimately, what seems to have started it all is a misunderstanding of what the legal definition of "religious freedom" was combined with the scriptural cherrypicking that 99.9% of all modern Christians already engage in.

So I'm not without sympathy for a poor ignorant clerk. Unfortunately, now the ones who seem to lack foresight. As Richard Dawkins pointed out on the Twitter, Why on earth is County Clerk an elected position to begin with? It does seem that this really should be the kind of position that you'd want to hire an employee for based on their qualifications, not a popularity contest. (Plus elections are more expensive than job interviews.) Now they have someone that refuses to do their job, but are incapable of firing.

Granted, Kim is in a pretty special situation. The number of people who are government employees and have job descriptions which specifically include duties related to marriage is vanishingly small. But those who have taken this moment to declare that this is the beginning of the Christian Holocaust, simply have no idea what they're talking about and make Kim's ignorance look insignificant in comparison.

Ideally someone should have warned her: If this same-sex marriage thing becomes legal, you won't have any legal way out of issuing those licenses and you'll have to resign. But the marriage equality fight, to everyone's surprise and delight, really was a runaway train of success. Five years ago, no one would have guessed that the United States would have come that far that fast. So from one point of view, she's just swept up in the current of a world transforming rapidly around her. She didn't sign up for her job with the intention of denying services to her constituents for silly reasons, but that's where she wound up. And now she's trapped, on one side by a media mocking her for her ignorance and hypocrisy, and on the other, attorneys bent on cashing in on her manufactured martyrdom. It's kind of sad.

Changing Your Mind

Michael Coren wrote over at the Walrus about his recent conversion... not away from Catholicism, but towards acceptance of LGBT rights and same sex marriage.

And just like that, I realized how often the opposition to marriage equality was—and is—motivated not by a sense of duty to defend traditional wedlock but by a profound dislike of gays and lesbians.

His conclusion isn't particularly revolutionary. When it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, for those who live in Canada, the writing has essentially been on the wall for over a decade. (Although some parts of the world are struggling to see it, and the United States are coming pretty close.)

But what is really important to draw attention to is the fact that he is publicly changing his mind. Most people don't do that publicly. Somehow, we view changing your mind as a sign of weakness. As though revising our conclusions in the face of new evidence were somehow a bad thing, instead of the best possible thing.

Of course no one wants to admit to being wrong. If you admit you're wrong once, what's to stop you from being wrong twice. Robert Trivers in The Folly of Fools points out that there are actual advantages in society to convincing ourselves we're more right more often than we really are. But that just seems to make it harder to admit we're wrong.

Usually what happens (and what the free-though blogosphere is predicting for twenty years from now) is that people come around quietly and then later, will act as though that was what they believed all along. There are a few things at work. The first is the curse of knowledge. Briefly, when you know or believe something, it's all but impossible to imagine what it must be like to not know that something. That can be the cause of a huge lack of empathy.

The other is that when we evaluate evidence we don't do a very good job of it. We tend to reason by rough rules of thumb which kind of work most of the time. One of those is to follow the conviction. Someone who is absolutely convinced that they must be right, is probably right. When you say it like that, it's obviously foolish, but whether we are willing to admit it or not, we believe it. In fact many who are considered to be leading religious scholars will argue with a straight face that they should be allowed to count their own personal conviction in the existence of a god as evidence for her existence. These are people with PhDs!

While I know I disagree with Michael about a great many things, he has been nothing but incredibly pleasant and supportive in the brief time I've spent with him. And the fact that new information can convince him to change his mind is a wonderful thing. So thank you.