Offense and Criticism in the Marriage Debates

June  2011

By R J Snell, Witherspoon Institute

To take offense does not free us from further argument or criticism. Instead, offense demands ongoing criticism between partners in ethical discourse as a recognition of their fundamental human equality.
In recent articles in Public Discourse and First Things, Matthew J. Franck reports on the portrayal of defenders of traditional marriage as irrational bigots motivated by fear and hate. In a Washington Post piece, he writes, “Clearly a determined effort is afoot … to anathematize traditional views of sexual morality … as the expression of ‘hate’ that cannot be tolerated in a decent civil society. The argument over same-sex marriage must be brought to an end, and the debate considered settled.”
His articles reveal how odd it is for one group to fiat the end of debate by declaring a particular set of arguments unworthy of consideration; or, more peculiarly, by declaring that these arguments may not be considered without thereby revealing one’s own status as bigoted, hateful, and offensive.
These absurdities to which Franck points make criticism in contemporary argument a process often uncomfortable and futile. In his masterful That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect, Stefan Collini summarizes our resulting hesitation toward argument by explaining how debate is shut down when members of criticized groups believe they are at a historical disadvantage. For many contemporaries, he writes, “an enlightened global politics” requires “treating all other people with equal respect and, second, trying to avoid words or deeds which threaten to compound existing disadvantages.” Given their historically disadvantaged and ostracized position, Collini reports, it is thought that some “social groups … have an equal right to hold or express their convictions without being ‘dissed’ by anyone else.” In other words, to argue against a historically disadvantaged group is apparently to commit an intrinsically hateful, bigoted, and offensive act.
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