Comment: Gay marriage opponents should not be tolerated

The last 24 hours have seen some of the strangest arguments ever constructed in mainstream political debate. With their enemies on the front foot, opponents of gay marriage adopted remarkable twists of logic, most of which focused on how people have sex.

Numerous MPs in yesterday's debate seemed obsessed with how gay couples consummate their relationship. After a while, this became disturbing. Of course, it is not beyond the wit of man to create legal arrangements for this standard in gay relationships, by which we can establish the validity of a marriage and whether a partner has been faithful. But it was enjoyable to put the moment off, if only so we could spend more time watching elderly Tory MPs stumble uncomfortably around the subject, like a drunk in a decrepit hotel.

Other Tory backbenchers insisted the government could offer churches no protection against a future legal challenge to their refusal to conduct same-sex marriages. This is true, in so far as every statement of its sort is true. The government can order no protection against future challenges on the legal status of sugar or the volume of water in the English Channel. If the standard for legislation is absolute certainty of the future we had better stock up on weapons and tinned food, because civilisation is doomed.

Many MPs pretended their vote was the result of the letters they had received. This view is simple-minded in the extreme. The strength with which a minority of constituents opposes an issue is not an indication of the general public mood. Basing decisions on letter-writing campaigns is an invitation to the worst sort of organised lobbying campaign. And it is absurd and pathetic to see MPs suddenly decide to defer entirely to their constituents when they make precious little mention of them in day-to-day parliamentary business.

But by far the most entertaining – and dangerous – of all MPs' complaints was the imagined creation of a progressive tyranny in Britain. In this world-view, traditionalists and conservatives are under the yoke of a dictatorship of equality.

Some MPs became so desperate they even used the phrase "equal but different", seemingly unaware of its overtones from the times of segregation in the US. This was a telling comparison. The primary difference is that traditionalists get to tell other people how to live their lives but other people do not. Everyone is equal, but some people are more equal than others.

This view was put most amusingly by Conservative MP Edward Leigh, who described a "merciless prism of equality", which I imagine would make a fine name for a prog rock band. But there are traces of this view in people who still retain the majority of their mental abilities, such as the Guardian's normally sensible Simon Jenkins. He trotted out a tired old fallacy this morning: "The true test of tolerance lies in its treatment of intolerance".

It is true that we must always be civil when engaging in political debate, even in our gladiatorial system. Politeness is not a bourgeois construct. It is the cartilage of political debate, the thing that stops all the harsh rhetoric turning into violence and hatred. 'Manners maketh man' – the slogan employed by Eton-lite school Winchester College – is not as reactionary as it sounds. Manners are a great equaliser: They enforce a common standard of treatment in an unequal society. They prevent political debate from sliding into US-style polarisation or, worse, outright political violence. The most principled way to argue politics is with a raised eyebrow and a slim smile.

But conducting oneself with good manners is not the same as insisting on tolerance towards the intolerant.

The crucial fact of the gay marriage debate is this: no-one is forcing anyone to have or conduct a gay marriage, but the current law prevents people from having one. The intolerance is all one way. The only situation in which the scales would be equal would be if Tory MPs were being forced to marry someone of the same sex, a day dream which, I must admit, I rather enjoy.

This idea, that traditionalists are a hounded minority, is very strong. It is a political device designed to paint the strong as the weak but presumably it must also correspond to a specific human psychological tendency because it is so prevalent. Traditionalists in the Church of England used it to prevent women bishops. It emerged again, weeks later, when the European court ruled against Christians wanting to deny their services as relationship therapists or registrars to gay couples. It comes every time some B&B couple closes their door to homosexuals, every time any progress is made towards a more equal society. The idea is that Christians are the real discriminated minority, and aggressive secularists are the threat.

It is an error of thought. Society is made of competing freedoms. Current legislation stipulates that a gay couple's right to not be discriminated against when paying for a service overrules the Christian's right to refuse their professional services. That is a morally sound judgement, because the Christian can choose to offer their services, but the gay couple cannot chose whether they are gay.

Traditionalists are not being persecuted. They are protesting their inability to persecute others. The act of persecution is not a freedom. Quite the opposite: for freedom to exist, discrimination must be prevented. Casting discrimination as freedom is a grotesque semantic manipulation. It ill-befits any civilised person to use it.

We tolerate the intolerant to precisely this extent: On their own, with the curtains drawn, in much the same circumstances as a gay couple might choose to have sex, they can have whichever nasty, mean-spirited thoughts they like. But they don't get to discriminate against other people and call it freedom. We should treat intolerance with the intolerance it deserves.

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