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No Defense for the Offense

Mar. 26th, 2012
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RALEIGH – This is a tense moment. Economic growth remains lackluster. Gas prices and unemployment rates are high. And in this high-stakes election year, we’re talking not just about our economic woes but also about tough issues such as abortion, a racially charged shooting in Florida, and a North Carolina measure that would create a constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Something happened last week that raised tensions even further. Unfortunately, it happened on a website published by my organization, the John Locke Foundation.

In case you haven’t heard, a freelance contributor to JLF’s Charlotte-focused blog, The Meck Deck, used an offensive illustration and headline to accompany her post about President Obama’s announced opposition to the state’s marriage amendment.

The blogger, Tara Servatius, argued that the president had political motives for intervening in the North Carolina vote. Having stated his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2008, and passed up opportunities since then to weigh in forcefully on the issue in other states, Obama decided to oppose North Carolina’s marriage amendment as a means of reaching out to moderate swing voters, she maintained.

Whatever you think of her argument, it wasn’t offensive. However, she chose to headline the article “Obama Goes Gay to Win NC on Election Day,” which sacrificed good taste to a bad rhyme. And she chose to illustrate the post with an image she found on the Internet of Obama dressed in bondage gear with a bucket of chicken placed between his legs.

It would be difficult to imagine a more revolting depiction of the president of the United States. It would offend virtually anyone who saw it, regardless of one’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political ideology. It would have been embarrassing for such an image to appear on anyone’s blog for any length of time. Unfortunately, it was on the site for two days – from Monday evening to Wednesday evening, when it was first brought to my attention by a reader (thanks, Andy).

I was horrified, outraged, and very sorry that I hadn’t seen it much earlier. The image was immediately taken down, but the damage was done. Whatever Tara’s intentions may have been, we simply don’t publish or condone that kind of thing. But embarrassment isn’t the only damage I mean. As I wrote the next morning:

The political discourse in our state and nation has grown increasingly coarse, unnecessarily personal, and destructively vitriolic. This is the kind of episode that can only make the situation worse. We should be able to disagree about controversial issues without it coming to this.

The problem spans the political spectrum. Be it comparing a Georgetown student to a prostitute, comparing a peaceful conservative activist to a Taliban thug, subjecting Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin to sexist ridicule, or publishing threats of violence against conservative friends of mine – all recent events – extremism in the defense of one’s debating point or personal notoriety is no virtue.

There is nothing wrong with robust policy debate. When we have strong disagreements, we should feel free to argue about them — and to employ humor while doing so. But the use of extreme language, analogies, or images that demean others merely serves to demean ourselves, our causes, and our society. Intention isn’t the point. Outcome is.

Take the issue raised in the Meck Deck post, North Carolina’s marriage amendment. While our bloggers may comment on its political implications or Carolina Journal may publish news stories on the referendum campaign, the John Locke Foundation does not take positions on gay rights, abortion, or other social issues. Other organizations, Left and Right, exist to debate those issues. From our founding in 1989, JLF has focused on fiscal and economic matters. Since I began writing a column for the organization, I have followed the same editorial policy, although I have commented on other issues in other forums.

But in this case I’ll suspend the rule for the sake of illustration. As it happens, JLF staffers and contributors have a wide range of views on social issues, including the marriage amendment. Some support it, based on heartfelt moral or religious convictions. Others oppose it, including me.

I think amending North Carolina’s constitution to forbid gay and lesbian couples from receiving any future legal recognition, including civil unions, is unwise and unfair. In my opinion the real threat to marriage is not the prospect of gay people getting hitched. It is the reality of straight people too quickly resorting to divorce, or never getting hitched in the first place.

Should I assume and say that anyone who supports the amendment, including friends and colleagues, must be a bigot? Should they assume and say that anyone who opposes the amendment must be faithless, or hostile to family values? Not if we want to live and work together in a civil society. And not if we actually want to persuade rather than to preen, persecute, or provoke.

Most North Carolina voters, it seems, are likely to support the amendment. I disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean I should say they all have small minds or evil intent. Once you start down that road, you end up ranting and raving to an ever-shrinking audience characterized by uniform views and smug self-satisfaction.

I know it has become a cliché to make the following point, but some clichés are simply popular distillations of important truths. We should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We should be able to debate political topics without making everything relentlessly and poisonously personal. And we should be able to laugh at ourselves, and among ourselves, even when discussing serious topics.

There is a bright line between levity and offense, however, and the image in question crossed it. Its use was an offense for which there was no defense.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.