Minimizing Casualties in the Culture War

Brendan EichThe culture war continues to make its effects felt, as last week the CEO of a technology firm lost his job for taking part in the fighting six years ago. Brendan Eich’s departure from Mozilla is in itself no tragedy, but it may be true, as Conor Friedersdorf argued in The Atlantic, that the move represents an affront to the values of a pluralistic society, and will have a chilling effect on political discourse.

Whether or not this is the case, the impassioned, sometimes vengeful response of some vocal progressives to Eich’s misdeeds and subsequent displacement seem to reveal a societal short-sightedness about cultural change itself.

Last year I wrote that the present wave of social progressivism had moved quickly, and that it was unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Social conservatives feel as in the position of veteran employees under new management, chastised for being slow to give up on the old rules, and still feeling affection for the old boss.

A fact easily forgotten by ideologues of any affiliation, left or right, is that the current cultural consensus does not foresee its own advance, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek. The main implication of this fact is the near-certainty that in our lifetimes there will be more sea changes in public opinion—and on issues we have hardly yet considered.

If liberals do not move with the tide on these future issues, as they have with marriage laws, they will at some point be in the position of gay marriage’s current opponents. Conceiving of the future is difficult, so it is worth bringing up a few possible scenarios.

For example, given recent history, it is not ridiculous to speculate that in the next few decades public opinion on polyamorous marriage could reverse. Supporters of the cause have already begun making the comparison to gay marriage. And if changing academic perspectives are any hint, pedophilia may see itself transformed from perversion to orientation. A growing transgender rights movement could lead to far-reaching institutional changes that would alter the way we talk about gender. Religious exemptions can hardly be generally guaranteed.

Looking further down the road: If animal rights attitudes shift, common farming and ranching practices could be banned and meat-eaters could face moral censure. Alcohol could go the way of tobacco and lose its place as the last widely acceptable recreational drug. The abortion dialogue could continue to trend rightward, creating a pro-life status-quo.

The headlines are not difficult to dream up: “Polyamory rights group wins suit against religious group.” “Physicians directed to provide therapeutic virtual child porn for minor-attracted persons.” “Mosque loses fight to require gender identification.” “Governor seeks to bring past abortion providers to trial.”

These hypothetical examples sound absurd, and it may indeed be the case that they are—but if radical changes seem unthinkable it is worth considering that to those whose memory goes back more than two decades, so once would have the headline, “CEO opposed to same-sex marriage steps down amid controversy.”

But the likelihood (or rightness or wrongness) of these particular contingencies is not the point, if we accept that whatever the affiliation of today’s political observers, they could before too long find themselves forced to become a conspicuous enemy of public opinion.

For this reason, it would be wise for today’s cultural conquerors to act with magnanimity and grace toward their conquered, the way Friedersdorf and Andrew Sullivan have done. But in our electrically polarized political culture, theirs is not often the attitude that prevails. Sullivan laments, after hearing feedback from his readers, “only a small percentage of emailers are as disgusted as I am.”

Ross Douthat recently wrote an almost epitaphic letter to the officers of the marriage battle (he titled it The Terms of Our Surrender). Acknowledging that Christians and conservatives have not always acted with restraint when in the position of victor, he requested only that the winning side in this conflict “recognize its power”. To their credit, many intellectuals on that side are doing so.

But I would extend Douthat’s metaphor a little further and plead for a little more, given all of our shared history and unavoidable future. We live in a ceaselessly changing culture, and all of us, conservatives and liberals alike, could at one point find ourselves in a position like Brendan Eich’s, having made, say, a donation to a majority political cause a few years earlier.

When new battles place some of us on the unexpected defense, our moral territory in the culture war left all at once deserted by the forces of popular opinion, is it too much to ask that the victors offer the defeated, at least until the surrender has been negotiated, clemency for having defended the losing side?

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