In my yet-to-be published debate with Alan Soble about The Peel’s pro-gay door policy for The Philosophers’ Magazine, I argue for The Peel being allowed to decide who it allows in, and he argues for a door policy that does not discriminate on sex or sexual preference.
I think there is a confusion in Soble’s position. On the one hand, he thinks that people should not be disadvantaged because they are gay or straight, or male or female. He supports anti-discrimination law to neutralise so far as possible any negative repercussions of these characteristics (though I am unclear how being straight can be a significant disadvantage, unless you count kids). On the other hand, using anti-discrimination law to prevent gay-only bars entrenches disadvantages of being gay, such as the difficulties involved in identifying and meeting other gay people. You can be gay, but you can’t have institutions that support that characteristic.
A similar confusion is found in VicHealth’s More than tolerance report. It chastises respondents to its survey who would be concerned about a close relative marrying someone from a Christian, Jewish or Muslim background – especially Muslim:
The identification of ‘out-groups’ has the potential not only to affect the health of individuals directly exposed to discriminatory behaviour, but can create a climate of fear and anxiety…
But if you are serious about your own religion, why shouldn’t you be concerned about whether family members share it, and whether it will be passed on to children of the marriage? Like Soble’s stance on homosexuality, it seems that for VicHealth you are allowed to be religious, but you deserve scolding if you want an institution (in this case, the family) to help maintain it.
Where VicHealth goes wrong, I think, is in its rights framework. They insist that ‘discrimination is a human rights violation’, suggesting that rights must be derived from the ‘cultural, religious, racial or linguistic background’ characteristics that concern them. But rights can bite back, since culture, religion and language all rely to some extent on exclusion to maintain their distinctiveness, yet that breaches the equivalent ‘rights’ of others.
Rather than needing to go beyond tolerance, as VicHealth’s title suggests, we need to bring it back as an intellectual framework. Tolerance accepts that certain characteristics are important to others, and that therefore they should be able to live their lives according to the imperatives of those characteristics, without the rest of us stopping them.
This allows for a more contextual approach to those important characteristics. Someone’s religion is most likely irrelevant when they go out shopping or to work, and therefore norms against discrimination (and perhaps laws) make sense. In marriage, family and perhaps education, religion is likely to be important, and so there should be no norms excluding religion from those realms of life. Tolerance means different things in different times and places, just as the characteristics it is trying to protect mean different things in different times and places.