When attempting to score points against debate opponents, there are certain ideas that commentators should not call to mind. Never. Like ever.
The Holocaust is the most prominent example. Debaters who insist on using it (or Hitler or Nazis) as a tactical line against their adversaries have inspired a principle now commonly known as Godwin's Law ("As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches."). Those who do choose to use such ahistorical flourishes are said to automoatically lose the debate since the willingness to go there has proven an intent or motivation that transcends fair discord.
But Nazi imagery isn't the only non-starter that certain debaters sometimes use even though they really shouldn't. Another big one is slavery. The notion of owning and suppressing a minority population is such a disturbing blight on history that it really shouldn't be used as an analogue for any modern political debate that doesn't directly involve human enslavement. This should go without saying.
Unfortunately, the anti-equality activists who fight against marriage for same-sex couples don't seem to agree. In just the past week, I've stumbled on no less than three examples of highly engaged anti-LGBT commentators either equating their cause with the freeing of slaves or comparing our families with slavery itself.
First we have National Organization For Marriage president Brian Brown. In a speech he delivered at an anti-equality rally in Utah, the NOM head asserted that his cause against same-sex couples is on par with ending Roman gladiator fights and that his is the one truly carrying on Dr. King's legacy. Oh, and he, the man who leads every fight against same-sex couples' freedoms in every state where they come up for debate, is somehow like those who fought to end the British slave trade. Have a listen:
Because Christians were, in fact, involved in ending these historical wrongs, Brian just takes it upon himself to transfer those past acts onto his current efforts. He makes no case in terms of merit, no parallels that actually speak to what the fights meant/mean for the populations that were/are suffering under them, and no acknowledgement of the fact that many modern people of faith actually fight in favor of marriage equality. Brian's reductive assertion is that because Christians were there then and some Christians choose to be with him now, then is just like now. His canard of a claim is both intellectually weak and deeply offensive.
But the offenses did not end there. At that very same rally—the exact same one!—organizers played a video message from Robert Oscar López, the activist who has made something of a name for himself because of his insistence that same-sex parents (and really, by logical extension, all adoptive parents, too) are essentially modern day slave owners. R.O.L. repeats this or some variant of this claim with astounding frequency, so it was no surprise to hear him do it again at the Utah rally. Clip is cued to the right spot:
I've written about Lopez a few times, and it is no secret that I find this claim parenting = slavery claim to be one of the most heinous talking points in all of the anti-gay kingdom. And not just because I myself am a gay parent, but because it is just a truly shocking thing to say about loving families and the different paths toward their creation. It's a rhetorical assault at both certain kinds of parents and certain kinds of parents. In a healthier debate culture, both those who advocate in favor of LGBT equality and those who advocate against it would equally denounce Mr. Lopez' rhetoric.
But ours is not the healthiest debate culture, sadly, which is why the slavery meme is able to take rise. And take rise it did a third time in the past week, when Focus on the Family staffer Jeff Johnston, who identifies as an "ex-gay" man and who covers marriage and sexuality issues for the conservative special interest group, echoed Brian Brown's comments about the modern marriage fight. Johnston said of his mission:
"We want to make a difference in the world around us. My sons and I have been reading about William Wilberforce, who set out to eliminate the slave trade in England — and then to eliminate slavery. He also wanted to change the moral character of English society — to model and teach healthy, virtuous living. That’s what we want to do." [SOURCE: Focus on the Family's CitizenLink]
Here again we have a man who works to deny rights to others saying, without apparent hesitation or irony, that his 2014 efforts are the bearers of a legacy that so boldly and nobly lessened human suffering. Focus on the Family's Johnston, like the National Organization For Marriage's Brown, is seriously suggesting that his movement against LGBT rights (in additon to LGB rights, Johnston recently claimed that trans kids have "a very treatable disorder")is the one that is keeping lit the torch of freedom. They are the emancipators, they claim.
Not only is the equivalency way off, but so is the tone. It's not just that these three men are wrong in their parallels—they are also just plain wrong for making such comparisons. Even though I do, without apology, believe that the cause for marriage equality is the much more logical bearer of any legacy that freed an oppressed people, I still wouldn't shoehorn the heinous reality of slavery into our current discourse. This is not that; some brute injustices are so beyond comprehension that they deserve their own sort of rhetorical quarantining.
That these three men who hold prominent roles in "protect marriage" movement are so willing to transfer images of slavery onto their modern cause tells me quite a lot about both the high regard they have for themselves and the shockingly low regard they have for us, our families, and our deserve civil freedoms.