Defending Ms. California

During a beauty pagent self proclaimed “gossip queen” Perez Hilton asked Ms. California (Carrie Prejean) what she thought about same-sex marriage. She gave a rather mild and fairly common answer in which she endorsed freedom of choice and also expressed her view that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Since this is the same view publicly held by Obama and the Clintons, you would think that her remarks would have been quickly forgotten. However, this was not the case.

Instead of present a mature rebuttal of her position, Hilton responded with a rather hateful video blog, repeatedly using obscene words.  This has led to various other people attacking  her on this issue. Fortunately, some sensible folks have come to her defense, such as CNN’s Roland S. Martin. Since I am a sensible person, I will be defending her as well.

Before getting to my argument, let it be known that I support same sex marriage. I’ve argued elsewhere for this, but the gist of my case is that marriage is essentially a legal and economic contract. As such, adults should be able to enter into such a contract regardless of gender. In any case, my position on same sex marriage is not relevant to the issue at hand.

Naturally, some might wonder how I can be for same-sex marriage and also come to the defense of Ms. California. In reply, I am not defending her position-I think that her view is mistaken. However, I believe that she has liberty of both thought and expression (if an argument is wanting, I recommend John Stuart Mill‘s excellent essay on liberty).

While it might be claimed that Hilton is merely exercising his own right of expression, it is also reasonable to see his attacks as an attempt to infringe on the rights of others. If Hilton had presented an argument against her view or merely expressed his own position on the issue, then he would have been exercising his rights. However, his response was to attack her personally rather than to argue against her view.

On one hand, his reply could be seen as a tasteless, hateful, irrational, sexist and immature rant. On this interpretation, he can be criticized for his poor manners and apparent sexism. On the other hand, the venom of his reply could be seen as an attempt at coercion and an attack on her right to hold and express views that are different from his own. On this view, the message he can be seen as sending is that people can say what they like, provided that they agree with him.

Naturally, it might be replied that Hilton has the right to attack Ms. Prejean, even if his intent is to coerce her and others into accepting his view. After all, one might argue, argumentation and persuasion are simply part of the process of debate and discussion. Further, we certainly do not have the right to be free of criticism.

In reply, it is important to distinguish between criticism (even hateful criticism) and attempts to silence those with different views. Clearly, attempting to simply silence those with different views would be a violation of their moral right to the liberty of expression. If that is Hilton’s objective, then he is in the wrong because he has no more right to silence her than she has to silence him. If he is trying to refute her position, then he has not succeeded-he has merely made it only more clear what sort of person he is (or wishes the public to believe he is).

Someone might object to my position by asserting that Ms. Prejean’s view is wrong and hence she should be subject to such attacks. A person might use an analogy and note that if Ms. Prejean had said that she was opposed to people of different ethnic groups marrying each other, then no one would be defending her.

This objection does have some merit. After all, the liberty of expression is not an absolute right. For example, a person does not have the right to slander others or to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Also, there has been much talk about limiting hate speech. What these all have in common is that a person’s right of expression is limited if his expression would cause harm to others. So, someone could argue that Ms. Prejean should be silenced because her expression of that opinion is harmful to the cause of same sex marriage. Naturally, this rests on the assumption that same sex marriage is morally acceptable and that her speaking against it would be harmful enough to warrant taking such action against her.

In reply, both of these assumptions can be challenged. While I agree that same sex marriage is morally acceptable, this issue can, obviously enough, still be debated in good conscience. As such, merely being against same sex marriage does not seem to be adequate grounds for attacking someone. Also, in the case of Ms. Prejean, her reply seems unlikely to create much harm. In contrast, Hilton’s hateful attack on her might prove far more harmful by serving to bring internet dialogue even lower than it already is (assuming that is even possible).

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