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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20 Comments.

  1. You’re last line just about sums it up.

    Nice post!

  2. Mike, thank you for your call to civil discourse. As one who holds an “against” position to same sex marriage, I find it increasingly common for others to belittle me and resort to name-calling instead of offering reasons for their view and against my own. We in this nation are losing the ability to disagree without hostility. I appreciate your well thought out response to the uproar surrounding Prejean and Hilton.

  3. Tysdaddy: Thanks. I do suspect that it can get lower: just when you think it has hit bottom, someone shows up with a backhoe.

  4. As someone who is against SSM let me just say she lost because she worded her position in the worst possible way… and she needs to admit that…

  5. James: although I hold the “for” position, I think that people can reasonable hold to an “against” position and present arguments worth considering. Ethical and social problems aren’t easy and we don’t make any advance by resorting to the approach taken by Hilton.

    Also, from a practical standpoint, Hilton does not do his cause any good. While his behavior is not logically relevant to the merit of his position, it probably has helped to push at least a few people away from same sex marriage.

  6. Jeremy Goodman

    Is interracial marriage an issue that can, “obviously enough, still be debated in good conscience”?

  7. “”””
    Is interracial marriage an issue that can, “obviously enough, still be debated in good conscience”?
    “”””

    What does gay marriage and interracial marriage really have to do with each other?

    http://www.amazon.com/Three-Rival-Versions-Moral-Enquiry/dp/0268018774

  8. Jeremy: I was waiting for someone to make that point.

    On one hand, it would seem to be morally repugnant to say that someone could debate that in good conscience. After all, that issue is generally accepted as settled in the West and anyone who is against interracial marriage is generally easily branded and dismissed as a racist.

    On the other hand, to set a subject as being off limit to discussion and taking those who discuss it to be off bad conscience would seem to be unphilosophical. This does, of course, raise questions about what subjects should be considered unfit even for abstract, intellectual discussion.

    I still have students in my ethics class write papers on interracial relationships (I teach at Florida A&M University, a historically black university). While most students have argued for such relationships, I have read well-written papers that have argued against them. In some cases, the students did seem to be honestly and sincerely engaging the issue. As such, I would say that they were debating it in good conscience.

    Of course, some people might insist that by taking what would seem to be a racist position, the students must be immoral and operating in bad conscience. This is, clearly enough, a matter well worth considering.

    So, can someone in good conscience argue for a side that most would regard as immoral?

  9. “Can someone in good conscience argue for a side that most would regard as immoral?”

    Sure. One could have argued in favor in gay marriage back when most people considered it to be immoral. One could in good conscience argue in favor of legalizing sex between an adult and a consenting teenager, although most people would consider that to be immoral.

  10. Mike, I think Obama and the Clintons get no flack for their position on gay marriage because lots of people suspect it isn’t really their position. You simply couldn’t support gay marriage and win national office. We all “get” that and prefer candidates who are pragmatic winners to candidates who always say what they believe, but lose.

  11. Obama and the Clintons DO get flack for their positions. The flack simply isn’t mainstreamed. I frequent some prominent left wing blogs now and then and I have read plenty of critical commentary on Obama and the Clintons on this issue, though none of it was particularly hateful.

    As for myself, I have a no subject off limits policy when discussing morality. The second you think you have figured morality out top to bottom you’re just a dogmatist in my view. That’s fine (inevitable) for society at large, but it’s not acceptable for people who would like to be called philosophers. You might get yourself fed some hemlock though in some quarters.

  12. Faust, Well OK, some flack, but not a lot, especially not in the period before the election. Everyone knows that supporting gay marriage would have made them unelectable. Doesn’t that seem about right?

  13. True, Obama had to take a stance against same sex marriage in order to win the election. Of course, some might have reservations about people who pragmatically set aside their (alleged) moral principles in order to win an election. But, some might not.

  14. I don’t know that it CERTAINLY would have cost them the election, but it MIGHT have, and that’s not a risk a pol is going to take if they have any choice in the matter.

  15. Miss. California, not Ms. California

  16. Very nicely reasoned. The dialog on this subject has reached new lows with Hilton’s diatribe.

  17. I think that the fact that she’s partaking in a beauty pageant, an inherently sexist institution, should be taken into consideration.

    I’m not sold either way…if Hilton’s rant on Prejean was sexist.

    Also, Hilton runs a gossip mag that gets a fair amount of its traffic through exactly these controversies. It’s a set up for self propaganda.

    I just feel like to discuss these important matters (same sex marriage) through the lens of hardly-debatably sexist AND heterosexist beauty contests is to demean them in some way. Especially when all this controversy is not necessary delving any deeper into the issues themselves, and instead, it’s just getting more page hits for Hilton’s site.

  18. Stick to your opinions young lady, and don’t permit others to dissuade you from what you think and feel. Please be open to other persons opinions also.

    I’m an old fella (79) ,but having your own opinion based on objective study is what counts. “Go Girl”. I’m married and wound do it again, but I’m open to same sex persons joining together if happiness is there.

  19. Carrie,
    You go girl! My brother is GAY. He knows how I feel. We agree to dis-agree. We still are loving siblings and I love him. I believe in freedom of speech from all aspects. The one thing people cannot take away from us, is what we think and believe in!

  20. To each their own.

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