In the comments thread to one of Dale Carpenter's posts on same-sex marriage, I admonished a commenter for calling another's comments "asinine." A third commenter responded:
Lessons I learned from Professor Volokh: Using the word 'assinine' is wrong, but comparing gay people to brother/sister incest is OK.
Racial invective, wrong. Incest comparison, OK.
Religious bigotry, wrong. Incest comparisons, OK.
Sexism... well, that's usualy OK, as long as it's not too overt. But if it's overt, it's wrong, and comparing same sex relationships to incest is OK. . . .
Except for his bottom line, the commenter is almost precisely correct: Our general policy in the comments is generally to tolerate a vast range of substantive argument, because it's important that those arguments be aired. For instance, the analogy of same-sex marriage to incestuous marriage is sometimes an important and eminently legitimate argument (though most certainly not a dispositive one, which is why I myself support recognizing same-sex marriage but do not support recognizing most incestuous marriages). To take the most obvious example, if someone is arguing — as Dale Carpenter is not, but as some do — that consenting adults have an inherent right to have their marriages be legally recognized, then it's entirely fair (and in my view persuasive on this point) to point out that this argument would legitimize incestuous marriages as well as same-sex marriages.
However, all arguments — good or bad, bigoted or saintly — should be framed without the use of personal insults or invective, since such devices are not only offensive and likely to lead to a worsening of the discussion, but also unnecessary. Offensive ideas, fine; offensive modes of expressing those ideas, unnecessary and thus not fine. Cohen v. California is a good guide for constraining government repression of speech. I don't think it's a necessary or wise rule for editorial decisions in publications such as this one.
My critic then responded: "You're failing to see that the legitimizing of the analogy is, in it's self, an insult. Incest is not mentioned because it's gaoing to happen, it's mentioned because there's a moral taboo around it, and an odd one, because distant cousins marrying is somewhat OK, but not siblings. Siblings don't choose to marry knowing they're siblings, but the comparison contains the same taboo. What the opponents of same sex marriage are trying to do is invoke the taboo, and the sense of moral dissaproval. It's the same with the 'gays are promiscuous' attacks. Cloaking it in politeese changes nothing. Bigotry is by nature, rude."
Folks, let me mention something that I hoped I didn't need to: If you don't like reading arguments that condemn homosexuality or homosexual relationships, don't read a debate on same-sex marriage. Conversely, if we were to exclude all arguments that you think of as "bigotry" against homosexuals, or that convey "moral disapproval" of homosexuality, it wouldn't be much of a debate, would it?
As it happens, I support legislative recognition of same-sex marriage, for many of the reasons that Dale does. I hope that the debate between Maggie Gallagher and Dale Carpenter will persuade some readers to join me in this. I think that our side has the better arguments, so I'm happy — both as an abstract intellectual matter and as a tactical political matter — to have people hear both sides.
But you can't rebut substantive arguments by simply condemning them as rude "moral disapproval" of homosexuality. The whole point is that many people do morally disapprove, in some measure, of homosexuality, or at least find homosexual relationships less morally worthy than heterosexual ones. To persuade the audience, you have to let these arguments be aired and then respond to them on the merits. That, at any rate, is the theory of this blog.
Finally, as I've noted before, let me preemptively respond to the near certain response: "But would you let commenters advocate the Holocaust? Slavery? Mass rape?" Well, though I support same-sex marriage, we need to have some sense of perspective: The denial of equal rights here ain't the Holocaust. There may well be a pale that certain things are beyond. Yet the pale should be pretty far out, and the fact that advocacy of mass murder is beyond it doesn't tell us much about condemnation of homosexuality.
But — vastly more importantly — no matter how deeply you support equal rights for gays and lesbians, remember that we are in the minority. Some views are so marginal that you can just ignore them, or conclusorily condemn them as evil and not see the need to confront them on the merits. That's just not true as to opposition to same-sex marriage, or condemnation of homosexuality. You're up against the majority view. It's got to be confronted, not just peremptorily dismissed as rude. Get clear on that, and perhaps you'll win; ignore it, and you'll lose.