Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Road to Equality is Paved with Millions of Pebbles of Support

Last week's Supreme Court rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA were positive in their ultimate effect on marriage equality (despite the narrowness of each and the problematic reasoning that got the positive result in the case of Prop 8).  And despite the narrowness of each ruling, it is clear that public opinion of marriage equality is moving in the right direction and at a rapid pace.  

A 2013 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 58% of Americans support legalization of same sex marriage.  In 2004 public support was at 32%.  That's pretty dramatic change in public opinion and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to rise.  And while there might be an upper limit to public support in the short term, at some point public support will reach a 'critical mass' where opposing and/or not supporting marriage equality will be politically problematic.  Its possible that we we are in the process of crossing that fuzzy threshold.  The Supreme Court rulings will likely serve to further legitimize the idea of marriage equality (to say nothing of the fact that the court basically punted and that the Supreme Court should hardly be seen as a beacon of justice, ironically enough).

But this brings me to the point of this post, which I have actually been meaning to write since the court started hearing arguments back in March on the Prop 8 and DOMA cases.  This is when the facebook meme of posting the graphic to the right went viral.  It was rather refreshing to see so many 'friends'  expressing support for equality.  

And then there were the naysayers poo-pooing the whole thing.  My favorite one though was along the lines of: oh its a good thing everyone changed their profile picture, not the Supreme Court can rule in favor of the gays.

This is an interesting rebuttal to such 'activism'.  First, there is the idea that the Supreme Court is not in the business of pandering to public opinion.  The Supreme Court's job is to rule on the constitutionality of laws brought before it.  Of course, I would welcome such a court.  But that isn't the world we live in.  To any observer that reads beyond the headlines of the court's rulings, it is clear that all of the justices have their own political opinions and are rule according to those politics.  However, the dividing lines are a bit more complicated than the national politics of Democrats and Republicans.  

Secondly, whether or not the court should be responsive to public opinion, it undeniably is.  Otherwise you wouldn't get a Plessy v Ferguson ruling one way and a Brown v Board of Education that completely invalidates the former.  Even while the justices changed, the 14th amendment didn't over that period of time, which was the basis for the Brown ruling.

Finally, regardless of whether the Supreme Court is counting up how many people changed their profile picture (its not...but maybe the NSA is (!)), it should go without saying that the more people express support for equality, the more people will support equality.  That is, people take notice when their peers express an opinion, and when those expressing an opinion are of sufficient quantity, there comes a social pressure to at least revisit any latent or explicit homophobia.  

But let's not stop there.  Because, remember these are the people that are electing our lawmakers.  The very lawmakers that can legislate bigotry and discrimination or justice and equality.  So while the effect of one person is negligible, it nevertheless contributes to the effort.  And without many individuals making that similar choice to express themselves, there is no social pressure to support equality, by their peers or by lawmakers or by justices.

This seems obvious, but apparently it isn't to everyone.  So let's get scientific.  

In a study by psychologist Wll Gervais, published in thePersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it was found that, as his title says, Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice.  Of course, this is looking at prejudice against atheists, but I think the factors that lead to prejudice against atheists are likely similar to those leading to prejudice against same-sex couples, namely lack of personal ties to such people and caricatured  images of how same sex people and atheists behave.  Here's the abstract:
Although prejudice is typically positively related to relative outgroup size, four studies found converging evidence that perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Study I demonstrated that anti-atheist prejudice among religious believers is reduced in countries in which atheists are especially prevalent. Study 2 demonstrated that perceived atheist prevalence is negatively associated with anti-atheist prejudice. Study 3 demonstrated a causal relationship: Reminders of atheist prevalence reduced explicit distrust of atheists. These results appeared distinct from intergroup contact effects. Study 4 demonstrated that prevalence information decreased implicit atheist distrust. The latter two experiments provide the first evidence that mere prevalence information can reduce prejudice against any outgroup. These findings offer insights about anti-atheist prejudice, a poorly understood phenomenon. Furthermore, they suggest both novel directions for future prejudice research and potential interventions that could reduce a variety of prejudices.
These results only further the rationale for small expressions of support for equality on facebook.  That such expression was amenable to going viral, only amplified its effect.

It will be very interesting to see when (not if) marriage equality is universal and without exception.  I think Ed Brayton has a strong hypothesis that will be tested over the next few years:
Gabriel Arana suggests that the justices “have little desire to get too far ahead of public opinion.” This is a longstanding pattern of the court. They did not invalidate state laws against interracial marriage until more than 25 states had repealed theirs, for instance. So they opted to punt on the Prop 8 case and keep its effect limited and opted to go with a federalism decision on DOMA, again to avoid going too far.
There are a bunch of cases working their way up that involve direct challenges to state bans on same-sex marriage, cases that don’t have convenient ways for the court to avoid ruling on that core question. And the court can only duck them for so long. As I’ve predicted for the last couple years, I think we’re going to see in 2014 and 2016 a handful of states repeal the bans on same-sex marriage they passed in 2004 and 2006. Once that happens, the critical mass that equality advocates have been seeking starts to become a reality.
It took the court 17 years to go from upholding state sodomy laws in Bower to overturning them in Lawrence. But the pace of change is much faster today in the age of social media, both in terms of public opinion and political considerations. I predict that marriage equality will be a nationwide reality, ordered by the Supreme Court, within 8 years. 

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