We’re Doing This Wrong

I know, I know, it’s been a few weeks since the election, but I needed some time to organize and articulate my thoughts here. And today seems to be a timely one to talk about this issue, since I discussed Will Phillips (who knows what’s what) and the Transgender Day of Remembrance earlier.

Because, here’s the thing: We should not be asking the majority to decide on the rights of the minority.

It just doesn’t make sense. Even if you’re not a member of the minority, surely you should see how this approach is incredibly problematic. What do majorities like to do? They like to retain their majority. It is the nature of the majority, and, honestly, the nature of social psychology. The majority will protect itself, even if it means actively oppressing the minority in order to do so, and this means that when things which involve the rights of minorities are brought to a vote, they are going to lose.

If white people had voted on whether or not Black people should be allowed to vote, it would have taken a lot longer to extend the right to vote to Blacks. Instead, the government decided that it needed to protect the rights of the minority, and so it made a law. Likewise, if white people had voted on whether or not interracial marriage should be allowed, it probably wouldn’t have been. Which is why individual state governments moved legislation through to strike down anti-miscegenation laws.

Because governments are obliged to defend and protect all of their citizens, not just the majority, even though they don’t always do a terrific job of protecting minorities. The system of government, in fact, is structured in a way which recognizes this, accepting that the majority cannot and should not decide what should happen to the minority, or we’re going to be here forever. Stuck this way. Disempowered.

Same sex marriage should not be put on the ballot for a vote. Just like abortion should not be on the ballot for a vote. Just like protections for trans people should not be on the ballot for a vote. Because the majority is going to vote to protect its interests, for the most part, and that means that these measures are going to fail. And once a vote has gone through, it’s going to be harder to repeal, because of this whole “will of the people” argument that will get hauled out to defend inequality.

It’s a sad fact that most people, to some extent, want inequality if it’s going to protect their position of power. Very few people are willing to vote against their interests when doing so means that they will lose power and privilege. And this means that when you ask a mostly hetero society whether or not people of the same gender should be allowed to marry, society is going to say “no.”

But society should not get to decide.

Society as a collective should not have the right to choose for the minority. It just doesn’t make sense.

This is a case in which the federal government should step in to take action. Because the government has the power to repeal DOMA, which would set the stage for widespread legalization by the state governments. The people don’t get consulted on this one, because their opinion, honestly, doesn’t matter. The question is not what the majority wants, the question is what the minority needs. [1. And no, marriage is not the most pressing and important need of folks in the LGBQT community, at all, but it is a symbol, and a potent one, at that. It’s a concrete concept which could be used to advance more abstract ones. Although I would prefer that we rethink our approach to partnerships recognized by the government; I would prefer all legally recognized relationships to be civil unions, with marriage being an optional private ceremony which people can choose to engage in or not. We need to get God out of the government, and marriage is very much a God thing.]

Just as we should not have a measure on the ballot asking whether or not Latin@ children should be allowed to go to school. Just as we should not have a measure on the ballot asking if Asian people should be allowed to own property. Just as we should not have a measure on the ballot asking if it’s ok to keep Black people as slaves. Just as we should not have a measure on the ballot asking if employers should have the privilege to fire people with disabilities because they are disabled.

The majority will defend itself. The majority is an organism, of sorts, and it is going to protect itself because that is all that it knows how to do. The majority does not care about equality, in fact, it senses equality as a threat, which means that it is going to fight it.

This is why the majority should not have been allowed to decide for the minority, ever.

We, collectively, as a society, are doing this wrong if we cannot recognize that measures about minority rights do not belong on the ballot. They shouldn’t have been on the ballot in the first place, people should not be pushing to add them to the ballot, and, in fact, we need to reform this whole voting and elections system to make sure that human rights issues are not put to a majority vote.

And, while we’re at it, we need to talk about how ballot measures are framed. Because the language is extremely confusing. I know some pro-equality folks who voted yes on 8 last November because they should “yes” meant “yes to same sex marriage.” The language around Referendum 71 in Washington this year was equally confusing.

This was not accidental. There was a very deliberate choice to make things as confusing as possible to entrap people. To trick people into voting against their beliefs. This kind of misleading, confusing language needs to be eradicated on all ballot measures, and we need to make sure that people understand what yes and no votes actually mean. The language in the voter’s guide is usually useless and equally misleading. We may have a high literacy rate on paper here, but many Americans are functionally illiterate, unable to understand things like wording in a voter’s guide, and we need to address this. People should know what their vote means so that they can actually exercise choice at the polls.

And they should only be choosing on things which are appropriate to put to the vote. Human rights? Not a voting matter. State budgets? Not a voting matter. There’s a reason the government is structured the way it is, and subverting that is not always appropriate.

10 Replies to “We’re Doing This Wrong”

  1. Here! Here!

    Absolutely spot-on! I couldn’t agree more.

    If we are to continue having people vote on these types of things, perhaps we ought to stop preaching that people vote their “enlightened self interest”. Rather they should review their American core foundation and vote “all people created equally” and thus recognize right from wrong.

    It’s fine by me that people believe that “X is against God” and therefore against their “self interest”, but beneath that must be the foundation of American belief to allow them to say “but I won’t vote to enforce my belief on others”.

  2. What’s interesting to me about a lot of the human rights-related stuff on the ballots of late is that a lot of it has felt, to me, like a referendum on the Constitution. Now, I’m pretty sure that the Founders would have been opposed to same sex marriage, but you’ll note that the Constitution didn’t include any clauses about oppressing people who disagree with you being ok. (Well, ok, except for the atrocious treatment of American Blacks; maybe they would have had a bit about same sex marriage in there but it was so far beyond the realm of the imagination at that point that probably no one thought of it, let alone suggested adding it in.)

    It’s actually a surprisingly flexible and still relevant document which places a lot of emphasis on individual freedoms and the preservation of the idea that all people should be equal; things like Prop 8 really fly in the face of that. What does it tell us when people who natter on about “defending the Constitution” are actually trying to undermine a lot of its core values?

  3. Seconded, especially re: civil unions for all or separating government and religion from the business of partnership contracts. What’s particularly disheartening is that there are several religious groups (including some Christians) who are ready and eager to perform ceremonies (marriage or civil union or domestic partnership) for LGBTQ couples. But the loudest and most conservative voices claim to speak for “the Bible” and “God/Jesus” as being against marriage equality and I think that’s a real shame.

    Also, voting on peoples’ rights! Whoever decided this was okay? I should like to have a very stern (perhaps cranky) word with them. I am not, however, surprised to see the hypocrisy among those proclaiming to uphold Constitutional values while undermining those very principles. (Ditto Christians upholding “Biblical values”, etc.) It is, as you say, a functional illiteracy among a large swathe of the American public. Many people who loudly state their understanding of various documents have either not read or not understood the texts they claim to value so highly. It is incredibly frustrating and difficult to counter, because the people in question usually won’t acknowledge that their views don’t align with the text.

  4. The D.C. Board of Elections has repeatedly turned down requests to put a marriage ban up to a vote, as such a law would violate the D.C. Human Rights Act. Of course, we don’t have same-sex marriage in D.C. yet, but it’s moving through the legislature now, so fingers crossed! It has always *sounded* illegal, to me, for states to put civil rights up to a popular vote. Then again, most states don’t have a wonderfully comprehensive Human Rights Act like we do

  5. Clearly the State of California could take a few lessons from the DC Board of Elections, because our ballots have been a mess for years, even before we started putting civil rights issues to the popular vote.

  6. It’s interesting that straight folks don’t get that marriage equality would BENEFIT them as well. My partner and I aren’t married and hello, if something were to happen to him, godforbid, there is more than a slight chance I wouldn’t be allowed at his bedside or to be a part of team making medical choices for him (if he were unable to do so) because I AM NOT MARRIED TO HIM.

    Why aren’t long term, but unmarried straight couples not getting on board. Because eventually the inequitable treatment is going to correct itself and NOBODY but next o’ kin will be able to participate in the lives and decisions of their partners.

    Granted, these policies are disproportionately enforced when gay couples are involved, but basically any time your partner’s family doesn’t like you and you’re not married to that person YOUR RIGHTS ARE NOT PROTECTED.

  7. Society as a collective should not have the right to choose for the minority. It just doesn’t make sense.

    I believe this was basically the same statement/reasoning Jean Chretien used when passing the 2005 same-sex marriage legislation.


    When I heard him say it, at the time, I was like “Right the fuck on.” Because seriously, if it had been up to the majority to vote on right of black people and women to vote, who the hell knows if we’d all be allowed to vote, even now?

    It’s a ridiculous logical fallacy to assume that, based on principles of democracy, individual civil rights are up for vote. Ah, no. That’s not how it works.

  8. Sadly, our society must misstep and trip over itself until the older generation dies off and the younger people realize that there was no real reason to deny other people the same rights they enjoy.

    I wish the ‘mass’ was better than that, but it isn’t, the voting part at least. This is why those of us that because of our birth and sexuality are allowed to enjoy the ‘blessings of freedom’ have a duty to those that are denied to raise our children to respect and see everyone as deserving of the same rights. It is the only sure way to prevent the hatred that forces people to even need to fight for their rights in the first place. We owe it to everyone to stand up and make it clear that no one has to earn their rights because rights are not given, they are inherent to a person simply being alive.

    I don’t think anyone has to like any other person or group, but at the bare minimum they do have to concede that either we all get a right, or no one does.

  9. Well now, the older generation isn’t all bad. There are tons of older folks who are very supportive of human rights issues (not least because some of those folks belong to the groups being kept down), and there are plenty of bigots in the younger generation who are very invested in denying rights to their fellow human beings.

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