Let's just get this part out of the way: I am an unequivocal supporter of gay marriage. I was bursting with pride when the D.C. Council legalized gay marriage in December 2009.
But my heart fell when I read the Washington Post's article about Gallaudet University placing an employee on leave because she signed a petition calling for a referendum on same-sex marriage in Maryland. The school doesn’t allege that its employee of 23 years, Angela McCaskill, did this on school time or using school resources.
Please note that McCaskill did not even sign a petition against support of same-sex marriage: she advocated putting the matter to a vote in a state where the legislature made a decision that is unpopular with some of its conservative religious population.
Supporters of Gallaudet's move are quick to point out that McCaskill is the university's Chief Diversity Officer, and her signing the petition calls into question her ability to adequately represent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in her official capacity.
Although I understand that point of view, I reject it: I believe Gallaudet is on a witch hunt because McCaskill deviated from the party line of the university by expressing her support for the people having the right to weigh in on an issue of this magnitude. It is worth noting that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a strong proponent of same-sex marriage, and Marylanders for Marriage Equality have called on Gallaudet to reinstate McCaskill. If Gallaudet truly values diversity and independent thought, it will do so quickly.
Unfortunately, I think Gallaudet's response is indicative of a much greater societal problem: that it is no longer ok to civilly disagree with somebody.
Over the past decade, I have noticed an erosion of respect for people with differing beliefs, and worse, an increasing tendency to demonize people who disagree with us. Two recent events come to mind.
First, one of my friends on Facebook posted a comment on my Timeline expressing his worries about the fiscal responsibility of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its impact on quality health care. Another one of my Facebook friends retorted that he must want her diabetic, 20-something year-old son to die, since he would not be able to have continuous health insurance coverage if not for the ACA. I guarantee the original poster meant nothing of the sort.
My other is example is that an acquaintance of mine recently related to me a horrific experience in which he was hit by a vehicle while he was walking on the sidewalk. He kept pointing out that the driver was a "planet killer" because she drove a large sport utility vehicle, and that she worked for the political party that he does not support (he kept calling it "the opposition," which reminded me of a country engaging in a civil war against armed militants). I found those details secondary to the fact that the driver was not of legal drinking age, her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and that she took no responsibility for her actions.
I am only 36, but I do remember a time when it seemed like people knew how to civilly disagree without demonizing people with differing opinions, even on issues of great importance, like same-sex marriage. I'm not sure what has changed in our society. I think that the Internet is certainly a player in this phenomenon: it makes it very easy to carefully choose the media we consume, so we are only taking in news from sources that support our opinions.
Furthermore, instant connection means that we are bombarded with information, and it is supremely easy to mouth off with little thought and even fewer consequences, especially on social networking sites. Most of us pick friends with similar points of view and mix less and less with people who challenge our world views. Perhaps as our social circles have become more siloed, we have literally forgotten how to be respectful of people with different perspectives.
Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to stand your ground in a debate. What concerns me is the vitriol and ad-hominem attacks that populate most of those exchanges (see my comment above about the Facebook exchange about the ACA). It is possible to disagree with someone about ideas without characterizing them as bigoted, stupid or uninformed.
For example, a close friend of mine who is very religious does not support same-sex marriage because she is afraid her church will be forced to sanctify unions that it declares impermissible according to its doctrine. Instead, she would prefer for the government to get out of the marriage business entirely, only granting civil unions to couples of any gender and leaving "marriage" as a private matter for different religions to handle as they see fit. Although you can reasonably disagree with my friend's position, it is not bigoted in the slightest, though she has been accused of being so.
We all need to remember that intelligent, kind, generous, thoughtful people can have differing opinions -- even ones we find abhorrent. Engage them in debates. Put more energy into supporting causes that affirm your beliefs. But don't demonize others. We all come into this world with very different life circumstances and experiences that shape our opinions. Let us agree to politely disagree.