Whatever your view on marriage, whether you hold to the traditional man and woman model or a gender-blind union, the case of Ashers Backing Company vs Gareth Lee mirrors troubling characteristics of our society: a misunderstanding of tolerance and a gladiatorial approach to deciding what’s acceptable.
Mr Lee had asked Ashers Baking Company to bake a cake bearing a message promoting same-sex marriage. They refused, as they felt it compromised their beliefs and traditional view on marriage. Mr Lee’s case was taken on by the Equal Rights Commission. At the conclusion to the court case that followed the judgement was made against the bakers: Ashers Baking Company were found to have discriminated against Mr Lee (see The Guardian’s Joshua Rosenberg’s summing up of the case). Ashers have lodged an appeal against the verdict (the links in this paragraph give more information on the various aspects and sides to the case).
You may be indifferent to the case. The judgement may hurt or fill you with delight. But the fact that two opposing views sought to fight it out in court rather than understand each other should concern you.
We like quick results. Patience is a virtue but if it was a product we wouldn’t want to wait for it to be delivered. Our approach to progress is much the same: we want it and we want it now. Alas change in human understanding and views do not happen as quickly as we might like.
Likewise we value free speech, but we tend to seek to silence those voices we don’t like. We cherish the right to offend but prosecute when we’re offended. We say we’re tolerant but perish the thought that we allow someone to hold and express a view that is opposite from our own.
Not too long ago the prevailing view of society was that marriage was a union between a man and a woman only. Many, if not most believed and accepted this view, and engaging with any form of LGBT rights was something easily avoided. At the same time there were many fighting for their belief that marriage should be blind to gender, and advocates of same-sex marriage were the ones lambasted.
Although there were many fighting for gender-blind marriage for many years, change in marriage laws came very quickly to most people. Same-sex marriage was a whisper within politics during the 2010 General Election Campaign, not an issue widely talked about. When the issue was taken up by the British Parliament the debates were even swifter than the time it took to change the law. One minute people were told it was perfectly acceptable to hold a traditional view on marriage, the next they were ridiculed in the same way they may have ridiculed proponents of same-sex marriage. Neither side sought to understand the other, they simply sought to win the battle and have the law reflect their views.
Changing a law may cause a change in acceptable practice but it doesn’t cause a change in views, for that we need dialogue across the spectrum of views. Instead what we tend to see though is our impatience causing us to shout our indignities, to drown out opposing or to deny people any opportunity to share their ‘out-dated’ views. In a country that treasures free speech that is not just wrong but highlights our hypocrisy.
This is not about marriage, this is about learning to live alongside each other, about extending the hand of friendship to those we might struggle with. In short, this is about love and grace.
Each one of us is unique, and just as we grow and learn at different rates so our views change independent of others. We can change some quickly but to change most takes time. If we want to achieve fundamental and lasting change we need to invest our time and language in establishing good relationships. We need to create a safe environment where people can share opposing views in a spirit of seeking to understand each other. Not being able to express your views and explore others breads bitterness and resentment, something not conducive for a harmonious society to live and let live.
Understanding is not agreeing or condoning. I can understand how someone can ‘loose it’ and cause mortal harm, but that does not mean I condone such actions. I’m sure that victims of South Africa’s apartheid system did not agree with those enacting it even as they sought to understand them at the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but seeking to understand each other helped to heal their hurts and underpin the change in the country’s views of equality and justice.
If we want someone to change silencing of forcing them to won’t achieve it. We cannot force people to change their view or believe in something anymore than we can force someone to love us. Lasting change comes through influence not force, understanding not ignorance, respect not contempt, and love not hate.
Whatever the topic there will be people who think very differently to you, don’t extend hate towards them, extend grace. Change might result, it might not, but at least you will be helping to build a more harmonious society.