I’ve been thinking recently about one of the most puzzling reactions to social change, which you might call the “beleaguered majority” argument. Invariably you see members of dominant social groups – straight, white, male, Christian, English-speaking or all of the above – adopting the language of oppressed minorities, talking about how their rights are being violated.
This can take various forms, from the ugliest “white pride” groups to the “men’s rights” activists who pop up in online comment threads whenever sexism is being discussed. These types of arguments have cropped up more and more often in discussions about gay rights, which is probably a sign of progress. The other side now seeks to depict gay people as “bullies” who are violating their rights, invading their churches or Boy Scout troops or fast food franchises.
In the past, I have always dismissed these arguments as pure posturing, trying to claim the mantle of victimhood for tactical reasons. And I’m sure that is part of the equation, but I am increasingly convinced that these arguments are at least partially sincere, based on genuine — albeit mistaken — fears and insecurities.
One thing that jumps out at me, particularly in discussions about racism or sexism, is that the “beleaguered majority” arguments tend to come from the least advantaged members of the ostensibly privileged majority. Barack Obama addressed this directly in his 2008 speech on race, talking about the anger of white Americans who Most working- and middle-class white Americans “don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.”
A proper leftist, which I am not, would probably chalk this up to “false consciousness,” and that’s certainly part of the equation, but I think other psychological forces are at play. Members of dominant groups who feel short-changed have powerful incentives to blame “outsiders” rather than the higher-status members of their own group. A direct comparison risks leading to the conclusion that they are somehow inadequate, that other people are better at the game of being straight white males. Resentment of women or minorities is psychologically safer, and the nagging feeling that the game is rigged can be laid at their feet. This leads people to adopt the language of oppression in ways that often sound ludicrous coming from a member of the ostensible majority. But the feelings of resentment are often genuine and even justified, albeit directed at the wrong targets. The game is rigged, but the casino is not owned by women or African-Americans or gay people. It’s owned by the straight white males whose taxes you want to cut.
Compounding the problem, various forms of information bias converge to make minority groups seem much more powerful and threatening than they are, or at least to make resentment fantasies somewhat plausible. When we look at the progress achieved by African-Americans or LGBT Americans or women, we are — consciously or unconsciously — bracketing those groups and comparing their current status to their former status, rather than assessing their status relative to society as a whole. So during the backlash that occurred after the great victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, some white Americans genuinely felt that African-Americans must have immense political power, since they were able to get the U.S. Congress to declare that they had the same rights white Americans had taken for granted for 200 years.
Compared to the status of a gay man in 1960 or 1980 or even 2000, my own legal rights are vastly more expansive. My home state is no longer allowed to criminalize my sexuality. Many states expressly protect me from employment discrimination. I can legally marry my spouse in nine states and the District of Columbia. Those were hard-fought, hard-won victories, and I am grateful for them. And viewed narrowly, the progress is almost astonishing. This narrow view is why the lawyers defending the Defense of Marriage Act could declare to the Supreme Court with a straight face that “gays and lesbians are one of the most influential, best-connected, best-funded and best-organized interest groups in modern politics, and have attained more legislative victories, political power and popular favor in less time than virtually any other group in American history.” (I have a suggestion for anti-gay bigots trying to sound reasonable: don’t use “gays” as a noun).
This argument is not especially strong, but the only reason it can even be stated is that it views the rights of gay Americans relative to earlier generations of gay people, rather than in comparison with their fellow citizens right now. The signs of progress that I listed above stand out against a backdrop of pervasive discrimination. In vast stretches of the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, gay couples have no right to marry, no formal protection against employment discrimination, and woefully inadequate protection from physical violence and intimidation. Color me underwhelmed by tributes to our “political power and popular favor” because we’ve enjoyed nine years in which gay people could not be put in jail for being gay.
Another cognitive bias that may be relevant here is the endowment effect. People tend to react strongly to actual or perceived losses, whether or not the thing being lost was that important in the first place. All things being equal, I doubt that many Christians assigned huge importance to the perfunctory prayers offered in schools before the Supreme Court ruled such prayers unconstitutional. But the act of taking away this privilege vastly inflated its subjective importance, and to this day Christians – an overwhelmingly dominant and powerful majority – nurse a sense of persecution. The act of moving from favored status to neutrality feels like persecution, just as a swimming pool feels icy cold when you first plunge in. For people used to a pervasive and largely invisible privilege for their beliefs, switching from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” seems like some sort of pogrom.
The only corrective to these skewed perceptions is empathy. Take a moment and reflect on whether your sporadic discomfort with gay people is really a substantial violation of your rights. Consider that the passage of anti-discrimination laws is usually not some huge favor to minority groups but rather a partial and belated response to entrenched, systematic discrimination. The only reason you see them as “special rights” is that you enjoy such rights as a matter of course, without needing explicit statutory protection. And when you get that nagging feeling that others are exploiting the system at your expense, make room for the possibility that the game is being rigged by people who look just like you.
UPDATE: In response to this post, my friend Alicia made the excellent point that among certain religious people, the idea of being persecuted has special resonance, so they are drawn to narratives in which they are punished by secular society for their beliefs. As if to prove my point, Dan Savage flagged an especially egregious interview with the the Archbishop of San Francisco. Adopting that tone of florid self-pity that only a Catholic prelate can really pull off, the Archbishop laments that “All our detractors can do is call us names.”
Let that sink in. For the past few years, people throughout the world have been engaged in a lively moral, political and ethical debate about marriage. For the Archbishop to conclude that the whole thing boils down to name-calling, with the mean gay people harassing the powerless Catholics, reveals a breathtaking level of narcissism. (Sorry, was that name-calling? My apologies.)