Case of the ‘gay cake’ reveals worrying double standards among liberals

Opinion: Seeking to compel others to observe particular cultural standards is totalitarian

An LGBT march for equality through the streets of Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

An LGBT march for equality through the streets of Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 01:00

Muppets. That seemed to be the prevailing view of the Northern bakery which refused to make a cake with a picture of Bert and Ernie, the tousle-headed Sesame Street twosome on top, and the accompanying slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”.

Public opinion was largely on the side of the gay rights activist who tried to order the cake, and the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland, which sent the Christian-run bakery, Ashers, a letter threatening them with possible legal action for discriminating against a customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

Ashers themselves were mostly on their own, apart from the Christian Institute, and various members of the DUP, who popped up to defend the rights of God-fearing Ulster pâtissiers to decorate their cakes entirely in accordance with their own beliefs.

The fact that the Equality Commission is a state agency of the devolved government at Stormont, which has voted repeatedly against gay marriage, added a particularly piquant tang to the whole thing. Cakes endorsing gay marriage must, by law, be made if requested, but gay marriage itself is prohibited.

Absurd situation

It is, admittedly, an absurd situation. The top of an iced gateau is a strange battleground for the latest skirmish between religious traditionalists and marriage equality campaigners to take place.

But it does raise some interesting questions about whether individuals, businesses or institutions can be – or should be – compelled to accept prevailing liberal ideals.

Of course, there’s no doubt whatsoever that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, or any other perceived difference of race or sex or (dis)ability or whatever, is wrong. That should go without saying.

Refusing to serve a customer because he or she is gay is self-evidently discriminatory and is rightly a prosecutable offence.

Refusing to write a political slogan, requested by that customer, is an entirely different matter. Surely no company is under any obligation to facilitate the dissemination of beliefs that are antithetical to the ethos of that business. Are they?

And anyway, how would it advance the cause of equality to force these unrepentant bakers to renounce their own beliefs, get out the pink piping bag and, through gritted teeth, squirt out the words “Support Gay Marriage”?

By that logic, you’re neither promoting tolerance and goodwill towards all, nor leading blinkered bigots towards the path of secular enlightenment, merely turning people into hypocrites compelled by the state to endorse a campaign they cannot condone.

Their original convictions remain intact, and indeed perhaps are strengthened, but they know to keep quiet about them now. Who wins?

Take a different scenario. Say a feminist collective set up its own bakery: should it be forced to make cakes for pro-life celebrations, complete with sweet little fondant foetuses? Of course not, they’d be quite within their rights to tell the anti-abortionists to take their creepy order elsewhere.

The idea seems to be that the Christian bakers are the people being unreasonable here. Intolerant. Illiberal. Forcibly imposing their views on others, to the detriment of society as a whole. But it seems obvious that these epithets could, with more justification in this instance, be applied to their opponents.

Open-minded, right-thinking people have decided that gay marriage is good, therefore it is entirely legitimate to use all kinds of punitive strategies to silence those who can’t quite get their heads around the notion. As the sanctimonious saying goes, we are intolerant of intolerance.

Or are we just intolerant?

I am strongly in favour of marriage equality myself, and have no truck with the crackpot beliefs of religious fundamentalists, but I feel queasy when I see so-called liberals adopting the crude, absolutist and authoritarian moves of their traditional opponents, seeking to extinguish views they find unacceptable.

Repressive restrictions

True, you could hardly argue that conservative Christians are a persecuted minority in the North. Essentially, they run the place, subjecting the populace at large to a range of repressive restrictions, from when you can finish up your drink in the pub (early), to whether you can donate blood if you’re gay (no thanks) or marry your same-sex partner (sod off, sodomites).

They are dug well in for the long haul, and show every sign of being virtually un-extinguishable. So perhaps it’s not surprising that local activists feel tempted to try such small-minded resistance tactics.

But the practice of selective tolerance and liberal double standards extends much wider – right around the world, in fact – and with far less excuse.

Seeking to compel others to conform to approved cultural values is a totalitarian impulse. And it derives from a smug, corpulent complacency that assumes the right to have your cake, whatever the chosen topping, and eat it.

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