Spare a thought for the beleaguered bakers and the offended florists. From Northern Ireland to the US states of Indiana and Arkansas, the Christian right has been rallying to the cause of these silent minorities, fearing for their freedom of conscience should they be required to ice a cake with a slogan that offends them.
With state bans on gay marriage toppling in several US states, and the supreme court due to finally determine the matter shortly, the conservative right has been raising some troubling spectres. Namely, the vexing question of the rights of bakers and florists (and photographers, doctors and anyone else who might be offended by the idea of people of the same gender getting married). A florist in Washington found herself in court this year arguing – before an unconvinced judge – that her bridal bouquets are a form of “protected free speech” and that her “relationship with Jesus” won’t allow her to service gay weddings.
In Indiana last week, governor Mike Pence unleashed a firestorm after he was unable to say whether his new “religious freedom” law would allow florists such as the one in Washington to legally refuse service to a gay couple, although he insisted the law was not designed “to create a licence to discriminate”. If not, though, it’s hard to see what it is designed for: in a state that already has strong constitutional protection for religious beliefs, it confers on businesses the right to use “religious freedom” as a defence against lawsuits.
A similar clash of cultures has been playing out in Northern Ireland, where the owners of Ashers bakery were in the high court defending their refusal to bake a cake with a picture of Sesame Street's Ernie and Bert and the words "Support gay marriage" iced on it. Representing Ashers, lawyer David Scoffield argued that if his clients lost the case, "a Muslim printer could not decline printing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad . . . a Catholic baker could not decline to bake a cake looking for abortion to be legalised." Who knew flowers and cakes were such powerful tools of oppression?
But this isn’t a debate about cake, or even a debate about rights. It is a debate about a single right: the right to be intolerant.
The paradox of tolerance is that if you extend it to even those who are intolerant then, as the philosopher Karl Popper said, “the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them”. Popper argued that rational argument and the weight of public opinion should always be the first line of defence against the intolerant, but failing that, “any movement preaching intolerance” should be regarded as “outside the law”. Instead, what Mike Pence – who plans to put himself forward as a republican presidential candidate – intends to do is to enshrine the right to practise intolerance in law.
Indiana is not a conservative outlier: already, 85 anti-gay and anti-transgender bills have been passed in 28 US states, and more are planned in Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia.
In the context of this clash of cultures between liberal and conservative; between the tolerant and the intolerant; between those who believe that what defines a family is love and those who believe what defines it is gender, Ireland finds itself with the chance to do something unique.
Ours will be the first country in the world to hold a referendum on gay marriage. Other countries have legislated for it, but never has an entire nation had the chance to stand collectively and declare that gay people are equal citizens who have a right to love whomever they choose. On May 22nd, we have the opportunity to reframe the debate away from these farcical sideshows about cakes and flower arrangements and relationships with Jesus, and remind the rest of the world what’s really at stake: the most fundamental of human rights. Let’s show the world that intolerance has no place in our society.
Should we all be locked up?
How could a pilot with depression and suicidal tendencies have been allowed to fly a plane? How was a woman with a history of psychiatric illness and self-harm permitted to work with children? We’ve all heard these questions in recent weeks, perhaps inevitably, even though the question about Elaine O’Hara seems to forget she was a victim, not a perpetrator of violence, and nothing came up at the trial to suggest she was anything other than competent or caring in her part-time job as a childcare assistant.
Nonetheless, her brutal murder and the Germanwings disaster are rare, disturbing and deeply upsetting events, and the natural human instinct is to try to put some distance between ourselves and them. “Othering” Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot, and even Elaine O’Hara, on the basis of their mental-health issues gives us some comfort, a reassuring feeling of distance from what happened. But it’s a false reassurance, because whatever it was that made Andreas Lubitz or Elaine O’Hara unique, it wasn’t their mental health problems. After all, one in four of us has a mental-health issue. Should we too be kept away from children, not allowed to fly a plane or drive a car? Should we all be locked up, just in case?
To desire to rationalise major, shocking news events is understandable and natural, but it often means creating links that don’t exist, finding causes that aren’t there and creating artificial “cautionary tales”. However we come to terms with these distressing events, we must not further stigmatise people with mental-health issues and discourage those who need it from seeking help.