Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Even those we call bigots deserve to have their say

Hate mail: the controversy over gay marriages led to some campaigners sending death threats to Tory MP David Burrowes
Hate mail: the controversy over gay marriages led to some campaigners sending death threats to Tory MP David Burrowes
Tory MP David Burrowes
Tory MP David Burrowes
Fionola Meredith
Fionola Meredith

Sometimes I dread opening my e-mail inbox. It's a bit like lifting the lid on a bin: you never know what reeking horrors you might find in there.

Often, the contents depend on what I've been writing about that week. Discussing abortion rights? I'm sure to get some nutter sending me graphic pictures of bloody foetuses. Giving the sexist Holyland lads a rattle? Cue a semi-literate e-mail from an outraged young gentleman, assuring me I am "pathetic and disgusting" and that he will "go out of my way to show everyone what a mong you are in the Queen's student newspaper". (Cheers for that, mate. A glittering career in journalism surely awaits.)

It's not always a matter of dread though. For instance, I open my e-mail with a thrilling sense of expectation when I've been having a go at the Creationist lobby. That's when the Biblically-based insults start flying, and I'm something of a connoisseur of them. Those fundamentalists sure know how to cuss out a mouthy Jezebel. I've already been called a rattlesnake with lipstick, which I love. If a fervent Bible-basher cares to style me as a rebellious Mesopotamian harlot, I'd be much obliged.

But sometimes you get a message from a complete stranger that really makes you stop and think. Recently, I received an e-mail from a gay man who I'll call Joe. With the bitter rows over gay marriage dominating the headlines, his words of humane, heartfelt, open-minded tolerance need to be heard.

Joe wrote: "In the same-sex marriage debate those who simply don't agree with the pro same-sex marriage side are branded as bigots. I would much rather if people would try and show these people why same sex marriage is right and about equality rather than shouting 'bigot' at them... It is our job to show them why it is wrong, not to blindly say 'no, that's wrong, don't say it'. I honestly believe that it would be a shame if the LGBT community achieved the equality that we deserve at the expense of freedom of speech."

Now when it comes to gay marriage, I'm a supporter. What's not to like? We're only talking about two people who want to commit to each other, body and soul, for the rest of their lives. And it's not just about love. The state cannot be seen to differentiate between heterosexual and gay citizens on the basis of sexuality. Trying to bar gay citizens from the institution of marriage sends out the discriminatory message that gay people are somehow lesser people. The implications of that, on both a personal and a political level, are enormous.

Others – especially in this pious, sin-obsessed part of the world – disagree with that view. To them gay marriage, which was approved last night by MPs, is an abomination, a scourge, the beginning of an unstoppable slide towards anarchy and inappropriate relationships with goats.

But Joe is right. We won't change these people's minds by yelling 'bigot' at them. We won't convince them that they're wrong by spitting poison, haranguing them, telling them that they cannot be allowed to think these terrible things. You don't threaten someone into losing their prejudices; in fact, in attempting to do so, you may reinforce those hostile beliefs, make them stronger.

I was dismayed to hear how Tory MP David Burrowes, the main opponent of the Gay Marriage Bill, has had death threats and hate mail from some gay campaigners because of his stance. Of course, I was equally disgusted by the way that religious opponents of the Bill subjected undecided MPs to vitriolic abuse for failing to speak out against it. Not very Christian, I would have thought, but as we have seen with the issue of abortion, the principles of compassion and kindness are often lost in the white-hot zeal of religious conviction.

I say it again: no matter how hurt, or outraged, or angry, or convinced of your own rightness (God-given or otherwise) you are, no matter whether you have the weight of public opinion on your side or not, you cannot bully people into agreeing with you. Gay or straight, religious or non-religious, you cannot demand respect for your views when you treat someone else with vicious contempt for theirs.

Shouting down what we don't like to hear doesn't work. And an open mind that has been forced open is not an open mind at all.

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