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Most of us are also not Galileos or Einsteins, or Sakharovs or Kings. The good news is that most of us don't need to be. We need only a few Kamenys-plus a system that is very good at testing and rejecting bad hypotheses and at bringing forward better ones. As gay people stepped forward, liberal science engaged. The old anti-gay dogmas came under critical scrutiny as never before. "Homosexuals molest and recruit children"; "homosexuals cannot be happy"; "homosexuals are really heterosexuals"; "homosexuality is unknown in nature": The canards collapsed with astonishing speed.
What took place was not just empirical learning but also moral learning. How can it be wicked to love? How can it be noble to lie? How can it be compassionate to reject your own children? How can it be kind to harass and taunt? How can it be fair to harp on one Biblical injunction when so many others are ignored? How can it be just to penalize what does no demonstrable harm? Gay people were asking straight people to test their values against logic, against compassion, against life. Gradually, then rapidly, the criticism had its effect.
You cannot be gay in America today and doubt that moral learning is real and that the open society fosters it. And so, 20 years on, I feel more confident than ever that the answer to bias and prejudice is pluralism, not purism. The answer, that is, is not to try to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, but to pit biases and prejudices against each other and make them fight in the open. That is how, in the crucible of rational criticism, superstition and moral error are burned away.
I believe the hope of living in a world free of discrimination and prejudice is a utopian pipe dream, and is as anti-human and dangerous as most other utopian pipe dreams. The quest to stamp out discrimination or bigotry or racism wherever it appears is a quest to force all opinion into a single template. I reject the premise-not just the methods-of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which calls on signatory countries to prohibit "all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred." In my view, if minorities know what is good for us, we should at every turn support pluralism, with all its social messiness and personal hurt. Politicians and activists, however well intentioned, who would shelter us from criticism and debate offer false comfort.
History shows that, over time and probably today more than ever, the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do. It is just about that simple. So here is a reply to advocates of hate-speech regulation who wonder if, today, it really serves any purpose to let people go around touting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The answer is yes, it does. We cannot fight hate and fraud without seeing them and debunking them. John Stuart Mill, writing in On Liberty in 1859, was right. "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it."
Today I fear that many people on my side of the gay-equality question are forgetting our debt to the system that freed us. Some gay people-not all, not even most, but quite a few-want to expunge discriminatory views. "Discrimination is discrimination and bigotry is bigotry," they say, "and they are intolerable whether or not they happen to be someone's religion or moral creed."
Here is not the place for an examination of the proper balance between, say, religious liberty and anti-discrimination rules. It is a place, perhaps, for a plea to those of us in the gay-rights movement-and in other minority-rights movements-who now find ourselves in the cultural ascendency, with public majorities and public morality (strange to say it!) on our side. We should be the last people on the planet to demand that anyone be silenced.
Partly the reasons are strategic. Robust intellectual exchange serves our interest. Our greatest enemy is not irrational hate, which is pretty uncommon. It is rational hate, hate premised upon falsehood. (If you believe homosexuality poses a threat to your children, you will hate it.) The main way we eliminate hate is not to legislate or inveigh against it, but to replace it-with knowledge, empirical and ethical. That was how Frank Kameny and a few other people, without numbers or law or public sympathy on their side, turned hate on its head. They had arguments, and they had the right to make them.
And partly the reasons are moral. Gay people have lived in a world where we were forced, day in and day out, to betray our consciences and shut our mouths in the name of public morality. Not so long ago, everybody thought we were wrong. Now our duty is to protect others' freedom to be wrong, the better to ensure society's odds of being right. Of course, we can and should correct the falsehoods we hear and, once they are debunked, deny them the standing of knowledge in textbooks and professions; but we equally have the responsibility to defend their expression as opinion in the public square.
Finding the proper balance is not easy and isn't supposed to be. If a Catholic adoption agency wants to refuse placements to same-sex couples, we will have to argue about where to draw lines. What I am urging is a general proposition: Minorities are the point of the spear defending liberal science. We are the first to be targeted with vile words and ideas, but we are also the leading beneficiaries of a system which puts up with them. The open society is sometimes a cross we bear, but it is also a sword we wield, and we are defenseless without it.
We ought to remember what Frank Kameny never forgot: For politically weak minorities, the best and often only way to effect wholesale change in the world of politics is by effecting change in the world of ideas. Our position as beneficiaries of the open society requires us to serve as guardians of it. Playing that role, not seeking government protections or hauling our adversaries before star chambers, is the greater source of our dignity.
Frank Kameny, an irascible man with a capacious conscience, had it right. In more than 50 years of activism, he never called for silencing or punishing those he disagreed with, but he never cut them any argumentative slack, either. In his spirit, I hope that when gay people-and non-gay people-encounter hateful or discriminatory opinions, we respond not by trying to silence or punish them but by trying to correct them.