Don't Close the American Mind

There is nothing 'open-minded' about using government to punish disfavored views.


Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. What comes to mind if you think about the word open?

It's probably a nice vision, right? A sweeping vista. The patio of a restaurant in Santa Barbara at sunset. A river that turns a final corner before pouring into the sea.

The vibes are no less congenial when applying the word more metaphorically. "Open your heart to me," Madonna promised, and "I'll give you love, if you turn the key." This contrast between openness and a prison-like alternative is a recurring motif. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper posited that the free and vigorous exchange of ideas was the antithesis to, and antidote for, authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

One of the great complimentary adjectives in the postwar American lexicon has been open-minded. Like its kissing cousin free-thinker, this hyphenated exuberant suggests a dash of unpredictable sophistication, an attractive eagerness to try, accept, or at least tolerate unorthodox modes of behavior, conversation, and being.

Free thought is necessary to improve or surpass flawed but dominant ideas; open minds are needed to embrace the results. In 1776, monarchies outnumbered constitutional republics by several score to one (tiny San Marino), but that didn't stop the founding generation from willing an exemplar into existence. Ending the military draft and deregulating airlines (or "opening up" the skies) were libertarian pipe dreams in the 1960s and the law of the land by 1975. From Jesus to Galileo, Henry Miller to Bill James, prophets and pioneers are often greeted like heretics. It takes an open society, or at least an open subculture or two within it, to let their once-radical visions compete in the marketplace of ideas.

Gay people and gay rights activists should be among the first to recognize the critical link between open-mindedness and ending discrimination. It's difficult to fathom in this historic year of 2015, when the Supreme Court may be on the verge of legalizing gay marriage nationwide, but gay rights advocates were almost hopelessly outnumbered in living memory. For decades, just about the only glimmer of hope came not from courtrooms but in the arena of public debate.

As Jonathan Rauch wrote in the December 2013 reason, "Gay Americans were forbidden to work for the government; forbidden to obtain security clearances; forbidden to serve in the military. They were arrested for making love, even in their own homes; beaten and killed on the streets; entrapped and arrested by the police for sport; fired from their jobs. They were joked about, demeaned, and bullied as a matter of course; forced to live by a code of secrecy and lies, on pain of opprobrium and unemployment; witch-hunted by anti-Communists, Christians, and any politician or preacher who needed a scapegoat; condemned as evil by moralists and as sick by scientists; portrayed as sinister and simpering by Hollywood; perhaps worst of all, rejected and condemned, at the most vulnerable time of life, by their own parents."

In 1973, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness in the industry-defining Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Fourteen states had laws criminalizing sodomy as recently as 2003. Though reason was editorializing in favor of gay marriage as early as 1974, Gallup didn't even poll Americans' attitudes about the subject until 1996, when it found that only 27 percent thought the government should recognize same-sex unions as such. Now that number has doubled, to 55 percent.

What changed? One key element was familiarity—gay people came out of closets, acknowledged their sexual preferences to friends and family, adopted kids, started showing up in popular entertainment, and eventually entered civil unions and even marriages. But just as vital were a plethora of open antagonists ready to engage in—and eventually lose—the public debate.

"Society benefits from the toleration of hate speech, and so do targeted minorities," Rauch reasoned. "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."

But as the longtime minority view tips into what is looking like a permanent majority (young people in particular are far more accepting of gay marriage than their grandparents), that essential wisdom is in danger of being forgotten. Too many activists are now emboldened by their newfound political power to compel obedience and hound heretics rather than continue their incredibly successful long-term efforts at persuasion.

In February 2013, the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery in Gresham, Oregon, owned by Melissa and Aaron Klein, declined to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, citing their religious objections to the ceremony. (In one of the case's many ironies, the state of Oregon would not officially recognize gay marriages until May 2014.) The newlyweds, despite suffering from no shortage of lesbian-tolerant bakeries in the greater Portland area, brought a complaint to Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries, which in turn charged the bakery with violating the state's ban on anti-gay discrimination in places that serve the public. Suggested fine: $150,000. (An administrative law judge was finalizing the dollar amount of the penalty at press time. The Kleins have since closed their storefront.)

Driving the Kleins into bankruptcy seems an odd tactic for changing their minds. Unless the goal is no longer about opening hearts, but rather enforcing new social norms by making examples out of nonconformers.

That's the ugly but inescapable conclusion from an episode in March, when online activists hounded a small-town Indiana restaurant called Memories Pizza into closure for a week—not even for discriminating against any customers, but because its owners told an inquiring reporter that in the 100 percent hypothetical situation of being asked to cater a gay wedding, the pizzeria would decline.

"The vast majority of people in this country are not going to stand by and watch that kind of activity unfold," the pizzeria owners' state senator, Jim Arnold (Democrat), told ABC 57 News. "If that's their stand I hope they enjoy eating their pizza because I don't think anyone else is going to." It is frightening to contemplate that any elected official-let alone one discussing his own constituents-would classify a disfavorable response to a reporter as the kind of "activity" a decent society can no longer tolerate.

This issue of reason is all about the concept of openness: the benefits of open trade and immigration ("Globalization Is Good for You!," page 30), the challenges of government transparency ("Big Data, Big Business, and Big Government," page 18; "When Open Government Slams Shut," page 24; "Cameras in the Court," page 70), and private end-runs around unresponsive bureaucracy ("Hacking Marriage," page 36; "Free the Seeds!," page 72). Much of the tension described in these pieces understandably focuses on the push-pull between citizen and state.

But openness is also a condition of mind and a habit of discourse. Abandoning it in the face of victory will create as yet unimagined self-inflicted defeats. If we want to keep "open-minded" as a compliment, we need to make sure we don't replace one set of intolerant laws with another. And we had better nurture a culture that appreciates the opportunity to debate, rather than driving disfavored opinion into the closet.

"In democracies, minorities do not get fair, enforceable legal protections until after majorities have come around to supporting them," Rauch concluded in 2013. "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."