The long debate over what exactly freedom is reached a head last week as various American states wrestled with rehashes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill – signed into federal law by US president Bill Clinton in 1993 – seeks to stop government forcing the religious to disobey their own principles, and has lately been mooted in state form in Indiana and Arkansas.
Such legislation seeks to mediate between individual conscience and “compelling government interest”, most notably over the issue of religiously-inspired discrimination. Handily for the media, a prime example of this emerged in the form of Memories Pizza, whose owner Crystal O’Connor said she would not serve a gay couple’s wedding due to her Christian beliefs when asked about the bill.
The backlash against O’Connor and her husband was swift, with the listing for the pizza joint on reviews site Yelp pelted with negative reviews and lewd images. The website of Memories Pizza was also seemingly defaced, and a charming (and presumably, in US parlance, liberal) high school sports coach took to Twitter to threaten the couple with arson.
This is some turnaround for a country that only struck down its prohibitions against sodomy in 2003. As the orthodoxy of homophobia has eroded in the West campaigners have gradually replaced it with a new one, criminalising the expression of old prejudices. Hate speech laws have spread over much of Europe, with countries such as France, Germany and Austria even outlawing the denial of the Holocaust.
The current furore also follows shortly after the defenestration of Brendan Eich, whose brief role as chief executive of the Firefox creator Mozilla was brought to an end last April after acolytes of the nonprofit discovered he had donated money in support of Proposition 8, a law blocking gay marriage in California.
Eich’s politics were no doubt unsuitable for his role at the open source firm, which prides itself on inclusivity. Yet the threats to boycott Mozilla in the wake of his appointment point to a far uglier trend in progressive politics: that of threatening a person’s livelihood when you find their beliefs repugnant.
In the case of Memories Pizza it was not enough for people merely to protest or boycott a malign policy: the business had to be shut down or forced to comply through the law. Such a case has been mirrored in the UK, with the No More Page 3 campaign against the Sun newspaper’s snaps of naked ladies seeing supermarkets obscure the tabloids in their displays.
When taken together such events show the desire for ideological conformity remains alive despite decades of rebellion from the greyness of the post-war years. So long as people exist there will always be puritans on the Left and Right who cannot tolerate any dissent from their viewpoint, and will punish those who openly express such things.
Unsurprisingly such progressive illiberalism has grown as such measures become unnecessary. Even in famously prudish America firms as big as Apple, General Electric and US retailer Walmart rushed to slate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, realising that the progressive markets are increasingly more lucrative than conservative ones.
That is not to say, as UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage recently recommended, that we rub out the anti-discrimination laws. But it is worth asking what sort of democracy we are creating if any dissent from orthodoxy is punished through boycotts and threats. It is also worth asking if such shrieking changes the minds of people, or merely pushes their complaints underground, where they fester and grow more noxious.
Image – Daniel Ramirez