Democracies should not be led by individual charismatic leaders who capture the following of the masses and override the decisions made by deliberative bodies and courts. Instead, individual citizens need to come together and decide among each other which direction their country is to follow and what values are to be advanced.
One can readily see how dialogues can unite citizens in common purpose and goals within a small group, maybe even in groups as large as those that come together in town hall meetings.1 However, much of public policy these days must be addressed on the national level. Pollution does not heed state lines. Immigrants flow from one community to another. Defense is a national business. To achieve genuine, lasting change, dialogues about pressing values must be national. I will show that they can be, indeed often are. Moreover, although observers often point to unresolved conflicts—say, about abortion—new shared moral understandings frequently do arise.
Members of the patriotic movement must face the fact that the values that people of many nations used to share with their compatriots have lost their legitimacy, their compelling power. True, these values—say, those that united the American people in the 1950s—included many normative positions few find compelling today. However, there is no denying that at the time they were widely endorsed, even by many of those they excluded. The fact that these values have been largely discarded is a major sign of progress. The problem is that they have not been replaced with a new set of national unifying values. Hence, the agenda of the patriotic movement is not to move back to the old, discarded values but to form new normative content for nationally shared values.
A new dialogue about core values hence is essential, in effect a prerequisite for any future effective social movement that will rebuild democracy and the national community.2 One may well wonder how a nation could hold a moral dialogue that would help opposing groups find a common ground—without the dialogue devolving into ideological opponents screaming at each other, adhering to party lines, and reinforcing political differences. Critics may well say that the culture wars illustrate the futility of national moral dialogues. This chapter looks at previous national dialogues to show they have led to major new shared moral understandings and unpacks which processes they employed to cultivate success. It turns out that such dialogues follow a fairly clear design, a design that the patriotic movement should employ in sorting out a new core of shared values for the nation to embrace.
Moral Dialogues Defined
Moral dialogues are social processes through which people form new shared moral understandings. These dialogues typically are passionate, disorderly, and without a clear starting point or conclusion (in contrast to elections or debates in a legislature). However, moral dialogues often do lead to profound changes in the moral positions of those who engage in them. Although moral dialogues never change the values of all involved, they often, as we shall see, change the moral positions of a sufficient number of people so that actions and policies that previously had little support (e.g., environmental protection) and actions and policies considered morally inappropriate by many (e.g., same-sex marriage) gain widespread moral approval.
Moreover, we shall see that when moral dialogues mature, the new shared moral understandings that arise have profound sociological effects well beyond changes in values, norms, and attitudes. These new or changed moral understandings lead to new laws or significant changes in law and, more importantly, to major changes in voluntary behavior. For instance, the shared understanding that we have a moral obligation to be stewards of the environment led to the founding of a new government agency (the Environmental Protection Agency); scores of new laws and regulations; construction of walkable neighborhoods and bicycle lanes; improved public transit; and considerable changes in voluntary personal behavior, including recycling, preferences for sustainable sources of energy (a factor in purchasing cars, appliances, and solar panels), donations, and voting. True, these changes were also affected by other factors, especially changes in economic incentives. However, the restructuring of these incentives reflects in part changes in a shared moral understanding. This chapter focuses on the dynamics and effects of moral dialogues that lead to significant changes in shared moral understandings (SMUs).
The analysis combines two methods. It follows historians by studying the development of various moral dialogues over time in a particular community or nation, in a given period. It follows sociologists in that it seeks to identify the recurring social factors on which moral dialogues draw to bring about new SMUs. These elements are next listed and then analyzed.
To study moral dialogues one needs to start with a baseline, to show where the shared moral understandings were before the moral dialogues changed them. Next the chapter examines the sociological dialogue starters that lead to the initiation of moral dialogues (and their differences from historical “firsts”). The next section deals with the attributes and dynamics of moral dialogues. These include a review of intensive, interlinked multiple group discussions—which we shall call megalogues—that are required for moral dialogues to take place on a large scale; the distinct attributes of moral dialogues as compared to rational deliberations and culture wars; and the crucial role of dramatization. The chapter then turns to show that moral dialogues that reach closure have significant sociological consequences. These are revealed in changes in shared values, laws, and behavior when one compares the end state to the baseline.
Following these sections, a case study illustrates the various elements in one specific historical development, the change in the SMU about same-sex marriage. The importance of moral dialogues for community building is briefly discussed. The chapter closes by pointing to a particularly challenging question: How is one to determine whether socially shared moral understandings, which basically reflect moral consensus, are indeed moral?
This chapter leaves for future discussion the study of the effects of external structural factors on moral dialogues, such as differences in political and economic power, social inequality, race, and gender. The chapter seeks to introduce moral dialogues as distinct from reasoned deliberations, expressions of emotions, and culture wars and leaves to a separate examination the important effects of structural factors on moral dialogues, a major subject all by itself.
One can readily envision moral dialogues within a family or a small community but may well wonder if a society that encompasses many millions of people can engage in a moral dialogue. We shall see below that such society-wide dialogues take place by linking millions of local conversations (between couples, in neighborhood bars, in coffeehouses, during carpooling, next to water coolers at work, and so on) into a society-wide moral give-and-take.
Moral dialogues tend to follow a set pattern. I choose my words carefully. Not all moral dialogues follow all the stages next outlined. The pattern next unveiled should hence be viewed as an ideal type.3 It serves as an analytic matrix for the study of various specific dialogues and the comparison of one to others. In presenting the pattern (some would call it “natural history”), I draw on illustrations from the American experience, although its presence in other societies and transnational dialogues is self-evident.4
To assess the effects of any given moral dialogue, one must establish what the shared moral understanding was before the dialogue took place. For instance, to assess the effects of moral dialogues on our moral obligations to “Mother Earth,” about our stewardship of the environment, one must start by noting that in the 1950s, there was no shared sense of such a moral responsibility. People dumped garbage in lakes and streams, drove cars that emitted large amounts of pollutants, and used coal as a major source of energy without any concern about the environmental implications of their actions. In the same period, racial segregation was legally enforced and widely supported. Women were expected to be homemakers and submissive. Gay people were considered sinners and deviants. Smoking in public raised no moral issues. People felt obligated to do “all they could” for their loved ones until their heart and lungs stopped functioning. Researchers can readily find some academics, clergy, or visionaries who made a moral case against any one of these established mores. However, they did not start moral dialogues and did not have a significant effect on the nationwide shared moral understanding.
Sociological Dialogue Starters
Moral dialogues often start with the articulation of what might be called a “moral brief,” akin to what lawyers file before they argue a case before the Supreme Court. It typically includes a criticism of the prevailing moral culture and society and a substantive statement of what a new shared moral understanding should contain. One should note in this context that some protest movements and organizations mainly provide a criticism of the prevailing order but offer little content—or only exceedingly vague content—about the core values intended to replace those of the old order. These are more disruptive than transformative. Major changes in SMUs require that briefs also include statements about the new SMU to replace the old one (a point that was not fully taken into account by several groups that brought down old regimes during the Arab Spring).
Betty Friedan provided such a brief for a moral dialogue about women’s rights and status in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Rachel Carson provided such a brief for the environmental movement in her book Silent Spring, published in 1962. Ralph Nader did the same for the consumer protection drive in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965. Other moral dialogues were started by a declaration, for instance Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which prompted the Protestant Reformation. A Harvard committee provided a brief for changing the definition of death to one that occurs when there is a “brain death.” Sometimes moral dialogues are triggered by an event rather than a brief, such as the Three Mile Island accident, which started a dialogue about nuclear safety. However, in all the cases examined, a brief followed.
In examining moral briefs, it is important to distinguish between historical antecedents and sociological takeoff points. When a book or trial or event leads to a new moral dialogue, historians will often point out that rather similar ones have already been published or have taken place before. For instance, before The Feminine Mystique, other books on the topic had been published, including The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir in 1949. However, these previous developments were only precursors as they did not mobilize major moral dialogues that could lead to new SMUs. For the purpose of studying changes in SMUs, one must focus on those briefs and events that served to initiate the kind of dialogues and societal changes next described. We are after catalysts that spurred lasting systemic change rather than those that fizzled out.
Some studies refer to the selection of dialogue starters as “agenda setting,” the process through which people attribute a higher importance to some issues as compared to others. According to H. Denis Wu and Renita Coleman, “For more than thirty years, the main concept in agenda setting theory has been the transfer of issue salience, or how media emphasis of certain issues raises their importance for the public.”5 A common finding is that the media largely determines the issues on which the public focuses.
The content of the brief, how well it is argued and presented, or the nature of the starting events, is often not the most important factor determining whether it will serve merely as a historical first or will lead to a sociological takeoff. Much more important is whether or not the sociological conditions that would allow the changes to take off are in place. Thus, for instance, briefs for liberal democracy in societies of the kind the US found in Afghanistan in 2003 are unlikely to lead to a takeoff.6 In contrast, it seems that The Feminine Mystique led to takeoff not necessarily because it was better argued or had more evidence than previous books on the same subject, but because it was published after many women had worked in factories and some had participated in the military during World War II and were thus open to suggestions that they are able and entitled to play roles other than that of homemakers.7
Finally, one should note that many moral dialogues take off but then lose altitude and need to be relaunched if they are to lead to a new SMU. For instance, dialogues about inequality in the US are following this pattern. Figure 1 presents Google Trends data showing the popularity (relative to other searches of the term on Google over time) of the term “social inequality.”8 Interest in inequality is lacking a definitive spike; instead it consistently wavers.
Moreover, some moral dialogues that do take off never produce a new or changed SMU. For instance, briefs that called for the formation of a global government, in particular the 1947 Montreux Declaration by the World Federalists as part of the World Movement for World Federal Government,9 initiated a measure of moral dialogues, but these petered out without gaining a new SMU.
For a starter brief or event to lead to a new SMU, it must be followed by processes that would lead a large number of people to reexamine their moral values, giving up on what they long believed was right, and accept a new set of values as morally valid.
Some advocates of moral causes believe that if the president were to make a powerful speech or conduct “fireside chats” as President Roosevelt did, this would lead to a new SMU and change the direction of the nation. President Kennedy’s speech that urged Americans not to ask what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country is credited with engendering a historical change; however, although the speech is often quoted, there is precious little evidence that, by itself, it had much of an effect. President Jimmy Carter tried to make Americans treat the saving of energy as a test of their moral fortitude in his famous “malaise” speech—with mainly negative effects. President Obama spoke eloquently for many causes, especially for finding common ground, but the nation became more polarized. Such speeches can have high motives and aspirations, but as noted earlier, other sociological factors must be present for them to have the sought-after societal effects. Systemic change depends on more than speeches or verbal persuasion in general, however evocative and well-meaning they may be.
Instead, when a topic takes off, or “gets hot,” it becomes the subject of extensive discussion in personal settings (over dinner, at the water cooler, in bars, firehouses) and in local meetings of voluntary associations and clubs (Rotary, PTA, places of worship). These, in turn, are amplified and linked through national organizations during their meetings (such as AIPAC, League of Women Voters, NAACP, Sierra Club, Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Council of Churches, etc.) and through the media (call-in shows, commentaries and debates on TV and radio) and social media.
To illustrate, in 2016–17 a subject that was only sporadically discussed in previous years became a focus of a nationwide moral dialogue in the US, namely the rights of transgender people. Figure 2 is a Google Trends graph showing the relative popularity of the search term “transgender bathrooms” in the US from January 2004 to December 2018.10
Moral dialogues differ sharply from both expressions of emotions and from rational deliberations. In effect, they constitute a hybrid that has qualities of its own, different from the composite elements. Moral statements contain emotions in contrast to sheer statements of facts or logic. At the same time, these statements contain justifications—that is, they are intellectually accountable—in contrast to emotions. When one discloses that one hates or loves or declares any other emotion, it suffices to state “because this is what I feel” (de gustibus non est disputandum).11 In contrast, if one states that a given condition is immoral—say, not fair—one is expected to spell out the reasons and give a basis for this statement. And one may be challenged with arguments that such a statement is inconsistent with previous ones, or violates a general ethical position to which the person subscribes, or with still other arguments—and one is expected to justify one’s moral judgment or modify it. This is what I mean by intellectual accountability.
Moral statements differ from rational statements that are focused on facts, as well as from logical conclusions that can be drawn from these facts. People are invested emotionally in moral statements, and hence when new facts arise or new arguments are made based on evidence, people will not change their positions readily. True, much has been written to point out that facts and values cannot be completely separated and they often bleed into each other. Still, there is a clear difference between what have been called is versus ought statements. Reasoned deliberations are about is, moral dialogues are about ought.
To illustrate, one may argue whether or not a death penalty is justified as a crime deterrent on empirical-logical, rational grounds by comparing crime rates in states that have versus those that do not have death penalties, or before and after such sentences were carried out in states that either dropped or adopted this penalty. In contrast, if one holds that it is morally wrong for the state to deliberately take a life, statistics about the effects on crime rates will matter little (or only if one can show that the result leads to a higher loss of lives).
Quite a few previous discussions of the attributes of dialogues suffer from the curse of dichotomies. The main case in point is the growing recognition that the assumption that people are rational creatures, able to collect and process the information needed to make rational choices, is a false one.12 It is assumed ipso facto that therefore people are irrational, unable to make sensible judgments, because the analysis started from a binary position. If not A, then it must be B. Actually, as Talcott Parsons pointed out long ago, there is a whole third realm, that of the nonrational. This realm includes “otherworldly” matters that deal with questions and views about the afterlife, deities, the meaning of life, why we were born to die. And with the selection of moral values, especially when two or more of these values are in conflict.
I am not arguing that rational deliberations and moral dialogues do not affect each other. However, when one examines particular dialogues, one can, as a rule, readily determine which statements are moral versus factual, and see differences in the give-and-take between those that are evidence-centered and those focused on moral issues.
We can gain some insight into the issue from mental experiments. A father finding out that his young son has been smoking may merely yell at him, demanding that he stop (sheer emotion), or he may strongly express, in emotive terms, his concern for his son’s health and also explain the risks involved to him and others around him. For the purposes of moral dialogues, it matters not in this case if the argument that the father made was merely a rationalization that followed his emotions or one he developed on the basis of information he garnered and understood. What matters is that his son is less likely to be swayed when exposed to sheer emotion as compared to emotion accompanied by reasoning. Moral dialogues draw on both emotional expressions and reason. Otherwise they are shouting matches, guilt trips, or expressions of blind love, shame, and other such emotions.
Some accord a great role to the media as a moral persuader. For instance, when it shows graphic pictures following an earthquake or typhoon, millions of donations flow to the people in the devastated area, based on the emotions the pictures evoke. However, on closer inspection, one notes that the pictures do not so much shape one’s moral disposition as direct where it is applied. One can determine this by noting that large donations will come from Americans because voluntary donations are part of the American moral tradition. In some other countries, the same pictures will lead to greater demands on the government to act. And in still others, very few donations will be forthcoming. Bernard Cohen made this point well when he observed, “It [the press] may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”13
In further deliberating on the question at hand, one can draw on firsthand experience in moral deliberations. Thus, when we serve on a committee that considers whether or not to disclose to the public or the authorities some unethical conduct or acts that might be illegal—for example, bullying or unconfirmed reports about inappropriate sexual advances made by a coach—we note that our emotions are surely engaged but that we also take into account moral arguments.
Moral dialogues resolve differences and are thus able to lead to new SMUs in their own ways, frequently without relying on new empirical evidence. One procedure often used in moral dialogues is to appeal to an overarching value that the various parties to the sorting-out process share. Robert Goodin in effect is using this rule when he seeks to pave the road for a community that must sort out a course between the rights of nonsmokers and those of smokers.14 At first, this may seem like a typical clash between two values: the rights of one group versus those of another. However, Goodin points out that both groups are committed to the value that one’s liberty does not allow that person to violate the “space” of the other. In popular terms, my right to extend my arm stops when my fist reaches your nose. Goodin argues that this value applies because nonsmokers, in their nonsmoking, do not penetrate the smokers’ space, whereas smokers do violate nonsmokers’ space in public situations, thus nonsmokers’ rights should take priority. Using such arguments, American communities reached the SMU that lies at the foundation of the new restrictions on smoking in numerous public spaces. (The fact that these new regulations have met very little opposition shows that they, unlike Prohibition, were based on a thoroughly shared moral understanding.)
Another procedure is to bring a third value into play when two diverge or clash. For instance, those who recently tried to restore the Black-Jewish coalition of the 1960s in the US argue that both groups share a commitment to liberal causes. Additionally, attempts to create an interfaith coalition pointed to the shared commitment to fight poverty, as the participants struggled to work out a joint position.15 Groups that strongly support pro-life public policies and those that strongly support pro-choice ones agreed to work together to improve the care of children, whom both groups cherish.16
“Culture wars” is a term that was used originally to refer to the conflicts between social conservatives and liberals about issues such as abortion and divorce. More generally, it is used to refer to “a conflict between groups with different ideals, beliefs, [or] philosophies.”17 It implies persistent, unresolved value differences such as those between Protestants and Catholics in earlier eras, Shias and Sunnis, and secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews more recently. One may view culture wars as failed moral dialogues, in part due to higher levels of emotional involvement compared to moral dialogues. However, one should note the findings of an excellent study by the historian Stephen Prothero that shows that, over time, even these dialogues often lead to new SMUs, for instance about same-sex marriages, use of contraception, and divorce.18 This may even be true about gun control; however, in this realm moral consensus has not yet led to significant changes in voluntary behavior, and the law moved away from the SMU.
So far this analysis of moral dialogues has focused on communications, on members of a community, however small or large, exchanging moral viewpoints, discussing moral issues with one another, reexamining their moral positions, and reaching (often) common ground. One should not ignore, however, that all such dialogues also contain acts that serve to dramatize the moral issues under discussion, such as sit-ins, demonstrations, occupying administrative buildings on campuses and at corporations, sit-downs in traffic lanes, and spilling blood on fur coats (by animal rights activists). Court cases such as the Scopes Trial, congressional hearings regarding Joseph McCarthy, and the confirmation hearing of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas also serve to dramatize the issues. If words, deliberations, and communications entail two dimensions, dramatizations are three-dimensional.
These dramatizations serve two main purposes. One is to nurture the dialogues. Following dramatizations, especially those with novel rather than merely routinized elements, one finds a spike in dialogues. For instance, the spike in dialogue cited above was associated with lawmakers in North Carolina passing a law that prevents transgender individuals from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, by requiring individuals to use public bathrooms in alignment with the sex given on their birth certificate, and by the dramatic response of the US Departments of Justice and Education that threatened to deny billions in federal funds to North Carolina and any other state that followed the same course. The importance of dramatization has risen since the advent of TV. Pictures are highly evocative, whereas verbal dialogues rarely lend themselves to dramatic footage. Hence, dramatizations on TV are a particularly effective means to promote moral dialogues, to keep the issues under discussion in the public eye, and to mobilize participation.
Second, dramatizations engage people’s emotions, whereas verbal give-and-take relates more to intellectual accountability elements. Dramatization thus helps ensure that people who may be swayed by an argument will also refigure their emotional commitments accordingly.
To reiterate, even when successful, the change in an SMU encompasses merely a large segment of the people who engaged in these dialogues; there always remain some who do not change their moral position. Moreover, some moral dialogues fail, for example, between the pro-choice and pro-life groups. Many take off, slow down, and are relaunched before a significant level of SMU is reached (e.g., the dialogue on inequality). However, when these dialogues take off and mature, they change the moral positions of large segments of the populations, often creating new moral majorities.
More importantly, the great significance of SMUs is that they lead to voluntary changes in behavior—well beyond changes in attitudes. Thus, people who acknowledge that they have a moral obligation to the environment are much more likely than others to recycle, use recycled paper, bike and walk, buy low-emission cars that use fuel efficiently, support public policies that protect the environment, use solar panels, and so on. True, these behaviors are also affected by changes in economic incentives and legislative acts. However, for reasons next outlined, it makes a very great difference (a) if the changes in behavior are mainly voluntary, due to changes in what people consider the right behavior versus mainly due to economic and legal incentives, and (b) if the changes in incentives and laws are supported by an SMU or not.
The role of SMUs in affecting behavior rather than just attitudes is of great significance and hence deserves some elaboration. In a very extensive study of what motivates people,19 a study whose findings were replicated and augmented many times,20 I showed that people can be motivated to engage in pro-social behavior that they would not have engaged in otherwise, in three ways. They can be coerced; motivated by economic incentives or disincentives; or convinced of the moral rightness of changing their behavior. The study shows that people resent being coerced and will try to deviate from forced patterns of behavior whenever they believe they can get away with it. Hence compliance will be costly, unreliable, and far from satisfactory.
People who are paid to behave—read a book, come to class, work, etc.—will be less alienated than those who are coerced, but they will also seek to gain the incentives while giving in return as little as possible because in their view their preferences are not compatible with what they are paid to do.
In sharp contrast, people who find their tasks morally compelling will feel ennobled and highly motivated to complete them well, even if unsupervised. (Those in hybrid situations will act accordingly; e.g., the feelings and behaviors of physicians who are morally compelled to treat their patients while also receiving financial reward for their service will fall somewhere between those physicians driven only by economic incentives or only by moral principles.)
There are those who hold that each person is out to pursue their self-interest and, famously, that an invisible hand will ensure that as a result, the economy will thrive and all will do well. Whether this is true or not for the economy need not examined here; however, this certainly does not hold true for society. The problem of social order, as Dennis Wrong put it, is that people need to be motivated to engage in pro-social behavior.21 However, no society can provide a sufficient number of police officers, accountants, border patrols, etc. to coerce a satisfactory level of pro-social behavior. Moreover, such enforcement is costly, as the US discovered when it incarcerated people en masse, spending more on prisons than on higher education, trying but failing to curb substance abuse. Last but not least, such enforcement faces the often-cited challenge, Who will guard the guardians? Many enforcement agents are corrupt and engage in antisocial behavior themselves: They shoot unarmed African Americans. They smuggle contraband into prisons. They harass inmates.
In contrast, to the extent that most people do at most times much of what needs to be done—go to work, take care of their family, pay taxes, avoid polluting, and so on—because they view their responsibilities as legitimate and morally compelling, compliance will be high, costs will be low, and inclination to rebel, minimal. An interesting example is tax compliance. It has been shown that if people believe that taxes are fair and legitimately used, they pay more of the taxes owed.22
When SMUs are formed, they enable a society to limit coercive enforcement and rely much more on self-regulation. For example, when public smoking bans were enacted, they caused little opposition and resulted in general compliance because they followed public education (especially on secondhand smoke risks) and moral dialogues.23 On the other hand, Prohibition failed miserably because public consensus on the issue was lacking; the law was not backed up by a shared moral understanding.24
Although, as we have just seen, the main benefit of new SMUs (or the reworking of an old, obsolete one) is an increase in voluntary adherence to the social norms that define pro-social behavior, SMUs also lead to new laws and regulations or to changes in them. That is, the new SMUs tend to become legally embedded and reinforced. This is the case because (a) many social functions cannot rely only on moral persuasion and voluntary compliance (or economic incentives); and (b) even if only a relatively small number of people ignore social norms, their conduct can unravel voluntary compliance in the larger population over time because law-abiding citizens would feel like “suckers” who are taken advantage of and treated unfairly. Thus, if a growing number of people speed or park illegally with impunity, more and more will follow. Hence, mature SMUs should not only be expressed in changes in voluntary behavior but also should be embedded in laws. Thus, the rise in the SMU that we have a stewardship over the environment led to the formation of the EPA and scores of laws limiting pollution. The rise in the SMU that African Americans were treated unfairly led to Affirmative Action, the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Plan (EEOP), and court cases banning several forms of segregation, among other such moves.
Those who tend to favor enacting moral changes should note that in many cases gaining a new SMU precedes the enactment of laws that express and undergird the values agreed upon. Dialogue about women’s rights advanced before Title IX became the law of the land. The same is true about gay rights before the Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal across the country, and before legal segregation was struck down.
A Case Study: Dialogues about Same-Sex Marriages
The moral dialogue about same-sex marriages is a subset of a much more encompassing moral dialogue on homosexuality, a dialogue not here examined. In 1970, no US state allowed same-sex marriages. Even civil unions for same-sex couples did not exist as an alternative. According to the Supreme Court, it was not even a substantial federal question (implying that same-sex marriage was not something to be considered), a statement the Court made in 1972 when refusing to hear a case on the issue. Over a decade later, in 1986, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, states maintained their ability to criminalize gay sexual relations.25 In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed with 79 percent approval in the House26 and 85 percent approval in the Senate,27 which declared that for federal purposes, marriage was between one man and one woman.28 It was signed by President Clinton, whose statement on DOMA declared, “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages and this legislation is consistent with that position.”29 In terms of public opinion, a 1996 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of respondents thought same-sex marriage should not be valid.30 Data from the Pew Research Center taken from the same year show a similar figure of 65 percent.31
Sociological Dialogue Starters
There were several “historical starters,” such as the 1993 case in which the Hawaii Supreme Court suggested that it may be unconstitutional to reject same-sex marriage.32 However, this prompted a backlash, and “by 2001, thirty-five states had passed laws limiting marriage to a union of one man and one woman [including Hawaii].”33 One should not mistake this legislation as a reflection of a new SMU; rather, it was a codification of the status quo, which had previously been seen as unnecessary. Vermont’s recognition of same-sex civil unions in 2000 can be viewed as a “sociological starter,” though it provided an alternative to same-sex marriage rather than a redefinition of marriage.
A takeoff point was reached in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage.34 As such, because of the DOMA provision denying federal benefits to same-sex couples, it put state and federal law at odds.35 The decision in Massachusetts prompted a backlash of state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.36 California voted for Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. But “advocates could show the nation that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry had no negative consequences.”37
The legalization of same-sex marriage by Massachusetts in 2004, with the media portraying happy gay and lesbian newlyweds, helped trigger a national debate on the subject. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, proposed amendments to the Massachusetts state constitution were discussed at what were called constitutional conventions: “Each convention generated extensive local and national media coverage, and drew large crowds of demonstrators on both sides.” Ultimately no amendments were made, and same-sex marriage remained legal.38
During this time, marriage equality remained a salient issue across the country. In order to gauge where the public stood after the Proposition 8 vote in California, there were focus groups, roundtables, and thirty groups created a survey together.39
In Maine, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2008, repealed by voters in 2009, and then was supported on a ballot measure in 2012. To prepare for the 2012 referendum, a new type of canvassing was introduced, one that involved “in-depth conversations, in which the canvasser asked open-ended questions designed to invite respondents to share their experiences.” More than 200,000 such conversations took place, and it is estimated that these conversations changed the stance of 12,500 Maine voters.40 One of the televised political ads in Maine at the time closed with the statement: “This isn’t about politics. It’s about family and how we as people treat one another.”41
Television played a key role in moral dialogues on marriage equality. The portrayal of gay and lesbian characters in the media has increased,42 and there is evidence that this had an impact on public opinion: “According to a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll, 27% of people who had changed their minds about gay marriage from anti- to pro- in the last decade said that they made their decision after watching gay characters on shows like Modern Family and Glee.”43
When President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage in 2012, it had a significant impact on the amount of conversation taking place.44 On blogs there was more than a 60 percent increase in statements on same-sex marriage after Obama’s announcement, and the percentage was even greater on Twitter: “For the week of May 7–11 , Obama’s comment on May 9 in favor of same-sex marriage was the No. 1 topic on blogs and the No. 3 subject on Twitter.”45 Furthermore, “there have been nine previous weeks [since 2009] when the subject [same-sex marriage] was among the most discussed on blogs or Twitter.”46
In 2013, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) introduced an image of a pink equal sign against a red backdrop in support of marriage equality as part of a social media campaign in connection with the Supreme Court’s consideration of Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor, two cases that had implications for marriage equality. The logo went viral, with many people replacing their Facebook profile picture with one that included it, prompting news headlines such as “How the Red Equal Sign Took over Facebook.”47 HRC provides the following description of the phenomenon of the red logo: “The red marriage equality logo first appeared on HRC’s Facebook page at 2 p.m. on March 25, 2013. Within 24 hours, HRC’s Facebook post to encourage digital activists to change their social media profile pictures to a red and pink version of its ubiquitous logo received 189,177 shares, 95,725 likes, appeared over 18 million times in Newsfeeds, created upwards of 10 million impressions worldwide, and inspired countless memes. Facebook recorded a 120 percent increase in profile photo updates, and they deemed the effort the most successful campaign in their history.”48 Pew Research Center did a study of news coverage both leading up to and during the Supreme Court hearings; the study looked at five hundred stories about marriage equality during an eight-week time frame, concluding that the coverage indicated “strong momentum for same-sex marriage.”49 Although this number is by no means inclusive of every relevant news story during the selected time frame, it illustrates the extent to which marriage equality was being discussed. Pew also noted that the “Gay Voices” microsite of the Huffington Post “produced so much coverage that it was examined separately from the rest of the news media.”50
The movement for same-sex marriage used court cases to dramatize the issues at the heart of the moral dialogue and drew on protests to engage public attention. For example, after the Proposition 8 vote, protests were widespread in California,51 which kept the issue in the media. At the Sacramento Capitol, 2,500 protesters gathered, and other large protests occurred outside of religious institutions that had supported the measure to ban same-sex marriage.52 Same-sex marriage was also promoted in pride parades in many cities. In 2013, DOMA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor,53 which furthered the momentum of the same-sex marriage movement.
In June 2015, the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.54 It applies to all fifty states, though some states still have laws banning same-sex marriage and now seek to obstruct it in other ways. A month prior to the decision, a Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of respondents thought same-sex marriage should be legal.55 The tide had turned, and Justice Anthony Kennedy recognized that Americans had reached a new SMU. He wrote that “new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.”56
When moral dialogues mature, they become a major source of community building and nurturing. Communities are not merely places where people bond and have affection for one another. They are also places where people have a shared moral culture and shared values from which specific norms are derived. However, moral cultures are continually challenged by technological, economic, and international developments, among others. To respond to these challenges, moral cultures draw on moral dialogues. The dialogues either shore up or revise the core values needed to keep various contending factions from eroding communal bonds and the core of shared values.
Social scientists and social philosophers have long worried that the social transformation accompanying the Industrial Revolution—when most people moved from the tightly knit communal life of villages into cities with “atomized” affiliations—caused the loss of essential social moorings. This thesis is often referred to as a shift from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society).57 True, we have since learned that communities can be found in industrial societies, for instance in such ethnic neighborhoods as Chinatown, Spanish Harlem, Greenwich Village, and in the gated complexes in which many millions of Americans live.58 However, there is still considerable evidence that a large number of people lack the social bonds essential for their flourishing—hence the call for rebuilding communities in which moral dialogues play a major reconstructive role.
Major liberal scholars hold that each person should define the good and that the state should be morally neutral. Hence some have suggested that the state should stop issuing marriage licenses altogether and leave the various religions’ functionaries and civic bodies to determine what marriage is. Moreover, liberals feared that even if the state remains morally neutral, as long as the society forms strong SMUs, these will be embedded in laws.59
In contrast, communitarians point out that social order requires a core of shared values. Some of the reasons have already been cited, such as the need for social order to rest on voluntary compliance. Further, various factions with rival interests and values need to form shared public policies as well as procedures to resolve differences so that disagreements do not spin into unresolved standoffs and violence. Developing SMUs is the process that can keep these essential core values intact or allow them to adapt rather than unravel in times of change.
I refer to a set of “core” values because the difference between core and other values is crucial for several reasons. First, much attention has been paid in recent years to the polarization of American politics, reflected in more and more people identifying themselves with either a conservative or a liberal position and fewer and fewer as somewhere in the middle—as well as a growing adamancy in the positions held by both camps. Polarization is viewed as a key reason the government is in gridlock and held in low regard by the overwhelming majority of the American people. From a communitarian viewpoint, the main question is whether the polarization concerns secondary values—and hence differences can be settled by appealing to core values—or is holistic, leading to irreconcilable differences. If the breakdown of moral consensus is holistic, moral dialogues will either fail to lead to SMUs, or they will restore the needed consensus by leading to the formation of a new core of shared values.
The term “moral” implies that one approves whatever is so judged. However, there is no a priori reason to hold that just because the overwhelming majority of the people of a given community come to an SMU, the content of this understanding will be in line with what a particular person will consider moral. For example, the majority of Americans used to hold that “separate but equal” was a fair SMU (reflected in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson). Another example is the Defense of Marriage Act, which held that for the purposes of federal law, marriage is between a man and a woman, as well as gave states the right to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex marriages that had taken place outside their jurisdiction. Many will not find these SMUs to be moral.
In short, moral dialogues are just that—dialogues about what the majority considers moral—not what is moral by some ethical theory or anyone’s standards. One must hence keep in mind that whatever SMU a community or society or transnational body might reach—which might have all the functional merits I discussed earlier, such as making society more peaceful, functional, and effective—that SMU may nevertheless be immoral by your or my standards, or those of the Bible, Kant, Rawls, utilitarianism, Aristotelianism, or virtue ethics. Those troubled by the substance of any SMU are hence called upon to continue to reexamine it and, if found objectionable, to work to change it through moral dialogues.60
The Need for a New Dialogue
The reason that members of the patriotic movement now need to engage in major national dialogues on the core values that should guide the nation is that the prevailing polarization cuts much deeper than political disagreements. Many democracies have lost a shared understanding of the basic values that serve to contain conflicts and provide a foundation for forming shared directions for public policies and allocation of resources. There is no going back to the old consensus, which was biased against women and minorities. A new consensus needs to be formed from the ground up.
The patriotic movement will have to find its way through all the steps other movements did: it needs to form a brief (to which this book seeks to contribute); insert it into local dialogues and launch megalogues; find ways to dramatize its cause; and ensconce the new shared understanding yet to arise into laws and public policy.