History on repeat

10 April 2015
10 Apr 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

This post originally appeared on Cafe Avant-Garde, but I also wanted to share the same ideas on my own blog. So If you want more of what some of my friends have to say about it, you can follow the link above. And without any further ado, here are my thoughts on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or at least, the version of it in Indiana.

We can’t escape cycles. In fact, I would submit to you that time is just a cycle of recurring cycles. From the supposed doom of the world stemming from the cycle of the Mayan calendar to the cycle of life and death, there are more events in the course of time that repeat themselves than end abruptly. Of course, one among these cycles is the cycle of history itself. While we’re stuck in our human bodies in human societies that are not-so-close to perfect, we’re bound to repeat history, and that holds us inexplicably to our past, regardless of if that means our past successes or faults. Unfortunately, I think we’ve arrived at one of those déjà vu moments from the past, and it’s not a pleasant one to recount.

But before we dive in to my arguments against the act, I want to establish one fact: Looking at the proponents of the law in state governments and the public’s interpretation of the law, it seems obvious that the largest issue at hand is that the law essentially grants small businesses the license to freely discriminate based on sexual orientation (this is in large part due to the vagueness of the wording of the law).

The moral issues of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, is an obviously complex one. Both sides of the argument have their share of solid support and reasons, and honestly, my personal opinion or whether or not we should have what is essentially a “right to discriminate” would change based on my religious views. Ultimately, morality is something we made up to keep order in our society. There is nothing embedded into the laws of nature that divides the world into rights and wrongs, much less define what actions are right and what are wrong. In other words, the appropriateness of the RFRA can’t be solidly laid down in vacuum. However, we don’t have to determine its impacts in vacuum, because we have two powerful tools in our government we can use: the basic principle of democracy and our advantage of retrospection, looking back into history. And under those two lights, it becomes more apparent that the RFRA cannot be an appropriate course of action today.

The basic principle of democracy is really rather simple: the government ought to do what the people as a whole wants the government to do. And to fulfill that goal, we in the United States have an excellent history of rights to free speech and free press. Unfortunately, sometimes, the government seems to operate as an island overseeing a continent rather than a mirror of the ideas of the majority**. And looking purely into the ideas reflected by the media and the voices of the people over the past few weeks, it seems painfully obvious that a straightforward reflection of the people’s voices would absolutely not allow for the bill to become a law. I’m not denying the voices of its proponents (whose opinions come with fair reason); I am saying that the voices of those opposed to the bill are far more powerful in the public. And if the government is any honest reflection of the people’s voices, the RFRA cannot stay a law, at least in its current, massively ambiguous state.

The second tool that we have to make better decisions is our advantage of retrospection. Because of the unavoidable cycles strewn across history, we have the ability to look for similar incidences in our past, and make better decisions in the present. Regardless of what its proponents suggest is the inherent purpose of RFRA, the ambiguity of the law’s wording and the public’s interpretation makes RFRA, functionally, a law that allows for discrimination. And anyone who knows remotely anything about the history of our country is aware of the repeating conflicts of discrimination, first based on race, then on sex, and how those discriminatory ideals all came to their ends. Yet we seem to interpret discrimination with religious reasons differently than other “types” of discrimination, when there is no reason to separate those two – no dividing line that separates “discrimination that are OK” from “discrimination that are permanent scars in our history”. Those who stand for the law are under the impression that discrimination is completely justified, as long as there is some religious motive behind it. But not only is that line in the sand insanely difficult and controversial to define, it completely bypasses the fact that discrimination with religious reasons is still discriminatory. If a perfectly acceptable human being is discriminated upon, the fact that there was some religious motive behind it does not in any way change the fact that he or she was still harmed in some way because of something that is out of their control. And the fact that we still allow this kind of philosophy to be legislated after two monumental shifts of ideals in our history is astounding to me.

I don’t think I’m in any position to tell anyone what their morally correct course of action is. I don’t think anyone – including (and especially) politicians – has that ability to dictate morality upon others. But I do think our government should operate to listen to the strongest voices of the people, and I think our society ought to see clearly that there is no such thing as “justified discrimination”. In a venn diagram of “actions justified by religion” and “discrimination based on factors out of human control”, there is no intersection between the two. And despite the fact that I’m aware of my gross oversimplifications and possible misunderstandings, I still believe it’s justified that I talk about my thoughts openly with the public for same reason I think the RFRA cannot stay a law: I believe that the voices of the people should dictate our course of action as a society, and in that belief, I hope I’m not mistaken.

* Still, one of the caveats of going by faith is that the opinions of those who believe in certain religions change rather easily through time.

** Wait.. this sounds sort of familiar.

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