A controversial Arizona law SB1062 was passed last week and awaits Governor Jan Brewer’s signature or veto by this weekend. Prompted in part by an incident in New Mexico in which a wedding photographer was purportedly sued for refusing to shoot at a same sex commitment ceremony due to her beliefs, the law seeks to protect individuals and businesses from undue burdens on their religious conviction.
The controversy comes as a diverse group of citizens, activists, and business leaders see the law not as a small tweak to existing laws or as adding reasonable protections for small business, but as an attempt to legalize discrimination against the LGBQT community. Although as this article suggests, this interpretation of the bill may be overly simplistic (according to it, discrimination against the community is in fact currently legal at the federal level and state level because they are not a protected group), it has nonetheless sparked a media firestorm as everyone from Apple and eBay to the NFL and even conservative politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have weighed in against it. This controversial law has again propelled Arizona to the forefront of a major societal debate, and it has many layers which deserve exploring. I will leave the political, legal, and economic analysis to experts in those areas; as an interculturalist, my interest is in exploring this debate through the framework of intercultural values.
An intercultural perspective
Although the positions held and arguments made by each side would appear to have little in common, they both emerge from mainstream US values. Interestingly, although proponents are very much motivated by what they view as traditional, sacred values, this is an argument that has been fading in recent years as it plays into the mainstream’s caricature of them as regressive throwbacks. Trying to shift that narrative, proponents have begun to press their case through the value of egalitarianism, repositioning the fight as a kind of David versus Goliath story with the humble baker resisting powerful political pressures. From this perspective, they are pressing for the equal right to live the way they want to live, regardless of how the rest of society shifts.
Opponents also frame their case through egalitarianism, as many argue LGBQT individuals are full members of our society who deserve equal civic treatment under the law, regardless of how individuals feel about them, or how much powerful religious and political forces seek to marginalize them. Rarely ones to appeal to tradition anyway, they are also naturally situated to take advantage of Americans’ value of change and progress. There has been a sea change in the past years as a majority now supports gay marriage, and the movement has fairly successfully painted a stark choice of marching together toward a more inclusive and tolerant future or regressing backward to a kind of segregation 2.0. As Millennials come of age (the oldest of us are in our early thirties), there is a sense that equal rights are inevitable and that this is our moment. As a result, more people are jumping on the bandwagon, not only because they sincerely support the cause but because they sense the paradigm is shifting and they are afraid to be left behind.
Proponents of the law cannot so easily make their argument through the lens of change and progress, and their framing of themselves as the underdog, while perhaps compelling inside their social circles, has mostly fallen flat outside them. However, they still gird their argument in the language of a future-orientation, not only because they are well aware that their future is one of increasing social isolation and falling on the archaic side of a global issue, but because they are attempting to pre-emptively address a problem that does not currently exist in Arizona (in that no businesses have yet been sued).
Alongside these values, there is also an appeal to the pragmatic and materialistic. This may seem surprising at first as there is definitely a philosophical and spiritual element to the debate; the values that are the most salient, however, are the ones which the camps use to persuade the public that their cause is the right one. Supporters of the new law are mainly arguing that the law is needed as a practical matter to protect the material livelihoods of a minority espousing unpopular but deeply-held beliefs; they are not on the whole appealing to abstract or theological principles in their justifications. By the same token, opponents of the law are mainly arguing that it is recklessly impractical as it will “give Arizona another black eye” and drive away business, thereby threatening the material well-being of everyone in the state. This does not mean that nobody is protesting on humanitarian grounds, but that human rights as an abstract concept has not been the main, or most broadly compelling, approach. (And usually when human rights are evoked, they are viewed through the egalitarianism value, as discussed above, or the individualism value, to be discussed below).
More significant than these values, however, is the most cherished and ingrained of all American values: Individualism. For supporters, the law is fundamentally about individual liberty, which they perceive as being under threat from all sides (especially what they call the liberal media). In their view, by safeguarding the First Amendment right for citizens to speak their minds freely, operate their own businesses as they wish, and enshrining their right to hold their own religious views, the law provides a bulwark to protect the rights of a moral minority against the tide of an increasingly wayward society. Ultimately, it is about the freedom to be who they are and live as they want, even if nobody else likes it.
Strikingly, those opposed to the law take a very similar stance. Framing their arguments in the language of individualism, they assert that their rights as individuals to be full members of society in the public sphere trumps religion or others’ personal preferences, which they view as properly belonging in the private sphere. In their view, their fundamental First Amendment right to speak freely means that they are entitled to live authentic, open lives as their true selves without fear of recriminations or exclusion. They view the law as an assault on their individual liberty under the guise of others’ religious freedom.
Of course, culture is present not only in the viewpoints held by each camp, but also in the way the debate has played out between them. Those in the opposition have been much more successful in controlling the environment by harnessing our doing/action and time-orientations, perhaps recognizing that critical momentum failed to coalesce the last time that Arizona decided to serve as a national lightning rod (see SB1070). The social media landscape, in particular, was won by the opposition before supporters had even congratulated themselves on passing the law, as hashtags like #SB1062, #bad4azbiz, and #veto lit up Twitter and gave like-minded people not just from around the state but around the world a venue for airing their grievances publicly and directly to Governor Brewer. In doing so, opponents rapidly, actively shaped the landscape in such a way that #SB1062 became a political liability and an embarrassment for businesses, which in turn felt a need to control their position in the broader global environment by taking a public stand.
Somewhat peculiarly, the proponents appear to have miscalculated the political consequences of the timing they chose for propelling this action forward; despite having picked this political fight they ceded the control of the environment to the other camp with barely a fight. Indeed, by pushing it through while Governor Brewer was on a scheduled trip to D.C., they guaranteed that the public would have the better part of a week, including a weekend, to stew and build momentum toward a veto. Moreover, by choosing this moment, on the cusp of Arizona’s annual tourism season, during which flocks of Snowbirds from colder and more liberal states descend to play in our sunshine, they all but forced bigger and more influential businesses to join the opposition. Also related to the environment and timing is the fact that Arizona is preparing to host the Super Bowl next year – something we lost twenty years ago due to our politics and which businesses and fans alike do not want to lose again. Furthermore, it failed to consider the broader environment of economic recovery, in which businesses like Apple have decided to expand to the Phoenix area, moves which are feathers in Governor Brewer’s political cap and which she will be loath to lose.
Finally, they neglected to recognize the way in which the timing with Governor Brewer’s term makes this law more susceptible to veto than SB1070. Back in 2010, she was a deeply unpopular governor who was widely viewed as ineffective and who had not been elected (she assumed Janet Napolitano’s seat when the latter went to head Homeland Security). In an election year, she made a gamble that she could garner conservative votes by signing that controversial legislation into law. This time around, Brewer is not facing election, but is a departing governor leaving a legacy. Whether she will sign the law or not is still an open question, but her calculus for making the decision is not nearly as clear-cut.
Although detractors utilized the environment and managed their time more effectively than the supporters, they were united in their espousal of this value, as neither proposed leaving it up to fate. Likewise, both sides communicated directly and openly in the media and on social networking, as opposed to using indirect, face-saving communication. Similarly, each side took a competitive, rather than cooperative approach, as they perceived the debate over this legislation as a situation in which one side would win and the other would lose.
Lastly, related to but just outside the discussion of cultural values is the presence of power – political power on the side of those who supported the bill, and social and commercial power on the side of those who oppose it. Supporters of the bill are complaining that detractors have not read it, and that they are blowing it out of proportion, while opponents of the law assert that it is simply not acceptable, in 2014, to pass any legislation which marginalizes or opens the door to discrimination against any group of people. Objectively comparing the two sides does not imply that they are necessarily equally right, however my goal here is to shed light on the cultural dimensions of this debate.
Regardless of what Governor Brewer decides, it is clear that this law is a catalyst for a national debate at the intersection of individual speech, the role of religion in public life, LGBQT rights, and the impact of the above on an economy highly dependent on its brand image. Personally, as an Arizonan, I am opposed to the law, for the reasons mentioned above and because I care deeply about my LGBQT friends and neighbors and prefer to see my state become more open, inclusive, and tolerant than this road it is choosing. But no matter how you feel, I think it is instructive to consider the ways in which our cultural values inform our perspectives and arguments. Somewhat ironically, when we see that supporters and detractors are motivated by similar cultural values, we can even appreciate that we are different – yet not so different – as we have imagined.
Update: The law was indeed vetoed by Governor Brewer, which resolved the immediate legal controversy but not the social divide. Several other states have similar legislation pending, and disagreement continues about the direction the country should take, and how it should reconcile religious freedom and civil rights.