More and more our debates about same-sex marriage resemble the toxic rhetoric of the 1930s. Even before World War II broke out, Fascists and Communists were using vile language to shame and intimidate their adversaries.

George Orwell was immersed in this rhetoric while he was fighting in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. Communists were attacking Trotskyites; anarchists were attacking Communists. It was after exposure to the hallucinatory language in their newspapers and pamphlets that he composed his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” and Animal Farm, his masterpiece about Stalin's take-over of the Russian Revolution. As he mulled over his experience, he wrote that he often had the feeling that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”

As Orwell knew, a master of this brutal bullying was the chief prosecutor at the Moscow show trials in the mid-30s, Andrey Vyshinksy. These were intended to eliminate all of Stalin's potential rivals in the Soviet Union — and thousands, if not millions, died. Vyshinksy was an expert at browbeating – and beating — his victims into confessing imaginary crimes. Apart from physical torture and threats to the families of the accused, there was the mental torture of his remarkable gift for vituperation. However absurd his insults, they must have stung like a whip.

A stinking pile of human refuse … the most contemptible, the most incorrigible and decayed dishonourable elements … accursed vermin … accursed cross between a fox and a swine … Let's push the bestial hatred they bear our leaders back down their own throats!

And today? Just look at the treatment given to Australian tennis legend Margaret Court for opposing same-sex marriage. She was an extraordinary sportswoman, who still holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles. Nowadays she is an outspoken fundamentalist pastor who leads a church group in Perth. Late last month she wrote an open letter lamenting that the national carrier, Qantas, was enthusiastically backing same-sex marriage.

I am disappointed that Qantas has become an active promoter for same-sex marriage. I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible. Your statement leaves me no option but to use other airlines where possible for my extensive travelling.

The reaction on Twitter out-Vyshinskyed Vyshinsky:

A Nazi witch from way back … So Margaret Court not only a Homophobe she's also a Bigot … How anyone can consider this woman a “legend” is beyond me. No amount of trophies can make up for being this dogshit a human being.

Ah, but that’s just the dark side of the Twitterverse, you might say. But celebrities in the tennis world have been beating the same drum. The imbroglio has become so heated that the New York Times has run two articles on it. 

Former world number one John McEnroe released a satirical video laced with the F-bomb which concluded, “when same-sex marriage finally becomes legal in Australia, I will personally call my good friend Elton John to host the biggest same-sex mass wedding ceremony ever seen in the Margaret Court Arena.”

Martina Navratilova was more Vyshinky-ish in her open letter denouncing Court. Just as Vyshinky denounced the defendants at the show trials for absurd crimes, Navratilova turns the Australian into a human rights criminal:

It is now clear exactly who Court is: an amazing tennis player, and a racist and a homophobe. Her vitriol is not just an opinion. She is actively trying to keep LGBT people from getting equal rights (note to Court: we are human beings, too). She is demonising trans kids and trans adults everywhere …

How much blood will be on Margaret's hands because kids will continue to get beaten for being different? This is not OK. Too many will die by suicide because of this kind of intolerance, this kind of bashing and yes, this kind of bullying. This is not OK.

Tarring opponents as murderers of innocents was a familiar tactic to Vishinsky. Was Navratilova remembering his words about an assassinated Bolshevik ally of Stalin?

These mad dogs of capitalism tried to tear limb from limb the best of the best of our Soviet land. They killed one of the men of the revolution who was most dear to us, that admirable and wonderful man, bright and joyous as the smile on his lips was always bright and joyous, as our new life is bright and joyous. They killed our Kirov …

But just as the mastermind of Kirov’s murder was never identified (although hundreds confessed), the cause of young gay suicides is far from certain. It could be that they are victims of severe psychological instability. But proof isn’t needed in show trials; Margaret Court is guilty.

And “racist”? Where did this come from? The Twitterverse dug up a sentence in newspaper articles in 1970 – that’s one sentence uttered 47 years ago, by the way – in which she had some kind words for South Africa’s policy of apartheid. No one bothered to ask what she thinks now.

Supported by many others in the tennis world, Navratilova has called for the Margaret Court Arena, a major tennis venue in Melbourne, to be renamed.

We celebrate free speech, but that doesn't mean it is free of consequences – not punishment, but consequences. We should not be celebrating this kind of behaviour, this kind of philosophy. The platform people like Margaret Court use needs to be made smaller, not bigger.

Vyshinksky would have applauded this. That’s precisely what the Bolsheviks did. St Petersburg became Leningrad; Vyatka became Kirov; Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad. Someone in the Twitterverse had an even better idea: “They shouldn't change the name of the arena; they should burn it to the ground.”

There is one difference between the arguments of the 1930s and now: it’s mainly one side which is doing the browbeating. Yes, there are Christians who call down God’s wrath upon the LGBTI community, but they are few and marginal. Just search Twitter; you won’t find many. Margaret Court has expressed her opinions bluntly, but she is basically supporting the legal status quo in Australia. According to the Marriage Amendment Act 2004, marriage is between a man and a woman. How can defending the law be hate speech?

Abusive language and personal attacks are smothering political debate about same-sex marriage in three ways. First, substantial issues are shelved. Second, their victims withdraw from the debate. And third, wannabee Vishinskys become brainless automatons incapable of rational discourse. In Orwell’s prescient words:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy …. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved … And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

What a great description of the Twitter-celebrity nexus!

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

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Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.