On Facebook last week my friend Renge Grace posted the above picture of actor/activist George Takei, captioning it with the words: "Let's move beyond bigotry and let love be love! Who are we to say one type is better than another?"
I have to admit I was disappointed to be yet again implicitly labeled a bigot.
I don't know Renge well, but she's always posted things of interest to me, and I've become one of her regular "first responders". That she supports same-sex marriage isn't the least surprising. Many of my friends do. I've often avoided discussing the issue with friends, because I know how quickly misunderstandings can develop. Normally, in this vein, I will also leave alone friends' Internet posts on gay marriage. But that Renge felt she needed to drag out the epithet bigot--this challenged me to respond.
I posted a link to something I'd written in 2012, along with a challenge to her. She was to decide if I in fact deserved this epithet.
So I'm again taking up the question of same-sex marriage--specifically whether it is marriage or not. The essay I'd written on this, trying to clarify my thinking, became the opening of a discussion that Renge then entered in kind. Renge read my essay, and replied with a guns-blazing defense of her own thinking.
My opening barrage in this debate is here. Renge's spirited counterattack is here. One will best understand what follows if read in the context of these previous posts. But I know: Life is short, USW.
NOTE: I am an American Catholic who is on the left on most political issues. This might explain somewhat where I'm coming from in these remarks. I'm entirely supportive of our current Pope Francis' willingness to raise discussion of homosexuality within the Church. I don't believe there are any grounds for excluding gays and lesbians from full participation in political or religious life. Nonetheless I do not support same-sex marriage. If the Church, after thoughtful discussion, were to formulate grounds for accepting gay marriage, I'd almost certainly be in support. I say this with confidence because I know the Church isn't likely to make such a change unless it finds very good reasons, both theological and anthropological, to do so.
What follows is a whole new tack in the debate--a rant of sorts, written in reply to Renge's own ranty post. I'm surprised and not surprised I ended up writing at such length.
Though I've taken a few days to respond to your hard-hitting rebuttal, I'm afraid I still won't be able to do justice to all your points as I've too many projects on the burner now--editing and class preparation and such. Still, as you've written so well on the issue and linked it with such an array of other issues, I'm inspired to do likewise. So I'm going to give some something of a far-ranging rant in return for yours.
As you can gather, I'm more on the border on this issue than most people, but truth to tell, my thinking hasn't much changed since my 2012 essay.
Some of the arguments you make I agree with. In other places, where you strongly disagree with me, I still find your points pertinent to our debate. Other things you write, however, I have to label straw-man arguments. I will give you examples of each.
For instance, I can fully agree with you when you write this:
Someday I hope we’ll grow up enough to realize that sexuality is a continuum and we are all on the line somewhere. (This may even change as we age, adding further complexity to our human experience.) Very few among us are completely straight or completely gay. Under sufficient application of alcohol, most people will admit to sexual experiments with their own gender, but this openness is discouraged and people are shamed in both worlds for admitting their bisexuality.I've long thought this way about sexual orientation, but can't recall anyone ever putting the point so well. It seems obvious that everyone is indeed somewhere on a continuum.
Your arguments seem most pertinent to our differences where you point out, as you do several times, that institutions need to be "updated" in order to keep up with a changing society. As I believe you would put it: Modern societies have created different ways of living, and our institutions--like marriage, parenthood, etc.--should adapt to contemporary realities. Do you agree with this? This seems to be your "general historical position", if I might call it that. It is how you explain and justify social change, it informs your thinking on gay marriage, and I presume that it underlies much of your thinking on other cultural/religious/political issues. For me it's a perspective on the world that can't be brushed aside. In fact I disagree with it, but that you adopt this angle is certainly pertinent to our debate. I'll address the issue later.
You're also arguing very much to the point when you quote Wikipedia on what marriage is. But I have my reasons for doubt here. I strongly suspect the very encyclopedia article you quote from has been pressured into shape by the same-sex marriage crowd. Why do I suspect it? First: Because I studied marriage and kinship in anthropology in the 1980s, and at that time the consensus was that marriage had only one universal meaning, one common element across cultures: marriage was a socially conferred status given to male and female partners that legitimated offspring. In other words, in cultures across the world and throughout history, marriage might feature a division of the daily labors necessary to life (distinct roles in the family); it might feature romantic love; it might feature this or that ritual; it might be monogamous or polygamous. The one thing that it always featured, aside from its character as a status established between the sexes, was the legitimation of offspring. This, then, was the essence of marriage, at least as anthropologists could then best define it. Why, I wonder, is your Wikipedia article suddenly listing this universal aspect of marriage after other features like companionship, mutual obligation, arguments over which drapes best offset the carpet, etc.? I have an idea why. I suspect the sudden shift in perspective has something to do with the era that has given us Wikipedia. (It would be very interesting to check a range of encyclopedia articles on this, comparing the 1980s versions with the current offerings. I haven't done this, but will when I have a chance. I can't be certain, but I have a strong inkling of what I will find. Anthropologists, being academics, work under special pressure from the waves of political correctness that have been sweeping our universities since, yes, the 1980s.)
Another place where your arguments are pertinent is where you write as follows:
Children are still at the whim of the mental/emotion/financial stability of their caregivers. Heterosexuals have absolutely no biological monopoly on sanity, stability, or ability to provide a healthy and loving home life. There is absolutely no reason I can think of that one man and one woman are somehow better biologically/socially/mentally/emotionally/spiritually/financially equipped to raise a child than two men, or two women.You put your convictions here very strongly and in the clearest possible terms. But do you really believe what you write? There is "absolutely no reason"? I will be blunt about my own thinking on this question of child-rearing. All other factors being equal, I think the best home for a child to be raised in is one with a (female) mother and a (male) father. All other factors being equal, homes with single parents or same-sex parents are not as good for a child's social development. It is better for children to have both male and female role models in the house, as it helps with their own gender development and integration into the culture at large.
Please note the importance of my mitigating clause "all other factors being equal". It means, of course, that I fully recognize there are same-sex or single parents who do a great job raising kids, just as there are heterosexual couples who do a dismal job. I am certainly not claiming that children can only be raised well if they are raised in a traditional family. Still, I believe the battle over same-sex marriage has led progressive-minded people to overstate their confidence in the other direction. Me, I'm not convinced there is "absolutely no difference" between different kinds of household in terms of a child's well-being. (I know, by the way, what recent studies have shown.)
As to your straw-man arguments, these would include things like:
Truthfully, I am not sure how [seeing gays or lesbians as abnormal] is any different from bigotry against someone for their skin color? If someone doesn’t belong to a group which has more than (51%? 66%?) of the same shade of skin color in a given school/state/country, then they don’t deserve equal rights? If your sexuality is only reflected by 6-10% of the rest of the population, you are abnormal, deviant, disposable? At what point, what percentage, does some condition or state earn the right to be considered “normal?”Here you're not debating me any more, but going after a generalized right-wing bogeyman (one that exists, to be sure, but one that is not me). In reply, I would remind you, and anyone else who lightly uses the term bigot, that it is entirely possible to strongly believe both of these statements:
1) Homosexuality is normal for 6-10 percent of any given human population; it is not perverse or anything to be ashamed of.
2) A man cannot marry a man; a woman cannot marry a woman.
I don't see how I'm treating gays or lesbians as "disposable" by being against same-sex marriage. I don't at all agree that I'm a bigot by taking this position. Please explain. I may point out, by way of illustration, that I also strongly believe both of the following statements:
1) In any given human population, a large percentage of people are raised with siblings; having siblings is not perverse or deviant.
2) One cannot marry a brother or sister.
Thinking this way makes me an incorrigible and unrepentant siblingphobe, right? Nonetheless, Renge, I will have to stand my ground here. Laws against inter-sibling marriage should be maintained, whatever you might say. (Before you scoff and try to claim my comparison here is merely glib, please note--irony of ironies!--: there is actually more historical precedent for sibling marriage than there is for same-sex marriage.)
The simple truth is that our culture and most world cultures currently share a few common exclusionary principles that inform the definition of marriage. One cannot marry one's parent, one's child, or one's sibling. One cannot marry a person of the same sex. I don't see any reason to change our basic definition of marriage on these fundamental points--but, again, that is exactly what same-sex marriage supporters are doing. They are not extending marriage rights to a previously excluded group; rather they are changing the meaning of marriage itself.
I was trying to stress this same point when I wrote that, in the strictest sense, gays and lesbians already have the right to marry; but that, since marriage is by definition between male and female, they understandably are not likely to pursue their right. I was not being, as you say, "disingenuous", but making a point about what the right to marriage entails.
When the Nineteenth Amendment to our Constitution was ratified in 1920, it extended voting rights to women, a group who'd previously been excluded from exercising that right. The Nineteenth Amendment did not, however, alter the definition of what it means to vote. This was a true extension of rights, not an attempt to tamper with fundamentals. People who liken the push for same-sex marriage to the suffragette movement or the civil rights movement are getting it very wrong. Neither of these movements tried to alter the meaning of the rights invoked. But same-sex marriage does just that. To put the difference metaphorically: One can discover a new species of bird. But deciding that we might also start referring to squirrels as birds is altogether different. It radically alters the meaning of the term bird.
The fact that I have long supported establishment of civil unions for same-sex couples means that the good points you make about hospital visitation, tax benefits, etc., are also somewhat a matter of straw-man arguments. I've long supported extending these rights. The compromise I discussed in my essay, suggested by Anderson and Girgis in 2009 (a compromise according to which conservatives would agree to support civil unions in return for the LGBT community agreeing to support DOMA, thus ensuring that civil unions not be used as a stepping-stone to force legalizing of same-sex marriage) would have been well worth pursuing, as it would have kept our country from becoming so bitterly divided on this issue. This route is now unavailable, since Section 3 of DOMA was declared unconstitutional in 2013. Which leave opponents of same-sex marriage where? I'll tell you: the serious ones no longer support civil unions. In this regard, because I recognize gay and lesbian rights as important, I'm not among these serious ones. But I'm on the edge here. The sudden aggressiveness of the gay marriage push, the demonizing of people who refuse to go along, is as disgusting to me as the virile homophobia we see on the lunatic right.
I consider the movement for same-sex marriage to be an impertinence. I mean this word in all its possible senses. The movement is an impertinence because it is an instance of aggressive provocation at a time when gays and lesbians were already doing very well. They already had laws preventing discrimination against them in universities, in the workplace, in housing. They could live their lives as they chose. But no--they had to take the further step of demanding a change to marriage customs.
The movement is also an impertinence because it has caused an enormous stir at a historical moment when there are, as you recognize, much graver problems to be addressed. The same-sex marriage crowd has only further exacerbated the "culture wars" that our current political class uses to keep itself in power. Though we are a two-party democracy in name, it is obvious we have become a one-party oligarchy in fact. Since rapacious corporate capitalism is the only politics available to American voters, our ruling class has come up with two "flavors" in order to create the illusion of a democratic process. And so, we must choose between the economically right-wing corporate servants (called Republicans) who stand against abortion and same-sex marriage, and the economically right-wing corporate servants (Democrats) who are okay with abortion and same-sex marriage. It is not a choice, but a not-so-subtle scam that allows the corporate powers to continue to run roughshod over the natural environment and the American people. I would insist that the push for same-sex marriage is an unlooked for gift to our ruling oligarchs. No doubt the corporate crowd chuckles together on their yachts about it. Starting in the 1990s, really picking up steam after the millennium, here they have the gay/lesbian community offering them this huge political gift on a Jean-Paul Gaultier silver platter, as if gays and lesbians everywhere were standing up and declaring in a loud voice: "Here, Oligarchs, we give you this to make the masses squabble while you continue to rob them and rape the earth under their feet. Let them squabble about us. We're kind of getting used to the attention you know!" What a gift! The Koch brothers are almost ready to dress up in leotards, they're so delighted at the LGBT contribution. But for me--what an amazing piece of political impertinence it is! After being on this earth 200 centuries, our species is likely to render itself extinct after a mere three centuries of "modern Enlightenment culture". According to many scientists, we may very well no longer even be here in 2200. But hey--why not introduce an entirely new kind of marriage to the world, right? Now is the time to devote ourselves to this historic push to reform marriage!
I suspect you feel I'm starting to go on a rant here, Renge, getting a bit ranty and drifting from topic. Actually I don't quite think so. It was you who raised the question of how the push for same-sex marriage fit in the general movement of history when you stressed repeatedly how institutions need to "change with the times". I'm just stressing how I think it fits with the current times. It will likely go down in history--if we have any long-term history--as an unfortunate distraction. I'm aware how in this debate I'm standing on what many people are starting to identify as "the wrong side of history". I believe this is likely so, that the momentum is now with gay marriage. So I probably am on the wrong side of history in terms of short-term history--the history, say, of US society and politics. In terms of the long picture, however, I'm more confident. And in terms of my rant, I'm only just getting started. I did promise a rant after all.
I want to return to consideration of what I mentioned above as the general theory of history you seem to be basing so many of your arguments on. You seem to believe that politics and history is a matter of moving "forward"--of growing into the future by developing and implementing our ever-expanding human wisdom. You refer to "outdated" religious thinking and insist that institutions must "adapt". I'll admit this is a strong way of approaching history and politics, and I'm also often tempted to think this way. But when I'm thinking honestly about the world, I snap out of it. I've come to believe there's something fatal in this approach to history, that it contains a fateful seed that still isn't finished sapping the life from us. I see this weed growing in most of us.
Such "onward" and "forward" thinking is a kind of virus we injected into ourselves during the Enlightenment. Infected with this virus, we cut an ever-widening swath of mayhem and destruction across the planet. Peoples and ecosystems go up in smoke at the touch of our burning scythe.
So certain religious ways of understanding the world are "outdated"? Maybe. But it's not just in religion or ethics that things get outdated. And when you confidently adopt this language of progress, as if it were somehow obvious or unproblematic, you need to remember that this is precisely the same ideology of progress that is causing so many of our most dire problems. Indeed, it is just this kind of thinking that is, on many fronts, enabling your enemies. I'm going to play Devil's advocate and speak in the voice of "progress" on some other issues here. See how it sounds to you in these registers. First off, Renge, when I hear about people running small local farms trying to grow produce for a local community, I really have to laugh sometimes. It's so "outdated"! Everyone knows we now have a huge world population to feed. Agriculture has come a long way toward meeting this challenge, and we now have genetically modified crops that offer much better yield. Why continue with ridiculous medieval methods of farming? Or, to use your precise language: agriculture needs to "adapt" to the "current social reality", no?
Feeling a bit warm around the collar?
Or what about public safety? Yes, there are still some quaint people out there who want us to hire police to patrol the streets and interact with and protect the citizenry. What a laugh! Don't they know it's expensive and impractical and, frankly, it's sooo twentieth century? Now we can just install security cameras on every street corner and one police officer can easily surveil a whole borough. And we can even make his or her job easier by using facial recognition software in the system. The system will then automatically identify and begin to track anyone who's ever been arrested the moment they leave their dwelling. A little red dot will come to float over the heads of any troublemakers who happen to be on the street. Of course we'll have to make wearing masks or obstructive hoods illegal. But that's a small price to pay for the leap forward in policing that these technologies will allow. Remember, Renge, we live in a dangerous world. Strict notions of individual liberty, the kind of thing you'd hear before 9/11, are "outdated" and we must "adapt". There are terrorists plotting this minute to murder us. Safety first, no? Besides, it's inevitable: the technology is there, so we should use it to our advantage.
Ditto with the Internet. The reality of ever more sophisticated terrorists demands that we record and follow every communication between citizens. Outdated concepts of privacy have to be tweaked a bit to ensure the security of our nation and economy. Our notions of what government can access in our private lives must adapt. It's progress. Why try to buck it?
I could go on with any number of examples of how we must accept institutions changing to keep up with a changing social reality. This is your same logic of history at work, Renge. Monsanto, security cameras, government making records of all communications between supposedly free citizens--all these are being justified in terms of inevitable "progress" and "adapting to current social realities". And this is just the start of a list of "progressive" initiatives we swallow without protest because we all, as Americans, have been somehow convinced that the new, the updated, is an improvement on the old, the time-tested.
Foreign policy? Foreign policy in the age of the Super Corporation is sure difficult, isn't it? It's best we just acknowledge the current reality and work with it. Concepts of the "nation state" are a thing of the past. It's a new world out there.
Or what about the university? It must adapt to the challenge of the modern job market. Humanities studies are a luxury and a waste of scarce university resources. Or what about our prisons? . . . Or what about . . .
The important thing is to make sure institutions keep up with the current social reality, right? Because our awareness of so many things is expanding. To stubbornly stick to concepts from the past-- It's outdated.
Your arguments are well put, and you're clearly a very articulate debater, but I'm sorry, these are the kinds of things I actually I hear when you talk about "outdated" religious ideas and the need to "adapt" to the new. I hear the massive ongoing onslaught of "the new"--from the food we eat to the way our government works to the way we educate the next generation. I hear Miley Cyrus and a culture made of tweets and soundbites, brought to you by BP ("Beyond Petroleum"). I hear Kanye and Kim missionary style on a Harley, motoring through a landscape shining gold with GM wheat. Each celeb has their own fashion label, their own style of "subversiveness", backup vocals by Monsanto. In short, I hear the claptrap of an out-of-control capitalism, where everything is malleable to the dictates of the market.
So many things that you hate, Renge, are being brought to you by this same ideology of "adaptation" and "progress" and leaving behind the "outdated". I would think you'd be a bit more skeptical of this way of thinking about history.
And mysteriously, the movement for same-sex marriage arises out of this same world. But why is that? I don't have a good theory why, but I think it's a valid question. In any case, no culture has ever recognized same-sex love as compatible with marriage. What exactly is pushing us to do so now?
I have long been doubtful of the viability of modern culture. I am not enthusiastic about our neoliberal capitalism, the "society of the spectacle" now thrown into hyperdrive by the Internet. (Cf. Guy Debord, with whom I can travel in some basic insights.) I am not convinced these things are here to stay. By the same token, I am not enthusiastic about same-sex marriage. To me, the fact that we can study millennia of human culture without finding precedent for it is not, as you see it, irrelevant. It is evidence there is something incompatible between homoerotic love and marriage, an "essence" of marriage that has established this border since time immemorial. Perhaps there is not an incompatibility for the same-sex individuals involved, but I suspect there is one for society as a whole. And that is my main frame of reference, because marriage is not merely a status between two individuals, but is also a status between the married couple and their larger community. Marriage is social before it is individual.
When I think of same-sex marriage, especially if I think of it in the context of the confident "forward thinking" you espouse, I have to ask myself: Is it mere coincidence that, although homoerotic love is as old and universal as humanity, yet it is only in our hyper-consumerist "postmodern" capitalist world that people are suddenly demanding gay and lesbian couples be recognized as "married", that this is suddenly somehow their "right"? In the comments section of my previous essay, which you may not have gotten to, I point out that in the past a minister conducting a marriage ceremony would say:
Into this holy estate these two persons now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together--let them speak now or forever hold their peace.Given that marriage is a status conferred by the community, what does it mean for America that for every same-sex wedding now conducted there are literally tens of millions of Americans who might stand up to say: "Yes, I have a reason they may not be joined together in marriage. They are of the same sex." To me, this particular social reality suggests something of the arrogance of gay marriage activists. These tens of millions of people, many of whom do not deserve the epithet bigot, are part of the community in question, and have good reason to reject what is, after all, an entirely unprecedented re-definition of marriage. For the time being, I'm standing with them.
The above rebuttal of mine did not sway Renge's thinking. She repeated her assertion that my ideas were "outdated"--stressing that she had no problem with the term--and in fact she was deeply offended by parts of what I'd written. I apologized to her at length. I recognized that much of her offense came from the fact that she'd misinterpreted some of the ironies in my writing as my straightforward opinion. This has happened to me with readers before, and I apologized that I'd shifted around so much in terms of perspective in my piece. Renge accepted my apology, but didn't want to continue with the debate. Understandably, and I was feeling it too, we'd said more than enough about our positions for the time being.
Then my friend Steve Johnson weighed in. Steve had commented at length on my original essay. Reading Steve's rebuttal, Renge wrote as follows: "I am thrilled to read your friend Steve's comments--he has said it all for me as I could not, did not, do."
Steve's piece and my response to it are here
A complete index of all these posts in order is here. This index will be updated with any further new posts.