July 10, 2012
Supposing the only people who are married are those men and women that made a public commitment to one another, what can we say about those unhusbands and unwives who do not or cannot ratify their love institutionally?
Say what you will about conservatives, on the issue of marriage they have remained remarkably consistent. Those that have a strong view on the subject would like men and women to get married before having children (or even before having sex), and they would like only men and women to get married. The liberal overreaction to this position is that such people must overtly or covertly be homophobes. It’s essentially impossible for committed liberals to understand why anyone would want to preserve the essential nature of a traditional institution that dates back millennia for the sake of the institution itself.
The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of liberally minded people don't care one jot about marriage – the only reason it has come to matter is because commitment to the liberal ideal of equality engenders outrage when anything is approached from a perspective of asymmetry. Thus despite being fairly cool on, or even openly opposed to, the institution of marriage, a great many liberals suddenly care deeply about gay marriage, because they believe everyone has a right to enter into an archaic legal and religious arrangement, even though they themselves don’t actually believe in it.
Marriage has been steadily losing popularity for some time now. A great many of my friends are in long term, committed relationships; few are married. Having children makes no difference in this respect; they continue with the now-ridiculous relationship roles of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ even though they have obviously made a long-term commitment to one another. They are, to my mind, already married in the practical sense. They have just refused to ratify it publically because, to their mind, they see no reason to elevate an entirely personal matter to the level of the community. I call friends in such situations ‘unhusband and unwife’.
Unmarriage demonstrates the hilarious nonsense in the contemporary liberal approach to marriage: as far as it applies to themselves, it is antiquated and of no importance. But tell any liberally minded person that there’s some minority who isn't allowed to do it and suddenly it’s an outrageous affront to human dignity. There’s something approaching hypocrisy in this attitude. Of course, the conservative attitude to marriage isn't a great deal more coherent, but at least in such cases there is a genuine concern about marriage as an institution. It’s something their political opponents cannot seem to fathom.
This talk of ‘institutions’ may make some liberally-minded people scoff – equality, autonomy and freedom are more important than mere traditions, it may be tempting to claim. But pause to reflect where the conception of Human Rights as freedom – upon which these values rest – has its origin. It is a product of the Enlightenment, built on the philosophy of Kant and others. (Indeed, Human Rights as freedom is something specifically developed by Kant). Freedom is also an institution, and even if this were denied, Human Rights can only be understood as institutional, as with all law.
Just as marriage is an institution, so to some extent is unmarriage, and just as there are many different kinds of marriage, there are diverse forms of unmarriage. Only one form, however, consists of a loving, committed, adult couple that are not permitted by law to be married. This situation is changing in parts of the world, but legal reform is slowed by the inevitable resistance that will always occur when traditions are revised. To enact lasting institutional change requires forging new visions of ideals. Sadly for gay marriage, it seems no-one can be bothered to do the work.
One of the most shocking aspects of this issue for me personally is the staggering arrogance of the liberal community in their steadfast refusal to understand the moral perspective of their opponents. Since the consequence of conservatives caring about the institution of marriage is a staunch reluctance to allow gay marriage (which does, after all, alter the specifics of a truly ancient tradition), liberals go straight to bitching about how Christians are homophobes. Never mind that many Christians support gay marriage, nor that the reasons many opponents of gay marriage have for their resistance are more concerned about concepts of family than sexuality, per se. Since ideals of liberal equality are denied to gay people it must be homophobia. It is the classic formula of the political knee-jerk reaction: my values are violated, your values don't count.
What is it that we call those situations where one group of people make outrageously prejudicial assumptions about some ethnic group and then despise everyone under that identity? It's on the tip of my tongue... Ah yes, I remember – racism and bigotry. Far too many liberals feel it’s okay to be a bigot about all Christians because some Christians are indeed bigots. This is no different than (say) believing all black people are lazy because there are some lazy black people. It’s as if there are good and bad kinds of racism, and the bad kind is whichever set of beliefs you yourself do not hold.
But I can't let the conservatives entirely off the hook here, since they too have their fair share of nonsense in respect of marriage and unmarriage. It makes no sense, for instance, to claim that marriage is inappropriate for gay people because of the lascivious, wanton behaviour of the gay community at large – does anyone seriously believe the heterosexual community scores any better on this front? If you investigate the incidences of casual sex in the world, you will find that the vast majority occurs between partners of different sexes – hardly surprising since heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals by perhaps as much as fifty to one.
Given that there are gay people in unmarriage – in loving, stable, long-term relationships – wouldn't it be better for the institute of marriage if we all said: ‘we want to help you publically ratify your relationship in the spirit of what marriage has come to mean: a celebration of love’? What good does it do the institution of marriage if we force people who wish to be married to remain in a state of unmarriage?
Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.
As I suggested before in Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage, liberal voices have failed to decisively win the argument in favour of gay marriage precisely because they have not made the story about the deep love that exists between committed (gay) partners. Instead, they try to make it about equality, because that’s their sacred value, and that way the argument seems pre-empted: no further discussion required. Real democracy, however, requires discussion. Those who claim to value freedom must be willing to grant that freedom to those who disagree with them.
Joan Baez used to chide Martin Luther King for wanting to be more like whites, instead of rejecting white culture altogether. Many years later she saw a retrospective about MLK on TV and broke down crying with the realization of how right he was. (source: her biography)
Here is what you're overlooking:
Marriage is half real: it's half governmental and half religious.
With regards to its religious side, the US is supposed to have a separation of church and state. Therefore, no government - local, state, or federal - is supposed to have a say as to how you practice or don't practice a religion so long as you don't infringe on other people's rights to practice theirs.
Christian Americans have alternately claimed that a) sodomy is inherently obscene, like incest and bestiality (there are still laws to this effect in the US) - unfortunately for them, most people no longer believe this, and b) that the institution of Christian marriage is somehow affected if homosexuals marry. This is akin to saying that my bowling is affected if left-handed people also bowl, or that my enjoyment of beef steak is affected if vegetarian steak is also called steak. It's patently ridiculous. The only thing that Christians can logically do is enforce their beliefs and practices within their own voluntary constituents; otherwise, I will in turn enforce my Jewish and my friend's Muslim definitions of obscenity on all Christians (goodbye pork). American does not equal Christian.
Any attempt to use the bible to enforce my religious practice is a violation of church and state. The bible may have something to say about homosexuality, but the constitution doesn't.
With regards to its governmental side, various organizations, businesses, and governmental departments give bonuses, tax breaks, visiting rights, automatic benefits, and so on to people registered legally as married, and not to those who aren't.
Therefore, if you prevent me and my partner, whomever he or she is, from claiming to be married just because your religion doesn't approve of it, you are violating a constitutional right and causing us significant financial and emotional damage.
There are two solutions. The first is to allow homosexuals to marry - in fact, to let any two people who commit to each other and their children to marry.
The other is to remove the governmental aspect of marriage altogether. In other, grant no benefits to anyone for what is, essentially, a religious practice. Personally, I favor this approach.
As far as the best interests of the children is concerned, there is no extant requirement for two committed married people to commit to the best interests of their children. Any legal forces that are brought to bear (child support, etc) can equally be brought to bear on any two people who have committed to become parents together.
Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | July 10, 2012 at 11:59 AM
Perhaps it's different in the UK, but in the US there isn't a sizable group of liberals arguing that marriage as an institution is obsolete or unnecessary. Among the progressive circles I travel in its generally accepted that its convenient and useful for government to offer a standardized package of rights and responsibilities for two people who are merging their lives. Whether you're married or not makes a big difference in terms of taxes, insurance, parental rights, inheritance, power of attorney, etc.
The push for gay marriage has come because of actual cases of real harm to gay couples who have not been allowed to participate in this standard package of rights and responsibilities. People who have not been allowed to make medical decisions for their partners, for example, or who have been denied contact with children they raised.
Religions can do whatever they want. They can offer or deny commitment ceremonies to whoever they want. But real marriage is a legal contract enforced by the state. You're married in the eyes of general society if and only if you have a state-approved marriage license, regardless of what incantations some priest performs. And so, to avoid real injustices that have occurred in the past, it is important for homosexuals to be allowed to secure the protections of state-sponsored marriage.
This argument is actually working pretty well in the States. Year by year polls show support for gay marriage increasing and opposition decreasing. Partially this seems to be because the opposition has be unable to marshal any argument other than "God says gays are icky", which even in a God-besotted country like the United States doesn't seem to carry much weight compared to "Yeah, but that guy over there wasn't allowed to visit his dying partner in the hospital."
Posted by: Brian Upton | July 10, 2012 at 03:04 PM
I've replied more extensively on Google+, but to put it in a nutshell, Chris, your argument fails because it justifies anti-miscegenation laws, which is absurd on its face. It is not bigoted to decry those laws as racist; it is not bigoted to decry the current raft of anti-gay-marriage laws as homophobic.
Posted by: Ernest Adams | July 10, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Thanks for the comments everyone! Sadly, I think the counter arguments being offered miss the core of my case, but I'll attempt to respond.
Yehuda: "Marriage is half real: it's half governmental and half religious."
Ha, which of those two halves is supposed to be real? :) Neither governemental nor religious mythologies are measurable, if that is what you mean by real. But let's not get dragged down in ontology here. The key point is what is permitted by law, and law are the rules of the social games in any legislature. The reality of that is open to debate, but neither here nor there.
"With regards to its religious side, the US is supposed to have a separation of church and state. Therefore, no government - local, state, or federal - is supposed to have a say as to how you practice or don't practice a religion so long as you don't infringe on other people's rights to practice theirs."
This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with separation of church and state.
"that the institution of Christian marriage is somehow affected if homosexuals marry. This is akin to saying that my bowling is affected if left-handed people also bowl, or that my enjoyment of beef steak is affected if vegetarian steak is also called steak."
If bowling was understood by its practitioners to be a game played in the right hand, then the issue of left-handed bowlers would be pertinent. But it is not, so this analogy isn't very strong. The beef example is somewhat better, since I imagine owners of steakhouses would be upset at the idea of vegetarian steak being allowed to be considered steak. This brings to mind the despicable way that wild salmon was reclassified in the US to get around the problems with salmon fisheries. Honestly, though, it's hard to bring analogies to bear on the issue of marriage as an institution since there's actually nothing much like it.
"American does not equal Christian."
True enough. But in constituencies where Christians are the majority of the electorate, expect the legistlature to reflect their beliefs and standpoints. That is democracy. It's often not very pretty, and it's certainly not very easy.
"Any attempt to use the bible to enforce my religious practice is a violation of church and state. The bible may have something to say about homosexuality, but the constitution doesn't."
True enough - but not actually relevant since this is about what is encoded in law, and nothing in that law currently allows for gay marriage. The point here is what the law currently reflects, which does not allow for this interpretation of same gender marriage as marriage. The law has to be rewritten to allow this. I believe it should be rewritten to say this. But I believe part of the battle to attain this is convincing moderate conservatives that this is in the best interests of marriage as an institution.
"Therefore, if you prevent me and my partner, whomever he or she is, from claiming to be married just because your religion doesn't approve of it, you are violating a constitutional right and causing us significant financial and emotional damage."
The error here is in thinking that the problem lies in their religion - seperation of church and state is precisely there so that they can hold whatever beliefs they wish. Those beliefs then get reflected back into the legislature - no violation of church and state is entailed in this - that's just politics as usual.
Brian: "Perhaps it's different in the UK, but in the US there isn't a sizable group of liberals arguing that marriage as an institution is obsolete or unnecessary."
It's not a pressure group issue for liberals, but the view that marriage is outdated is still fairly widespread in the US. It's 'worse' in the UK, but it's not non-existent in the US. Or for that matter elsewhere - notice above that Yehuda expressly takes this position! :)
"Among the progressive circles I travel in its generally accepted that its convenient and useful for government to offer a standardized package of rights and responsibilities for two people who are merging their lives. Whether you're married or not makes a big difference in terms of taxes, insurance, parental rights, inheritance, power of attorney, etc."
Absolutely! And that's precisely why there is a pragmatic case for gay marriage *even* among people who don't think much of marriage as an institution. But the resistance to gay marriage has *nothing* to do with this standard package. This is what I find that liberals are unable to understand, and end up projecting the problems *solely* onto Christian bigotry - Yehuda's comments above are typical of this kind of narrative. That kind of bigotry that Yehuda points to does exist. But it's not the entirety of the story in respect of the resistance to gay marriage. In fact, it's less important than is usually thought since it is the moderate conservatives who are the issue, and many of them are not that troubled by homosexuality. This issue is much more complicated than most people allow.
It can be gainful to look at what happened in the UK when the government created civil partnership. Suddenly, gay couples could get exactly the same rights package as everyone else. What they couldn't do was say they were married, nor could they get married or have a civil partnership ceremony in a religious building (NOT, I must stress because there weren't churches willing and able - there were plenty that wanted to and couldn't). This situation has improved, and it is now possible for a civil partnership to occur in a church in the UK (hooray!). But still not marriage.
If your argument were the whole argument, the issue would be settled. But now the narrative in the UK moves to the question of whether not calling gay marriage 'marriage' is inequality... And that's the point that you have two entirely separate mythologies jousting at one-another.
"But real marriage is a legal contract enforced by the state."
Again, I don't want to get into ontology. Real marriage to me occurs between two people irrespective of the state. But legal marriage is a contract enforced by the state, and that's what we're talking about here.
"And so, to avoid real injustices that have occurred in the past, it is important for homosexuals to be allowed to secure the protections of state-sponsored marriage."
I agree! And one way to achieve this is to understand why conservatives resist gay marriage and then overcome those problems by forging new moral narratives that defuse the problems in conservative moderates. I believe this is a more effective strategy than simply trying to force it through regardless, a route that can only lead to counter-challenges of the kind experienced in California.
My suspicion is that this whole issue could have been resolved quite some time ago if only it had been mounted in different terms. Certainly, I believe the overturning of the law in California would not have happened if the campaign to oppose proposition 8 hadn't been mounted in part as a bigoted attack on Mormonism. This was the dumbest own goal in the history of the California legislature!
"This argument is actually working pretty well in the States. Year by year polls show support for gay marriage increasing and opposition decreasing."
And this trend will probably continue. But don't jump to conclusions about *which* arguments are working here, because polls do not disclose that information!
Ernest: I've replied to your comment on Google+, thanks!
"...your argument fails because it justifies anti-miscegenation laws, which is absurd on its face."
My argument that conservatives will be more easily convinced of the justice of gay marriage if they come to accept that committed, loving partnerships between people of the same sex are exemplers of the ideals of marriage could not possibly justify anti-miscegenation laws!
"It is not bigoted to decry those laws as racist; it is not bigoted to decry the current raft of anti-gay-marriage laws as homophobic."
My claim is only that it is bigoted to acuse all Christians of being homophobes, which a shocking number of liberals do.
*phew* Lively opinions expressed by all. :) All the best!
Posted by: Chris | July 11, 2012 at 10:46 AM
I suspect if you asked people on each side to define the word "marriage", you would get different definitions. Asking the question "should group X be allowed to marry?" without agreement on the definition of marriage will produce heat, but little light as the two sides aren't answering the same question.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | July 12, 2012 at 03:21 PM
This is entirely an issue of separation of church and state.
I don't know the exact wording of the law, but I will concede that the law as currently written in most places in America probably defines marriage as between a female and a male.
The questions is: why?
The answer to that question is impossible to answer without resorting to religion. Why should a man and a woman who want to live together and spousal rights be granted these rights but not two men or two women? The law currently says so is not an acceptable answer. And the only reason not to change the law is by appealing to religion.
If there were no bible or religion to appeal to, is it not blindingly obvious that his is discriminatory? Is there any OTHER reason not to change it?
Assuming that you agree that there is not, then the issue is exactly a lack of separation between church (religious practice) and state (law having to kowtow to it).
As to your statement "But in constituencies where Christians are the majority of the electorate, expect the legistlature to reflect their beliefs and standpoints", that is EXACTLY the reason we have a separation of church and state. So the one single Jew in a county of a million Christians cannot be discriminated against.
Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | July 12, 2012 at 11:09 PM
Firstly, apologies for the lateness of my reply - I've been away visiting my family for a week, and my PC broke just days before I left. I've only just got it repaired.
Peter: the issue of the definition of marriage is at the heart of this whole problem, as you attest. It doesn't surprise me at all that we can have such passionate disputes over terms, since this is a trait of our species as a whole. :)
Yehuda: Thanks for continuing our discussion!
"If there were no bible or religion to appeal to, is it not blindingly obvious that his is discriminatory? Is there any OTHER reason not to change it?"
I don't think an appeal to any specific religion is required here, but an appeal to tradition is certainly in play - marriage, as an institution, is certainly a lot older and wider than any religion we have today.
"As to your statement 'But in constituencies where Christians are the majority of the electorate, expect the legistlature to reflect their beliefs and standpoints', that is EXACTLY the reason we have a separation of church and state. So the one single Jew in a county of a million Christians cannot be discriminated against."
Actually, that's not the case. Church and State is there to prevent the *State* interfering with the free practice of religion. Please see this piece from 2008 for the complete explanation:
I'd also like to reiterate that I am fully in support of Gay marriage reform - but I believe the best road map to that outcome is to convince moderate Christians in the US that this is the right thing to do. The case is gradually being won - my claim is that it could be won faster by better dialogue between the partisans on each side.
Posted by: Chris | July 25, 2012 at 10:24 AM