Monday, August 09, 2010

Gay Marriage Causes No Harm To Any Other Marriage

Adam Serwer and Glenn Greenwald offer substantive responses to Ross Douthat's lament against gay marriage. I'll leave it at this:
But if we just accept this shift [valuing lifelong commitment over serial relationships], we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve.
I can't think of a single thing that gay marriage would take away from my marriage. I can't even imagine a context in which gay marriage would lead me take a different or lesser view of my marriage than the one I presently hold. If anything, the "serial monogamy" Douthat decries diminish marriage by making divorce and remarriage seem easy and acceptable, as if changing a spouse is no different from updating your wardrobe.

When Douthat offers the conclusory statement that gay and heterosexual marriage are "similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit". I would like to see Douthat develop and explain that idea (or any idea, instead of his usual waffling), but I suspect that as soon as he tries to substantiate his argument it collapses. (To the extent that he speaks of "lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best" as offering "a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations", he's presenting far more of a mystical than a logical argument, and he's holding up the exception as the rule.) There are enough states and countries that now permit gay marriage that Douthat should be able to substantiate his opinions with real world examples. But the real world seems to reflect my side of the debate.


  1. Back when proposition 8 passed, I wrote a little essay in which I attempted to explain why the general acceptance of gay marriage DOES make a difference to straight marriages. When you think about it, that's not really a shocking proposition, because it is, after all, a big rock to throw into the pond, and you'd expect some ripples.

    I think the reason that liberals tend to have a hard time seeing that there are changes, is that the changes are all about liberalizing the idea of marriage. Liberals tend to already have liberal ideas about marriage, so they don't see much of any change, and certainly not an undesirable change.

    I'm a little baffled as to why conservatives are so bad at explaining what they see in terms that liberals can understand. What really struck me in reading Judge Walker's ruling is what a pathetic job the proponents of Proposition 8 did in defending it. I certainly think Prop 8 is bad law, and ultimately indefensible, but you could do a heck of a lot better than they did. I'd much rather see the best arguments against gay marriage clearly advanced, so they can be weighed against the best arguments for it, and be rejected.

  2. You are baffled that the argument, "That's the way it's always been, that's the way it should be," isn't well articulated in the context of gay marriage? Because, really, isn't that the conservative message as well as what you're addressing in your essay on tradition? The problem is, marriage has changed a lot over time so the argument "That's the way it's always been" isn't convincing, and "that's the way it should be" is at best a moral or religious argument, not a logical argument, and doesn't make a good foundation for a convincing argument to people who don't share the same set of assumptions. The more articulate versions come out like Douthat's mysticism.

    One major theme of Fiddler on the Roof is that life is changing. Tevye can sing about tradition and the way family life should be, but one of his daughters insists upon rejecting an arranged marriage to marry for love, and another marries a Russian gentile - a man from, it would appear, a few miles away but who grew up with an entirely different set of traditions. As the play demonstrates, traditions can't be frozen in time and may not even be as good, when you reflect on things, as the new approach. Going back to Tevye's own words:

    They gave each other a pledge. Unheard of, absurd.
    You gave each other a pledge?
    Unthinkable. Where do you think you are?
    In Moscow? In Paris? Where do think they are? America?
    And what do you think you're doing?
    You stitcher, you nothing! Who do think you are? King Solomon?
    This isn't the way it's done, not here, not now.
    Some things I will not, I cannot, allow.
    Tradtion-Marriages must be arranged by the papa. This should never changed.
    One little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop? Where does it stop?

    Where does it stop?
    Do I still have something to say about my daughter,
    or dosen't anybody have to ask the father any more?

    And then, after some thinking, he gives the marriage his blessing.

    We can look back at the majority of the western world's history of marriage, in which marriages were largely arranged, the wife's legal and property rights were subsumed by the husband's, the husband had something that approached property rights over the children and, to the extent divorce was possible, could send his wife away alone and impoverished. Or we could look to more recent centuries and say the "tradition" we actually want is what started to evolve after the industrial revolution - marriage in which women were eventually granted legal rights, the concept that young people should date and marry for love, custody decided perhaps not under the "tender years" doctrine, but under a "best interests" analysis.... But the institution of marriage has not been static.

    Or we could look to other cultures that allow or encourage polygamy, or the rare cultures that practice polyandry. Their traditions are incompatible with Tevye's "traditions". Why should Tevye's perception of tradition, not compatible with other cultures and distanced even from his own time, get to trump other traditions?

    As marriage has evolved over the past century, as you concede, Tevye's notion of gender roles and rejection of gender equality has receded. There are marriages in which the roles are largely reversed from those described by Tevye. An overt rejection of his traditions. But if the marriage is between a man and a woman, nobody says "You can't marry - you're rejecting tradition." More to the point, if somebody did the couple could quite appropriately respond that they have every right to reject those traditions.

  3. Would you disagree that the shift away from traditional marriage (noting that, at common law, you probably would be deemed married despite not having walked down the aisle, and realistically would have married to protect your children from the harsh stigma traditionally associated with “illegitimacy”) has accelerated over the past fifty years?

    And why, for that matter, do you assume that there can’t be a “mama role” and “papa role” in a gay marriage? By virtue of the genders being the same, do you assume that roles in the workplace are equal, chores around the house are equally divided, child rearing tasks are carefully balanced between partners… On what basis? And if that’s not your assumption, doesn’t your argument really reduce to pointing at somebody’s genitals and saying “That’s the wrong kind for a [mommy/daddy] to have”?

    As for the argument “Gay marriage would threaten the institution of marriage”, in what society with gay marriage has there been any indication that heterosexual marriage has been affected, let alone weakened? And don’t those examples also rebut the notion that “Gay marriage will destroy civilization”? As for the assumption that “Children are best raised in a household with a man and a woman”, leaving aside the high numbers of single parent households in this country, where’s the actual evidence to support this view? The credible literature suggests that the children of gay couples turn out just fine. Why should fears and emotions that are predicated on tradition be allowed to trump fact?

    If the argument is limited to the concept that gay marriage goes against religious traditions, that's true for most churches. But there are a lot of things that are legal in this country that go again the teachings of some or most churches, and under our nation's Constitution that's perfectly appropriate. Nobody is saying that a church has to respect, accept, or sanctify gay marriage - also under the First Amendment, churches are entitled to stick to their traditions. As with Tevye's traditions, to which he couldn't even bind his daughters, society nonetheless evolves.

    I'll say this again: Nothing about gay marriage has had the slightest impact on my marriage. Do you think I'm wrong? If you're offering a rebuttal, please identify something that gay marriage takes away from my marriage, or the thing I'm overlooking that would lead me to take a lesser view of my marriage. Is yours an argument I can only "get" if I view it through the prism of "traditional" church dogma?

  4. A shorter response is that liberals do "get" the anti-gay marriage argument, but don't find it convincing.

    That should be no surprise to you, Jan, as you admit that opponents of gay marriage can't even articulate a convincing case and you, who believe you understand their position better than they do, don't buy it.

  5. Jan, I think I know what you're getting at, but Fiddler on the Roof is a horrible example. People who oppose same-sex marriage do not live in a shtetl surrounded by an oppressive society where they have no rights (I recognize that they THINK they do, but no). Is is true that tradition and rigid roles are important to them? Sure. Does that mean they have any basis at all for insisting that the rest of the world conform to those roles for their own peace of mind? No.

    The reason the proponents of Prop 8 did such a pathetic job of defending it, is that there is no defense that isn't pathetic. California is a state that, frankly, has no demonstrated interest in restricting marriage to procreative opposite-sex couples. There is no evidence at all that same-sex marriage harms anyone or produces terrible outcomes.

    "But I get all sweaty and nervous at the idea that the world is not like on "Leave it to Beaver"!" is not what we call a compelling state interest.

  6. How about this argument, which sounds a lot like Douthat with a nod to Wolter:

    "The family constitutes the fundamental social unit. Woman's sphere of activity falls mainly within while man's field of action lies largely without the domestic circle. This represents the traditional and, presumably, the ideal relation between the sexes. It has the sanction of divine authority and the test of human experience."

    It's part of an anti-women's suffrage argument from 1915, with it being suggested that suffrage could seriously damage the institution of marriage.

    "Woman suffrage could not possibly enhance the harmoniousness of this relationship, but might seriously jeopardize it."