Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boiling it Down

Conservatives need a new language on same-sex marriage. The case against government-redefinition is too heady, too philosophical, and too abstract. And it will lose, because though it is true, it is not good propaganda.

The point of this post is not to engage in propaganda, but to figure out how to allow some truth to be heard by a public whose ear is deaf to much else.

First, let's discuss language. Here are the top three bad terms and phrases used by conservatives, and how they need to revise their language:

  • Avoid "traditional marriage" - First of all, dear Republicans, please understand that Americans have a deep, white-hot hatred of "tradition" as an argument for the status quo. Using the 'T' word is sounding the death-knell for your cause.

    Look. I get it. "Tradition" comes from roots meaning roughly "what has been given to us." That's great. So far it goes, I'm all for "traditional marriage."

    But the people listening to you have only two mental categories: (1) artificial, changeable things, and (2) absolute, unchangeable things. And the word "tradition" always belongs in the first one.

    Instead, say: "Marriage." Seriously. Stake your rightful claim. When you must clarify, you may use the mouthful "sexually complementary marriage," but at the risk of coining neologisms, I like the phrase "original marriage". "Original" carries some of the same denotation as "traditional"--however, unlike the latter word, it includes a reference to marriage's origins, which thus constitute its content.
  • Avoid "natural" - It's sad that this word will never be heard with its intended meaning--see my previous post. When liberals hear "natural" they knee-jerk into diatribes about monkeys and the animal kingdom.

    What conservatives mean when they say "natural" is that, among humans, marriage is a natural outgrowth of our sexual complementarity, fertility, intellect, and social qualities. Marriage is coextensive with human societies, and thus it is not an institution in the same vein as "baseball" or "political parties"--which exist solely at society's pleasure.

    Similarly, avoid "biological" - If "natural" conjures inappropriate zoology, "biological" invokes inappropriate anatomy. The science of biology, in isolation, can never serve as the basis of law. Biology's method and logic is atomistic and value-neutral. Biology never asks about the meaning of organs; and strictly speaking, biology cannot even definitely discuss their purpose.

    There's nothing wrong with the science of biology; but it is thoroughly out of its scope in the politics of marriage.

    Instead, say: "Organic;" or else pair "organic, spontaneous". "Organic" isn't just marketing buzz-language; it is also, in marriage politics, absolutely applicable. The word taps into a non-partisan hunger for things that are as un-meddled-with, or as little-meddled-with as possible. It unveils marriage's link to our organism and hence our very being--a link that same-sex relationships have nothing to do with.
  • Avoid "between one man and one woman" - I'm all for monogamy, but stressing it right now complicates the issue. Nobody's debating monogamy. It doesn't help that the accepted number of people in a marriage is historically fluid. Liberals will be keen to point this out as evidence that every aspect of marriage is up for grabs.

    Of course, monogamy and sexual complementarity are two very different things in this regard. As common as polygamy has been in history, same sex marriage has been the opposite. But liberals won't address this and will instead repeat their previous argument louder.

    Instead, say: "between a man and a woman". Just soften it a little. Or avoid the trite phrasing altogether and get on board the "sexual complementarity" train. SC is necessary for marriage. It's good for families and it's good for society. It's an objective, organic fact; and securing its unique status is not a bigotry.

Now let's boil the issue down to the most basic talking points:

  1. Same sex marriage is government madness. Government redefining marriage is not so much an evil thing as much as it is bonkers. Marriage wasn't invented by government. Government doesn't institute marriage any more than it institutes puppies or trees. Ultimately, redefining marriage makes as much sense as redefining puppies or trees. Two men equals a marriage like kittens equal puppies and like utility poles equal trees.

    Ultimately this means that governments can say anything they please, but non-insane people will know better--that the government is being silly. There will be a giant disconnect between enforced public policy and social belief. Schools and institutions will have the "new math" rammed down their throats. And as the HHS mandate has taught us, religious schools and institutions are no exception.

    Liberal counter: "But marriage is an institution. Government has the right and responsibility to regulate it."

    Conservative response: Two things. (1) Marriage is a universal organic and spontaneous human fact before it is an institution. As such, marriage does not derive its definition or constitution from policies, but out of its own essence. (2) Governments regulate lots of things without redefining them. There are laws controlling trees and puppies. There are no laws saying that utility poles are trees, or that kittens are puppies.
  2. People who understand marriage aren't bigots. Government redefining marriage doesn't just create a new kind of married people. It also creates a new class of bigot. It doesn't just redefine marriage, it redefines hate. Your grandparents were bigots. Your parents are bigots. And you're a bigot too, if you don't follow the new math.

    The problem is that most people who know what marriage is aren't bigots. Many of them don't have a hateful bone in their body. The propaganda promoting same-sex marriage is inherently antagonistic and it is bound up with the policy itself. Redefining marriage becomes a legally sanctioned public condemnation against people who haven't lost their common-sense.

    Notice that the reverse is not true. Government keeping marriage what it is does not produce a condemnation against people who disagree. Liberal institutions are not forced to violate their consciences or their sanity (whatever sanity they have left anyway).

    Liberal counter: "There is nothing hostile about same-sex marriage. We just want to marry who we love! It's people who hate us who want to keep us from equality."

    Conservative response: 
    Of course same-sex marriage isn't hostile. It's madness (see #1) but it's not hostile. The hostility doesn't come from the movement's goal directly. It comes from the false narrative of civil rights.

    Legally, nobody is advocating for extending a right from one class of citizen to another. Redefining marriage takes a legal recognition already available to all people (including gay people), and appends a new legal recognition also available to all people (nothing stops two straight women from marrying, e.g.). It is meant as an accommodation to an urgently felt desire of some people. But there is no civil right to marry your own sex (see #3).

    By adopting civil rights language, the political left has turned everybody who disagrees into bigots. This is not about hurt feelings. This is about a new foundation for policy that will target innocent people and institutions with the charge of hate. The Catholic Church, the LDS, and all individuals who "get" marriage, are now to be classed with holocaust deniers, the KKK, and the extreme right.

    The second that the gay lobby used the word "hate" to describe the conservative position, it forsook all claims not to be a hostile movement. Make no mistake: governments and societies that go down this road will not tolerate the conservative position operating publicly within their borders. 

    It didn't have to be this way. If the left had advocated for redefined marriage without reinventing it as a "civil right," it might have allowed a space where conservatives could continue to live as they please. But that opportunity is long past us now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Getting to the bottom of the same-sex marriage quarrel

It's difficult not to say something, since it's everywhere on the news.

I lament that the left is gearing up for a civil-rights battle and all I can see is civilization shipwrecking logic onto political correctness.

What is the debate really about? The left says it's about rights and fairness. Some on the right say that it's about God and religion.

These are both incorrect. The two sides cannot agree on what the debate is about, so they never debate. The lack of real debate means that the outcome will be decided completely by who has the more successful propaganda. That will probably be the left, in time.

The debate is really about the nature of marriage, the scope of government, and as a tangent, religious freedom. But 99% of the language in the popular discourse is garbage.

There is a marriage tug-of-war, but it is not about who has the right to marry. Both parties agree that everybody has the right to marry. Strictly and legally, government redefinition of marriage is not an expansion of rights from one class of people to another. It is a novel option that technically becomes available to everybody (nothing prevents two straight males from marrying).

But this is an aside. The real wedge has nothing to do with rights. It affects rights, but in itself it's a different animal.

Let's bring back my cumbersome phrase from a previous post: sexual complementarity, or SC for short. So, when it comes to marriage, is SC integral to marriage or is it optional?

I would be happier if only the discussion focussed more on these or similar terms. However, even this question is superficial relative to the matters involved. As soon as activists begin laying out their reasons for one side or another, it becomes clear that they already have vastly different functioning definitions of marriage--deeper than arguing about "who gets to marry".

Suppose we grant that same-sex marriage is possible. We can deduce a couple presuppositions from this:
  • Marriage is a human institution and wholly subject to the will of society.
  • The ultimate authority in defining the boundaries of marriage is the government.
Perhaps same-sex marriage advocates will disagree or quibble with or wish to refine parts of these, but they can hardly reject them completely. Note, of course, that these are not ridiculous claims. There are arguments to be made in favor of social relativism in the sphere of marriage. Moreover, it would be invalid to suggest (as conservatives might) that such an understanding results necessarily in the annihilation of marriage, or other "ridiculous" possibilities (marrying animals, children, or inanimate objects). Relativism presupposes social norms, impermanent though they may be.

But the presuppositions behind the conservative position are so different that their lack of mention in the public sphere baffles.
  • Marriage is a natural phenomenon integral to human society.
  • Certain characteristics of marriage are permanently outside of human authority to redefine.
The mention of "nature" by conservatives usually provokes remarks about the animal kingdom that miss the point. However there is a kernel of truth to the remarks. Marriage is exclusive to humans, and conservatives don't deny that it is an institution. 

This presents a problem. In most minds, "natural" and "institutional" are opposed. The left does not deny there is something natural about marriage, but their only reference for what "natural" means is the animal kingdom (and perhaps the more bestial examples of human history). There remains a prejudice that "natural" means "untouched by human intellect" and in the context of marriage is reduced to "sexual intercourse". Thus the liberal model of marriage divides it into two sharply distinct parts: the institutional component, whose norms are decided by the government; and the natural component, which anyway should be modeled on the animal kingdom (i.e. have no model at all) where it doesn't conflict with social norms.

The conservative mind has a vastly different conception of nature. A list of differences:
  • Conservatives retain a category of "nature" that is distinctively human. There is no need for conservatives to refer to the animal kingdom to derive content for their understanding of "nature". In any case, elephant nature is different from crocodile nature, so conservatives do not understand the eagerness to apply bestial standards to humans.
  • Human nature necessarily includes the intellect, which means that "natural" and "institutional" are not bifurcated for conservatives in the way that they are for the left. For conservatives there are true "natural institutions" which are both integral to homo-sapiens identity and subject to reasoned judgment.
  • Human nature is not different or separate from humanity itself. In other words, one can no sooner  abolish marriage than they could abolish arms or toes. It is not only that nature has normative moral force. Rather it is that the definition of the homo sapiens goes beyond the biological, into the pre-existent anthropological forces that determine micro and macro society. For example: language. Language deprivation experiments, aka "the forbidden experiment," result in psychosis or death. Thus, some institutions are special because they safeguard phenomena that are what we are.
These conceptions, along with a cursory history of marriage, converge to make marriage a very different thing for conservatives than it is for the left. Whereas for the left, marriage is analagous to any other institution upheld for human satisfaction--say, baseball, or live theatre; for the right, marriage is more analogous to pre-existent things, like trees or biology.

The tree, in this case, is a solid metaphor, and I will always return to it. Trees are natural but they are undeniably also a human institution. Laws govern them. Humans use them. We plant, prune, regulate, harvest, chop down, carve, admire, decorate, preserve and care for them. There is a vast history of human interaction with trees that has taken almost every imaginable shape.

I predict now, cautiously, that there will never be a movement to broaden the definition of a tree to include utility poles; but I quiver that a similar logic now prevails in the same-sex marriage quarrel. Photosynthesis is not important, argue my imaginary activists. What is important is that they are tall, and that they are wooden, and birds make nests in them, and they are very useful to us. Tree laws have changed throughout the century, after all. And ultimately, even photosynthesis is not a problem--we can graft artificial leaves onto them.

If such a movement took shape,  the conservative arguments would be much the same: You are forgetting that the identity of trees precedes us and we have neither the right nor the ability to change it. Including utility poles demeans treeness and makes a mockery of forests, preservation reserves, and tree-houses.

If the government ignored these warnings and moved forward anyway, it would create a new class of social pariah, the discontents who would not accept the state's broader definition. It would penalize the park districts who planted no utility poles, fine textbook publishers and schools who did not revise their curricula, and populate the airwaves with new-standard-friendly language.

This is the challenge conservatives have in front of them today. I am afraid that it is a challenge they will lose. They will say, the purpose of marriage is to create an environment healthy for the couple's children, and this is constant. The left will say: "What about infertile couples"? And the right will not reply as they should: Even a sick tree is still a tree--it does not therefore become a utility pole, and neither, therefore, will a utility pole be considered a tree.