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.

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