Creative Destruction

May 14, 2006

Gay Marriage; or We Are all Traditionalists

Filed under: Debate,Ethics,Human Rights,Philosophy,Politics — Adam Gurri @ 1:19 pm

Gay marriage is one of those issues, like abortion, where I generally cannot stand the pat-answers on either side.

I got thinking about this subject again because I saw the discussion on the "slipperly slope" argument that Ampersand linked to, using polygamy as the example here.


This is how I've seen the debate go, more than once: the person against gay marriage states that by the criteria on which it is advocated, you could similarly advocate polygamy or bestiality.

Then, the advocate states that that is a complete nonsequitor, that this has to do with love between consenting adults and that the problems of bestiality and polygamy are completely side-issues.

As is usually the case, I find both of these arguments to be lacking.  But I'm not going to go into them specifically, as I run the risk of demolishing strawmen if I just analyse arguments that I myself have articulated.

Instead, I'd just like to say that no human being advocates anything without coming from a tradition or traditions which lend context and justification to their ideology.

It's easy to see how one could come from a backround where one is taught to respect tradition and then argue that allowing gay marriage is opening up a whole other can of worms, as it is simply doing away with how marriage has been done for as long as there has been marriage in our society.

It's also easy to see how the human rights tradition lends itself to those who believe something is ok, and would then be outraged that that thing isn't sanctioned by law.  Moreover, it's easy to follow the behavioral traditions from the Civil Rights movement and see how the Gay Rights activists have borrowed a number of things from it.

Thing is, I think that the debate as it stands has a level of superficiality to it.  I myself do not feel strongly on the subject, but here in Virginia, some Republican delegates are trying to rewrite our state constitution in order to expressly forbid Gay Marriage.  I mean, it's like they can't even not change the law to allow it–they have to outright ban it.  It's as though stepping outside of a narrow understanding of tradition opens the door to the total oblivion of the nihilist void.

On the other hand, there's a level of arrogance to the gay rights activists I have talked to that bugs me.  Talking to one of the protestors at Mason, the attitude seemed to range from "Stop being so stupid, of course it's ok" to "STOP OPPRESSING THIS POOR VICTIM GROUP!"

Taking a step back, this is how I see the situation.

Gay Marriage is not important.  It will never, ever, tip my vote one way or the other.

Gay Rights, on the other hand, is something else.  If local law enforcement is looking the other way when people get a thrashing because they believe that those people were gay, then that's something to take notice of.  If a representative states that they support treating homosexuals with violence, or abusing their right to property, education, or anything else that the rest of us are entitled to by law; that will tilt my vote.

Unless you can draw my attention to that sort of phenomenon, then sorry.  Don't care.

Now, if you do care, then I think that there's a more persuasive way to go about making a case for your beliefs than the Pride movement has been thusfar.

I've gone into this somewhat in the past, but I'll add to it here.  What, in your mind, is the significance of legally-sanctioned marriage?

To me, it's just an expedient way of joining ownership and getting all the tax and legal status that marriage entails; but you could approximate most of that, albeit in a more roundabout way, without marriage.

Marriage to me is a symbol, a ceremony.  It is rooted in a tradition.  Those arguing against gay marriage will gleefully use this as ammunition; stating that traditionally, it is a man and a woman who were married.

But tradition is just as easily brought in to argue for Gay Marriage, I believe.  For Marriage used to be an arrangement between families that was more about passing on estates than it was about the two particular people involved.  Yet we abandoned that tradition in the West, and instead have mostly adopted the notion that marrage is between those who are to be married, and that they should join, by their own choice, with whomever they are in love with.  Mistakes are made, of course, but that is the ideal, in the tradition that I grew up in.

So if marriage is about joining with the one that you love, and the advocates in this debate are arguing that homosexuality is indeed as much about love as heterosexuality, then what the heck is all the fervor about legal approval about?  Does love need a government-sanctioned seal of approval in order to be legitimate?

So arguing from a victim perspective is going to get you nowhere.  You can be with who you want to be with, even if you can't get the same legal status necessarily.  If you want to make a case for gay marriage, you should draw on the tradition of marriage itself, and argue what it is that gay marriage would add to it.

You might argue, as I have, that marriage brings a certain respectability to a couple, and to a community in which it is common practice.  This will get you nowhere if all you care about is pure love and personal freedom, because if those are your only concern, then who cares about respectability, right?  That's just a matter of appearance.

This is how I have viewed the matter for some time now:

Andrew Sullivan made the point that the spread of HIV and STDs was a problem of promiscuity. Yes, AIDs is a bigger problem in the gay community. But the answer then is not to stop being gay, which Sullivan argued can't be done (and I personally believe, and ask the readers to grant for the sake of argument) but rather, to bring the traditional ethics of marriage to help impose structure on the gay community.

If this could be done, then the argument quoted above could be picked up as well–that legitimizing marriage in the gay community would help promote marriage in general.

It may not be the answer to the question of gay marriage, but I'd sure like to see it enter the discussion a little more.

Because the current frame of the discussion seems to secure nothing other than the continual and increasing hostility of both sides. 

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13 Comments »

  1. What traditional ethics of marriage would be brought to the gay community that it does not currently have? Many gay couples are monogamous. Many also live together and share financial and domestic responsibilities. Those with children often stay together for the children’s sake. Outside of social acceptance, the gay community appears to practice most, if not all, of the ethics of traditional marriage. So what would be added?

    Comment by toysoldier — May 14, 2006 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

  2. What traditional ethics of marriage would be brought to the gay community that it does not currently have? Many gay couples are monogamous. Many also live together and share financial and domestic responsibilities. Those with children often stay together for the children’s sake. Outside of social acceptance, the gay community appears to practice most, if not all, of the ethics of traditional marriage. So what would be added?

    Social acceptance is precisely what I’m talking about here. All those other things, as I said, have nothing to do with legal marriage.

    But arguing from the perspective of traditional marriage brings to the table the notion that this isn’t just about calling for something that they feel is owed to them and unjustly denied, but something that is being pursued out of a desire to be a part of something respectable, the ability to have a family that is recognized as such.

    It means an approach that is not antagonistic, but both recognizes the value of what the people who disagree with them are cherishing, and asserts that there are already valid, traditional reasons to bring gay couples into that.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — May 14, 2006 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  3. This instinct was very good:

    I’m not going to go into them specifically, as I run the risk of demolishing strawmen if I just analyse arguments that I myself have articulated.

    Too bad you didn’t stick by that resolve:

    So if marriage is about joining with the one that you love, and the advocates in this debate are arguing that homosexuality is indeed as much about love as heterosexuality, then what the heck is all the fervor about legal approval about? Does love need a government-sanctioned seal of approval in order to be legitimate?

    And having made that silly strawman, you return to it as if it were a telling point:

    …This will get you nowhere if all you care about is pure love and personal freedom, because if those are your only concern, then who cares about respectability, right?

    That simplistic strawman doesn’t represent what most SSM advocates say, and it certainly doesn’t represent what the best and most rigorous arguments for SSM say. With all due respect, Adam, your post as a whole doesn’t show any real knowledge of the arguments you’re refuting, at least on the pro-SSM side.

    It may not be the answer to the question of gay marriage, but I’d sure like to see it enter the discussion a little more.

    The argument you bring in from Andrew Sullivan is one that has commonly been made by folks arguing for SSM – especially the conservatives, such as Dale Carpenter, Jonathan Rauch, and Andrew Sullivan himself, among many others.

    Comment by Ampersand — May 14, 2006 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

  4. I agree with you, of course, that the case for SSM assumes (and, in many cases, explicitly states) that there is value in social recognition of a family relationship, as well as in the legal benefits.

    However, I disagree with you that the cause of the antagonism comes from a failure to recognize that common ground. Frankly, I think that the more sophisticated SSM opponents already recognize that such common ground exists, and so do many Pro-SSM folk. The basic conflict over equality in the law remains, though. And as long as that conflict exists, antagonism is inevitable.

    Comment by Ampersand — May 14, 2006 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  5. Gay Marriage is not important.

    To you, because you hve no expectation that you might fall in love with someone you’re not allowed to marry. You seem to be asking SSM advocates to persuade you about an issue that you consider largely irrelevant. How can they? If a person’s central moral core is “What’s in it for me?”, then there’s really no argument that would draw their attention.

    Comment by mythago — May 14, 2006 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  6. If a person’s central moral core is “What’s in it for me?”, then there’s really no argument that would draw their attention.

    “Do it or I’ll kill you.”

    That would get his attention, even (especially) if he’s the most selfishly whats-in-it-for-me person on earth.

    It’s then a question of whether it’s that important to YOU. (Or whomever.)

    Comment by bobhayes — May 14, 2006 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

  7. Honestly, I don’t see myself as much of a traditionalist on this issue – unless you refer to the tradition of equal treatment before law.

    I agree with you, of course, that the case for SSM assumes (and, in many cases, explicitly states) that there is value in social recognition of a family relationship, as well as in the legal benefits.

    I’ll agree that SOME cases for SSM assumes this. Not mine in particular.

    I see social value in permitting Nazis to march through Skokie; in permitting people to declare bankruptcy or get divorced; in issuing methadone to people with drug addictions; and in monitoring sex offenders during their paroles. And I hope you do, too. Now, I don’t mean you have to celebrate the fact that we live in a world with Nazis and bankruptcy and divorce and drug addiction and sexual predators. I merely hope you would acknowledge that our public policies reflect a useful accommodation to these facts.

    And my argument for SSM is similar. I defend anyone’s right to feel revulsion about homosexuals and/or homosexuality and/or homosexual marriage, just as I defend their right to feel revulsion about Nazis and bankruptcy and divorce and drug addition and sexual predation. For purposes of this discussion, I regret the fact that legalizing SSM may convey a sense of social approval, because I don’t think government should tell people what to approve of.

    Nevertheless, SSM provides a means of providing equal protection before law in a world that has homosexuals. Again, I’m not trying to induce anyone to celebrate this aspect of the world if they don’t want to. I’m merely asking them to acknowledge it, and conform the laws accordingly.

    Alas, George Lakoff argues that few people will be persuaded by appeals to equal protection, and that SSM advocates can better sell their ideas by encouraging people to identify with young couples in love. I don’t disagree, but I’m not trying to sell; I’m trying to reason. And my reason tells me that people should feel free to disapprove of homosexual marriage while acknowledging the need for it.

    Comment by nobody.really — May 15, 2006 @ 7:40 am | Reply

  8. However, I disagree with you that the cause of the antagonism comes from a failure to recognize that common ground. Frankly, I think that the more sophisticated SSM opponents already recognize that such common ground exists, and so do many Pro-SSM folk. The basic conflict over equality in the law remains, though. And as long as that conflict exists, antagonism is inevitable.

    Yeah…you’re right, I did kind of engage in the straw-man bashing I’d hoped to avoid. Shoulda stuck with specific examples.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — May 15, 2006 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  9. To you, because you have no expectation that you might fall in love with someone you’re not allowed to marry. You seem to be asking SSM advocates to persuade you about an issue that you consider largely irrelevant. How can they? If a person’s central moral core is “What’s in it for me?”, then there’s really no argument that would draw their attention.

    But is that not what social acceptance is about? Is it not the person asking “What’s in it for me?”

    I understand your point, but you cannot force people to accept things they personally or morally disagree with or are disinterested in. If SSM advocates cannot get them to consider the issue, let alone care about it, then they may need to change their approach. Remember, many of the people currently opposed to SSM were previously willing to support civil unions. I think the moment the word “marriage” (which most people associate with religion, correctly or not) became the key issue, many people were turned off. Arguing secular morality versus religious morality rarely promotes social acceptance, but unfortunately that is what this issue has turned into.

    Comment by toysoldier — May 16, 2006 @ 12:26 am | Reply

  10. sorry

    Comment by toysoldier — May 16, 2006 @ 12:27 am | Reply

  11. As I recall, Aristotle divided persuasive speech into Logos (reason), Ethos (endorsement) and Pathos (empathy), and claimed that to achieve empathy, your audience must identify with the person for whom you are arguing. This description of pathos appalls me. Am I really so shallow that I can’t feel compassion for people who are unlike myself? When I feel compassion for others, am I merely engaging in self-pity and then projecting it onto others?

    Apparently. So the reasons (logos) for a policy – whether it be a policy of invading Iraq or recognizing same-sex marriage – will often be different than the sales job for the policy. There can be little comparison between the interests of same-sex couples in this issue and the interests of the rest of the nation in this issue, but that doesn’t matter in a majority-rules world unless you can persuade a majority to identify with the interests of the minority. In persuasion, logos is the weakest lever.

    Comment by nobody.really — May 16, 2006 @ 9:47 am | Reply

  12. you cannot force people to accept things they personally or morally disagree with or are disinterested in

    Oh, you can force them, as Robert points out. I was saying that Adam’s argument boils down to “I don’t care much about this issue and haven’t really paid much attention to either side’s arguments; persuade me.” Why should I?

    Comment by mythago — May 17, 2006 @ 12:43 am | Reply

  13. If a person’s central moral core is “What’s in it for me?”, then there’s really no argument that would draw their attention.”

    Whatever we do, “whats in it for me” is always at the core of everything.

    Even if we do things for others, its because
    it makes us feel good or whatever. Thats the “whats in it for me” in this case.

    Comment by Mike Armstrong — December 25, 2007 @ 3:27 pm | Reply


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