20 June 2013

Some clarifications

In the debate over same-sex marriage, it seems that both sides use some incredibly sloppy and bogus argumentation. I have no time or sympathy for the arguments which hold that same-sex marriage will lead to some form of divine retribution (or that it already has); I think the readings of Leviticus and the Pauline condemnations of same-sex acts used by evangelicals are simplistic in the extreme and do not reflect the intentions of the authors, and which ignore or gloss over the social and religious contexts within which same-sex acts were performed in ancient Hebrew and in ancient Roman times; and of course any form of hatred against people with homosexual orientations is straight out in my book, including arrogating to oneself the prerogative of God alone to stand in judgement of them and condemn them to hell. These are things the people on the con side of the same-sex marriage have to police amongst their own ranks, which some of them have attempted to do with more or less success (for example, the redoubtable Mark Shea).

However, I have grown increasingly sceptical of certain bad arguments put forward by the pro side. So here are a few clarifications.
  1. All bullying is wrong. Full stop. What you read, what TV you don’t watch, how wealthy your parents aren’t, your style of speech, not least your skin colour and family background, let alone whom you are attracted to, should never be reasons to suffer through middle and high school, or any time afterward. No one should have to go through it, and equally culpable as the children and teens who perpetuate the ‘pecking order’ are the adults who excuse it as some kind of preparation for the ‘real world’, where the pecking orders continue. (Personal aside: this is what made me, in my youth, a socialist.)

  2. Political disagreement does not constitute bullying. This is the other side of the equation. If you are against gay marriage, you are not by that fact a bully. If you make ad hominem arguments, that’s bullying, but merely holding the belief that gay marriage is wrong can be a rational belief to hold. It seems to trivialise actual bullying when one equates a free expression of social conscience in the public square with, say, beating someone up or tying them behind a truck.

  3. Marriage is not like ordering a sammich. I saw this one on Facebook, where someone compared being against gay marriage to being against the guy ahead of you in line at Subway who doesn’t order exactly what you do. Because selecting a lifelong partner is exactly like selecting something off a menu at a big corporate fast-food joint, and nothing says ‘public commitment of perpetual love and devotion’ like ordering a roast beef and provolone on Italian herb-and-cheese bread. Further…

  4. Marriage is about love, but… Marriage is about love; speaking as a happily married man, I completely understand that. But the way late-capitalist society understands ‘love’, as a utilitarian kind of individual therapy (and therefore marriage as a ‘market’, an HR search for a significant other with the right ‘requirements’… or like ordering a freaking Subway sandwich), is completely irresponsible. The ideal of marriage is and has been historically about a certain kind of love, a committed and self-giving love, which is intimately connected with procreation and child-rearing. It has been in place ostensibly in recognition that each child born to a woman can be taken care of by her partner who sired it as well.

    Now, I think SSM supporters are absolutely right to point out that we heterosexuals have done a fine job of making marriage, thus understood, institutionally irrelevant in practice, particularly with no-fault divorce. We heterosexuals are the ones who distorted the concept of marital love in the first place, and we do deserve censure for that. But the anti-SSM folks have a point that same-sex marriage completely changes the parametres of what marriage entails as a social institution for love and care not just between a couple conceptually capable of procreation, but also of any potential offspring of that couple; this is a point I have yet to see a pro-SSM arguer address in a way that doesn’t engage in a kind of special pleading fallacy. That said…

  5. Same-sex marriage can be considered a denial of diversity. I remember a discussion I once had with a friend of mine in Providence. The question came up of whether marriage is an appropriate institutional reflection of committed same-sex relationships, and the answer wasn’t nearly so cut-and-dried as I had until then assumed it to be.

    Homosexual relationships are different in kind than heterosexual ones, not least because of the perspectives involved. There are multiple reasons why gay men in China are called tongzhi 同志 – ‘comrades’, literally meaning ‘united in will’. There is a kind of camaraderie among homosexuals which I do not think can rightly be said to exist between heterosexual men and women (as attested by the existence of and historical need for feminism). So my friend wondered if an alternative institutional arrangement, something like a ‘blood brotherhood’ or ‘sworn sisterhood’, would be more appropriate to a committed homosexual relationship than a marriage (which has historically connoted the union of two disparate biologies and perspectives) would.

    This led me to think that uniting same-sex couples under the same institutional umbrella as opposite-sex couples seems to go some way toward flattening and erasing difference, not celebrating it. But as soon as that argument is advanced, someone will inevitably step up with a comparison with segregation and the ‘separate but equal’ ruling. To which I say:

  6. The gay rights struggle is NOT like the American Civil Rights Movement. So stop equating the two. Seriously. This is emphatically not to demean the real struggle for same-sex rights in the slightest, in which real gains have been made which should be celebrated on their own account. And this is not to say that society has (EDIT: sorry, doesn’t have) a long way to go in recognising the full humanity of homosexuals. But speaking as a man of the left here, the comparison is incredibly problematic and does belittle the struggle that blacks have had to make for basic human rights in American society.

    Homosexuals have never been enslaved on account of their sexual orientation. There have never been straight-only water fountains or bathrooms or train cars or seats in restaurants. Homosexuals have never been forced to sit at the back of public busses. There has never been a systematic policy denying gays loans for houses in certain neighbourhoods. There has never been an ‘urban renewal’ campaign which relegated homosexuals to ghettoes. No police forces have ever turned water hoses and attack dogs on protestors for same-sex rights. There have indeed been lynchings of homosexuals, but never on the same scale and never organised in the same way that lynchings of blacks and civil rights supporters had been.

    Men and women of colour in the US have faced an ordeal which is utterly without parallel in American history, and SSM supporters need to check their privileges, and respect that their struggle was strongly different in kind. But given the ubiquity of this lazy comparison, it ought to be little wonder that African-Americans, especially those who were directly involved in the struggle for civil rights, have traditionally been fairly unsympathetic to the cause of same-sex marriage.
To be honest, in the argument about SSM I’m still in the process of struggling after the truth. I can understand and sympathise with the arguments on the pro side, once having firmly been in their camp. But listening to the con side (especially John Milbank, who has been an incredibly deep influence on my thinking) I have to admit that they do have several very strong and valid points. I am certainly not out to condemn anyone for holding honest beliefs on either side, but if they hold those beliefs for wrong reasons, that should be pointed out.


  1. Great post. This is a tough subject to discuss precisely because I think marriage in often not seen as a public (i.e. non-market) institution. Some of the arguments from the anti-gay marriage side (the side that I am on) probably don’t make much sense to people who liken marriage to ordering a sandwich at Subway.

    But I fear that may people do see marriage as a sort of commodity. One of my reasons for opposing the opening up of the definition of marriage is that it further commodifies the institution of marriage, which I see as ultimately anti-Christian and also anti-progressive. The Christian ideal of marriage is actually quite progressive.

  2. Hi John!

    Very good points. Back when I was still a member of the liberal left, I was quite impressed with the intellectual rigour they applied to systemic injustices of explicitly 'economic' market structures. But then they would then have this immense area in the 'social' realm from which they would aggressively prevent through ridicule or shaming any critique of how some of the pet social issues of the liberal left might themselves be lent to systematic injustice.

    To be sure, I'm still on the fence with regard to SSM, because I realise there are real issues of legal equality at stake. But the way their arguments belittle the struggles of people of colour in the US by appropriating the language of their movement bewilders me. As does the utterly cavalier attitude they seem to have to geometric institutional change, and how it might affect the people with the fewest legal rights in our country (namely children). (Speaking of which, what is Dr Chang Ha-Joon's stance on SSM, I wonder?) And of course their capitalistic mode of argumentation and assumption that marriage is something therapeutic for the individual rather than a mutually self-giving union.

    Anyway, many thanks for the comment!


  3. "To be sure, I'm still on the fence with regard to SSM, because I realise there are real issues of legal equality at stake."

    Right there with you, Mr. Matthew. Along with the asinine comparing to the Civil Rights Movement. But really, for the most part, you took the words right out of my mouth.

  4. Many thanks, CA Constantian! It is in part because I still sympathise with the gay rights movement that I want to lay out all of the arguments they make for SSM which I think simply don't work.