Wednesday, February 19, 2014

gay marriage: once more unto the breach

Two articles caught my attention—one linked by Dr. Vallicella titled "Why Privatizing Marriage Can't Work," and another linked by Malcolm Pollack titled "Gay marriage: a case study in conformism."

The first article is short enough that I'm going to quote it in full and respond to it right here.

An important discussion is occurring among young Evangelicals over whether the government should even be in the marriage business. According to those who are advocating this option, the most important reason for commending state withdrawal is that it seems to promise a permanent vacation from the most contentious battle in the culture wars. You can still believe that same-sex conduct is immoral and that Christian marriage is between one man and one woman while at the same time saying that you advocate “marriage equality,” since if no marriage is legally recognized, then everyone is “equal” to pursue his or her vision of the good life without interference from the state.
I haven't taken my own survey of young evangelical Christians, and as far as I know, American Protestants don't have their own version of humorous-but-truthful Catholic sociologist of religion Father Andrew Greeley (who died just last year). I'm just going to have to take Dr. Beckwith at his word, and assume that his cynical interpretation of the motives of the evangelical youth is correct.

In other words, you can in good conscience put an equal sign on your Facebook page, in order to announce to all your progressive college friends that you are not a dangerous bigot like the rest of your faith community, while telling the members of that same community in private that you support the biblical view of marriage. You can be, to borrow a phrase from another cultural dispute, “prochoice [sic] but personally opposed.”
I think we can add condescension to cynicism.

It’s easy to understand why young Evangelicals find this approach so attractive. Who, in their right mind, would want to bring upon themselves the derision and marginalization that typically attends embracing views that are not in cultural ascendancy? In the age of social media, the [once-dreaded] vice of succumbing to peer pressure, as they called it when I was a kid, has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Today, peer-pressure [sic] is now a virtue, with its own Facebook page and “like” button.
I'm not sure I understand this. Is Beckwith suggesting that there's cyber-bullying happening on Facebook? I'm not on Facebook—haven't been a member since 2010—but the last time I was there, I thought Facebook was little more than a microcosm of the greater Western Internet. I associate cyberbullying with a very limited subset of people in the West—mainly immature teens who drive each other to suicide through merciless taunting. For real and rampant cyberbullying, you need to go to East Asia or any society in which groupthink is prominent, and being ejected from the group is considered a tragedy. Korean Netizens have been known to drive rich, prominent actors and actresses to suicide through their vitriol.

The baby-boom generation that once decried the machinations and political power of “the Man,” and called for all right thinking people to resist him, has become “the Man,” and now calls for all right thinking people to embrace his machinations and political power, or else. The cultural avant-garde that once told its peers to open their minds and “protest the rising tide of conformity” now [tells] its children to set aside their critical faculties so that they are “not on the wrong side of history.”
I fully agree with the first sentence of this paragraph. The reversal that Beckwith is talking about is screamingly obvious: American liberals have gone from the 1960s "Stick it to the Man!" (where "Man" means "government" or "authority") and "Trust no one over thirty!" and "Freedom of expression!" to "We love big government!" and "Be politically correct in thought and speech." It's a bit like watching George Lucas and Lucasfilm transform from upstart rebels into the Empire. As John Malkovich says in "In the Line of Fire," "The irony's so thick you could choke on it."

But the reversal, and its attendant hypocrisy, isn't just on the liberal side. Law-and-order conservatives, at least since the younger George Bush, have embraced big-government policies (the creation of Homeland Security and TSA, the economic jiggering with Big Pharma, the insistence on dictating aspects of sexual conduct). It's hard to know whom to believe anymore. Both sides have traded places.

Young Evangelicals are not stupid. They see the writing on the wall, and they don’t want to drown when the approaching cultural tsunami hits land. Their suggested compromise makes an enormous amount of sense to them. Unfortunately, it cannot work.
The second article I'm going to respond to, right after I'm done responding to this one, suggests that the "cultural tsunami" is a tide of conformism: people fear being different, being outcast, and in the American context that means going with the herd when it comes to gay marriage. Personally, I'm not convinced that there's a tsunami at all (see my remarks on East Asia and groupthink, above). Gay marriage is far from a settled reality in our culture. I agree that the tide is moving in that direction—i.e., in the direction of wider acceptance of gay marriage, but we've got a long way to go before the acceptance is nearly total. In the meantime, people like Dr. Beckwith and Dr. Vallicella and plenty of other outspoken social conservatives will continue to rail loudly and unapologetically against equal marriage rights. How much of a tsunami can it be, then, if so many anti-gay-marriage folks still exist and are still vocal?

Imagine, for example, as one of my former doctoral students once suggested in a dissertation that defended this idea of privatization, that marriage becomes exclusively the domain of “the church.” Suppose Bob and Mary, both devout Catholics, marry in the Church under the authority of canon law. Over the next decade, they have three children. Mary decides to leave the Church, however, to become a Unitarian and seeks to dissolve the marriage. Because the Church maintains that marriage is indissoluble, and Mary has no grounds for an annulment, the Church refuses her request.
I admit I'm fascinated by this scenario. Beckwith teaches philosophy, after all, so casuistry doubtless comes naturally to him. This is an interesting case study.

Mary then seeks the counsel of her pastor at the Unitarian Church. She tells Mary that the Unitarian Church recognizes her marriage with Bob, but maintains that divorcing him is perfectly justified, since the Unitarian Church holds that incompatibility is a legitimate ground for divorce. So, Mary now requests a divorce from the Unitarian Church, and it is granted. The Church also grants her full custody of her children, since, according to Unitarian moral theology, what Bob teaches their children about contraception, abortion, and same-sex relations are “hate sins,” and thus is a form of child abuse.
On second thought, I wonder how plausible this scenario is.

So, who wins in this case? Suppose you say that because it was originally a Catholic marriage, it should remain so, even if Mary changes her religion. But who has the authority to enforce such a rule? The Catholic Church? The Unitarians? What if the Catholic Church agrees to it, but not the Unitarians?
This may be a good time to be more precise as to what constitutes "authority," and what the scope of such authority is. Beckwith is obviously leading up to something. He's going to tell us, momentarily, what authority (presumably a higher authority) is operative here.

Suppose Mary, on the authority of the Unitarian ruling, simply takes the children and moves out of state. Is that kidnapping? Can a Catholic ecclesial court issue an order to a local Knights of Columbus office to return Mary and her children to their original domicile so that she can be tried in an ecclesial court for violations of canon law? And if she is convicted, can the Church put her in an ecclesial prison or fine her?
I had a good, long laugh at the notion of an "ecclesiastical prison." Then I looked at Islam and quickly sobered up.

Suppose that Mary not only leaves with all the children, but also empties the couple’s bank accounts and donates their contents to the Unitarian Church? Is it a crime? Who decides? Imagine that all these issues were addressed in private contracts that Bob and Mary drew up and signed upon the commencement of their marriage in the Catholic Church. Who has the power to make sure these breaches are remedied and compensation given to the wronged parties?
Beckwith is still building up to his point. What's the higher authority? Wait for it...

The only way to resolve these disputes is for the state to intervene. What to do with children, property, state residency, freedom of movement, etc. when marital relationships break down are public issues. They are not private ones. Consequently, in such a privatization of marriage scenario, the state would actually become more intrusive into ecclesial matters than it is at present.
Aha—the state! I find it fascinating to follow Beckwith's train of thought. Is this the train of thought that a Muslim would follow, i.e., that above the holy (canon) law, there exists a law that is even more authoritative—a higher law of the land? Although I agree that, in a pluralistic society, the secular law of the land should trump religious law (e.g., I believe that Muslim women should not be allowed to cover their faces when getting their driver's-license pictures taken), I'm still left wondering how it is that Beckwith, a religious conservative, so easily leaps to that same conclusion. I assume it's partly because he—as I do—buys in to the idea that there should be a separation of church and state. He probably also buys into the quasi-pluralistic idea that there should exist a neutral, secular ground on which ostensibly religious disputes like the one in his example are settled.

In order to resolve these problems, it would have to spell out the limits and scope of ecclesial jurisdictions, not to mention what religious bodies are permitted to do with married citizens from different religious traditions that hold contrary perspectives on everything from child-rearing, spousal authority, and religious training to culinary practices.
Here, things get murky. To what degree can the state muck around with organized religion and its internal jurisprudence? If there's to be a separation of church and state, what mechanism allows the state to act so intrusively in religious disputes? There's a lot going on, in Beckwith's hypothetical example, that remains unaddressed, and unfortunately, we're almost at the end of his article.

Despite their best efforts, there is no high ground to which young Evangelicals – or any of us – can retreat that will not be covered by the cultural tsunami.
So that's the conclusion. This entire piece felt a bit disjointed to me. Let me see if I can reconstruct what I believe to be Beckwith's thesis.

Part of what Beckwith is saying—and he doesn't devote much space to supporting this claim—is that there is a "cultural tsunami" happening, a wave of political correctness that threatens all free-thinking people (i.e., social conservatives, in Beckwith's view), promising to force them into publicly affirming things they privately deny—specifically, that homosexual marriage is a legitimate form of marriage. In the final paragraph, Beckwith gloomily implies that there's "no high ground" to which free-thinking people can escape: the wave will swamp everyone. But this is strange: does Beckwith seriously believe that he himself will start publicly affirming the legitimacy of homosexual marriage? I doubt that. And I further doubt that others in Beckwith's camp—of whom I can safely assume there are millions in America alone—will be similarly converted with the arrival of that wave.

But we still haven't located Beckwith's thesis. I suspect that his thesis is buried in the subtext of this article. And it is this: homosexual marriage is not a legitimate form of marriage, and young evangelicals are fooling themselves if they think they can get away with paying lip-service to homosexual marriage while privately believing otherwise. Note that Beckwith is rather coy, in the article, about what his personal stance is. If he's a religious conservative, however, I think I'm on solid ground when I assume he's against gay marriage.

This puts Beckwith in about the same ballpark as conservative writers like the Reverend Donald Sensing, who has claimed that the right lost the fight against gay marriage decades ago. Sensing, too, has been coy about what he personally believes, but in his case, he's saying that there's really no use in fighting this social trend. Is Beckwith making the same point? Is Beckwith advocating giving up? And why is Beckwith, who seems like a conservative sort, so quick to tack toward the state? His article left me with more questions than answers.

On to the next article:

"Gay marriage: a case study in conformism," by Brendan O'Neill, initially struck me as an anti-gay-marriage screed. That's not the article's point, however: instead, the article is focused on the "tsunami" that Beckwith referred to. In O'Neill's view, this is a tsunami of self-imposed conformism, and conformism is toxic because it means the excision of one's critical faculties in an effort to blend in and belong. O'Neill's thesis, unlike Beckwith's, is easy to find. It is here when he writes:

How do we account for this extraordinary consensus, for what is tellingly referred to as the ‘surrender’ to gay marriage by just about everyone in public life? And is it a good thing, evidence that we had a heated debate on a new civil right and the civil rightsy side won? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can even call this a ‘consensus’, since that would imply the voluntaristic coming together of different elements in concord. It’s better described as conformism, the slow but sure sacrifice of critical thinking and dissenting opinion under pressure to accept that which has been defined as a good by the upper echelons of society: gay marriage. Indeed, the gay-marriage campaign provides a case study in conformism, a searing insight into how soft authoritarianism and peer pressure are applied in the modern age to sideline and eventually do away with any view considered overly judgmental, outdated, discriminatory, ‘phobic’, or otherwise beyond the pale.

As evidence, O'Neill points to a slew of news reports, over the years, that have documented a sea change in American attitudes toward gay marriage. He also holds up his own experience of being criticized by both the left and the right for speaking on the topic of the uncomfortably rapid rise of acceptance of gay marriage:

This is the only issue on which, for criticising it from a liberal, secular perspective, I’ve been booed during an after-dinner speech and received death threats (‘If you’re dead, you can’t talk shit about gay marriage’). It’s the only issue on which both hard right-wingers and the wettest leftists have told me to STFU.

Much like current conservatives who bemoan the latest social trends and attitudes, O'Neill locates the gay-marriage sea change in the elites. By "elites," I assume O'Neill means something like "those with superior power, money, status, and influence," i.e., people with the means to change the opinions of the masses. Is there no chance, though, that the source of attitudinal change is more grass-roots? Perhaps many grass-roots Americans are waking up from their stupor and embracing gay marriage as a legitimate life-choice. Or perhaps the reality is somewhere in the middle: Americans watch TV, where Hollywood has programmed more and more shows featuring alternative family lifestyles, and as people have gotten used to seeing such lifestyles, they've become more accepting, and have come to actively advocate for social change. A feedback loop of acceptance isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

I have to give O'Neill credit for at least trying to provide evidence that a cultural tsunami exists, and that it's swamping minds. I'll even grant that he may be on to something, though not necessarily with regard to gay marriage. True: American liberals are notoriously bad at supporting free speech when the ideas being presented go against the leftist agenda. Witness the numerous occasions at which leftist college students will block a conservative speaker by shouting, by ripping away the speaker's microphone, and by resorting to other sorts of bullying tactics. Witness the PC censure of people like former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, whose biology-based comments on sex differences got him ousted from his post. O'Neill isn't wrong to think that there are plenty of intolerant elements out there.

But as I said about Beckwith, I'm not convinced that this tsunami—whether or not it exists—is going to prevent people of conviction from expressing their opinions. It certainly hasn't stopped O'Neill himself, who risks further censure with this latest article. So whom is O'Neill fighting for? The easily malleable middle-of-the-roaders, the flabby centrists who can be swayed one way or another, and who are the most likely victims of any psychic tsunami?

O'Neill also makes a bizarre move later in his article. He claims that there's a disanalogy between the campaign for gay marriage and the older campaign for black civil rights—namely, in the 1960s, people actually got out on the street and literally fought for their rights. Things got bloody, and often. Where is there a similar struggle in the LGBT community?

As O'Neill puts it:

Certainly, the idea that the ‘seismic shift’ in political and public opinion is down to the fighting of gay-marriage campaigners is spectacularly unconvincing. One Guardian columnist, liberally borrowing from the black civil-rights movement, says the ‘breathtaking’ progress of the gay-marriage issue shows that Martin Luther King was right to say ‘the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice’; it shows what campaigners can achieve when they combine ‘idealism with action’. What action? Where? Bringing King into the picture only highlights the unusualness of the gay-marriage campaign: there has been no mass march on Washington for same-sex marriage; no streetfighting; no getting water-cannoned by the police, mauled by dogs, chased by the KKK, thrown in jail. There has been no real public action at all, certainly not of the sort that might have terrified the US Senate so much that its members felt the urge to bow one by one before the issue of gay marriage. If gay MLK-style campaigners are responsible for the transformation of gay marriage ‘from joke to dogma’, then they must have achieved it through osmosis, since they certainly didn’t do it through any kind of mass, messy uprising.

My response: so what? Are velvet revolutions inconceivable? Does every major social change need to occur through violence? Think about how heterosexual marriage has evolved over the years: we're long past the days when marriage was mainly a matter of pragmatic convenience, with not a hint of love and romance.* We're long past the days when a man could think of a woman as his property—or at the very least, as his "pet." How did this change occur without widespread violence? People these days also engage in "open marriages," in which swinger couples have sex with partners they're not married to. Where's the enormous backlash against this relic of the free-love era? And how did open marriages come to be, and to be tacitly accepted, without violence? Or look at a social change like the move from slavery to abolition: in America, yes, the change was extremely violent, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. But in 1807 England, the Slave Trade Act came into effect, abolishing the buying and selling of slaves. Then in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act became law, and slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire—without violence.

But O'Neill still strives to connect the current PC mentality to the elites. See here:

So for all the comparisons of the gay-marriage movement to the civil-rights movement, in fact the most striking thing about gay marriage is its origins among the elite. As Caldwell says, ‘never since the Progressive Era has there been a social movement as elite-driven as the one for gay marriage’. In his new book, Michael Klarman describes how judges, not streetfighthers, spearheaded the gay-marriage campaign; he even bizarrely calls judges a ‘distinctive subculture’ of the cultural elite, which ‘tends to be even more liberal than the general public on issues such as gender equality and gay equality’. Another favourable account of the rise of gay marriage notes how it was led by ‘lawyers and professors’, who counselled against engaging with the public since making ‘open demands for gay marriage [could] trigger a backlash’.

For a liberal writer, O'Neill sounds remarkably conservative in the above passage: like American conservatives, he appears to be blaming "activist judges" for the change in American society. But this implies that American citizens simply have no choice about what to believe, as if a judgment handed down by a court must be greeted with humble acquiescence. I don't think this gives the masses very much credit: as I mentioned above, I suspect that the truer scenario is more of a feedback loop, and it matters little where the initial impetus came from. Let's grant that the elites, in the form of judges this time, actually did do much to advance the cause of gay marriage. Even so, the people had to make the choice to accept this state of affairs. Had they not accepted it, there would have been open revolt, perhaps even violence.

O'Neill isn't wrong to warn us against the powerful, ambient social forces that can seem to govern opinion. At the same time, I don't think he's correct to depict the rise in acceptance of gay marriage as a movement spawned by elites in an environment of robotic, social-media-enforced political correctness. It could be that treating gay marriage as a legitimate form of marriage is simply an idea whose time has come.

*Of course such marriages do still occur in modern America, but they're no longer the rule, and are in fact a diminishing minority.



  1. I read the first article, and nearly stopped reading after the first sentence: "An important discussion is occurring among young Evangelicals over whether the government should even be in the marriage business." Frankly, I really don't care what young Evangelicals are talking about. It's all icky, sticky, self-referential, and fantastical, to say nothing of being exclusivistic and anachronistic. But I kept on reading since you had linked to it.

    I disliked very much some of the sleights-of-hand in the article that appeal to the evangelical reader's emotions in a manipulative way, but I still pressed on.

    It seemed to me, that the author was right about a number of important issues. First, the business of marriage, custody, property, and divorce are the domain of the state, not religion. Second, I agree that it's not really logically consistent for evangelicals to try to have their cake and eat it, too by supporting the idea that "the government should get out of the business of marriage" simply in order to allow them to breathe more easily while gay couples get married. It's an intellectual cop out, and I've thought so for years. Ditto for civil unions. Marriage should be available to all if they want it.

    But for me, the bottom line is: why the hell do you (hypothetical fundamentalist reader, not you, Kevin!) need to pontificate about what consenting adults do in bed, about what commitments they make to each other in their daily lives, or about how they support each other? Why on earth do you think any of it is your business at all? And do you really think yourself really any better off if other people don't have sex with or make commitments to people they love?

    As for Beckwith's final bit, the fear that government-overreach would occur if the government privatized marriage--I just disagree. There is a unique paranoia regarding government in the United States that results from a political philosophy that is individualist to the point of extreme silliness. In this case, this anti-government individualism ("respect my religion's take on marriage and don't you dare dictate to me!") has paradoxically paired with control issues ("you must not have sex with your partner in the confines of your own house however far away it is from my sight because I don't like the fact that you're both men!).

    I'll skip the second article, and instead mention a book that got me thinking for the first time about what family really means: Dostoevsky's "A Raw Youth." The bottom line is that there are actually many kinds of families, and many of these work. The evangelicals are afraid of variety.

    This brings me back to the tendency for some evangelicals to want to say that marriage is for one man and one woman for life while saying it's ok for gay couples to get married if the government is involved. Of course, the government has to be involved, but the willingness to allow others to have equal rights should count for something. It's a beginning.

  2. Just wanted to address something in your discussion of the first article:

    "Is Beckwith suggesting that there's cyber-bullying happening on Facebook?"

    I think you might conflating "peer pressure" with "cyber-bullying." At the very least, they are different in terms of degree, but I believe there is a fundamental difference of type as well. The goal of peer pressure is to encourage conformity in the target, but the goal of cyber-bullying (at least what we see here in East Asia) is to punish the target for failing to conform.

    The "dog shit girl" from a while back is a pretty good example. Every action taken against her by the cyber-hooligans was spiteful and designed to inflict maximum harm. She was essentially being shamed out of society. As you noted, other instances of cyber-bullying have led the targets to commit suicide. Peer pressure also uses shame, but the goal is to bring the individual in line.

    If an argument could be made for similarity, it would have to be made at a higher level, e.g., that both peer pressure and cyber-bullying attempt to encourage general social conformity. Where they differ, though, is in their approach to the individual: Peer pressure seeks to make the target part of that conformity, while cyber-bullying seeks to punish and make an example of the individual to encourage conformity in the rest of society. I suppose you could draw an analogy to rehabilitation vs. capital punishment.

    More could be said, but this was not really the main thrust of your argument, so I'll stop here. At any rate, I would answer your question quoted above with a "No, he is not." Beckwith is simply suggesting (I think) that the existence of the "like" button encourages conformity, that it is a positive feedback mechanism to reward going along with the herd. Cyber-bullying would require that people who did not click "like" be punished in some way.



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