Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Same Sex Marriage

I haven't weighed in on this yet. I was thinking about it because a commenter at another site described the conservative viewpoint that SSM will hurt traditional marriage as "just silly" and "impossible to defend coherently" without an appeal to religious values.

Let's go at that first, not because it is a powerful argument, but because it is a common one. Mere dismissiveness never impresses me with its explanatory power. It must work on a lot of people, however, because it keeps coming up. Pish tosh. Piffle. No intelligent person believes that. Get real. Sniff...sneer. It is often an announcement that the speaker has talked about, read about, and heard about the subject, but not actually thought about it.

I will touch on arguments for SSM that might persuade me, or at least be worthy of consideration, a bit farther down. But this one is frankly amazing. Every known society to date, even polygamous ones, has not sanctioned same-sex marriage. If you travel to Papua New Guinea and ask several tribes at random "Say, have you ever thought of having men marry men, or women marry women?" you would receive puzzled stares. If you traveled in time and place to the Congo River Basin in the 6th C, an Inuit community in the 12th C, or a Brythonnic tribe in the 28th C BCE, you would find no societies that allowed this. Perhaps they were all wrong. Perhaps it is a great advance in rights or attitudes to be considering such a change in Western Europe and North America in the 21st C. But to dismiss the universal practice of all human beings to date as "just silly" seems, well, silly.

There have been cultures that have allowed and even encouraged homosexuality. The Greeks are most often cited on this, but there have been a few others. None of them has same sex marriage. In polygamous societies, the additional spouses are seen to be in some contractual relationship with the opposite sex partner, but not with each other.

One might find this universal vote from history to be insufficient or unpersuasive to forbid SSM. But by what blind ethno- and chronocentrism can one discard it as silly? I trust my examples have also set to rest the complaint that forbidding SSM is an idiosyncratic Christian idea. We should be suspicious when people try to sail these things past us.

The strongest positive argument for SSM comes from an idea of individual rights. As with many other practices in the American experience, one could maintain that people have a right to do what they want to do regardless of its effect on society, or more mildly, unless society can show some compelling interest in forbidding the act in question. Voting, owning guns, using drugs, moving where one wishes, zoning laws - all these involve some discussion of whether individual rights are the trump card. It is worth mentioning in passing that progressives who argue from some inalienable right to SSM that they have some serious counterarguments to deal with, not so much from conservatives as from libertarians. Societal provision of some good, such as health care or food, is made on the basis of the more communitarian idea that "I want to live in the sort of society that..." Well, I might want to live in the sort of society that worships squirrels, or insists everyone marry at 16, or sings for its supper, but so what?

There is not only a specifically religious set of arguments against homosexuality per se (I don't know that SSM is separately addressed in the texts of any religion), but a set of traditionalist arguments that many religious people also assent to. The people holding both sets of ideas may confuse them - surely they seldom differentiate them clearly - but they are nonetheless not identical arguments. The traditionalist says "This is the way things have always been and it seems to work reasonably well. To make a change in that, the burden of proof is on the advocates for SSM that it will be okay." The counterargument from individual rights that something should be allowed unless good reason should be shown for its forbidding - the declaration that the burden of proof lies on the side of the forbidders - has merit. But any declaration that SSM might be good for any other reason automatically admits the claims of the traditionalists as well.

The libertarians who support SSM do so entirely on the basis of individual rights. If progressives go down that road, the libertarians have a host of additional rights they will want to press if we are to be consistent. If progressives choose to go down any other road to get to SSM, they will find themselves unable to answer the traditionalists with anything other than majority opinion or naked power. I don't think anyone wants to go there.

As for the evidence that SSM will damage traditional marriage, well, what sort of evidence would we accept? If SSM's had half the divorce rate (20%) of heterosexual marriages or twice the divorce rate (80%) neither would be much evidence one way or the other that traditional marriage had been affected for good or ill. If traditional marriages got worse or got better, there would be very little way to show that SSM were even a partial cause. It is necessarily indirect, and perhaps impossibly subtle to discern. I might claim that the environment for my child is very different if my neighborhood is 0%, 20%, 90% SSM, but what data could I base that on?

This is actually a strong argument for SSM from one perspective. Opponents are going to be hard-pressed to offer evidence, because what evidence would even theoretically be admitted? Perhaps with a perspective of decades, with some countries allowing and some not, we could tease out that individual factor. But that strong argument carries its own weaknesses. It is equally difficult to give evidence it is a positive, or even harmless. At most, we might show over decades that there was little change, or only changes which could be attributed to other trends.

This would at first seem to be a standoff, with libertarians claiming that such ambiguities must always be decided in favor of the individual right, while the traditionalists (and communitarians, though they won't like it) arguing that societies have a collective right to create the environment they choose. This one wants a society where everyone has free health care, this one wants a society where gay people are celebrated, this one wants a society where everyone works, this one where Christian holidays are celebrated, this one where sharia law is practiced, this one where education is really, really supported, this one where alcohol is forbidden... All fine until we come up against the question of what if somebody who lives here doesn't want that? Or doesn't want to be made to pay for it? The SSM advocates then go into the same pile as everyone else competing for societal design.

Two final points, both a bit tangential. My view is that SSM would be mildly damaging to an overall set of societal values, including traditional marriage, but not very much. If I were a legislator I would vote against it, if I were a governor I would veto it, but I wouldn't put my time into any protests or advocacy. Marriage hinges on a lot of other things related to the two participants well before it hinges on what's happening with other people's marriages. I am far more concerned about our denying cultural inheritance. Every place where we make a different decision than our own ancestors, we cut ourselves off from them a bit more. Far from being multicultural, such responses are monocultural, believing that only our own time and place have the answers. I believe that we have made some changes that are positive - that we are more right than our ancestors on some things. But I give up each of those coins only slowly, after much consideration. I am very unwilling to believe in the general wonderfulness of my own time and place versus other times and places.

Secondly, I react with great suspicion when the advocates for a position use their worst arguments almost exclusively.


bs king said...

I really like this analysis.

I have read about a Native American tribe that did at one point permit same sex long as the two partners excelled in different areas (ie a female who for whatever reason became skilled in hunting could marry a "traditional woman" but not a man who hunted, because every family needed a mix). There also is apparently one tribe in Africa that only allows women to marry each never marry or form households and are essentially sperm donors. I can't come up with either of the names, but I read about them in Stephanie Coontz's "Marriage: a History", which is an interesting read if you're looking for one.

That note aside, even she notes that with few exceptions, same sex encounters have universally been held as "supplemental" by the society's that allow them...until now.

I was having a discussion with a very conservative friend recently who mentioned her opposition. I said I felt it got down to this: most people generally agree that the family unit is changing. We do not live with as many mom/dad/2.5 kids family's as there used to be, and we don't shun "fallen" women any more. The changes we are going through are somewhat disconcerting, and there seems to be two ways of reacting to that. The first is to say that we should return to the old way, the second is to say we make a new way. There's definitely arguments for both sides. However, one of the conclusions of Coontz's book is that as we as a society put a higher and higher value on personal fulfillment, the more volatile our family structures are going to be, and that those two things probably can't be separated. She also notes that the most strongly correlated factor in predicting if a culture will have homosexual activity is what she calls pro- or anti-natilism. It makes a lot of sense: the more a society focuses on the importance of babies, the less often they condone sex that can't make babies. Even the Greeks were judged as men by how many sons they fathered.

This is why it always baffles me how many people seem surprised this question comes up. The fact that most people applaud my decision to go to grad school and put off having kids sparks off of the same phenomena that makes this whole question come up. My guess is it will be legal throughout the US by, oh, 2020. The states with the highest birth rates will take the longest.

nash said...

I didn't fully grasp your analysis, but one question that came to my mind in reading it was, if there is nothing inherently special or intrinsically valuable about heterosexual marriage, then why were gays in California so insistent on having it when they already had access to civil unions that provided all the benefits of heterosexual marriage in California?

terri said...

Interesting post.

I think the core of this argument revolves around defining what exactly marriage is.

Marriage is first and foremost, a contract between two people with legal force behind it. Very romantic, no?

Yet, at its heart, that is what makes marriage what it is. Love, sex, living together, having children together....all of those things can happen and do happen outside of marriage and they always have to some extent.

Marriage is what gives protections and legal rights to each spouse....rights which society commits itself to uphold.

From that perspective, it's hard to see why not SSM?

If two people want to commit to a contract that will bind them to provide for one another, share assets with one another, and make them "family " in the eyes of the law as far as inheritance rights's hard to get worked up about it from that angle.

From an overall financial aspect, I wonder what SSM will do to many sectors of the economy. For instance, when health insurance companies can be required to cover partners, how will that affect sky-rocketing health care costs?

I imagine lawyers will be the true winners. They will have a new segment of the population needing divorces and mediation of wills and the enforcement of living wills by partners who are being challenged by blood relatives.

The real interplay will be between what SSM will mean in light of heterosexual domestice partnerships. Some states have common-law marriage statutes that confer some marital rights to people who have co-habitated fro many years, yet have never married.

If SSM is approved, will it strengthen or weaken the status of unmarried hetero partners?

One could argue that only conferring rights to officially married people, hetero or homo, could strengthen the concept of the marriage contract and make it harder for people to casually live together.

Gee....I sound like an SSM advocate, which I'm not really.

I see the push for SSM as a push that is mostly not about marriage, but about acceptance of the same-sex lifestyle as a whole.

In that sense it's not about marriage, but about culture and what our society is willing to approve of.

bs king said...


Here in Mass (with a husband who works in health insurance and me working in the hospitals) I can tell you SSM did have the interesting effect of really pissing of a lot of cohabitators.

Many employers apparently carried the "approved domestic partner" rider to be more LGBT friendly when it came to health insurance...and took it away when SSM became legal.

It wasn't widely covered, but it was fascinating to see that people who had been using this for years were no longer covered, and there was quite a bit of "I was good enough for the last 15 years, but now I need a piece of paper????" I had a couple friends who had to get married just to keep things the same, which was sort of a weird phenomena.

On the whole though, I do think it did some good for the whole concept of marriage, and really got rid of the headache for companies who were trying to figure out who was a "qualified domestic partner".

Nash- Civil unions never have ALL the same benefits as marriage. Not ever. Separate but equal never really works in this country. When the first civil union law was passed, the Advocate went and counted over 100 rights that marriage included that civil unions did not. Civil unions in California are better, but as they are still not recognized federally, they are less. No social security survivor benefits, no ability to file jointly on a tax return, etc. Part of the push for marriage in states is to get the Federal Defense of Marriage Act overturned so that SSM can confer those rights too.

james said...

Jane Galt's analysis from 2005 addresses the problem of the "marginal case". The problem (already seen in other areas, such as divorce and welfare) is that changes at the margins change the culture.

Gringo said...

One comment about same sex marriage. For years gays have been trying to get the government out of their bedrooms. Why would they then want to get the government into the business of defining their relationships?

Same sex marriage is more something to stick it to the "breeders."

Boethius said...

Okay, this idea might be a little out there but here goes. I think they just like the word "marriage." I predict heterosexual couples will abandon the word "marriage" once homosexuals use it. The religious community will adopt "covenant" or "sacramental" or some other. Non-religious heterosexuals will choose some other vocabulary. After this change in language takes hold, the homosexuals will abandon the word "marriage" as well and adopt whatever vocabulary has become favored by the heterosexual community.

The truth is they simply want to feel legitimate by having the use of the same language as heterosexuals. Heterosexuals will continue to change in order to differentiate themselves from the homosexuals. This could go on for generations ad nauseum.

TomG said...

This fine lady sums it up for many:
(and take a look at the 67 comments, wow!)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ben-David said...

Homosexuals make up 2-3 percent of the population.

The number of homosexuals in even semi-stable relationships is a fraction of that.

Data coming out of Holland and Scandinavia indicate that the vast majority of gays do not make use of marriage rights when it is offered to them.

For the vast majority of gays, the compulsive pursuit of promiscuous - and sometimes anonymous - hookups trumps committed relationships. No matter what the legal climate.

30 years ago gay researcher David McWhirter wrote the first apologia for this pattern, in his landmark book "The Gay Couple" - proposing a different standard of "emotional fidelity" for gay partners. Most statistics on how "normal" and "stable" gays are base themselves on McWhirter's rejiggering of the notion of fidelity. It's all a house of cards.

And now the Health ministries of Holland and SanFran both report that gays in "committed" relationships still have numerous sex partners every year (in the dozens in some cases) and that most new HIV infections occur among the "committed".

What does any of this have to do with society's already well-established definition of marriage?

Why should that definition be changed to suit the perverse, compulsive behavior of maybe 0.5 percent of the population?

Micha Elyi said...

ben David asked "Why should that definition [of marriage] be changed to suit the perverse, compulsive behavior of maybe 0.5 percent of the population?"

That's a thoughtful question. I agree with the sentiment that is an implied premise of the question. However, at what percentage of the population is the changed/not changed line to be drawn to suit an agitating minority? The political and social goals of feminism, for example, advance the interests of about 10% of women at the expense of the interests of almost all other women.