uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rationalizing Bigotry

Katherine Kersten had a column in the Star Tribune over the weekend regurgitating a common trope by NOM's Maggie Gallagher. You know the shtick: proponents of same-sex marriage "distort the issue" by calling opponents "bigots." To Kersten, this is manifestly unfair (more unfair than excluding a sizable minority from the full rights and privileges of citizenship?), because in fact opponents "argue, very reasonably, that marriage is rooted in nature ... and that children need both a mother and a father. They say that's why it's the bedrock institution of procreation and social order in virtually all times and places."
If you haven't heard these arguments before, get ready -- this is the pseudo-intellectualism that same-sex marriage opponents trot out whenever they want to make secular arguments. 
These are not rational arguments, these are rationalizations. Rational arguments start without prejudice to examine an issue. Rationalization does the opposite -- it begins with a conclusion and looks for arguments and pieces of evidence to support it. Rationalization is akin to apology, which is a fine rhetorical sport but not something on which we should base public policy.
This first argument -- that opposite-sex marriage is based on nature or biology, is only tenuously true at best. We needn't even reassert the zoological fact that same-sex relations happen across the animal kingdom. Rather, let's simply ask: how often does marriage happen in the animal kingdom? How often do animals get "married"? They don't (only a sparse minority mate for life). From a strictly biological perspective, marriage actually frustrates the sheer instinctual urge to procreate with abandon, which we find in the "natural" world. Marriage then is not a biological institution. It is a social one, and as such it changes as society changes.
This sociological fact -- that marriage changes and has always changed -- should be the death knell for same-sex marriage opposition. It isn't, primarily because most opponents simply refuse to acknowledge it. Rather, they speak in terms of a "bedrock principle" of some mythical and idealistic institution that does not exist, and never existed. But the fact is -- ask any sociologist -- that marriage has changed in the modern era into an institution of companionship. That this has increasingly been the way most people view marriage is borne out by rising divorce rates. For this reason, anthropologists often consider humans to be "serially polygamous" -- that is, we have multiple partners over the course of our lifetimes, usually one at a time. Indeed, a recently announced (and serious) candidate for the Republican nomination for president is on his third wife. Ronald Reagan himself was divorced and remarried when he was elected president. The disappearing stigma of divorce is further evidence that marriage as defined in our society is about companionship, and companionship alone.
Marriage is not, then, about the bearing and raising of children. They are certainly 
correlated, but there is obviously no child-bearing prerequisite for two adults to get married, nor does the existence of children in a given union preclude the couple from getting divorced. Legally (and we're talking about a legal designation here), actual or potential children are in fact irrelevant to whether two people can remain or get married. Socially, the notion that each child deserves both one (and only one) mommy and one (and only one) daddy may in fact be the ideal for many people, but it is not the reality. In 2010, nuclear families accounted for only 23 percent of U.S. households. And in fact (again), the nuclear family is itself a modern invention, often thought to have come about largely as the result or industrialization and urbanization. So even the ideal here is not one with traditional traction, at least not beyond the past couple of centuries. It is instead an idealization.
And what, pray tell, do you call it when one willfully excludes others based on an idealized concept in the face of contradictory evidence and reality? Prejudice, indeed.

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