The Triumph of Self-Determination

The legislature of the state of Washington recently passed a measure to begin allowing same-sex marriages once the governor signs the bill into law this summer.  This action mirrored what occurred a few months earlier in the state of New York.  After several false starts, a lengthy debate, and a narrow vote, New York also passed legislation to redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships.

This is how democracy is supposed to work.

Voters in North Carolina elevated the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to its constitution this week.  The amendment also added a constitutional ban on civil unions or similar arrangements.  The measure passed by a comfortable margin.

The outcry over Amendment One’s passage, particularly from the young and from the famous, has been forceful and predictable.  This follows in the wake of Proposition 8’s passage (and subsequent legal issues) in California just a couple of years earlier.

I see both sets of events not as diametrically-opposed political outcomes, but as the same: Exercises in self-determination.

What fascinates me about the same-sex marriage movement is not the underlying substantive change, but, rather, the methodology behind it.  The principle question from my perspective is not whether this reform becomes universal (I believe it certainly will, probably within ten years), but how that occurs.

Contrast the Washington and New York examples with what we’ve seen in California. There, a measure passed by referendum amended the state constitution such that only a marriage between a man and woman would be recognized as valid in the state.  Yet, a federal district court determined that defining marriage in such a way violates the Constitution.  Later, a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit affirmed that finding by a 2-1 vote.

To the minds of many proponents of gay marriage rights, the fact that this victory came through judicial means is irrelevant.  Since one of their strategies has been to analogize this battle to that of the (racial) civil rights movement, earning favorable outcomes through the courts isn’t considered problematic.

Moreover, ours is a culture now built on entitled feelings of instant gratification.  Ends, not means, are the most important priority.  We want what we want, we want it now, and it doesn’t matter how that happens.  Therefore, advocates of all sorts of reforms—including this one—care little about how these reforms come to pass, so long as they do.

This is a dangerous path that I’ve discussed elsewhere.

To be clear: Gay marriage is not the danger.  Washington or New York will not be worse off or contribute to the decline of society[1] by allowing same-sex unions, so long as that is the type of society in which the citizens of those states choose to live.

That brings me back to North Carolina.

At issue is a very important principle, and it has little to do directly with gay marriage.  The broad question is whether a people have the right to determine for themselves what sort of society they want to have.  Many on the pro-gay-marriage side would say the answer is a resounding “no,” because a society doesn’t have the right to reject “equality.”

But let’s get real for a minute.

You won’t see this discussed in a print or broadcast outlet of any kind, but the simple truth is that we add and subtract to the list of criteria for equal treatment all the time.  There isn’t some all-encompassing, static value toward which we’re all slowly progressing.  Our views change from generation to generation.  We move in fits and starts, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other.

Myopic twenty-somethings will litter your Facebook feed with celebrity quotes and pro-gay memes that appear to make a point that vaguely resembles something intelligent or at least clever.  These platitudes usually fall along the lines of the libertarian notion of “someone else’s marriage won’t hurt your marriage,” the liberal idea that not allowing gay marriage is an assault on equality, or a general attack on some religious doctrinal strawman.  Often, the expression is something like, “Love is love, and no one should be able to stop that!”

But is that really the principle in play?

The fact is that the criteria for inclusion in an equality framework changes.  There are “bad” and “good” “non-bad” lists that we maintain as a society, often not overtly.  A group may move from one list to the other over the course of time, as is happening with gays and lesbians now.  But we focus so much on the group in transition that we lose sight of the fact that the notion of equality for all is simply not what’s being honored.

We believe in equality and beneficial treatment for all members of the non-bad list.  The change that occurs is not a renewed devotion to a grandiose idea of equality (even if that’s what we tell ourselves to feel important or superior).  No, the change is on which side of this invisible line the group at issue belongs.

For example, we still prohibit or sanction relationships involving an adult and a person below the age of consent (which varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction), a person and certain relatives, a living person and a dead person, a human and an animal, between a person who already has a spouse and a second potential spouse, and a person who has some sort of ethical or fiduciary duty to another person such that a relationship would create a conflict of interest.  We’re not creating a broad principle of “you should be able to love whomever you want!”[2]  What we’re doing is removing one category of relationship from the list of those we find objectionable.

I’m not making the argument that legalizing gay marriage will lead to the legalization of necrophilia or bestiality.  My point is that we’re not really endorsing equality for “all.”  We say we are because it simplifies the argument, making it easier to sell (and easier to make us feel good about ourselves).  Rather, we’re debating whether or not to add another name to our cultural membership rolls.

We’re deciding, in increasing numbers, that gays and lesbians aren’t abhorrent, and that it isn’t necessary to make them societal cast-offs.  By contrast, the rhetoric implicitly hides the “ugly” truth that there will still be cast-offs, even once gay marriage is legal and universal.

This is also a two-way street.  Criteria can slowly migrate from the “non-bad” list to the “bad” list as well.  This may come as a shock to wide-eyed progressives who see this country in a state of perpetual evolution toward their utopian vision of inclusion.

Consider the following: How were homosexuals viewed generally by society forty years ago?  How are they viewed today?  How will they be viewed ten years from now?  By contrast, how were people who smoke or people who eat meat or people who use fossil fuels or devoutly religious people viewed forty years ago?  How are they viewed now?  How will they be viewed in ten or twenty years?

My point is that things go from being “a big deal” to “not a big deal” in just a couple of generations.  Enjoying a nice steak dinner in 1962 would have been a non-starter in a discussion about politics.  Today, it might cause some disapproving scowls from offended vegans.  In another generation, it might be widely considered by a majority of Americans to be downright damaging to the human race.

The positive view of religion and the religious is also weakening.  That wound is partially self-inflicted thanks to fanaticism around the globe, but, even if that fanaticism weren’t present, the devout would still hold less sway over our culture than they did several decades ago.  That, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the gay rights movement.

Despite an inexhaustible supply of claims to the contrary, not every single argument against gay marriage is purely religious.  However, it is true that most of the arguments are rooted in precepts to which various religious institutions adhere.  As the populace of the country becomes less accepting of moral authority emanating from religious leaders, and more comfortable with moral authority derived from activists in a secular arena, the erosion of support for mores with religious connotations is a natural result.

Having religious faith was once generally viewed as a positive trait by a vast majority of Americans.  That’s now been qualified as “religious faith is good, I guess, so long as I don’t have to hear about it, and so long as it doesn’t interfere with certain issues in the political realm.”  Eventually, we may reach a point where religion is considered an outright negative—a sign of regressive thinking that exists outside of the more “enlightened” mainstream.  A decent number of people (strident atheists; most Gawker commenters) already feel this way.

So, just as our views about certain criteria or groups become more positive, we increasingly view certain other groups in a more unfavorable light.

The other part of that uniquely human behavior is the effort we expend to rationalize.  Even as we tirelessly make subjective judgment calls, we work just as hard to create “objective” principles that justify those decisions.  To cite the most readily-available example, the debate that laid much of the twentieth-century groundwork for the gay rights movement revolved around whether homosexuality was innate.  This always puzzled me, since there are all sorts of innate behaviors or predilections that are nonetheless taboo.  However, that was the rhetorical “foot in the door” that helped begin to change people’s minds about gays and lesbians.  We still see echos of that in more recent times, but it’s no longer the lynchpin of the argument.

This is not to say that the subjective nature of the collective decision to be accepting of a group makes that decision less valid.  But the reality that these decisions are subjective, and the wider understanding of human nature that backs it, makes some of the arguments in support of gay marriage seem ridiculous.  I don’t mean the substance of the arguments, but, rather, how they’re presented.

To wit, a position that was an outlier (at best) fifteen years ago[3] is now referred to as if it’s a self-evident status quo, and that opposite-sex marriage only is the strange and novel concept.  It all feels very revisionist to me, but that’s the tone of the reaction whenever a state passes a measure preserving the exclusivity of opposite-sex marriage.  Proponents of gay marriage usually take to social media to express pretentious sentiments like “embarrassment” with or “being ashamed of” jurisdiction X when their cause suffers a setback.

Why do people speak in these terms?  That’s an easy one.

First, people like to feel important.  Moreover, passion is more seductive than even-keeled  reasonableness.  I also covered this before, but life has much more meaning for most people if they can feel as though their fight is one of good vs. evil, rather than a battle between a variety of ideas over which reasonable people may differ.

Suggesting that everyone who disagrees with you is “hateful” or a “bigot” can be a compelling urge for many.  It endows the believer with a sense of moral superiority and unquestioned righteousness.  It’s empowering to believe your views derive from a greater, higher, absolute truth than those of your opponents.  We should just always be mindful that our children or grandchildren may believe in a different “absolute truth,” and that maybe these truths aren’t so absolute after all.

One aspect of our discourse that has shifted in the last twenty years has been the recasting of domestic issues as “good guys” vs. “bad guys.”  My personal opinion is that, while the internet and the “participation-trophy generation” are both factors, one key point is that we no longer have a large, dangerous, external enemy to oppose.  The Cold War was scary, but it at least served to satisfy much of our human need to feel as if we were in a good vs. evil conflict.  With the USSR gone, we turned our attention to each other.

There have certainly always been heated political conflicts in this country, but, during the Cold War, there was a vague sense of “We may disagree, but, ultimately, we’re all in this together against a common foe who threatens our way of life.”  That returned briefly in the weeks after 9/11/01, but quickly deteriorated into ideological bickering again.

The point is that, without an ideological opponent abroad that we can all agree is (1) evil and (2) a major threat, we must look to our fellow citizens to find the meaning and life-fulfillment that we lost the day the Soviet Union (thankfully) fell.  I think that’s another subtext to all of this.  When we didn’t have a serious threat to our way of life, we had to find one in each other: The notion that those on the right are fighting to keep the “American Way” in the face of those on the left who would try to destroy it just as the Soviets wanted to, while those on the left are battling against a backwards, ignorant, uneducated conservative force that prevents the country from “advancing.”  That’s the narrative the the two sides employ to tilt at their respective windmills.

It’s a shame we have to treat each other this way.  I suppose, though, that it’s a small price to pay for a reduced risk of all-out nuclear war.

What this week has reminded me is that, while we focus so hard on outcomes, the process is worth celebrating.  Even when our side loses, we should be pleased by the fact that we’re able to choose for ourselves the metes and bounds of our society.  This ability is usually more important than where those boundaries come to lie on a given day.


[1] Admittedly, California already is already sort of contributing to the decline of society, but that is happening irrespective of who can marry whom there.
[2] Such slogans are merely that: Slogans. Rhetorical devices used to present broad, easily-accepted phrases to garner support for a particular side of an issue, just as condemning anyone who opposes that position (or anyone who eats Chik-fil-A) as a “bigot” works to serve the same purpose from the other direction.
[3] One of the most fascinating parts of the entire debate over expanding marriage is that the academic push around the turn of the 21st century was as much toward the abolition of marriage as recognized by the government as it was legalizing gay marriage, particularly among libertarians. However, the gay marriage movement eventually picked up momentum and surpassed the anti-marriage movement. I personally believe that the gay marriage movement has prolonged government recognition of marriage. Absent this movement, I think marriage (again, meaning marriage as recognized by the government) would have started disappearing by now, or not too far in the future. As it is, I think it will be around for at least another fifty years. Having said that, I think that the government will eventually start getting out of the marriage business altogether.
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9 Responses to The Triumph of Self-Determination

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  3. Tom Garrett says:

    Reblogged this on The Axis of Ego and commented:

    In light of some of the events of the past few days, I thought it appropriate to re-blog this piece from a little over a year ago. I think it’s prophetic in some ways, but also points out some of the rhetorical struggles we still deal with (and will continue to tackle) on a daily basis.

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