Monday, September 04, 2006

Community columnist on same-sex marriage

I don't want to spend a lot of time criticizing the new batch of community columnists at the Journal-Sentinel. That would just look wrong, but responding to Tom Biehl's Friday column on same-sex marriage is, I suppose, a way of taking it seriously.

Biehl, who is an English teacher at MPS, is obviously schooled in the art of good propaganda and bad argument. He says that the argument against same-sex marriage is about "tradition" and then goes on to associate marriage with all sorts of traditional human failings. Tradition must be bad.

But saying that the argument that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman is about tradition is an enormous oversimplification. The argument extends beyond the existence of "a" tradition to explore what "the" tradition is based on, in this case, an institution which serves to, for lack of a better word, "domesticate" sexual urges shared by 98% of the population that can and do produce children - often unintentionally. The fact that all married couples don't have children - or that some can't and don't intend to - doesn't change that. Limiting marriage to only those couples who will procreate would be unworkable and is not necessary to support marriage as the type of social norm that promotes, however imperfectly, a stable family headed by a child's mother and father.

The fact that marriage is singled out for a special type of social and legal recognition and comes with a set of reciprocal rights and benefits flows from that, not, as Biel would have it, the mere fact that two (or some other number) people can "succeed at caring, supporting and loving each other over time." Married couple should do that - and the institution is designed to increase the prospects that they do - but their mere willingness to do so is, at most, a necessary, but insufficient condition If marriage was just about helping people to love and support one another, there would be no need for presumptions of economic vulnerability on the part of one of the parties or for an elaborate requirement of divorce. There would, in fact, be no need to require - or presume - that the relationship is conjugal and no real reason to limit it to two people.

There is, however, a sense in which the debate over same-sex marriage does reduce to how one feels about tradition and what happens when it is abruptly abandoned. The proponents of same-sex marriage are either 1)comfortable in assuming that changing the definition (and,necessarily, the reasons for)an institution won't change the institution itself or 2)(and this is where lots of the scholarship and theoretical energy is) they want to change the institution - even to destroy it as a remnant of a patriarchal past.

We can argue about that, but that argument is not, as Biel says, about "discrimination." If the purpose of marriage is as I describe then there is no need to, and reasons not to, extend it to same-sex pairings. The question that presents is no more about discrimination than the argument about whether to extend veterans benefits to non-veterans.


Dad29 said...

There are more strawmen in his article than on a well-tended hayfield in October...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Esenberg,

I do not read your blog very often, but I have been following most of your comments on the proposed amendment to: (1) define marriage as between one man and one woman, and (2) prevent the recognition of an arrangement that is identical or “substantially similar” to marriage. Your response to Mr. Biehl’s column is quite interesting, and I want to use it as a springboard. I agree with your general assessment that Biehl goes after the wrong issues, but I think that you are guilty of some similar failings.

First, we need to talk about “traditional marriage.” Any quick review of the history of marriage reveals that the institution had as much, or more, to do with economic viability and political power than it had to do with raising children. The “traditional” financial arrangements of dower and curtesy, the “tradition” of arranged marriage, and the “tradition” of a man controlling all the property in a marriage have all disappeared. They changed because the economic realities of our society changed.

We, in America, have replaced those purely financial elements with more esoteric concepts. Now, at most weddings, the husband and wife light a unity candle, pledge to bind two lives together, promise to support and care for one another, and state their intention to love and cherish one another. That is the current tradition of marriage in America.

However, as you say, you are not really arguing for “a” traditional marriage – you are arguing for “the” tradition of marriage.

In your argument, here and in previous entries, you suggest that traditional marriage is really about channeling sexual urges and creating a healthy environment in which to raise children – any positive relationship between two loving adults is merely icing on the cake. Passing over the first assertion, I think you and I probably agree on what children need: support, encouragement, love, structure, opportunities, education, consequences for their behavior (good and bad).

You and I also probably agree that a marriage does not guarantee those elements. A marriage license does not cure anger problems, substance abuse, immaturity, or any other human failing. It does not grant financial stability, wisdom, patience, or any other virtue. The fact is, a convicted child molester could get on a plane, fly to Las Vegas, marry another child molester, have the marriage overseen by an Elvis impersonator, and Wisconsin would recognize the marriage.

You, of course, point to studies showing that children of couples who remain married do better than children of single parents, divorced and remarried parents, or same sex couples. But, I believe that you are seeing a sort of false positive. After all, it is generally the healthy, stable, loving couples who stay together.

Therefore, if we want to support marriage as an institution for raising children, we should look at what works. That is, we need to decide what works in a marriage that stays together and raises healthy children. Common sense takes me back to support, encouragement, love, etc.

If I am right, then we should to stop emphasizing that marriage is something that one man and one woman – any man and any woman over 18, unmarried, not related, and with the money to pay for a license – do. After all, saying that marriage is between a man and a woman does not make marriages between a man and a woman stronger. Instead, we should emphasize that marriage is a serious, exciting, wonderful institution meant for two people who take the marital vows seriously.

In that latter scenario, more couples taking marriage seriously can only help strengthen the institution.

-Ben Johnson

Anonymous said...

Your depiction of the gay left in number two above is, I believe, misleading. The gay left opposes "gay marriage" as much as you do.

They believe it (rightly) to be an assimilationist move that will envelop gay families into the fabric of mainstream American life and therefore sever ties between "gay rights" and "sexual liberation."

Deliberately confusing the anti-marriage gay left with the pro-marriage gay mainstream is a common tool of such groups as the Family Research Council.