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.