Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Douthat Follow Up

Ross Douthat is going to continue to post responses to the many bloggers who have rebutted his article on gay marriage and just as I think that he's made all of the points he can possibly make, he posts again and brings up a whole new series of insights that really, truly resonate.

In this post, the most powerful point is made by quoting someone else, Eve Tushnet, who is probably one of only a few who could ever to hope to meet this description: fervently Catholic, proudly gay, happily celibate. She does not see herself as disordered; she does not struggle to be straight, but she insists that her religion forbids her a sex life. I doubt that Eve is someone who realistically could be widely emulated, I just mention her because she makes some really interesting points in the gay marriage debate.

Here's one quoted by Douthat in his blog:
"Americans are both extremely na├»ve about sex and extremely selfish about marriage. But marriage evolved to structure the specific ways in which sex between a man and woman can be really devastating to society, or really fruitful. In order for men and women to have sex with one another, to avoid causing a lot of disruption and wrong action in society, they have to do a lot of difficult things. The fact that a lot of them don’t want to do those things now and don’t even see those things as related to marriage is part of the problem, not an excuse to further move away from the idea of marriage as the structure. For example, one of the things that you find now if you talk to young people about how do sex and marriage connect, is that a lot them are very into fidelity within marriage … but they don’t see marriage as having any effect on their actions before they get married. That was not always true. Marriage exists in large part to structure how you behave before you marry. Not that anyone would expect all or even most people to be completely abstinent before marriage, but if you have that as your goal and ideal, and you have a sense that marriage is at least where it’s proper to be having sex, then you will probably have a little bit less sex outside of marriage. They are making it much less believable that marriage has any other purpose other than putting the good housekeeping seal of approval on your personal relationships.
So if humans were perfectly able to control their reproduction, could pick when they had kids and with whom, and men and women are interchangeable both socially and biologically, then you don’t have marriage. Why would you? It arises to manage not only procreation, but also the social and biological differences between men and women prior to reproduction. So, that said, if you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rules."
Douthat continues this argument in some incredibly important ways:
"The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, 'thick.' All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not."
He makes incredibly deep points about how even infertile straight couples or straight couples past child-bearing age experience marriage in ways that are not possible by gay couples.

He uses the adjective "thick" to explain why these arguments are so difficult to defend:
"The particularities of heterosexuality are very particular, and only a thick understanding of wedlock, I suspect, can hope to do the kind of important cultural work that Tushnet is describing, and push heterosexuals not only to think about their behavior within marriage, but also how their entire sexual lives fit into the marital ideal. (This thickness issue also helps explain what often sounds like tongue-tiedness and/or desperation from social conservatives when they’re asked to explain what, exactly, it is about marriage that makes it distinctively heterosexual: the whole 'well, it’s about love and monogamy and complementarity and fertility and sex differences and childrearing and …' refrain, which seems unconvincing to many people, should be understood in part as an attempt to grapple with just this complexity.)"
But if you expand marriage to include gay couples the institution loses this thickness and turns an institution for one type of relation into three: "because it’s an ideal that needs to encompass not two but three different kinds of sexual relationships — straight, gay male, and lesbian. So it ends up being about the universals of love and commitment, rather than any of the particular dynamics of heterosexual intimacy."

That thinness makes it easier to understand, describe, and, in the context of a political debate, defend, but it does, in no doubt turn something that began as a very thick idea into something much less so.

Andrew Sullivan, by the way, has an almost equally compelling counter to this post here.

Where Andrew Sullivan (who is a gay conservative by the way and makes arguments that resonate with me from this point of view) agrees with almost all of Douthat's points, but he makes the very powerful point that the world has changed and our laws have to change to accommodate it (my interpretive summary):

Key quote:
"But here's the thing: what, exactly, is the alternative in a world where openly gay people and couples exist?
Ross has never told us. But it seems to me from the logic of social conservatism that those most in danger of the social chaos social conservatives fear are those who would benefit most from being subjected to the cultural power of this institution. We know the consequences of marital breakdown for the black and urban poor: immiseration, poverty and dysfunction. We also know the consequences of a society that allows gay men sexual freedom, while denying them any social institutions to channel their love and desire: 300,000 young corpses. But the social conservative who insists that the family is vital for the black underclass somehow believes it is just as vital to deny it to gay men. In fact, social conservatives are intent on preventing this integrating institution from helping, guiding and ennobling a group most vulnerable to the consequences of emotional and sexual chaos. "
Sex is most obviously much more than procreation. But the fact that sex can and does lead to life is powerful. But the gay community is not going away. They are here and they deserve much more than exclusion. There needs to be a way we can do both and it will be hard politically to do so: to come up with a way to satisfy both the Douthat point of view and the Sullivan point of view.

Douthat has promised to respond to Sullivan directly (again in my mind Sullivan's arguments are the most powerful of any I've read so far) and I'll anxiously await.

But I guess what I hope to see is a world where those on the left can recognize and understand these specific Douthat points and at least try to make these sorts of concessions, concessions that Sullivan seems willing to make himself.

UPDATE: I recognize that this is a losing argument, that Sullivan is probably more correct that Douthat. Our world has changed and holding on to a legal definition of an institution that was designed for a world that no longer exists is probably not realistic. But being one person who is determined to live up to the marriage ideal and who lives within a religious community that also strives to live up to this ideal, it means something to me. Nonetheless, it seems inevitable to me that the laws will change toward Sullivan's vision of it. The goal, then, is that their continues to remain enough cultural space for religious and other institutions to provide a framework for something more traditional for those who choose it.

1 comment:

H said...

Scott, as I've been reading these posts I've struggled with what to comment on. It was your "UPDATE" thought that finally got to me. Quite honestly, those are the words that I've been trying to come up with for so long. Thank you. H