Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

A LITTLE SSM BEFORE I GO-GO. On CSPAN right now is a rerun of Wednesday's Boston University debate on gay marriage. A few thoughts before I run out for a drink.

* My old prof, Hadley Arkes, was there as the professorial voice on the anti-gay marriage side. I love to hear Hadley speak, which was why I stopped surfing when I saw it. I've described the strange hypnotic quality of his voice before, and I can announce without fear of contradiction that he's still got it.

* I was struck by the difference between the argumentation styles of Prof. Arkes and the lead student debater for the pro-gay marriage side. The professor's argument, which I've hear a dozen or so times, is that traditional marriage is critically tied to the "natural teleology of the body" (one of the coolest phrases around): that the begetting of children (the obvious purpose of human sexuality) is an enterprise that requires a specific formula, one man and one woman (no more, no less, and in no different gender-permutations). Once you detach marriage from this "teleology of the body," from procreative sex, in order to extend it to homosexual couples, there is no principled ground for extending it further, to include groups with more than two members, or sterile adult incestuous couples. Or even, as Professor Arkes points out, couples in which there is no pretense of any erotic or romantic bond. Why shouldn't a pair of maiden aunts taking care of an orphaned nephew, or a grandmother and mother taking care of their grandchildren/children, be able to avail themselves of the various benefits we now associate with marriage? Simply because they're not doin' it? And yet, once "marriage" has been expanded this far, to the point where a marriage can include any number of people, and those people can have any conceivable relationship with one another, will "marriage" have any meaning? We'd have a situation in which literally everyone in the United States could marry everyone else, simultaneously. What, then, would be special about "marriage"?

The professor's arguments, as I hope I've laid out, take the form of a logically reasoned argument. You may disagree with his principles, or disagree with the inferences he draws from them, or how he links up inferences, or you may accept his argument and nevertheless pull back from his conclusions. But you can, at least, see his argument. You can watch as he takes you from A to B to C and finally to D. You can disagree with his argument, but at least you can know, with some degree of certainty, what the argument is that you're disagreeing with.

The lead student debater, who from the comments made by others I take to be held in high esteem by the Boston University forensics community, had a different style. I would call it emotional-demagogic, if I felt I could without suggesting negative connotations I don't mean to suggest. Whatever the name of the style, his speech was notably more difficult for me to diagram than the professor's. He began by speaking of the lowly status of women in colonial and pre-20th century America, in which they had few rights and could not even form legal contracts (truth indeed). Then he turned to the long ban on interracial marriage in the country, which he rightly decried as shameful. (At this point in his speech I got up to pee; if I missed a crucial logical point, I apologize.) By the time I got back, he was talking about how shows like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" have debased the institution of marriage, and how appalling the country's divorce rates are. Then he brings up Brittany Spears' micro-marriage, which lead to the inevitable-in-debates-about-SSM point: if Brittany Spears can marry some shlep from Louisiana because it's Vegas, it's 5:00 am, and she's bored, and get a divorce the next day [an annulment, actually, but who's counting], why can't a pair of lesbians who love each other and are dedicated to each other tie the knot. Then he quotes Plato (in response to the good professor's ancient name-dropping), specifically the theory of the origin of love from the Symposium (you know, people cut in half, searching for their other half, etc. cf: Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

All of which, through a species of rhetorical prestidigitation, becomes: the government should sanction same-sex marriages. I hope, perhaps, I've made my point by indirection. His argument, as near as I can tell, was a) that we refused to permit certain types of marriages in the past, and that was wrong; therefore, when we refuse to permit certain types of marriage today, that's wrong;† and b) "traditional marriage," as the professor outlines it, isn't really what we have today - so why use that as a straw-man to deny gay couples the right to participate in the tumultuous, screwed-up, never-quite-works-out institution straight couples actually experience. Anyway, I think those are the arguments; you have to pan pretty adeptly through the river mud of his verbiage to get to the gold-nuggets of his point. By its tone, the speech was not really an argument designed to persuade, at least in a logical way. It was designed to make people feel a certain way. Especially, I think, it was designed to make the generally pro-gay marriage audience feel good about their support for gay marriage. Not to arm them with compelling arguments to convert opponents, but to remind them of why they're on the side of the angels. It's worth noting that the student debater left the podium to applause, while Professor Arkes left to the sound of the papers of his prepare speech ruffling up against his microphone.

* My final observation in this rapidly growing post is that the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage are themselves about enshrining a certain degree of bigotry in the law. The student debater's meta-argument he summarized in one sentence, which he repeated over and over: he wants to live in a country where someone could marry the person of their choice. Yet, if pressed, he surely would have said he supports laws preventing siblings from marrying, or preventing a man who's already married from taking on a second wife without divorcing his first. And yet, even if there is legally recognized same-sex marriage, if a man wants to marry his sister but cannot because the law forbids it, would we really live in a country where a person can marry the person of their choice?

The argument of the mainstream proponents of same-sex marriage is basically "Equal marriage rights for gay and straight couples! Polyamorists and consanguinosexuals can go to hell!" which isn't an unreasonable argument. After all, Saudi princes and sister-lovers should fight their own battles; gays don't have some kind of moral imperative to be the champions of every non-traditional sexual persuasion. But they should recognize a) that when they say they want everyone to be able to marry the person of their choice, they don't really mean it; and b) defining marriage as between two unrelated persons, they are, by their own logic, enshrining in the law the deliberate exclusion from marriage rights of certain sexual minorities, with no greater justification (that I can see) than that those groups are small, and relatively powerless, and unpopular, and closeted. Gosh, that sounds strangely familiar...

†The logically stronger, if rhetorically weaker, version of this argument I actually agree with: that given that we were wrong when we denied interracial couples the right to marry a half-century ago, we ought to carefully consider our arguments for not extending marriage rights to new groups seeking them today, to be certain our justifications are not merely a mask for irrational prejudice.