At its most fundamental level, same-sex marriage is not about what we think about homosexuality. It is about what we think about marriage.
I listened Friday evening to Jonathan Rausch’s and David Blankenhorn’s discussion on The Future of Marriage, facilitated by Krista Tippett, on On Being‘s “Civil Conversations Project.” The participants are two of the brightest, most thoughtful and civil, contestants in the struggles we’ve been undergoing over what we think about marriage, and they’ve “achieved disagreement” in large part because they share many counter-cultural convictions about marriage.
Rausch, a gay man who lectures straights about how they’ve screwed up marriage (and what they need to do to fix it), summarizes part of his view:
When I talk to young people on college campuses, they all think marriage is, you know, it’s a thing two people do and, if they need a piece of paper from the state, that’s just a convenience. I tell them, no, no, no, no. Maybe you have to be gay to see this, what it’s like to be excluded from a community and all the tools that go with this, but this is an institution.
This is a commitment that two people make not just with either other, but with their community. And that commitment is to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness to health, till death do we part. That’s a promise you as a couple are giving to care for each other and your children forever to your whole community and the community has a stake in it. And that’s what we gay people want. We want to be married in the eyes of community in that web of family.
Blankenhorn, formerly an opponent of same-sex marriage (arising from his conviction, before same-sex marriage was a hot issue, that children need their fathers), announced a change of tactic, if not of heart, this summer, for reasons he explained in a New York Times Op-Ed.
The whole point of the On Being series is civility in disagreement, of course, but I was surprised when Blankenhorn recounted “losing it” the first time he engaged with Rausch publicly:
Mr. Blankenhorn: … I was a fatherhood nut and then I was a marriage nut and we weren’t giving a single thought to gay anything. This was just what we were doing, trying to strengthen this institution that protected children. So when the gay marriage issue came along, I first tried to avoid it. I spent years not trying to talk about it because I knew it was divisive and I didn’t want to — it seemed like a side issue. I didn’t take it that seriously. Eventually, in the early 2000s, I got drawn into it a bit, got all tangled up when I met Jonathan because he invited me to come talk when his book came out in 2005…
Mr. Rauch: 2004.
Mr. Blankenhorn: 2004. He invited me to come give a talk. We didn’t know each other, you know. I had met him. I read the book and I thought I was going to give a rational calm presentation, but I found myself just being overcome with emotion and I said many ugly things about him and the book and accused him of bad faith and cited all these radical gay writers and said that this is what his real agenda was. It was an un — uh, it was not by best day.
Mr. Blankenhorn: But, I…
Ms.Tippett: Why do you think it works that emotion in you?
Mr. Blankenhorn: I don’t know. I still don’t know.
Ms.Tippett: I haven’t read anything about that.
Mr. Blankenhorn: It just kind of poured out. I called him the next day. I said I was sorry. I said I really regret having acted this way. He was like, oh, OK.
Far too much of our “debate” over this issue consists of “being overcome with emotion and I said many ugly things” about the other side.
I won’t try to rehash the bad, hateful arguments, or summarize the good, thoughtful ones – that’s why I’ve provided some links (though they’re skewed toward the pro-SSM side, which is not my own; Tippett and her staff perhaps had trouble finding good arguments on the anti-SSM side now that Blankenhorn has left it) – nor will I declare which side I think more prone to saying ugly things.
Rausch and Blankenhorn both acknowledge that SSM is a profound change:
It took me a long time to get my mind around the notion that in the straight world this is not, you know, an obvious thing. This is a huge shift in the way they’re thinking about marriage for 3,000 years and I think we need to respect that. I think societies have to ingest change at a rate they can sustain. That was something I had to learn.
(Rausch) As Tippett quipped in a different podcast recently, “as human beings, one of the things we’re learning from science, change is stressful and it sends us back to our lizard brains, right?”
But there’s good change and there’s bad change. Just as paranoiac can have real enemies, so a stressful change can be truly bad, not just lizard-brain-stressful bad. A huge shift in the way we think about marriage after 3,000 years is an eminently debatable subject. That something should go from unthinkable to almost axiomatic in 50 years ought to give us pause, and I intend to continue saying and writing things to incite pauses.
But I intend to say them civilly –as by and large I think I’ve done so far.
Before I had gay friends who were comfortable enough to be “out” to me, I tried empathically to enter into what it might feel like to have come to terms with one’s same-sex attraction in a society where, it appears, you and those like you have the political and social momentum. Blankenhorn describes the process I went through:
There’s the intellectual, you know, you think, you read, you know, you sit in your study and you try to think about the correct view … But, I — you know, you build up a kind of a barriers of belief in theory and it keeps the other people out, and so you talk about them. You have theories about them. You can explain their lives to them, but you never really talk to them and see it from their point of view.
Since then, I’ve had more chance to “see it from their point of view,” and I don’t think my prior empathic effort to enter into their world led me far astray.
Three good aspirations in the debate would be:
- to stay away consciously from the lizard brain;
- to consciously lower barriers and try find thoughtful opponents to share their point of view (someone who shares your religious faith and trusts you enough to come out would be especially good; I’m not likely to learn much from someone who thinks sex has no more meaning than a handshake or hug); and
- so to debate this and other issues that if “the little light goes on” some day so that you change your mind, you won’t have to apologize for having been abusive or arguing in bad faith.