Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Ode to persistence -- same-sex marriage response to Doug

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:36 PM |  

Generally, when a good discussion sinks to parsing semantics, it is nearing an end but not necessarily a climax -- the short strokes, as it were. Doug’s response hinges on parsing of the words “relationship” and “marriage” and “precisely.” However, Doug also cites an example -- opposite-sex cohabitation -- and poses a question -- Where does the burden of proof for societal benefit belong? -- that might well extend this discussion beyond this response.

Doug has written that same-sex marriages don’t currently exist. Peg (What If) and I have argued (my words) that same-sex marriages don’t exist as a recognized civil function, but do exist in fact; i.e. same-sex partners are living together as couples in what is a marriage in all but name.

Doug sees this distinction as a difference in terminology, believing that Peg and I are conflating (any noun can be verbed J) same-sex relationships with same-sex marriages. He writes --
“This presumption doesn't apply equally to opposite-sex relationships. There are plenty of cohabiting opposite-sex couples who aren't married. Since society already has accommodated cohabiting but unmarried couples, I think the correct social designation - the status quo - for same-sex couples lies here, rather than in marriage.”
Again, using Doug’s example, the difference is more than a semantic one. Doug’s example actually more so supports the case for civil recognition of same-sex unions.

First, opposite-sex cohabiting individuals are doing so by choice. They have the option of a civilly recognized relationship, and for whatever reason have elected not to do so. Same-sex couples do not have that option. It is the difference between a coerced “separate but equal” and “separate but equal” by individual choice.

Second, there is a civil recognition of cohabitation ranging from common-law marriage, to palimony, to child support. A cohabiting partner can be required to pay child support, even against his will. The Nebraska law would have prevented an adoptive same-sex partner from acting on behalf of his legally adopted child. Again, coercion versus choice.

Third, on a broader note, social acceptance of cohabitation as a lifestyle shows that what was once shunned as immoral may still be thought of as immoral but regarded as “acceptable” in the sense of “not shunned.” For all practical purposes, cohabiting couples in a “permanent” relationship are treated as if they were married.

We’ll get back to that later.

On to Doug’s parsing of the word “precisely.” Putting the question of same-sex unions into an historical perspective, I wrote --
“I can’t think of another nation at another time that has raised the issue of same-sex marriage in precisely the way that it is being raised today in the context of the American tradition of ever-expanding freedom and tolerance.”
Doug jumped on the word “precisely.” He wrote --
“It's difficult to refute the point that other nations have raised this point in precisely the same way, though I would be curious how much study Craig has given to the matter before drawing this conclusion. Taken in its most literal sense, such a notion frees us from ever considering historical precedent at all - since historical conditions will never be precisely the same as current conditions.”
Here I think Doug is engaged in tree-cutting rather than forest management. I believe the United States is unique among all nations that have ever existed. Our country is founded upon the principle of expanding freedom. Even when we know we have it wrong, we try to get it right. Slavery was enshrined by the founders in the Constitution, but in doing so, they also laid the foundation for its ultimate abolition. We are a country of inclusion, not exclusion.

That’s what my comment intends. I am not talking about the mores of the here and now that a social scientist might study. I’m talking about the freedom that a philosopher seeks to understand, because the American conception of freedom is “precisely” what is unique about this place and this time in the history of the world.

And that brings us back to Doug’s happily cohabiting couple and his question -- “Where does the burden of proof for societal benefit belong in such a matter? On the one proposing change or the one defending status quo?”

I admit that question had me stumped for a minute. Then I stepped away from the trees and looked back at the forest. Not one of us is wise enough to isolate any issue to the point where we can unequivocally say “Lo, verily, this change is good,” any more than we have the knowledge to set “just” wage and price controls. But that does not mean Doug’s question is unanswerable. It only means that the form is wrong.

The right question is not “Who decides?” but rather “How do we decide?”

It would be arrogant to decide solely on issue itself. No one ever decided that cohabitation was tolerable; if some one person had, few today would escape the scarlet “F.” Like $2-a-gallon-gas, it just sort of happened; we bitched about it, declared the end of civilization as we know it, and moved on. Some of my best friends are cohabiters and (perhaps) one will marry my daughter (I don‘t ask; she doesn‘t tell).

When we must decide social change -- a decision same-sex activism is forcing on us -- we must do so on the highest of our values not the meanest of our prejudices. I submit that value is freedom, for without freedom none of the other values we hold dear are possible -- even our most cherished religious and political beliefs.

For without the freedom to sin, we cannot be virtuous. Without the freedom to question God in the manner of Job, we cannot accept his unquestionable being. Without accepting the right of others to their behaviors, we cannot justify the right of our own.

Perhaps same-sex “marriage” is not the right solution to expand inclusion for same-sex couples, but denying inclusion in deference to the status quo is certainly NOT the answer.

I don’t begrudge Doug his beliefs about marriage and what it means. IN essence, I agree with him. What I regret is that his priority is protecting his beliefs through exclusion rather than challenging and strengthening them through inclusion. I regret that, if “marriage” is not the right solution for inclusion, he is not searching for the right answer for inclusion.

I can’t say that same-sex unions per se will benefit or harm society to a greater or lesser degree. What I can unequivocally say is that working toward inclusion and wherever that leads to is of more benefit to this country in this time than a policy of coerced exclusion.