Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Protestations of Would-Be Martyrs

An interesting article today in the New York Times, “Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage”

Patricia and Wesley Galloway could not have children of their own. Yet for them, the essence of marriage is rooted in procreation. “It takes a man and a woman to create children and thus create a family,” Mrs. Galloway, 60, told a legislative panel in Connecticut last year as it was considering a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. …

The Galloways represent one side of a debate that is often charged by undercurrents of bigotry and religious belief. The court’s ruling on Friday went on at length about the history of discrimination against gay people. While they are Christians, the Galloways say they refuse to use religion to defend their view of marriage because it just muddies things. And they insist they are accepting of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

By protecting heterosexual marriage, what “we’re trying to do is protect the foundation of society,” Mrs. Galloway, a volunteer worker from Trumbull, Conn., said in a telephone interview on Saturday. Everyone who disagrees is automatically labeled a right-wing bigot,” she said. Her husband added, “How can you be a bigot when you’re looking out for society as a whole?”

Surely it is not surprising that a heterosexual couple with a strong sense of failure to meet what they see as an obligation to reproduce based in both religious as well as cultural pressures would see procreation as the critical element of marriage. The article’s writers did a nice job of recognizing that in their description: “Yet for them, the essence of marriage is rooted in procreation.”

That’s the key to understanding this argument: “for them.” But the Galloways are making a rather common error in logic at that point. They are presuming that their own understandings driven by the needs they perceive to exist arising out of their personal circumstances are somehow normative for everyone. Because they cannot have children and feel a particular sense of loss in that regard, somehow this lacuna in their lives becomes the defining aspect of marriage and, in turn, the “foundation of society” generally.

It’s an error in logic I note constantly in the arguments of my undergraduates who sense that somehow their own limited life experience defines reality for everyone. That is particularly true of white middle class students who often fail to recognize the role their numerical prevalence in society and their unrecognized white privilege play in constructing their understandings of reality.

To their credit, the Galloways have refused the easy route to legitimizing their would-be normative vision by placing it in the mind of G-d. Would that so many who share their position were as thoughtful. No doubt, the Galloways may well believe that G-d shares their heterosexist understandings. It’s particularly edifying to believe that G-d shares one’s prejudices. But they refuse to play that trump card and opt for the next best option – nature. The only other option left to them would have been an uncritical deference to tradition.

Of course, the problem is, many marriages don’t produce children for all kinds of reasons. If we take the Galloway’s argument that marriage and families exist primarily if not exclusively for the purpose of procreation of children, the obvious implication for their own marriage would be divorce given its inability to meet the definition they have set for it. If it cannot produce children it has no reason to exist, right?

Obviously such a draconian application would be destructive not only to the individuals involved but to society generally. Many heterosexual marriages produce no children, particularly the marriages of elderly people past child producing years. Clearly, society has an interest in the existence of those marriages. Moreover, some heterosexuals are not called to be parents and responsibly reject the subtle pressures of no doubt well-intentioned but insensitive people like the Galloways to produce and raise children anyway. Society has an interest in the existence of their marriages as well. And the foster homes and police blotters are full of lists of children whose married parents should have listened to their own lives telling them that they were not parental material.

So, the first problem with the Galloway’s argument is that of a rather common but uncritical projection: Our understanding of the world is normative for our society. Everyone either thinks like we do or ought to. And if they don’t we’ll pass laws to force them to abide by our understandings anyway. When the limitations of myopia find enough support to become the tyranny of the majority, discrimination is a predictable result.

The other aspect of the Galloways’ thoughts worth noting is their sensitivity toward being labeled bigots. I find it very interesting that almost to the person, those who advocate heterosexist positions do not want to be responsible for the implications of those understandings. Of course, everyone wants to see themselves in a positive light. Recognizing one’s own prejudices is rarely pain free. And few people know that better than we Southerners who have had to come to grips with our own racism over a lifetime of self-confrontation. But what the Galloways want is essentially to have their heterosexist privilege cake and eat it, too.

Einstein often argued that “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” He recognized the impossibility of pursuing mutually exclusive goals. In the same vein, one cannot simultaneously support legislation that discriminates against a designated group of people and insist that one is not a bigot. The actions speak louder than the words. And assertions that one is “accepting of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation” are revealed as false and self-serving by those actions. Discriminatory acts and accepting attitudes are mutually exclusive.

I do not doubt that the Galloways are decent human beings. I also suspect that they are sincere in their arguments. At some level they honestly believe what they say they do. But sincerity is not the final word in assessing arguments. Credibility is. And when one looks at their arguments in context here – an aging couple sensitive to the perceived duties of child-bearing who see their understandings as normative while refusing to recognize the discriminatory aspects of those understandings – their arguments simply come up less than compelling. Thus, it is not surprising that people like the Galloways who recognize the implicit lack of legitimacy of their position inevitably attempt to shore it up with an uncritical appeal to authority like G-d, nature or tradition.

What the Galloways are attempting to protect here is not marriage itself, it is heterosexual privilege. A social institution that needs protection is an institution based in questionable premises. Laws and amendments to constitutions to protect this privilege will not make heterosexual unions any more stable, it will simply discriminate against non-heterosexuals. And people who discriminate against other people have historically been seen as bigots.

People who testify at public hearings always have a responsibility for the content of their words. And people who would impose their understandings on the public in the form of law always have a responsibility for the impact such laws have on others. While the Galloways and many who share their views may not want that responsibility, they cannot avoid it by painting themselves as martyrs.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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