Over at The Secular Right (one of the intellectual niches that the non-ideological Right has fractured into after the implosion of the conservative movement over the past few years), John Derbyshire makes what he calls a “secular case against gay marriage“. Now, I have a lot of respect for Derbyshire and consider him a rare intellect; I was quite surprised at how un-representative his argument was of his reasoning skill. I am happy to disagree with him on matters of principle, and do not fault him on that score, but where I do hold him accountable is when he strays from his own standards. There may well be a secular case against gay marriage (and in fact, he almost makes one, as I will explain), but what Derb offered is definitely not it.
Derb’s first point amounts to two lines of text:
(1) Anti-Minoritarianism. The majority has rights, too.
This is utter nonsense. What rights, specifically, of the majority does gay marriage infringe on? Or does he mean to assert that the majority has the right, by simple fact of being a majority, to impose its will on the minority without recourse? To argue that the gay rights movement amounts to Minoritarianism is disingenous; the movement is a legal one and thus makes use of existing frameworks and mechanisms. It’s not an imposition of any sort onto the majority, who are free to continue hetero marriage as before.
His next point, about the social value of hetero pairing, is rather obvious:
(2) The social recognition of committed heterosexual bonding has been a constant for thousands of years. … Counter-arguments like “so was slavery” are unconvincing, as the occasional slights suffered by homosexual couples are microscopic by comparison with the injustice of human beings buying and selling other human beings.
Actually, he’s right. Persecution of homosexuals never amounted to anything close to comparable to slavery, or civil rights for that matter (which is a fallacious comparison that homsexual advocates often make). It’s a key mistake by the gay rights movement that has done much to undermine their own cause. The injustices here are ones of dignity and family, not ones of fundamental liberty or rights. Yes there has been horrific persecution, but the gay community shares that with many other groups, including muslims and women and blacks and jews and, once upon a time, catholics. Gay marriage will not erase this persecution; it might even inflame it. I agree with Derb on the merits of this point but it doesn’t amount to a full case against gay marriage on its own, it’s more of a rebuttal of some of the siller arguments for gay marriage. The valid arguments remain, however – speaking of which, Derb’s next point takes us off the rails again:
(3) There really is a slippery slope here. Once marriage has been redefined to include homosexual pairings, what grounds will there be to oppose futher redefinition — to encompass people who want to marry their ponies, their sisters, or their soccer team? Are all private contractual relations for cohabitation to be rendered equal, or are some to be privileged over others, as has been customary in all times and places? If the latter, what is wrong with heterosexual pairing as the privileged status, sanctified as it is by custom and popular feeling?
This is the classic slippery slope logical fallacy. There’s absolutely no reason that gay marriage will inevitably lead to pony marriage or incest marriage or whatnot; it’s just scaremongering of the crudest sort. And it doesn’t even make sense within Derb’s own framework – gay relationships are an institution of their own, especially in Western civilization. It’s not an abberation but something that has occurred regularly and consistently in human societies throughout all recorded history. Marrying animals or incest are not even remotely comparable and do represent abberations outside the range of traditional moral norms. You can believe that gay marriage is a moral wrong if you want to (though wasn’t this supposed to be a secular argument? never mind…) but you can’t assert that this belief is normative when obviously it isn’t (by simple virtue of the obvious fact that the very question of gay marriage is a matter of debate in our present society). Just like abortion, there is no moral concensus, or even a majority for that matter. The slippery slope tries to put gay marriage in teh same box as things that do indeed have such a moral consensus as being wrong, both morally and ethically.
as far as “priveleged status” goes, I happen to agree, but I dont see how formal legal recognition of gay marriage threatens that status. No matter how good the gays have it, hetero marriages will always be the dominant form, numerically as well as in terms of social inertia, for the basic reason of biology. So hetero marriage already has the privelege it deserves. legal gay marriage would only give gay couples some minor benefits, like hospital visitation and inheritance. Denying this to them is just cruel. This is the main argument in favor of gay marriage, which Derb does not really attempt to rebut – fundamentally, it’s a conservative desire, to facilitate a monogamous relationship.
If Derb ended here it would have been bad enough, but unfortunately he veers even further off course in his final few points. First, he makes the bizarre assertion that we as a society are just too dumb to handle gay marriage:
(4) If you have a cognitively-challenged underclass, as every large nation has, you need some anchoring institutions for them to aspire to; and those institutions should have some continuity and stability. Heterosexual marriage is a key such institution. In a society in which nobody had an IQ below 120, homosexual marriage might be plausible. In the actual societies we have, other considerations kick in.
Lets unpack this. First, having a mean IQ below 120 means the population is “cognitively challenged” ? Next, hetero marriage, far from being the glorious thing he extolls in paragraphs above, is now just an opiate for the masses? And now its homosexual marriage that is the province of the intellectual elites? Extend this reasoning with his earlier points and you have an argument that to preserve our social values we must abolish higher education entirely. Its incoherent reasoning.
His next point is essentially fatalistic and strangely anti-rational:
(5) Human nature exists, and has fixed characteristics. We are not infinitely malleable. Human society and human institutions need to “fit” human nature, or at least not go too brazenly against the grain of it. Homophobia seems to be a rooted condition in us.
In other words, homophobic is how we are wired. In response I might quote Abraham Lincoln, who appealed to the “better angels of our nature”. Are we prisoners of our passions, or are we enabled of something called reason and rationality that lets us rise above our forebrains’ tyranny? It’s especially odd to hear this argument from such a proponent of reason as John Derbyshire.
Finally, John’s last point might well be applied against his own piece:
(6) There is a thinness in the arguments for gay marriage that leaves one thinking the proponents are not so much for something as against something. How many times have you heard that gay marriage is necessary so that gay people will not be hindered in visiting a hospitalized partner? But if hospitals have such rules — a thing I find hard to believe in this PC-whipped age — the rules can be changed, by legislation if necessary. What need to overturn a millennial institution for such trivial ends?
The “thinness” of the argument for gay marriage is in Derb’s own perception, but is hardly objective fact. As noted above there is a simple, conservative, compassionate reason to allow gay marriage. Yes, the rules for minor things like hospital visits can be changed, but what about inheritance? filing income taxes? At some point we do need to enter the realm of law to enact these changes, and if we attempt to resolve these injustices on a case by case basis, we have a gigantic mess of legal exceptions whereas by simply recognizing gay marriage in its own right, we have a clean solution that has the added benefit of being just. They may be “trivial” to John but rest assured these are the very essential pieces by which we bind community and family together. And of course, there is no “overturning” of any millenial institution going on by recognition of gay marriage – that’s just a red herring. Were gay marriage advocates arguing for criminalization of hetero marriage then Derb would have a defensible point here.
The solution to all of this, in my opinion, is actually to dispense with legal recognition of marriage – hetero or homo- alike. The framework for civil unions, which are marriages in all but name, will suffice for all the transactional and legal niceties that married status brings. In that sense, marriage itself should be left to the religious and personal realm. The legal aspect of marriage thus becomes a secular matter, as it should be, whereas whether two people are married or not ultimately comes down to whether they say they are, in their vow and in their hearts. And isn’t that, too, a conservative solution?