Since Pres. Obama's announcement yesterday of his position on gay marriage, it's occurred to me that the issue is so politically charged--somewhat ironically--precisely because neither side really believes it's an issue the people should have a right to decide in the first place. Consider the following hypothetical debate:
Proponent: "I'm not asking for a favor: this is a right. You can't tell me who to love."
Opponent: "You can love whoever you want to, but you can't just change the definition of marriage."
Bill Clinton: "That depends on what the definition of 'definition' is. But you're missing the point: let's talk about how it will affect the economy, and then decide based on that."
Proponent and Opponent: "What?!? Who are you?"
I provide this illustration less to suggest that Bill Clinton should probably not be weighing in on any debate involving marriage than to demonstrate that gay marriage debates are driven by "you can't" arguments rather than "we ought to" arguments. They're not arguing about policy, they're arguing about the nature of inalienable truths. Which is a sure sign that some people are going to feel seriously alienated by any outcome.
Since I teach rhetoric, though, any sense of impending doom I may feel about the deep divisions in our country is delayed by curiosity about how people ended up with mutually exclusive "you can't" attitudes in the first place. It seems obvious that the people with the strongest feelings on each side of the issue have different views of marriage--but what exactly are those views?
The Facebook View of Marriage
There are some legal advantages--such as recognition in the state of Israel--which distinguish the word "marriage" from "civil union" or "domestic partnership." But those don't seem to be the things that keep activists up at night.
If you think of marriage as a Facebook relationship status rather than a legal term, though, it may be easier to see why the word matters so much to gay marriage advocates. If the purpose of marriage is to communicate a personal commitment to the community, how is it possibly fair to have a glass ceiling for some couples? I mean, if someone as incapable of lasting personal commitment as Newt Gingrich can climb the marriage-ladder three times (and counting?), why would we make anyone wait in a separate status off to the side?
In a view of marriage as public expression of private commitment, withholding the word marriage means denying a personal liberty and devaluing two people's care and concern for each other. I mean, how would you feel if Facebook left everyone else the option to put "married" on their relationship status, but took it off the menu for you?
Whether gay marriage becomes the legal standard across the country or not, it is discriminatory, in this view, not to have it. And discrimination is bad, bad stuff.
In a traditional American understanding, laws can make policy, but they don't create rights: they recognize and protect rights which already exist (in some deep, moral sense Jefferson described as self-evident, God-given, and more significant than mere physical reality). When a state votes against gay marriage, then, they are not just snubbing gay couples--they are putting themselves at odds with the natural law this nation was founded on.
The Primal Magic View of Marriage
Not everyone, though, sees marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment between two people. To many people, marriage is less social contract than a primal magic which inherently and necessarily involves both genders.
In many cultures, there's a belief in male and female energies or forces. And in many cultures, marriage is a mystical way of fusing these forces together, making them one. If you look at the Abrahamic religions, for instance, the culmination of the creation myth comes when God creates human masculinity, sees that it's empty and incomplete--can't be completed, in fact, by anything in the rest of creation--and then creates human femininity and fuses the first man and woman together in marriage. The marriage is described as a radically important relationship that supersedes even bonds and debts to one's parents. In later narratives, other uses of sexuality are described as dangerous and destructive.
To most people who have this view of marriage, it makes no sense to talk about gay marriage as a right, because gay marriage simply isn't marriage: the primal magic recipe only works when both genders are involved. And the main reason, in this view, why governments acknowledge marriage in the first place is not to celebrate or affirm couples for their love, but because deep down they know that the primal magic does work and is the best foundation for society.
From this perspective, a government can really only pretend it is offering marriage to gay couples, something which it is not only unwise, but also impossible to truly do. To demand gay marriage on fairness grounds, then, is sort of like demanding on fairness grounds that gasoline be a renewable resource. That is, you could change the legal language to include gasoline under the category of "renewable" for purposes of taxation or grant money, but that wouldn't change the underlying reality the language described before the change.
Many people see gay marriage as a potential cause of future cultural upheaval, but the debate over gay marriage is also a symptom of the substantial cultural upheaval our society is already undergoing. For those who see marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment, the case for gay marriage is clear and compelling and opposition to it is backward and discriminatory. For those who see marriage as an inherently dual-gender sacred system, gay marriage is simply not marriage and efforts to have it recognized as an inalienable right are an alarming collective self-deception.
Currently, half of American voters are in favor of gay marriage and half of American voters are opposed to it. That may change in the near future (especially if the amount of time people spend on Facebook vs. the time they spend with traditional religions is a factor in how attitudes develop). But even if one side "wins" in the courts or through legislation, neither view of marriage is likely to go away any time in the next century or two or ten, and we will have to find some way to live with each other in the meantime.
Maybe it will help us to remember that both positions are based on assumptions which are beyond the realm of
the rational. It is not possible to experimentally confirm the existence
of a cosmic right to have one's relationship affirmed by society: one
must simply hold a truth of that kind to be self-evident. It is not possible to
prove that marriage is based on a merging of male and female energies that goes deeper than any social contract: this
is, clearly, a matter of faith and religious experience.
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