JUNE 17, 2009
Beauty pageant contestant Carrie Prejean, asked about gay marriage a
few weeks ago, summed up her view this way: "In my country and in my
family, I think that I believe that marriage should be between a
man and a woman." It's a pretty simple answer--what you'd expect,
intellectually, from someone who had just successfully completed a
bikini walk rather than a dissertation on the topic at hand.Around the same time, Rudy Giuliani framed his own thinking in
similar terms: "Marriage, I believe, both traditionally and
legally, has always been between a man and a woman and should
remain between a man and woman." (In Giuliani's case, he means a
man and one woman at a time, though some romantic overlap may be
Gay-marriage opponents have made that formulation their mantra. It's
a really strange way for them to summarize their argument, because
it's not an argument at all. If we're debating health care, one
side will have a line about big government, and the other will have
a line about the uninsured or spiraling costs. If we're debating
torture, advocates will mention the need to make terrorists talk,
and opponents will invoke American values. Soundbites, by their
nature, can't express much logical nuance, but they do tend to give
you a reason to agree with the position.
The anti-gay-marriage soundbite, by contrast, makes no attempt at
persuasion. It's like saying you oppose the Bush tax cuts because
"I believe the top tax rate should be 39.6 percent." You believe
that marriage should be between a man and a woman? OK! But why?
The ubiquity of this hollow formulation tells us something about the
state of anti-gay-marriage thought. It's a body of opinion held
largely by people who either don't know why they oppose gay
marriage or don't feel comfortable explicating their case.
In a liberal society, consenting adults are presumed to be able to
do as they like, and it is incumbent upon opponents of any such
freedom to demonstrate some wider harm. The National Organization
for Marriage, on its website, instructs its activists to answer the
who-gets-harmed query like so: "Who gets harmed? The people of this
state who lose our right to define marriage as the union of husband
and wife, that's who." Former GOP Senator Rick Santorum, arguing
along similar lines, has said, "[I]f anybody can get married for
any reason, then it loses its special place."
Both of these arguments rest upon simple tautologies. Expanding a
right to a new group deprives the rest of us of our right to deny
that right to others. If making a right less exclusive devalues it,
then any extension of rights is an imposition upon those who were
not previously excluded--i.e., women's suffrage makes voting less
special for men.
Another objection holds that gay marriage would weaken the link
between marriage and child-rearing, therefore encouraging
out-of-wedlock births. If true, this would at least provide some
weight on the scale against gay marriage. But it suffers from two
massive flaws. First, it's hard to imagine how the tiny gay
minority's behavior can materially influence the way the vast
majority of heterosexuals view marriage. Second, if you think about
it, the causality gay-marriage opponents imagine is running the
wrong way. Suppose we had a social epidemic of young adults who
moved back into their parents' houses and watched television all
day rather than finding a job. You might want to strengthen the
link between adulthood and work. You'd be concerned about anything
that weakened this link by letting adults not work--say, early
retirement. But you wouldn't be concerned about the social signals
sent by teenagers finding summer jobs. That would be weakening the
link between adulthood and work, but not in the harmful way.
Likewise, marriage proponents might worry about anything that
expands childbearing to the non-married, but they have no reason to
fear expanding marriage to the non-childbearing. This is why
approximately zero people in the history of the human race have
ever expressed concern about allowing old or otherwise infertile
heterosexuals to marry, even though they account for a far larger
percentage of marriages than gays ever could.
The most striking thing about anti-gay-marriage arguments is that
they dwell exclusively on how heterosexuals would be affected.
Heather Mac Donald of the conservative Manhattan Institute writes,
"I fear that it will be harder than usual to persuade black men of
the obligation to marry the mother of their children if the
inevitable media saturation coverage associates marriage with
I suppose you could imagine, somewhere, a black man telling his
friends he's going to propose to his pregnant girlfriend, only to
be taunted, "Marriage? That's so gay," and think better of it. I
don't find this very likely. Neither does Mac Donald, actually.
"[I]f someone can persuade me that the chances are zero, then I
would be much more sanguine," she writes. "But anything more than
zero, I am reluctant to risk."
This is the One Percent Doctrine of social policy. If you place zero
weight upon the preferences of gays, then all you have to do is
suggest a possible harm, however remote, associated with gay
marriage. The same sensibility was on stark display in a recent
National Review editorial. Dismissing the argument that marriage
might foster more stable gay relationships, the magazine's editors
replied curtly, "[T]hese do not strike us as important governmental
goals." There's a word for social policy that disregards the welfare
of one class of citizens: discrimination.
Some hard-core conservatives are willing to discriminate openly like
this, but most people aren't, which is why public opinion is
warming to gay marriage. Most opposition arises from simple
discomfort. When I first started hearing about gay marriage. I
didn't oppose it, but it seemed sort of strange and radical--and
only after several years did I realize I supported it.
The line "I believe that marriage should be between a man and a
woman" is an expression of that sensibility--a reflection of unease
rather than principle. As people face up to the fact that opposing
gay marriage means disregarding the happiness of the people most
directly (or even solely) affected by it, most of us come around.
Good ideas don't always defeat bad ideas, but they usually, over
time, defeat non-ideas.