Thursday, December 26, 2013

Contentious Christmas Arguments in Utah, and Elsewhere

Mathew Parke expresses his hopes for his people (and mine) in Utah, in the wake of last week's same-sex marriage ruling:

[T]he thing that strikes me as hopeful about the last few days is that everyone, for or against state-sanctioned gay marriage, is talking about it. Because so many people in Utah are related and connected by our Mormon heritage, and because we go to church every Sunday and sit together for three hours, and because this week is Christmas and families are gathering anyway, we are, for or against, talking about gay marriage together. The last few days have felt exactly like a family argument where feelings run high but you know your love for one another will remain no matter how crazy you make each other.

The place gay people should have in our society and the legal rights accorded them are among the great issues of our time. It is good for the populace to have a conversation about them. It is even better when the conversation is had not just in magazines and newspapers or among like-minded people, but among a divided citizenry, preferably face to face in churches and family rooms where you are reminded of the ties that bind. Mormonism’s unique demography and social structure with an assist from the calendar have resulted in a largely civil discourse on an important civic matter. The last few days have made me hopeful that wherever we end up as a church, we will arrive as a people.”

I am, as usual, of course, of at least two minds about this statement. On the one hand, I see it as overly optimistic, maybe even to the point of outright naiveté. Sure, people in the state of Utah are talking about “the place gay people should have in our society and the legal rights accorded to them”--but very likely not because the large majority of them actually wanted to talk about such. Rather, they are talking about it because one kind of conversation about such matters--the presumably normative and preferred, more democratic and discursive one--has been denied to them through judicial action. In other words, to whatever extent the conversations that the author mentions are actually taking place among people who wouldn’t be having such conversations anyway in the first place, they are taking place primarily because the issue has been forced upon them by an outright restructuring of their environment, or at least a--thus far--relatively successful judicial imposition of such a restructuring. The kind of arguments which such presumption generates have, historically, been, shall we say, less than ideal (consider the wonderfully productive conversations about race which took place in the American South following the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision).

But then, on the other hand, I can see some good reasons to qualify my above concerns. First, obviously, if you accept that there is a least a possibility that Judge Shelby’s reasoning is correct in claiming that there is a constitutional right to marriage for all citizens, and if you have at least some streak of liberal egalitarianism in you (as I do), then the democratic losses have to at least be balanced against the rights-based gains with follow this decision. Regarding Brown v. Board of Education, for all the understandable--not defensible, but still, yes, understandable--uproar it caused in southern communities, I think the answer is a no-brainer. I wouldn’t say the same about this decision, but I’m not willing to agree with that good-hearted ideological moron in the Utah state legislature who spoke of Judge Shelby’s “massacre” of local autonomy and religious freedom either.

Second, maybe the above comparison isn’t even fair, for reasons of the context involved. After all, this isn’t a widespread intrusion into the sorts of preferences which guided the decisions of millions of families in a thousand school districts in a dozen different states; this is a decision about marriage that cannot be rationally seen as significantly and directly affecting the lives of those who oppose it, but which also is present through family connections in a way that overwhelmingly wasn’t the case in the American South. Moreover, this was a decision which governs a single state, one wherein a majority of the populations shares the same religious faith. That suggests that there is a far greater likelihood that there really will be shared conversations that gets ideas exchanged in ways that opens minds and engenders sympathy.

Third, and perhaps most importantly: maybe issues like this actually never get talked about unless it they forced upon the people in question. On a particular philosophical level, one could make a strong argument, I think, to the effect that the most democratic thing that a minority can do is to try to leverage whatever tools available to them--judicial intervention, public protest, boycotts, revolutionary violence, whatever--in order to jump-start conversations which wouldn’t happen otherwise. The glory of a liberal and law-abiding democratic society, from a communitarian point of view, is not that issues never get forced beyond the reach of democratic conversations--because that may always happen anyway--but that out of the above options for minorities, the first three are available and productive enough to make the last (hopefully) unnecessary. And the good news is that, however they start, conversations, once they begin, are civically empowering and expanding; they bring into public spaces views and agents that previously couldn’t be fully seen or heard (for most Utahns, for example, until last Friday, the quality of same-sex marriages was a matter which they had no reason to expect to ever observe or learn about first-hand; but now they can). And when you’re talking about basic civic respect, more conversations is probably always a good thing, especially over the long haul. I mean, for all the bitterness and the (I think) often terrible electoral side-effects partly caused by the Supreme Court’s and Congress’s actions regarding school segregation, etc., and even acknowledging all the cultural and social virtues which have arguably been lost through the nationalizing of the South’s locality (though I would argue that was mostly due to global capitalism and the TVA, not desegregation), only an absolute Confederacy/Lost Cause dead-ender who hasn’t read a book written in the past 50 years could actually believe that racial relations haven't gotten better in the South, significantly because people have been forced to talk with each other.

So what do I say to Mathew Parke? I hope he’s right--in fact, the spirit of the season, I truly wish it. And maybe, for all the reasons mentioned in my last paragraph, it's even reasonable to wish for such a conversational development. But please don't fault me for lacking faith if I don't hold my breath.

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