Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ross Douthat on Monogamy: Moving the Goalposts as Marriage Equality Advances

When I first read Ross Douthat's recent op-ed piece in the New York Times about why monogamy matters, I briefly entertained the idea of blogging about it, and then thought better of the idea.  I can't find it in me, to be honest, to take Douthat seriously as a thinker.

But then I read John Corvino's response to the essay and saw that, like me, he considers it an extension of Douthat's piece last August on the marriage ideal, which explicitly argues against same-sex marriage on the ground of male-female complementarity.  And at that point, I began to think that Douthat's latest musings on the theme of monogamy do demand a response, if only because they are intended to lay a foundation for a plausible sounding "rational" argument against same-sex marriage, which is not susceptible to charges of religious animus and prejudice.  But which ultimately has everything to do with religious animus and prejudice.

And now that I read Andrew Sullivan writing that as a gay Catholic, he's never felt hostility from his fellow Catholics, I'm all the more convinced that Douthat's essay deserves critical attention--because it articulates, in popular language, an increasingly influential (but ill-considered) new Catholic approach to same-sex marriage.  Which is overtly hostile to gays and lesbians.  And has perceivable deleterious effects on the lives of gay and lesbian people in many places.  More on Sullivan's comment in a subsequent posting.

As John Corvino points out, Douthat's latest piece turns on a distinction between premarital sex that is a prelude to monogamous marriage, and premarital sex that is mere promiscuity.  Douthat argues that, while premarital sexual activity is embedded in all cultures, and was even a strong feature of life in the halcyon years of the 1950s so beloved of American social conservatives, the premarital sexual activity of periods like the fifties was truly premarital, in that it envisaged a life of monogamous commitment for the couple engaging in premarital sexual activity.

And that resulted, Douthat maintains, in happiness: happiness for the couple that sowed its wild oats and then settled down to the sober yoke of marriage; happiness for society in general, whose stability depends on the strength of that yoke.  And happiness, above all, for women.  Since women need sexual stability in order to live happy and fulfilled lives.  

And so Corvino is right: with this essay, we're back on the same ground Douthat covered last August, when he maintained that societies fall apart when we don't have the strong yoke of monogamous opposite-sex marriage to tame the tiger of daddy's promiscuity and mommy's sly, cunning shopping around for the ideal male.  Embedded in Douthat's theory of monogamy is a model of male-female complementarity that inevitably (and deliberately) makes marriage all about a man and a woman.

And decidedly not about a man and a man and a woman and a woman.  Since the yoke of monogamous marriage is specifically designed to tame the two gendered tigers of male promiscuity and female hankering after ever more attractive alpha males.

And because this male-female complementarity argument about traditional marriage is becoming a new talking point for American conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage, those concerned to promote marriage equality for same-sex couples need to pay attention to arguments like the one Douthat is sketching in this diptych of essays about monogamy.  These two essays, in short, are not merely about monogamy or defending monogamy.  They're also about laying a philosophical foundation for understanding marriage that excludes same-sex marriage--or that places same-sex marriage on a footing of inferiority when it's compared to opposite-sex marriage.  

Essentially, here's what has happened fairly rapidly in the cultural and religious debate about same-sex marriage in the United States: initially, those opposed to same-sex marriage could fairly glibly argue that we can't, of course, countenance gay marriage without destroying traditional heterosexual marriage, because the latter is all about procreation.  And permitting socially or ecclesially sanctioned non-procreative marriages will radically undermine traditional marriages by calling procreativity into question as the central purpose of marriage.

However, as the arguments in the prop 8 trial in California revealed (and Judge Vaughn Walker's decision in that case, handed down only a few days before Douthat's first essay on monogamy came out, underscored this), this glib argument is increasingly difficult to advance, because it's clearly counter-factual.  No rational, coherent, persuasive argument can be made to exclude same-sex couples from the right of civil marriage when our society (and its faith communities) have long married heterosexual couples incapable of procreation.  Or heterosexual couples who have no intent of procreating.

And so the argument has had to be refined.  The search for a plausible-sounding and quasi-"rational" argument against same-sex marriage has had to continue.  The goalposts have had to be moved.  The goal remains the same: excluding same-sex couples from marriage.  What has shifted, as the goalposts have been shifted in the past several years, is how social conservatives are now choosing to go about attacking gay marriage.

They're now choosing to do so by advancing the argument that it's not so much the procreation thing that's at the center of marriage as a social institution stabilizing society.  It's the male-female thing.  It's the complementarity of males and females.  Without which you simply cannot have a real marriage.  And to endanger which by letting people of the same sex marry would expose society itself to serious danger.

Setting it on a slippery slope of promiscuity, since, without the shining, univocal ideal of monogamous male-female marriage standing before them, men might get the idea that promiscuity is the end-all and be-all of their lives.  And women might keep eternally shopping around for the higher-status alpha male.

And here's my take on the goal-post changing: this is what inevitably happens when the real intent of movements of social conservatism is not, as these movements characteristically claim, to keep society from falling apart under the pressure of anarchic movements for social change.  This is what inevitably happens when the real intent of movements of social conservatism is simply to keep justice at bay as long as possible--justice for an excluded, demeaned minority group.

With each advance that African Americans made towards full equality and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the goalposts shifted.  They moved a step further into the distance.  Every forward movement in the struggle for civil rights resulted in a consequent movement of the goalposts--a movement back, to make justice that much more unattainable.

Brown v. Board of Education mandated the desegregation of American schools with all deliberate speed, and school districts throughout the South announced that integration could not take place immediately (or ever) because social chaos would ensue if the changes mandated by Brown occurred hastily.  School districts like the one in which I attended school in south Arkansas put up one barrier after another to desegregation in the late 1950s and late 1960s.  One goalpost-shifting argument after another was proposed to explain why our speed at obeying the court mandate had to be at snail's pace--and why desegregation could not be accomplished for years to come.  Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stopped the insincere arguments and the goalpost-changing . . . .

To change metaphors: in his classic study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn notes that scientific paradigms shift when so much new information has been amassed to call an existing paradigm into question, that one cannot incorporate all the new information into the old paradigm without exploding the paradigm.  Kuhn points out that when we have to begin adding explanation to explanation to account for new pieces of information, while seeking to keep in place a paradigm threatened by the new pieces of information, we might do well to begin thinking about the steep price we're paying for keeping the status quo intact.  And about the implausibility of the paradigm we're defending with ever more labyrinthine and complexified explanations, when simpler, more elegant explanations for how things behave are at hand.

In American society today, vis-a-vis same-sex marriage, the paradigm shift is well underway.  And as that shift continues, what will inevitably become crystal clear, as social conservatives and some people of faith resist this paradigm shift with new, ever more complex, goal-deferring arguments designed to keep justice at bay, is this: driving the resistance to same-sex marriage among American social conservatives and people of faith allied to them never has been an overarching desire to defend traditional marriage.  Driving this movement, which is willing to bend over backwards at each new juncture in the march towards equality for gay and lesbian citizens to invent ever more abstruse arguments for the superiority of opposite-sex marriage, has been sheer prejudice.  The intent to keep a stigmatized minority group in its place . . . .

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