Preposterous Universe

Saturday, March 06, 2004
Career choices explained

Here is why I could never be a politician. (Not that there are any movements afoot to draft me for major public office.)

A few weeks ago some friends and I went to the Lesbian Community Cancer Center Project Annual Ball (or the "Lesbian Prom" for short). True, I lack the traditional prerequisites for being a lesbian (female, homosexual), but it was a tolerant atmosphere, and my eccentricities didn't seem to bother anyone.

The whole event was great fun. About a thousand people attended, festive, well-dressed (not as many outrageous costumes as Jerry Falwell would expect, but enough to be entertaining), and generally enjoying themselves in an easygoing and friendly atmosphere. It was a party, not a political event, and activism was in the background for the evening. It wasn't until brief remarks associated with the presentation of some awards that anyone mentioned the same-sex marriage controversy. It only then struck me (I know, I'm slow) that all of these people around me, cheerfully having a good time, are systematically classified as second-class citizens in our country.

I doubt that anyone could get elected President today if they came out and said "This issue is completely ridiculous, of course same-sex couples should be allowed to marry." But I wouldn't be able to say anything else. We all know that progress in real-world politics sometimes relies on strategic compromise, and an ability to carefully prioritize efforts on controversial issues is absolutely necessary. But this one is simply not a close call. Furthermore, I don't even think it's especially interesting to talk about the arguments pro- and con-. It would be like debating whether apartheid was good or bad. (Racial discrimination is different than discrimination against gays, and drawing analogies between them isn't generally useful, but one is just as obviously wrong as the other.)

To be fair, we're not talking about what people should be allowed to do in the privacy of their bedrooms, but about whether society should extend a certain legal status to couples for whom the status was not originally intended. "Marriage" is an invented institution, originally intended to apply to male/female couples. There are undoubtedly all sorts of interesting historical/anthropological/sociological questions to be investigated about how the concept of marriage arose and what purposes it served in early societies. So what? In our actual world, marriage serves as a legal imprimatur to a romantic bond between two people in love. Some married couples have children, some don't; some marriages last a long time, some don't; some marriages are equal partnerships between two people, some are not. There is absolutely nothing about the contemporary idea of marriage which doesn't make just as much sense when applied to same-sex couples as applied to opposite-sex couples. Convoluted rhetoric aside, the only possible ground of opposition to same-sex marriage is a conviction that homosexuality is wrong -- a conviction which I don't think deserves any respect.

Here is one example of an attempt at reasonable discussion of the issue, from Eugene Volokh:
[T]here's an eminently legitimate argument that society would be better off if male-female couples were set up as the preferred, most legally and socially sanctioned mode. It is plausible to think that future generations would be better raised by male-female couples than by same-sex couples. And it is plausible to think that on the margins the laws related to marriage may subtly shift some people, either through incentive effects or through the law's effects on social norms, towards male-female coupling and childrearing.

Now as it happens I'm not persuaded that these arguments are actually correct. I suspect that a same-sex couple that has gone through substantial effort to have a child will probably be at least as good parents as the average male-female couple, which might have had the child with much less forethought, work, and desire for a child.
I found this excerpt on Alas, a blog, who pointed out:
The problem with this analysis, as I see it, is that it fails to acknowledge that men and women are individuals, and should be given the opportunity to live their lives as individuals, not just as representatives of their sex.
Well, yeah. Do we really need this pointed out? I actually find it completely implausible that children raised by same-sex couples would necessarily (or even usually) be worse off than those raised by male-female couples. Does anyone in the world really believe that, given information about the psychological and socio-economic status of some selection of individuals chosen randomly off the street, they would be able to accurately judge which ones had been raised by single parents, which by divorced and remarried parents, which by same-sex parents, and which by traditional nuclear families? The argument might be logically coherent, but I can't agree that it's plausible. It would actually be more plausible to claim that children are better off if they are raised by wealthy parents than by poor ones; should we have minimum income requirements for prospective couples? Somehow I believe that the rights of the individual parents should be more important than some ham-handed social engineering.

Volokh continues:
But the arguments against same-sex marriage mentioned above are not ridiculous arguments, nor arguments that can only be justified by irrational hostility or contempt. These are arguments that sensibly cautious and methodologically conservative people can reasonably make against proposed changes in a fundamental social institution.
That's precisely where I can't agree. And I am convinced that, a few decades down the road, anyone who today is against same-sex marriages will be judged just as badly as everyone else throughout history who has fought to preserve discrimination of some minority on the basis of an irrational aversion on the part of the majority. (I don't mean to single out Volokh, who is simply explicating the least-unreasonable arguments for the wrong side.)

Discussion of various aspects of the same-sex marriage controversy can be found at Andrew Sullivan, Angela Vierling, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and Galois. There's certainly a lot to say, from articulating defenses of basic rights to strategizing about the best balance between principle and politics. But I don't personally have the patience to participate.

So that's why I could never be a politician; on issues like this I find it impossible to be diplomatic. It's possible to have reasonable disagreements about all sorts of things, from free trade to education reform to fiscal policy to foreign-policy strategies. I just don't see how it's possible to have reasonable disagreements about this one.

Besides, the idea of spending the winter months in Iowa, trudging between town meetings to declare my support for ethanol subsidies? No, thank you.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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