An important thing to note when discussing various forms of conservatism is the difference, often-overlooked, between social and cultural conservatism; or perhaps better phrased, religious or fundamentalist conservatism, vs Civilization Conservativism (and in this context, Western Civilization). This is especially important a distinction when examining social changes, as well as legal changes that have cultural ramifications, like the recent push for legal, and cultural, recognition of same sex marriage.
One thing that defines cultural or civilization conservatives, and I consider myself to be one, is the ability to view the historical evolution of one’s society through the prism of change, as every cultural conservative is cognizant that for better or worse, however slowly, change has come and will continue to do so. No tradition has existed for ever. They are built on the bones of other traditions, recycled from the scrap heaps of ancient practices long forgotten; sometimes eroded, sometimes made more resilient by time. Often cultural conservatives are also religious, and consider religion to be an integral part of their civilization, but do not necessarily frame their political worldview on a vision of religious infallibility, recognizing along with the gradual changes in culture, also the gradual changes in religious outlook. Essentially, to be truly culturally conservative, one must be able to utilize history as a frame of reference.
To be a religious or fundamentalist conservative, one need only have a dogmatic approach to their particular religion. History, science, philosophy, modernity–all fall by the wayside.
Nevertheless, these two forms of conservatism are often lumped together. For purposes of examining the conservative case for gay marriage the distinction is necessary, or as Scott phrases it, it is “absolutely vital for proponents of marriage equality to factor cultural arguments into their broad strategy when dealing with the issue.”
Earlier, Scott wrote:
I would argue that the first step in achieving some kind of all-around equality lies in securing legal equality of same-sex marriages, but I can’t imagine that anyone who has experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation would suggest that being recognized in law will eradicate the day-to-day symptoms of inequality they encounter.
I agree with this to some extent. This is really taking Freddie’s more legalistic approach and then ruminating on the possible social effects of such an approach–as in, first we legalize it, then how do we deal with the “symptoms of inequality.” And Scott is right to worry that these symptoms will exist. Quite frankly, just as some have never reconciled themselves with interracial marriage, some opponents of same-sex-marriage will never be swayed. That is a sad, cynical fact of the world, but it is very much the truth.
However, I think this entire argument may have been framed somewhat backwards. Scott and Freddie both argue that the legal approach ought to be the first step in legitimizing same sex marriage, and in that regard I think they are both entirely wrong. While I think same sex marriage would do a great deal to bring the gay community into the mainstream, and in that sense strengthen their bond to the culture and its acceptance of them, I think there is still a great deal of work to be done on the cultural front before a legal case can be won.
Essentially, I think the first step needs to be a less legalistic, more culturally based approach–another front in the culture wars, as it were, and not a culture war to determine which side wins out, but rather deterministic of how the same culture is best preserved and shaped to weather the storms of the future. Otherwise we are leaving this to the courts, and the courts are fickle, and often stacked against the cause of gay rights. On top of that, as evidenced recently in California, voter referendums are emotionally charged, and can be used to great effect to overturn the decisions of judges. The tyranny of the majority is a very real threat in such situations. Unless this goes all the way to the Supreme Court and wins, which it wouldn’t, then this is a lost legal cause, at least for this generation. The only hope, then, is in Congressional legislation, and the political capital simply isn’t there yet.
This, of course, is due to a lack of broader cultural support for same sex marriage, though those tides have shifted and will continue to do so the more homosexuality becomes an accepted cultural norm. I would cite recent reactions to the success of Prop 8 as a poor strategy in this culture war, as they are often made at least to appear threatening, chaotic, and to many in this society, a little frightening. Homosexuality, even to more tolerant voters, still represents a huge unknown, and unknowns are easily feared, expelled, ignored…punished.
A far more effective front in this cultural war is the television. A plethora of gay-friendly shows, films, and celebrities have flooded the airwaves and theatres and each one of these presents to Americans the very mundane and normal reality of what it means to be gay in the modern world–and the very real prejudices that make that reality tragic. I don’t advocate celebs posting endorsements of gay marriage on Youtube, but coming out with smart, thought-provoking, or simply funny movies and shows can be extremely effective over the years. Not overnight, mind you, but in the long-run. I mean, isn’t it obvious that this has already begun, and with remarkable effect?
Basic understanding of human psychology has helped change more minds, and converted more de facto homophobes than anything, as we have come to understand that being gay is not a choice at all, but rather part of our genetic make-up. So this is yet another in a long list of reasons to better fund, or at least find better, more creative ways to administer, our educational systems.
There is a culturally conservative case, or at least a case for the preservation of Western Civilization, to bring gays into the fold of legally and socially recognized marriage. For one, it will help to pull the often ostracized, and consequently at least statistically far less monogamistic gay community into the mainstream. Nothing shores up responsibility in the individual better than a duty to one’s family. Stronger families are good for society at large. In fact, the stronger we can make our social units of whatever size (family, extended family, neighborhood) the stronger we can make our country as a whole. Civilization is strengthened, bulwarked against more dire existential threats.
Sometimes it is important to look back down the long, dusty hallway of history, to look forward into the dark, indefatigable future, and ask which course will cause the least harm, and which will bring about the most justice, the most peace, the most harmony. Culturally this is perhaps the most important question we can ask. What will uphold our Civilization, and what will tear it down? This should be asked on many fronts, from the use of torture or war, to the case of gay marriage. It is not enough to ask merely what the harm to the institution of marriage might be, as Larison poses:
When endorsing a change, particularly one this radical, a conservative would need to show not only that it does not do harm to the institution in question but also that it actually reinforces and reinvigorates the institution. Whether or not “gay marriage” harms the institution of marriage, it certainly does not strengthen it. It is therefore undesirable because it is unnecessary to the preservation of the relevant institution, and so the appropriate conservative view is to leave well enough alone.
Where Larison goes wrong is his isolation of the institution of marriage from the rest of our social constructs, our cultural stability at large. This fight is not worth it. Segregation of blacks and whites wasn’t worth it. Torture wasn’t worth it. What same sex marriage does accomplish is a heightened level of equality and justice for a minority population; an end (one can hope) to one of the more bitter and divisive topics in our national dialogue; and a mainstreaming of the gay community which does indeed strengthen the institution of marriage, an institution I might add that has suffered a great deal more harm from the advent of the 45 minute commute than it has from any perceived homosexual threat.
Indeed, I might say that the most seemingly unrelated things in the world have done more to break up families than any inclusion of gays into legal marriages ever could hope to achieve. One might have better luck linking the rise in television ownership to the increase in divorce rates than find any relevant threat to marriage from allowing adults of the same sex to wed.
I won’t dip into slippery slopes or other red herrings just now. Suffice to say, culturally we have some distance to cross before the legal battles can be won. But the opponents of same sex marriage, whatever their intent, are on the wrong side of history, and in the end, the best course for Western Civilization is not the course discrimination. History has proven this time and again, and sometimes quite painfully. That is part of our culture now, part of our heritage and traditions. No, not all men are equal, but they deserve equality under the law. That is the course our civilization has wrought, and that is the course we should follow.