Printer friendly version

August 4, 2004

Building-in Intangible Wisdom

Although I strongly suspect that it represents one of those cultural instances in which the difficulty of expressing a human truth indicates how central a truth it is (leaving it susceptible to exactly the sort of corrosive intellectual trap that has become so popular among intellectuals in the last century-plus), I've been trying to frame my thoughts sufficiently to address a line of argument that Gabriel Rosenberg has been pursuing recently:

I find the prohibition against SSM extremely unjust because of its discrimination on the basis of sex. This is apart from the positive reasons I support SSM as simply good public policy, but the injustice I see drives me to push for SSM more than other mere policy changes I advocate. It is also why I see this as more than a mere policy disagreement to be decided by the legislature. In my next post (whenever that may be) I will look at arguments some make for why the discrimination is justified. In this post, however, I want to deal with those arguments that seek to avoid justifying the discrimination by claiming it just isn't discrimination (as least not based on sex)...

Overall, what bothers me about Gabriel's methodology is that it deconstructs the idea under observation (traditional marriage, in this case), discarding each individual component as insufficient to justify exclusion of a conflicting demand, without giving adequate weight to the thing as a whole. But what has inspired me to raise the topic here somewhat prematurely is the following passage from Jeff Miller's post on the Vatican's recent document, "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World":

The following paragraph is what will get the most attention by the media.
A second tendency emerges in the wake of the first. In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary. The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels. This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality.

In fact that is one of the paragraphs that Todd of Catholic Sensibility cries out against it saying:

Ah! Feminism is the root of the Gay Rights Movement. This is incisive reporting that would put the NCR to shame.

I would guess the NCR he is referring to the National Catholic Register and not the National Catholic Reporter. But Cardinal Ratzinger is exactly right here when he equates the interchangeability of the sexes that modern feminism proclaims as inspiring other ideologies. If men and women are not different except for the mechanics of reproduction, then homosexual sex and same-sex marriage can not be seen as different from heterosexual sex and marriage. The moral teachings of the Church are like an orchestra that requires all parts to support each other. To remove one teaching is to introduce a dissonance that weakens the rest.

As hinted above, I think Jeff's notion of orchestral erudition extrapolates to society — humanity — more broadly (which is what one would expect if the Church's teachings are Truth). Tear out one societal premise, no matter how intellectually sound the arguments for doing so may seem in an intellectual context, and others are apt to go awry. This is one reason that, no matter how much it may irk rebellious adolescents, the statement "it has always been this way" ought to present a very high burden to change.

Now, I don't know Todd's position on same-sex marriage, and Gabriel's thinking hardly hinges on the degree to which Todd's reaction to the Vatican's statement is justified. However, I think that reaction has probably been pretty common in such exchanges, particularly among those who, unlike Todd, aren't Catholic or, especially, religious themselves. And thus does change occur in our messy progression toward collapse: a tradition-based argument for tweaking our conception of a particular modification — the more equitable treatment of women, in this case — is dismissed through mere assertion of sense. Then, somebody offers a plausible argument, from a progressive point of view, for why that sense might be incorrect — requires enunciated justification, at least — and the subject of the original warning moves from something that won't happen to something that should happen.

In some respects, this is the mechanism of the "slippery slope." Declarations that E will not be a consequence of D, and can therefore be discarded in consideration of D, transform into belief that D requires E.

In the case of same-sex marriage, when proponents argue that F will not be a consequence of E, they mean such things as polygamy, incest, and bestiality, but I think Gabriel has brought into the light a more deeply destructive F. In the comments to a now-buried post on this blog, he wrote:

If androgeny is akin to the argument that no particular relgion is more true than any other, then I do support the government taking the androgenous position. That does not imply I believe or think others should believe we are androgenous, just as I do not believe that all religions are equally true. Just as I think we should be free to determine for ourselves what is true in theology, I think we should be able to determine what the essence of gender is. ...

Should the government respect established gender norms. I do not believe so, because I think that we should each be free to establish for ourselves what gender means to us.

I apologize for what you consider parlor tricks, but I'm doing my best to explain why I can think gender is very real and important, and yet not want it to be a factor in determining the validity of a marriage. That is my primary concern here. I'm trying to make it clear that I am not arguing that gender is insignificant or unreal, and I'm not sure that is understood. ...

By the way, I'm not offering suggestions to God. I fully understand the God made us with gender differences. I do not wish it to be any other way, and I thank God for making me who I am. That does not imply, though, that I think those differences ought to be used to prohibit marriage.

I still intend to make an attempt to explain my bottom line for gender norms and differences, but for now, note what has occurred in Gabriel's argument: although he wishes to avoid the practical and public-opinion burdens of advocating androgyny, he will admit that he doesn't believe it the government's place to dictate gender roles even to the degree of acknowledging differences between them within the family. Just as, however, governmental neutrality toward religion has been transforming into government enforcement of public non-religion, complete governmental neutrality toward gender will transform into enforcement of public "non-discrimination." In fact, that "just as" might be somewhat understated, because government recognition of marriage gives the institution a public force that religion lacks.

Some among America's religious citizens, myself included, have begun to wonder whether the Founders of our country oughtn't have been a bit more specific in describing what "neutrality toward religion" should mean. That common slogan: "freedom of, not freedom from." If our government and our society had institutionalized recognition of the importance of some form of religious practice within citizens' lives, it would have been roughly analogous to marriage, for gender. For example, part of "the separation of church and state" is that people do not register their relationships with God for any sort of government benefits; marriage is just such a registration of a relationship with another person.

Marriage, in one of its aspects, is society's way of acknowledging that, yes, there are important, undeniable differences between the genders and that those differences are of particular importance in the context of family, and particularly to the well-being of families' children. Individual citizens and individual families are free to define the essence of their various roles as their personalities and beliefs require, but society privileges a certain framework for thinking about those roles. A wife and mother can do everything that she believes is traditionally allocated to husbands and fathers, but she will still be a "wife" and a "mother." In this way, all of those qualities that human beings are supremely unqualified to judge and generally unable to change are still aligned with the roles that millennia of evolving tradition have honed.

Removing society's ability to reinforce this alignment through government recognition of marriage will, first, undermine general comfort in acknowledging that gender is a significant contributor to personality. Second, it may very well turn around to government enforcement of public androgyny such that, not only will citizens be allowed and even encouraged to see "the essence of gender" as a nullity, but they will be required to act as if that is the case no matter what they believe.

I've simply run out of time to further consider and clarify the substance of this post, but if any specific point or intellectual transition isn't clear, please let me know, and I'll try to address the inadequacy.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 4, 2004 11:46 AM
Marriage & Family

Nice post. I had noted to myself, that I shortchanged the importance of tradition in my posts and that is something I would like to address in the future. I do agree that simply because something has been done traditionally is itself a reason to hesitate in change.

I certainly admit that I don't believe "it [is] the government's place to dictate gender roles even to the degree of acknowledging differences between them within the family." I find it particularly troubling for the government to acknowledge different gender roles within the family.

Where I disagree is generally with the last paragraph. The idea, unless, I misunderstood you was to learn lessons from the government's neutral stance on religion. I do not find that government neutrality on religion hinders my comfort in acknowledging that religion is a significant contributor to personality. Nor do I find that I'm encouraged to see all religious teachings as being equally valid.

Posted by: Gabriel Rosenberg at August 4, 2004 12:49 PM

Nor do I find that I'm encouraged to see all religious teachings as being equally valid.

Might i suggest an atheist invocation?

Posted by: Marty at August 4, 2004 2:45 PM
I do not find that government neutrality on religion hinders my comfort in acknowledging that religion is a significant contributor to personality. Nor do I find that I'm encouraged to see all religious teachings as being equally valid.

Gabriel, I'm not sure how old you are, but it would seem that our experiences are somewhat different in this area. (Most symbolically, I recall one teacher, a specials teacher involved in the regional public school system from start to finish, who felt at liberty to preach her atheism to children ranging from age 6 to age 18, in contrast to the complete silence of any teachers who might have suggested that belief in God might be either correct or valuable.)

At any rate, as I wrote above, we don't register relationships with God as we register marriages. In combination with the differing natures of gender and religion, as well as differing cultural treatment of these two aspects of humanity, this factor will make government compulsion all the more likely with gender. If such a definitive marker of our culture as the law that we perpetuate dictates that the yes/no teaching of whether gender matters be treated as "no," general experience with dissenting will be significantly more stark.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 4, 2004 10:19 PM

You are certainly correct that gender is different than religion, and that could impact things. The comparison, however, should not be religion vs. marriage, (with whom are we registering a relationship), for I'm not asking the government to be neutral with regards to marriage. The comparison should be religion to gender. Should we have to register our gender?

I'm 30 and grew up in Missouri. Our experiences probably have been different.

Posted by: Gabriel Rosenberg at August 5, 2004 10:29 AM

I'm 30 and grew up in Missouri. Our experiences probably have been different.

Tell me, are 71% of missourans really the fundamentalist wacko's they're being made out to be today?

Posted by: Marty at August 5, 2004 11:30 AM

No, Marty, they're not. I have some good friends and close relatives who voted for the amendment. Although, I disagree with them, I thought it was interesting that they all said they would support legally equivalent civil unions, but wanted to reserve the name "marriage" for opposite-sex unions. I have urged them all to work toward getting civil unions in Missouri.

Posted by: Gabriel Rosenberg at August 5, 2004 2:23 PM

PErhaps I misunderstood, but it seemed Justin's comparison of marriage and religion with regard to government recognition was to show that eventually, we will be forced to recognize that gender differences do not matter in marriage, at least publicly, much like we are forced to disavow any religious roles in public. FOr example, the Ten Commandments and other displays of religious belief are barred from public grounds. Likewise any importance to gender difference in marriage will also be barred from public grounds. The problem with the religion issue (and soon to follow, the marriage issue) is that the government has not taken a neutral view with respect to religious display on government property as it should have (eg, let anyone display whatever they want, no favoritism, but no prohibition). Rather, it has taken a hostile view i.e., only non-religious - meaning atheist - views may be displayed on public grounds. Marriage runs the same risk - on public grounds, only the non-gender view of marriage will be permissible to acknowledge.

Posted by: c matt at August 5, 2004 3:33 PM


The comparison, however, should not be religion vs. marriage, (with whom are we registering a relationship), for I'm not asking the government to be neutral with regards to marriage.

You aren't asking the government to be neutral with regards to marriage? What has all of your advocacy been for, in that case? In what direction would you have the government be biased with regards to marriage? You'll have to specify how you've moved from the argument that same-sex marriage is required as a function of government neutrality toward gender to this statement before I'll consider it prudent to offer further reply.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 5, 2004 5:57 PM

C Matt,

You are essentially correct about my point. However, I'm phrasing marriage as one instance (perhaps the only instance) in which the government makes a distinction by gender. Since we register that instance of difference, the tendency to regulate compliance with "neutrality" will be even stronger.

(Which all serves to remind me Professor Rosenberg that almost all wedding licenses of which I'm aware note separately the names of the "husband" and the "wife." It would seem, therefore, since you're married, that your gender is already registered.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 5, 2004 6:02 PM


I'm asking the government to recognize marriage. That is it will treat married as different that unmarried. Not neutral, but marriage positive. So I'm asking marriage to be registered. As with regards to licenses which already register "husband" and "wife" I am asking that such distinctions be kept for statistical purposes only. (I have no problem with a census asking religion, only with the government using that for disparate treatment. Likewise I have no problem with the government collecting information on our gender only using it for unequal treatment).

It seems also that I have a different view on reliigious neutrality as c matt and you. I do not consider banning certain displays of the ten commandments (context matters) as the promotion of atheism. That is why I said this is a particularly good post. Our views on government neutrality and whether it implies the promotion of a certain view are different. Thus I see government ignoring relgious difference and ignoring gender difference not as advocacy of atheism or androgeny, but merely as government neutrality.

Posted by: Gabriel Rosenberg at August 5, 2004 6:11 PM

C Matt,

If a public space is an open forum, I support all content being allowed to display there regardless of religious content. I was not aware that this was a problem (although there certainly might be some cases, I would be interested in seeing them). Most of the problems occur when the government itself expresses religious views. I do have a problem with that, and I do not see allowing the government to express non-relgious views as the same as advocating atheism. On the contrary, I would object to government advocacy of atheism.

Posted by: Gabriel Rosenberg at August 5, 2004 6:28 PM