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November 11, 2004

Messages and Self-Manipulation

Sometimes activist rhetoric can be more distracting than effective (emphasis added):

In the post before this one, I argued that one of the most common arguments against marriage equality is a bait and switch. Rather than arguing against marriage equality itself, opponents argue that ideally children should be raised by a mom and a dad. Then they tell people that in order to insure that children are raised by moms and dads, we must oppose marriage equality.

Although I've found him fair, intelligent, and cordial in debate, the blogger who wrote that paragraph, Barry Deutsch, goes on to provide evidence that such dogged adherence to activist rhetoric can cloud one's thinking. The objective is to win the debate by obscuring the opposition's central disagreement through manipulation of the terms by which it is discussed. The effect, however, is to manipulate the activist's thinking beyond the bounds of fruitful dialogue.

Put simply, the legal and cultural presumption of "equality" is not breeched if there is no discrimination (in the sense that Deutsch means it, which is "invidious discrimination"). That is the question that same-sex marriage advocates wish to leave out of the discussion. And it is undoubtedly significant that every single one of Deutsch's analogies fails in such a way as to avoid it.

By allowing the KKK a legal right to march, the government says the KKK is just as good as Veterans marching on Veterans Day... In fact, no such message is sent. I defy you to locate one non-KKK member who has been convinced that because the KKK has an equal legal right to march, they must be just as admirable as all other groups that march. People simply don't think that way.

Its undoing is embedded within the example itself: "as good as Veterans marching on Veterans Day." Would Deutsch really think it merely a statement of equal government treatment if the Klan were to participate in an officially recognized march on that day? How about on inauguration day? Of course he would not, and it is for that reason that a refusal to include the KKK in publicly ratified events is not invidious discrimination, while banning the group from peaceably assembling on any given day would be.

Another analogy begins to slip around the mechanism by which same-sex marriage opponents believe "government neutrality" will have an effect, in part by forgetting what public recognition of marriage actually means:

So, for instance, if the government bans all paintings of clowns (wistful thinking, I know), that sends a message that clown painting deserves contempt and lesser treatment. Does it follow that by not banning clown paintings, the government is saying a clown painting has just as much value as a Mary Cassatt's The Bath? Of course not; the government is simply remaining neutral and letting the culture decide for itself what to value.

Marriage does not merely represent value-neutral recognition. The government is saying, "This relationship is special." It is, in effect, awarding The Bath a special place in the public museum. Not giving clown paintings (or same-sex relationships) the same treatment would not be a matter of banning them, but of addressing them neutrally and, as Deutsch agrees, "letting the culture decide for itself what to value" among all paintings that aren't governmentally rewarded. The government would have confirmed that The Bath has value; everything else would be up for debate.

But there's more to it than that; my notion of a "public museum" is an abstraction for the public's official acknowledgment of what "art" is meant to be. Since most people would agree that clown paintings can be art, it would make the analogy more relevant if we changed it to something about which there would be disagreement — say, clown porn. In accordance with Deutsch's view of neutrality, a public school teacher would not be able to tell her students that clown porn is not art by some objective measure or, conversely, that The Bath is of more value in any terms transcending mere opinion. At issue is the matter of what art is, and that's the missing aspect in a final analogy from Deutsch:

According to this worldview, by allowing marriage equality, Massachusetts has "sent a message" which says that no child needs a mom or a dad. ... this point of view ... [is] simply, factually wrong: equal legal treatment sends no such message. If it did, then by allowing criminals in prison to marry, the US has sent the message that convicted murderers are just swell as parents and mates, and that kids don't need two parents out of prison.

The problem this time is that incarceration is circumstance, not essence. Although they draw the wrong conclusion, there is merit to same-sex marriage advocates' argument that the only palpable difference between same- and opposite-sex couples is that the latter can procreate. By defining marriage as between a man and a woman, therefore, we intrinsically send the message that Deutsch claims we don't: marriage is about the children that men and women can together create. We formulate it as a life-long commitment, treating the spouses as a unit in everything from taxes to death, because it is important for them to maintain a stable, unified relationship as parents. (An institution meant to encourage merely child births would look quite different.)

We can explain to children that it is not ideal for mommies and daddies to be in prison without muddying the core meaning of marriage. Indeed, in some respects, recognizing the marriages of criminals in prison strengthens that core message. To soften this assertion some, let's apply it to a circumstance that doesn't involve an expression of public disapproval, such as having a deployed military parent. We still want a father to be married to his child's mother even if he is about to go off to war.

Deutsch is correct that recognizing same-sex relationships as marriage does not send a message "that no child needs a mom or a dad." But it does send a message that perhaps some children don't need a mom and a dad, or that a marriage is about something more important than its shared sons and daughters. And that's a message that our culture cannot afford to promote any further.

Posted by Justin Katz at November 11, 2004 1:53 PM
Marriage & Family

Lazy thinking.

You categorize "mom and dad" families as being healthier without once thinking about who the individuals themselves are.

Why? What benefit is there to trite labels?

Surely you aren't blindly rebeling against "the liberals", I hope?

So long as you force people and their experiences into rigid categories, based on soley on what's between their legs, you'll miss everything that matters...

Posted by: Toto at November 17, 2004 3:49 AM

That's lazy judgement on your part. You should try browsing some of the archives if you want to know what kind of thinking Justin has given this issue.

When the topic about establishing the optimal norm, you don't consider individual members personalities. The government can't come up with the resources to screen every individual to determine if they would make an ideal mother or father.

To put it another way, your argument is trite.

Posted by: smmtheory at November 17, 2004 10:32 PM