Monday, June 08, 2009

What's In A Name?

Bizarre polling results are nothing new - just ask the Kerry pollster that thought he won Arkansas in 2004. Usually there are easy explanations, like a screwed-up sample, poor weighting, bad questioning, etc. That said, I have no idea what to make of this poll. A few notes:

- Only 40% of Americans think gay people should be allowed to marry. 59% of 18-29s do, however.

- 73% of people think gay couples should have inheritance rights. 67% of people think gay couples should have health insurance and employee benefits. 54% of people think gay people should be allowed to adopt (a majority, but still a shockingly low number).

- 40% of people still think gay sex should be illegal. (And what's up with that graph? Did America take a collective stupid pill in the late-'80s?)

- 69% of people think gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. The same percentage thinks they should be allowed to teach children. (I would be shocked by that last number, except that I just saw Milk the other night and I realize that only 30 years ago it took damn near a miracle to convince Californians to prevent an anti-gay witch hunt in the schools. So quite the improvement, there.)

These numbers are all fun to quote by themselves, but put together, they make absolutely no sense. A majority of Americans support the constituent parts of gay marriage, but only 40% support gay marriage? Huh? Does that mean that at least 14% of Americans support gay marriage and just don't know it yet?

I think it's more likely that Americans don't know what gay marriage is. I have a feeling that most Americans still think of civil marriage as more than just a legal agreement between consenting adults. As such, we still are unable to have an honest debate on this issue, since because of this failure to understand the limitations of civil marriage, religious babble gets drawn into an argument where is has no place.

What's even more confusing is the idea that support for gay civil rights appears to be hanging around in the high 60s, but support for gay people being allowed to do the thing that makes them gay is in the high 50s. Shouldn't support for the freedom of gay people to do whatever they want behind closed doors be higher than support for gay civil rights? I really don't understand how this works. My suspicion is that something about the question is loaded or unclear. If not, though, my fear is that people support civil rights in the abstract, but their support wanes when confronted with the fact that full civil rights means that activities they personally find icky would have to be legal.

In fact, is there really anything else beyond the "icky" factor driving this debate? I have yet to see an argument opposing gay rights that doesn't boil down to "ewww, that's icky." And far too many people think that ickiness ought to be a factor in our legislative process. (See: smoking bans, trans-fat bans, prohibition laws, yadda yadda yadda.)

17 comments:

Matthew B. Novak said...

To be perfectly honest, when you dismiss every criticism as being derrived from the "icky" factor that really bothers me. Because there's clearly an alternative to the icky factor, that being the "moral opposition" factor. And the grounds for moral opposition aren't founded in viceral disgust, they're founded in an ethos that prizes a particular vision of marriage as directed towards certain ends, including the creation and raising of children. It's largely the same ethos that says premarital sex and divorce are bad things. You can take umbrage with the ethos, but I don't think it's right to flippantly reduce it to being an "icky factor".

Pierce said...

Regarding the late-80s spike in the belief that gay sex itself should be illegal: I would speculate that those were the early, scary years of HIV/AIDS, when it was still perceived as a blight upon gay people and drug addicts. The association probably didn't do any wonders for public tolerance of gay sex.

Mike said...

In fairness, Matt, I feel like Jeff addressed your point directly with the following sentence: "Because of this failure to understand the limitations of civil marriage, religious babble gets drawn into an argument where is has no place." His point being that we should really be drawing a distinction between the religious institution of marriage and the government-recognized version (hence my ever-present argument that they should all be "civil unions" from the state's perspective).

That having been said, I actually agree with you: the general argument against gay marriage and other gay rights issues is mostly founded on the ethos you speak of, and not a simple "ick" factor. Of course, as I believe this ethos is largely founded in religious belief, adamant First Amendment supporters such as myself must protest that it should not be adopted by the state. (As a side note, I would strongly caution against including the essentially innocuous activity of premarital sex as part of this ethos, or else you're really gonna start losing people :)

Matthew B. Novak said...

Mike -

See, I feel like drawing the distinction between religious and civil marriage isn't enough when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate because people have a moral stance against any type of same-sex marriage, not just church-sponsored same-sex marriage. Thus a moral objection to civil same-sex marriage is at least a cognizable position and thus can't be dismissed with that line Jeff threw in.

Question for you: You wrote, Of course, as I believe this ethos is largely founded in religious belief, adamant First Amendment supporters such as myself must protest that it should not be adopted by the state. Huh? Why does the source of an ethos affect whether or not that ethos should be adopted by the state?

Jeff said...

Matt, you said that opposition to same-sex marriage is founded in an ethos that prizes a particular vision of marriage as directed towards certain ends, including the creation and raising of children.

You're not talking about opposition to civil same-sex marriage, which at its base is a contract between two consenting adults. You're talking about something far different from what's at stake here. You're right that I trivialize the serious opposition in my post, but to me the opposition almost never addresses the actual question, which is this: why should two people who wish to enter into a contract with the state be refused the right to do so?

But even those more conceptual, high-minded arguments appear to me of a conservative "change is icky" sort. Those who play Chicken Little about the changing definition of marriage fail to realize that the definition of marriage has been in constant flux throughout human history, and this has certainly not led to any catastrophic failure of society. So yeah, the ethos you talk about is an attempt to grasp at tradition in a changing world, which is a fancy way of saying "change is icky."

And one last point - doesn't the fact that opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in one group's particular vision of marriage make that opposition unworkable with respect to legislation in a pluralistic society? If all members of society don't share your view of marriage and sex, why would you think it's a good idea to force it upon them using the state's coercive power?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Doesn't the fact that opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in one group's particular vision of marriage make that opposition unworkable with respect to legislation in a pluralistic society

Jeff, that's not a challenge to this issue, that's a challenge to democracy. We force all sorts of things on people using the state's coercive power as a result of majority view. It's not only workable, it's the norm. I'm not defending any particular view here, just trying to point out that what you're really questioning is the process, not the result.

Why should two people who wish to enter into a contract with the state be refused the right to do so?

There are all sorts of contracts that we don't allow consenting adults to enter into for moral reasons. We don't allow people to contract to sell organs, to enter into usurious contracts, to sell their children for adoption, to peform illegal services, etc. It's a pretty routine consideration to consider whether or not a contract violates public policy, and if it does we don't enforce it. So the answer of "moral opposition" is, a response to two people entering into a civil contract.

I think you're right that there are those who present the moral ethos as a way of clinging to tradition (and for those folks "change is icky" might be a roughly accurate summation, though it's a bit misleading since "icky" in context here implies a viceral reaction to two same-sex persons being intimate). But I think there are also those who present a cohesive moral ethos for the sake of the ethos and not just for the sake of tradition. And I don't think you can dismiss them as "change is icky" because they might well be open to change in the abstract but not in this particular situation. I'm inclined to think you're over-generalizing opponents of same-sex marriage, and doing so undercuts your ultimate point.

Pierce said...

The term "ick factor" tends to describe a very specific visceral response to the thought of gay sex. It tends to suggest biological functions, such as touching a slug or picking your nose.

Since there's nothing biological about a concept, like "change", it doesn't really work to abstract "ickiness" that way except to be evocative.

Now of course, since many opponents of gay rights in this country reference the bible as their primary source, you could easily counter that they're simply appropriating the "ick factor" of the authors, masking it with fiat "definitions" of things like marriage, and calling it a moral code or ethos. (no offense intended, Matt)

Matthew B. Novak said...

None taken. I think that's certainly a right description of what some people are doing. I just think it's distinguishable from those who actually have a cohesive ethos.

Mike said...

Matt, people have personal moral stances against a lot of consensual activities, but that doesn't make it right for them to impose that will on others when those "moral crimes" do not impact anyone outside of those committing them.

As for your question, my point wasn't that the government shouldn't adopt any ethos due to its foundation in religion (bad phrasing on my part). My concern is that I believe government already has an undue influence on religious practice, and I feel like any further hijacking of religious terminologies and distinctions would exacerbate this. Put it this way: if a church chooses to begin recognizing same-sex marriages, the government would necessarily be compelled to recognize those marriages, or risk violating the free practice of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. If not, that would simply become yet another instance of government sanctioning religious practice "as long as" it fits within certain prescribed boundaries. That should really make any religious person quite queasy.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Mike -

People have personal moral stances against a lot of consensual activities, but that doesn't make it right for them to impose that will on others when those "moral crimes" do not impact anyone outside of those committing them.

That's a much bigger issue than "should this particular consensual activity be allowed or not". You're saying all consensual activities (that don't impact anyone) should be allowed. We know from previous discussions that I disagree, so I won't rehash here.

Thanks for the clarification on the ethos thing. I see your point about how government overlap with religion threatens religion too. And while it's reasonable to try to seperate the two in actuality, it's not quite so reasonable to parse out people's motivations for their actions in government (i.e., if someone's political positions are informed by their religious views that doesn't mean those political positions are any less valid). It seemed to me the original post was more a criticism of people's motivations (people think it's icky) that said we should dismiss that political view because of it's rational grounding (or lack thereof). I think you're arguing for a more institutional seperation between state and church, and that's something I can more easily get behind.

Jeff said...

Matt - First off, when you say "But I think there are also those who present a cohesive moral ethos for the sake of the ethos and not just for the sake of tradition" isn't that a bit tautological? I guess I'm not getting what you're saying here. An ethos doesn't just spring up out of nowhere - it's gotta be formulated based on something. And I can't think of an ethos that includes an anti-gay marriage plank that isn't either a) based on tradition or visceral response to the act itself or b) based on ideas about the ordering of society that are easily debunked by the most perfunctory inspection of anthropological data. That doesn't make those ethoses (ethi?) that fall under a) any less valid, but it does make them based somewhat on an ickiness factor (not the most artful word, I'll admit). I guess to some extent any ethos has to be based on certain premises, and two people might be starting from premises that are both contradictory and nonfalsifiable. I think that's what's happening here.

Anyway, I'll avoid the question of legislating personal behavior based on someone else's ethos and ask merely this - what happens when two moral directives contradict? Suppose there's a moral directive against gay marriage. There's also a moral directive against discrimination. Who wins here? You can't enforce a ban on gay marriage without discriminating against gay people.

Put differently: we can take another form of moral legislation with which I think you agree: laws against drug usage. This law applies currently to everyone - doesn't matter who you are, you can't use drugs or you're breaking the law. Fine. But what the current state of legislation against gay marriage does is permits a behavior for one group of people while prohibiting that same behavior for another. It's as if white people were allowed to use drugs while black people could not. How is this okay?

Matthew B. Novak said...

I can't think of an ethos that includes an anti-gay marriage plank that isn't either a) based on tradition

Well the Judeo-Christian-Muslim ethos that says "marriage should be between a single man and single woman" isn't based on tradition. It has become a traditional ethos, yes, but those are two very very different statements. To say it's "based on tradition" means that the rational behind the ethos is "continuity for the sake of continuity". No, that's an ethos based on an ideal of marriage as being a permanent (no divorce), bilateral (just two spouses), institution that includes a sexual compenent, and part of the purpose of the union is the creation of children (not just the raising thereof). This is an ethos that says sex outside of marriage is a wrong/immoral action because it harms individuals, can ruin a family, diminshes the sanctity of the sexual act itself, etc. Now I'm not defending this view here, just pointing out that none of these things are "based on tradition" or an ick factor. It's a consistent ethos that is rooted in a particular assesment of human nature.

As for the question of discrimination and moral legislation, I think your example makes a key assumption: that there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual marriage. Because if there is no difference, then yes, your analogy plays perfectly. But if there is a difference, then it might makes perfect sense to prohibit one group from engaging in behavior that we allow another group to do. Think of a simple example: driving. We prohibit 15 year olds from driving but allow older people to drive. That's as blatant a case of discrimination as you can get. The relevant question in any discrimination case is why the discrimination. So just like we can give a reason for allowing 16 year olds to drive but not 15 year olds, there are those who would tell you (based on the above described ethos) that there is a difference between homosexual marriage and heterosexual marriage. And to those people your example totally misses the mark. Does that make sense?

Let me just say, on a personal level, that I've toed the Judeo-Christian ethos line, and I still personally believe that to be the proper moral founding (largely, I'd nuance some points to be sure). As such, I've argued in the past that there is a difference between homosexual and heterosexual marriage. I still buy that there is a difference. But at this point I would no longer say that that difference is so significant that it requires disallowing same-sex marriage. Of course, I've been in the "civil union" camp for a long time (drawing a name-only distinction between civil unions for same-sex couples and marriage for traditional couples). At this point, I don't know that the name-only distinction would really serve the purpose I'd want it to serve, and so I'm pretty much in the "let's just call them all civil unions" camp.

Another question too: how do folks feel about polygamy and incestuous civil unions? Any difference if the parties are consenting adults?

Pierce said...

I have enough respect for what I've seen of your comments here to know that you're asking it in good faith, Matt, but of course inquiring about polygamy or incest in a discussion about gay marriage is a rhetorical minefield... they, and their more emotionally-loaded cousins Pedophilia and Bestiality, are so often used as straw men to shut down reasonable arguments about the issue actually at hand.

So what do I think? I think they're substantively different issues that don't really have any bearing on gay marriage and deserve their own full-fledged debate.

Two of the most fundamental points in defense of gay marriage are (1) that it harms no one, and (2) that it is simply recognizing the wishes of consenting adults, a privilege we happily provide to straight couples. Both of those points are confounded to some extent in the cases of polygamy and incest.

With the former, we have to ask... do pre-existing spouses have any say in a new marriage? Might their emotional or financial well-being be harmed by a more complicated union?

With the latter, there are fairly well-established psychological implications of incestuous relationships, and they make it hard to tell the difference between someone who is "consenting" to an incestuous relationship, and someone whose upbringing has been twisted into making them think it's what they want.

Whether you have answers to these concerns or not, it's pretty evident that neither polygamy nor incest is really as straightforward (so to speak) an issue as homosexuality, and so they aren't really necessary or useful tangents.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I think you're probably right about polygamy being a different beast, but I'm inclined to think that - even with the psychological issues - that incestuous relationships have to be considered right alongside same-sex relationships, given that you're talking about two consenting adults without harm to anyone else. I'm not personally a fan of incestuous relationships, but I don't see a distinction between them and same-sex marriage (especially adult siblings, given that the coercion/psychological issues are usually more a factor in multi-generation incest, not same-generation).

Ben said...

Comparing homosexual sex (which is increasingly accepted in society) with other forms of consensual sex that are not accepted in society (such as incest) IS a rhetorical minefield. That's because folks who disapprove of the partially-accepted practice (homosexual sex) want to score cheap rhetorical points by associating it with the widely condemned practice (incest). In turn, those who partake of the partially-accepted practice are quite outraged that others associate their practice (which they, of course, believe to be perfectly okay, morally speaking) with something they (homosexuals) probably also condemn. Makes me wonder what adults who engaged in consensual incest think of all this.

I'm having trouble thinking about logical arguments in favor of same-sex marriage that wouldn't also apply to incestuous unions. I'm not saying that to argue against same-sex civil unions/marriages/whatever. I support those unions as a matter of government policy. But if the idea is that consenting adults should be able to enter any contracts and have an intimate relations they want - as long as they don't harm others......that same argument seems to cover incest as well.

Pierce, I don't think your psychological argument - that those who engage in incest aren't REALLY consenting - holds water. There are certainly those who say that homosexuality is just the result of a "twisted" upbringing and maybe they would even argue it's not something people can properly consent to (although I've never heard someone make the latter argument). You would rightly be offended by that argument. Whatever someone's upbringing, I tend to assume they are free moral agents capable of making their own decisions unless there is STRONG evidence which proves otherwise (i.e. mental illness).

Perhaps there's one argument even under the conventional liberal view of society ("Let 'em do what they want as long as it doesn't harm anyone else") that argues against incest. As I understand it, incest could harm the children of such relationships....more likely to have birth defects/end up members of some European royal family/etc. Maybe that's something.

Please note that I'm NOT calling homosexuals the equivalent of pedophiles, people who engage in bestiality, or even people who engage in incest. I'm just trying to figure out - in an excessively abstract way - how arguments for one type of union do not also cover another type of union.

God, this is going to come back and haunt me in future job searches. I just know it.

Jeff said...

Ben, you're a lawyer. This kind of logical analysis is what they pay you for, isn't it?

To me, inter-generational incest is a psychological crime and the sense of coercion is very real. It's as much rape as anything else. So that's pretty clearly a no-no. But you raise interesting points with respect to sibling incest. If our reason for banning it centers solely around our visceral reaction to the act, then you're certainly right...

Pierce said...

Ben, we agree more than you probably realized. As I said, I think both polygamy and incest are worthy of their own debate on the subject. I don't doubt that there can be consensual incestuous relationship; I vaguely remember reading an article a ways back about a brother and sister who had been separated at birth and started a relationship when they met as adults, for example.

All I'm saying is that, in my opinion based on a very limited understanding of the psychology involved, incestuous relationships seem overwhelmingly more likely to involve a questionable (not necessarily invalid) definition of "consent", to the extent that I don't think that issue reflects significantly on the gay marriage issue or vice versa.

If it comes to the national stage in its own time, I'll be more than willing to listen to arguments on both sides.