Friday 15 June 2012

My meandering argument in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, as if anyone cares.

In 2005, Megan McArdle wrote this:

My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can't imagine it changing your personal reaction is pretty arrogant. It imagines, first of all, that your behavior is a guide for the behavior of everyone else in society, when in fact, as you may have noticed, all sorts of different people react to all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways, which is why we have to have elections and stuff. And second, the unwavering belief that the only reason that marriage, always and everywhere, is a male-female institution (I exclude rare ritual behaviors), is just some sort of bizarre historical coincidence, and that you know better, needs examining. If you think you know why marriage is male-female, and why that's either outdated because of all the ways in which reproduction has lately changed, or was a bad reason to start with, then you are in a good place to advocate reform. If you think that marriage is just that way because our ancestors were all a bunch of repressed bastards with dark Freudian complexes that made them homophobic bigots, I'm a little leery of letting you muck around with it.

It's worth reading the whole piece. It is the single greatest explanation of political conservatism I've ever read. But, even with that high a bar, it should be a matter of deep embarrassment to our society as a whole that, in seven years of intense debate on this matter, almost no-one has managed to say anything remotely as interesting or cogent about gay marriage. Instead, we have the anti side flailing around with some truly woeful religion-based shite and the pro side simply accusing anyone who disagrees with them of hating gay people.

So, some points.

Firstly, it has become an article of (ha!) faith of late, especially amongst libertarians, atheists, and anyone who supports gay marriage, that traditional marriage is purely a religious matter in which the state and the non-religious should have no interest. But no, marriage is not in fact a religious institution taken over by the state; it is the other way around. Anyone who claims that it is purely or originally a religious institution is ignorant of the facts.

Secondly, the introduction of same-sex marriage is not a minor bit of insignificant tinkering; it is a huge bloody great revolutionary change to one of the most fundamental foundations of our civilisation. That alone doesn't mean it shouldn't happen. We have made lots of huge bloody great revolutionary changes to fundamental foundations of our civilisation over the centuries, many of them for the better. But it does mean that those people who are claiming that this proposal is no big deal are either dishonest or stupid. And you have to wonder: if it's so tiny and insignificant, why are they fighting so hard for it?

Of course the introduction of gay marriage will have some bad effects on society. I challenge anyone to name a major piece of legislation that doesn't — especially social-engineering legislation. Again, that alone is not a reason to oppose it: lots of things which had some bad effects on society were still overall Good Things, such as allowing women to work. What it does mean is that — just as with all other major legislative changes — anyone who simply denies flat-out that any bad effects on society are even conceivable is an ignorant arrogant unimaginative unrealistic twonk who should be ignored on all fronts at all times.

Yes, allowing gay people to marry each other will affect straight marriages. Anyone who doubts this should look at what happened to Hollywood musicals. In the 1950s, they were still the most popular thing Hollywood did, with all the studios churning out sure-fire hit after sure-fire hit, secure in the knowledge that everyone would flock to see them. Now, Hollywood makes one musical every couple of years and it's considered a novelty item. What changed? The perception — not even the fact, just the mere perception — that musical theatre is dominated by gay men. Straight men in their millions stopped watching musicals, not because of any objection to the tunes or the stories or the dancing or anything like that, but because of a popular perception that musicals were popular with gay men. This isn't to say that that's reasonable behaviour, that that's a good reason to stop watching musicals. It isn't. It is merely a demonstration that yes, populations do change their behaviour en masse because of what small groups of people do. We are not isolated individuals; we are part of something. If you tinker with it, we are all changed. Again, when someone expresses bafflement at the very idea that this might happen, that doesn't tell you anything about how likely it is to happen; it just tells you that that person is arrogant and unimaginative. And probably a twonk.

And no, this is nothing to do with equal rights. The "right to marry the person you're in love with" so often invoked by the pro side does not exist: just ask anyone in love with their sibling. All of us have the right to marry a person of the opposite sex, above the age of sixteen with their parents' permission or eighteen without, who isn't an immediate relative, who isn't already married to someone else, and who fulfills various other conditions. It is certainly true that this right is a hell of a lot more use to straight people than gay, but having the same right as everyone else but having no use for it is not at all the same thing as having fewer rights than everyone else. I have the right to start my own newspaper. I have absolutey no desire to do so. That doesn't mean I'm being censored.

Quite apart from the facts, there is a pragmatic problem with defining the demand for same-sex marriage in terms of equal rights. It opens the door for anyone else who wants to redefine marriage — and there are plenty of groups who would like to. Discrimination isn't a bad thing; we should discriminate. In this case, we should discriminate in favour of gay people; we should legalise same-sex marriage because we have decided that it is overall right and good to create this new right for gay people, because they deserve it. Doing it that way leaves us ideologically able to deny the creation of new rights to other groups should we so wish. But framing the debate in terms of equal rights makes that impossible. If we insist that there is a basic human right to marry whoever the hell you like and that all we are doing is making sure that that right is legally available for everyone, we leave ourselves no grounds on which to deny future demands for further redefinition of marriage. You might or might not be able to think of any groups around right now whose demands you might wish to deny, depending on how you feel about polygamy (NAMBLA would be a straw man, since what they want to do is banned by more laws than just the marriage ones). But people are opportunistic and nasty people even more so, so I'm confident that any convenient legislative opportunity left wide open will quickly be exploited by bastards of one sort or another. I'd prefer not to watch that happen when it could so easily be nipped in the bud right now. Just be honest about this:

What gay activists are demanding here is not to be granted the same rights that everyone else already has but to have a new right created especially for them. Again, this is not an argument against the creation of that right; it's an argument for honesty.

And, as it happens, I support the creation of this new right. I'm aware that it will have some bad effects, but, at the end of the day, gay people are a central part of our society with no greater tendency to be obnoxious bastards than the rest of us (that's about as high as my praise for humanity gets, I'm afraid), and it simply makes no sense to exclude them from an institution that has proven itself such a valuable cornerstone. I'm aware that, having sung the praises of Megan McArdle's advice, I'm now ignoring it, because I don't know why marriage was made a man-woman-only thing and so I don't have much of an idea of what will go wrong when we change that. But at least I don't claim to know. And whilst raw democracy is overrated, it is still right that our civilisation change based on prevailing social trends. Gay people are no longer social outcasts (unless they want to be). They are accepted. If gay marriage isn't broadly supported now, it will be in a few years. Society has to be allowed to redefine itself, or it's just a prison.

Finally, I'd like to say how wary I am of any activist group determined not only to win but to enforce ideological purity along the way. I've had several online arguments with pro-gay-marriage activists now, and, while some are polite, they have generally reacted to me with fury, naked contempt, and abuse — despite the fact that I always say up-front that I support the introduction of same-sex marriage. The movement contains a sizable contingent who are not willing to accept that I share their goal and support them; they want complete ideological conformity and will attack anyone who disagrees with them about anything.

Now, firstly, this is just plain bad politics. All successful political movements are coalitions of one sort or another. These morons are out canvassing, hurling abuse at people who would vote with them. They're doing their opponents' work for them there, surely.

More importantly, I find this behaviour disturbing. I can't think of a group who have behaved this way in history and who have turned out to be the sort of people you'd want to trust with even a teensy bit of power over anyone else. Authoritarian thought police who wish to crush all dissent are a Bad Thing. And these particular ones are almost certainly about to win their battle, to see their odious zealotry rewarded. If I were part of the gay marriage lobby, right now I'd see getting same-sex marriage legalised as a lesser priority than purging all such dangerous ideologues from the group.

But maybe that's just me.