April 30, 2009

A Hasty Poem


Gridlock and sunshine
Family and church
Termites and research
Grad school and work

Case notes and résumés
Diapers and milk
Haphazard dustjackets
Strewn on a shelf

Baby is coming
Papers are due
Pirates and tea parties
Pigs with the flu

Forwarded emails
Notes and citations
Yawnings and whinings
Blog moderation

Budget cuts, layoffs
Safety nets gone
Bubble baths, basketball
Toys on the lawn

Sleep deprivation
A cough and a sneeze
I'd rather be drumming
Than tapping on keys

April 19, 2009

How (not) to Argue about Gay Marriage

I realize this is a hot potato, but I'm going to touch it anyway.

The gay marriage debate drives me nuts. It's not just the nasty rhetoric, hyperbole, stereotyping and name-calling spewed by both sides, which is sickening enough. It's that there's so little light to show for all of this heat. The wheels are spinning and the mud is flying, but the arguments are going nowhere. Those with strong opinions seem increasingly louder while moderate and ambivalent observers like myself have shrunk deeper into our turtlenecks, silently waiting for the subject to change. The multiplied effect of our silence is a conspicuous absence of temperate voices which only makes an already divisive topic even more polarizing. With few exceptions, hope for any type of mutual respect has all but faded while attempts at civil dialogue are quickly dismissed as cooperation with the enemy.

A perfect storm of sex, religion, fear and anger has clouded our capacity to think critically about both marriage and homosexuality. Thanks to the culture war's carnage, it's become objectionable to draw distinctions between sexual orientation and behavior, respect and agreement, tradition and homophobia, theology and public policy, civil unions and sacred unions, legal marriage and religious marriage. I don't claim to have these complexities figured out, but I've found little comfort in the narrow explanations that dominate the current discussion at the popular level (if you can even call it a discussion). As long as the battle lines are drawn this way, we can expect to see significant chunks of the population gloating over incremental victories (i.e. conservatives in California last year or liberals in Iowa and Vermont this year) while the opposing camp plots its backlash. When the backlashers succeed, roles are reversed and the cycle continues. Peachy.

So what are the rest of us to do while the extremes are slugging it out in the courtrooms of law and public opinion? Should we hide under our desks until it's safe to peek out from the rubble? Should we keep our moderate views under wraps while we wait for someone to give them a voice? Should we make friends with both sides and see who disowns us first? If I knew that sweeping the gay marriage debate under the rug would it make go away, I would do it in a heartbeat. Like I said, it drives me nuts. My preference would be to focus our intellectual and political resources on the economic crisis, global poverty, climate change, Darfur, health care access, education, energy independence, abortion reduction and a host of other areas where much more is at stake.

Ironically, the vicious cycle of backlash and nastiness will continue even longer if we continue to allow the issue to be framed by all-or-nothing activists and protesters who dig their trenches deeper each year. This much is clear to me: gays cannot be expected to reverse their orientation any more easily than conservatives can be expected to sit idly while the historic understanding of marriage is redefined. Calling for a culture war ceasefire would be noble, but also unrealistic without a forum for respectful disagreement and dialogue. As I see it, the only way out of this briar patch is through the thorns. Our best option might be to actually sit down and have a sober conversation about the touchy stuff: sex, religion, fear and anger. Slogans and sound bites won't work in a thicket this tangled. So with the pie-in-the-sky objective of civility in mind, I've come up with a few recommendations to help each side argue their case more persuasively (for a change).

For those who oppose gay marriage:

1. Go easy on the slippery slopes, please. If legalizing same-sex marriage is truly a bad idea in and of itself, you should not need to bring in polygamy, incest, pedophilia, bestiality or marriage to a tree/rock/can opener as reasons to oppose it. None of these are options where marriage is defined as the union of two consenting adults, as is the case in Canada for example. Any valid points you make in favor of traditional marriage will be undercut if you start likening gays to criminals or psychopaths.

2. Acknowledge the problem of homophobia and the mistreatment of GLBT individuals. Whatever your position is on gay marriage, we should at least agree that it's not easy being gay. Verbal harassment, taunting, bullying and even physical violence are intense realities for many gays and lesbians, resulting in disproportionately high rates of depression and suicide. As an evangelical Christian, I believe my religious tradition needs to repent for the way we have often demonized the GLBT community. I have personally witnessed and read far too many stories of those who have rejected Christianity primarily because of the derision and animosity emanating from those who purport to follow Christ. Until homophobia is clearly and consistently rejected, it will undermine the case for traditional marriage.

3. Understand the difference between orientation and behavior. To use myself as an example, my behavior is a lot easier to change than my orientation. While I am certainly responsible for my sexual conduct, I can't remember ever "choosing" to become a heterosexual. However, just because I can't flip a switch to reverse my orientation, this doesn't mean my impulses and desires are impossible to resist. There are plenty of people, both gay and straight, who struggle with their sexuality but do not act on their desires. If altering one's sexual orientation were as simple as learning a foreign language or choosing a new career path, it's doubtful that very many would choose a life where they are looked down upon and treated as second-class citizens. Conservatives only make their task more difficult when they turn the gay marriage debate into a case against an orientation.

4. Don't scapegoat gays for problems caused by straight folks. The prevalence of divorce, out of wedlock births, absent fathers and single-parent households is largely the fault of heterosexuals, not gays. If us straight folks can't keep our marriages together or conceive children responsibly, how is that the fault of gays and lesbians? At the same time, the frequency of failed marriages does not mean that marriage is a bad idea, only that we need to take it more seriously. One of the best ways to "preserve and protect" traditional marriage is to accept responsibility for family fragmentation and let your actions do the talking.

5. Be prudent with your use of Scripture. This does not mean the Bible is off limits. After all, the great speeches of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln would be significantly weakened without their Scriptural allusions. However, resorting to "the Bible says so" prooftexting as a conversation-stopper can make it difficult to persuade those who don't take its words authoritatively. If you oppose gay marriage on the basis that homosexual behavior is sinful, be prepared to explain how it's different from other sexual sins mentioned in the Bible such as adultery, no-fault divorce, promiscuity and lust, none of which are against the law. Instead of regurgitating patronizing clichés like "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," the better arguments for traditional marriage (like this one from David Blankenhorn) appeal to multiple cultures, religious traditions and civilizations throughout history that have seen the need to define marriage as an opposite-sex union.

Turning now to those who support gay marriage:

1. Please retire the "don't impose your beliefs on me" line. What's the difference between a belief and an opinion? What are laws, regulations and policies if not the expressions of "beliefs" about the ways things should be? Whether the controversy is gun control, greenhouse gas emissions, tax hikes or traffic laws, just about every political debate is driven by competing values. The arguments for and against gay marriage are no different as both sides appeal to various principles including tradition, equal protection, religion, sexual freedom, child welfare, biology, legal precedent and public opinion to name a few. Instead of trying to censor an argument without having to engage it, make your case for why it's a poor line of reasoning.

2. Acknowledge the civil purpose for marriage. More than just a public way to celebrate private love, marriage is a vital social institution that harmonizes the needs of children with the sexual desires of adults. Put another way, marriage provides the best context for the next generation of children (whose interests often clash with the sexual freedom of adults) to grow up in financially and emotionally stable homes. The most articulate proponents of gay marriage, such as Jonathan Rauch, recognize this. Instead of downplaying marriage as 'just a word', Rauch says that GLBT activists should "increase respect for the institution of marriage itself" and stress that gays will take their vows seriously if allowed the opportunity to marry. Whether you are for or against same-sex marriage, you should want the institution of marriage to thrive.

3. Recognize how culture war backlash can hurt your cause. Unlike other GLBT activists who want to the judicial system to override public opinion if necessary, Rauch says, "same sex marriage will work best when people accept and understand it, whereas a sudden national enactment, where it suddenly to happen, might spark a culture war on the order of the abortion battle." The Religious Right's influence may be on the decline, but their ability to rally around the gay marriage issue cannot be underestimated. Evangelicals, Catholics and other religious conservatives can organize very quickly when they feel the courts have circumvented the will of the majority. Persuading hearts and minds in the court of public opinion is no small challenge, but it is more likely to produce lasting gains.

4. Address the issue of religious freedom. While some Christian pastors fear they could be forced to perform same-sex marriages against their will, most gays and lesbians are not too keen on getting hitched in a conservative church. Even so, the legalization of gay marriage brings up some valid concerns related to religious freedom that must be addressed. In Massachusetts for example, Catholic Charities of Boston quit providing adoption services in 2006 because state anti-discrimination laws forced them to allow married same-sex couples to adopt, which goes against church doctrine. In situations like these, guarantees of religious exemptions could greatly help to ease tensions and fears. The push for GLBT rights would encounter less opposition if churches and faith-based groups could be confident that they won't be forced to support or facilitate gay marriage.

5. Don't let your anger get the best of your argument. According to a recent CBS poll, only about one third of Americans currently support gay marriage. Labeling the other two-thirds as "bigots" will not help to win them over to your side. As hard as it may be, resist the urge to return one evil with another. Calling all conservatives "bigots" only perpetuates the vicious cycle of backlash while damaging your credibility in the process. As Ghandi famously said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." If you want to live in a more tolerant world, begin by tolerating those with whom you profoundly disagree. Don't expect your arguments to be heard if you will not listen to the other side.