The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Issues of Marriage Equality

In recent months, there has been a shift in support regarding so-called "marriage equality." The reason why I place this term in quotation marks will be explained later. For now, let's establish that the term refers to the elimination of provisions that specify opposite gender as a requirement for two people to be legally married -- in other words, same-sex marriage.

The shift that has occurred can at first glance be overlooked depending both on whether one stands on the issue politically and also where one physically resides. Most states still do not register marriages for same-sex couples. In addition, the U.S. government does not acknowledge these marriages.  Activists in favor will say that more needs to be done; activists opposed will say that what has happened is a travesty that must be reversed. However, polls show that slightly more Americans now support legal changes that would make same-sex partners eligible for marriage. This shift comes after decades of consistent reporting that most Americans opposed same-sex marriage.

So, as attitudes change, what are some of the considerations that people have voiced -- and what hasn't been voiced that may be worth considering? I see three categories of discussion to explore: moral, traditional, and fiscal.

Many people hold very strong views on the matter of same-sex marriage because they view the issue as a moral issue. There is obvious religious opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of morality, as well as some secular opposition that might be termed moral. In both cases, opposition on moral grounds to same-sex marriage is actually opposition on moral grounds to homosexuality in its entirety; these are not arguments that nuance the difference between marriage and civil unions.

Many advocates for same-sex marriage also present the matter in moral terms -- that is, that marriage is a civil right, and that denying it to same-sex couples is unfair. This view is specific to marriage and thus is not really opposed by the anti-homosexuality stances of religious or secular moralists; its primary opposition comes from people who view marriage in terms of tradition.  Traditionalists generally support legal recognition for same-sex couples and have in recent years attempted to find a middle ground by proposing civil unions that would convey the benefits of marriage without the formal designation.  (The compromise satisfied few and was struck down in the courts.)

Finally, and rarely mentioned, there are financial considerations regarding same-sex marriage. These concerns rarely come up in discussions, probably because the idea that money should trump lofty moral commentary is a perspective viewed by some with disdain. Nonetheless, there will be costs, and we gain nothing in the long run by ignoring them. We'll look at those last.

Religious Morality

Moral opposition to same-sex marriage is primarily religious and derives from two related notions:

  1. Marriage is a sacred union blessed by divine will; and
  2. Homosexual relationships are wicked in the view of that divine will.
Christian belief is most frequently cited as the foundation of opposition to same-sex marriage in the United States, but this is purely and simply because the United States has far more Christians among its religious population than it does members of other faiths. Judaism and Islam also have in their tenets demonstrable conflict with homosexual relationships but are less prevalent. Hinduism is generally more accepting on homosexuality in moral terms, while Buddhism and several other religions downplay the predominant role of sexuality altogether with regards to morality and divinity.

Within the religions that make opposition to homosexuality, there is disagreement among both laymen and scholars regarding the role of this opposition. For the laymen, it is simple popularity: Americans tend to align their faith to their secular beliefs rather than the other way around, so people who have decided independent of theology that they support homosexual behavior will change their theology to be compatible with those views and vice versa.  Scholars, however, also differ on the subject, tracing their concerns back to ancient-language distinctions that are lost on most non-scholars.

Regardless, the matter of religious morality is problematic because even a positive affirmation that a particular religious text forbids a behavior (e.g. "The Bible says it's wrong!") is only a literary observation for those who are not bound by the text. The United States is not (presently) a theocracy; accordingly, what religious scholars and laymen think about morality within the context of religion is interesting but not a matter for legal judgment. That some people would disagree with this point is as discomforting as it is true.

Secular Morality (a.k.a. Disgust)

Not everyone opposed to homosexuality, and by extension to same-sex marriage, necessarily derives his or her moral position from religion. To be sure, virtually everything in the American tradition takes some basis from religion, but many opponents are themselves secular. Secular morality in opposition to homosexuality more often manifests as a complaint against vulgarity -- that is, people who find homosexual acts (including simple displays of affection, like kissing or holding hands) to be discomforting.

In part, discomfort regarding displays of affection is a conditioned response. In helping us understand our own sexuality, many aspects of a largely heterosexual society reinforce the notions of what is normal. Beyond that, however, there is another factor: sex is kinda disgusting.

Think about it! Sexual behavior (including passionate kissing) involves a lot of body parts and fluids that, all things being equal, we should consider pretty gross. When we're sexually aroused, we don't find them gross; actually, we find them really appealing.  But that appeal is part of our hormonal drive, something that overrides what we would otherwise be thinking.

Many people perceive sexuality in a spectrum and respond favorably to other people's arousal.  These people register homosexual acts as sexual even if they do not personally find them arousing, because they empathize with those involved.  Where it manifests, this has the effect of reducing the "yuck" factor. Someone who does not see things that way, unfortunately, is left to consider a homosexual act in an utterly non-sexual context. Disgust in such cases is virtually guaranteed.

Let's be clear: there is nothing that homosexual partners do with one another sexually that is not also done by at least a significant minority of heterosexual partners. If your opposition to homosexuality is part of a generally puritanical view with regards to sex in general, this does nothing to help your outlook (since you view most people as sexually immoral). For true secularists, though, remembering this point may help develop a bit of empathy.

But don't expect too much of yourself.  Bottom line: if you're susceptible to it, the "yuck" factor is pretty much beyond your control. That's okay, because there's a limit to how much "affection" is acceptable in publicy, regardless of the genders involved.  Remember, some people may find whatever you are doing to be unattractive too.  It's called "tolerance" for a reason.

Tradition

A significant minority of Americans takes no issue with homosexuality but is uncomfortable with redefining the term "marriage." Throughout much of human history and across a broad range of societies, marriage has been defined as a contracted relationship between one man and one woman. (Your mind might jump to polygamy as a counter-example, but in most polygamous societies, each marriage was traditionally an entirely separate contract.)

The reason for this arrangement was not moral but legal: societies have always grappled with the transfer of generational wealth, and the creation of legal unions distinguished between those children who had claim to inherent and those who did not. Some polygamous societies shunned homosexuality, but others embraced it, and even in those societies, same-sex marriages were typically not performed because their potential to produce children was nil.

Modern marriage is very different from the ancient model:
  • People may marry without any inclination to have children, particularly noteworthy since we now have effective means to actually prevent conception;
  • Arrangements for marriage are now personal rather than a manifestation of alliance between families negotiated on the basis of dowries or other financial incentives; and
  • Men and women are equal participants rather than women being equivalent to a form of property.
Based on these differences, one can plausibly argue that marriage already has changed so much as to render the connection to history of much less importance than is assumed. In other words, we are not marrying the way that people did a thousand years ago in any measurable way other than gender role so why hold that particular point as important?

Nonetheless, we cannot ignore that history plays a role in marriage, and if we accept that marriage is a legal matter and not a matter of morality, we must accept that changing the definition may have unintended consequences. Specifically, we should consider how changing marriage to include same-sex couples will impact restrictions on polygamy.

Straw-man questions posed by moralists about child marriage or marriage to animals can be brushed aside because neither children nor animals can consent and therefore may not marry. Adults acting freely and without coercion, on the other hand, may wish to enter into legal contracts for multiple marriage. If the gender aspect of one man/one woman is passé, what makes the number aspect binding? What would make it binding to a judge? It is not a factor today because there is not a large movement to establish polygamy, but we are talking about precedent here, and one need not have a majority to act upon precedent. (Indeed, the overturning of Proposition 8 in California by a Federal judge establishes this very point.)

Personally, I see no issue here because I can make no case for restricting polygamy among consenting adults; after all, promiscuity is legal now, and people can have whatever living arrangements they like, so if the practical aspects of the arrangement can already be done, the legal recognition of it does not concern me.

However, I have seen surprisingly negative reactions from some same-sex marriage advocates regarding the issue, and that is why I earlier placed "marriage equality" in quotation marks. Is it the intention of these activists to overturn one half of a traditional definition while clinging to the other? I doubt that courts would see the merit of that argument.

Cost: The Fiscal Consideration

To those of you who may think that marriage is a private matter between those involved, you should become more familiar with the U.S. tax code and the way that it relates to both public and private financial incentives. In modern America, people can privately declare their love at any time and do whatever they want; marriage is primarily a public affair, being established by legal contract under the auspices of government. There will be huge cost implications for expanding marriage.

First off, there’s the loss of tax revenue. Married couples who file jointly are subject to higher caps and phase-outs for many credits and itemized deductions. Retirement contributions may be made on behalf of a non-working spouse. Every year, the Internal Revenue Service collects less money on account of married couples; if more of the people who are currently single marry, revenues will see a corresponding decline.

Spouses also have access to employer-sponsored health insurance. Many employers in both the public and private sectors have already extended health benefits to same-sex domestic partners, so one might think that this would be a non-issue. However, once marriage is open to same-sex couples, there is no rationale for continuing to extend health coverage to same-sex domestic partners unless the coverage also extends to opposite-sex domestic partners. In cases where it doesn’t, that may end up in court, adding more people to the rolls of employer health insurance and passing along the costs in higher product prices.

At the entitlement level, Social Security will be impacted. If a married beneficiary dies, his or her spouse will draw his or her benefit it is higher than the spouse’s own. Again, more married couples means more situations in which these considerations will apply.

And, of course, there are the courts: more marriages will lead to more divorces, requiring more judges, hearings, and space in which to work, all of which will be paid out of public coffers.

None of these implications (or all of them together) make a case against same-sex marriage. They apply equally to any reason for an increase in the marriage rate (like, say, a surge in religious morality), so unless we plan to restrict marriage licenses by quantity in general, there are no action items here.

Nonetheless, we should take note of these costs. Expanding eligibility for marriage will result in more marriage, and we will all have to pay the bill.

Conclusions

Some of the thoughts raised here may be seen by some as attacks on the progress made towards the goal of same-sex marriage. Real progress comes as a result of changing people's minds, and as the polls show, that is happening.

If asking the issues raised here weren't worthwhile, it could only be because marriage itself were trivial -- and that is precisely what same-sex marriage advocates have rejected along with civil unions.  Questions deserve answers, and we are better off being thoughtful than pretending that marriage is simple.

Remember, ours is a democracy.  We can decide the shape of the society in which we live.  Let's do so thoughtfully and without fear.

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