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equal_marriage


Conversation and Celebration of Same-Sex Marriage


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The Question of Chesterton's Fence
gaudior
gaudior wrote in equal_marriage
Just ran across an interesting quote-- G.K. Chesterton, 1929, from The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 4

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion."

So... what do you guys think? There's a fence across same-sex marriage, and I absolutely think it should be taken down. But I've had tremendous difficulty really understanding why the fence is there, because so many of people's arguments come down to "God said so" or "ew, buttsex." What's the best argument you've ever heard against same-sex marriage (or have you never heard a good argument?)? And why do you disagree with it (assuming you do)?

--R


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Chesterton doesn't say that you have to be able to see a good reason--in fact, he says that once you hear the reason, you should use your own judgment on it. And it's not like any of us have been sheltered from the arguments of those manning the fence. Their reasons seem to fall into:

"God said so." Good argument only if you think that governments should be in the business of privileging one interpretation of what god said over others.

"Ew, buttsex." Good argument only if you think that governments should be in the business of privileging some people's disgust over others'. (And if you think that marriage is entirely about legitimizing whatever sort of sexual activities a couple is engaged in, and if you think that these can easily be inferred from the genders of the people involved.)

"Marriage is for the children." Argument for a different fence: when I see anyone requiring a signed procreation/adoption contract as a prerequisite for a marriage license, I'll believe that this is their real reason for opposing marriage recognition.

"Successful marriage depends on partners who hold complementary characteristics." The best article I ever read on this argument made me rather fond of the author in spite of myself--and made me want to reassure her that my wife and I also stay in bed yakking and eating pastry for hours some Saturdays, in spite of not having a man around to counter our innate feminine responsibility. (Also, argument for a different fence: psychological and circumstances tests to determine likelihood of a successful marriage before granting a licence.)

As far as I can tell, arguments against recognizing my marriage are based on fallacies: the assumption that one's purity-related intuitions represent universal moral law, inadequate representation of historical marriage trends, inadequate representation of human psychology, or inadequate representation of the workings of society.

What a lovely quote.

I suspect that contemporary argument against same-sex marriage isn't the place to go if we want to understand what the purpose of the fence actually was in the first place.

I have a wacky theory: there WAS no fence throughout almost all of recorded western history. It's just a hastily thrown-together thing that was born about thirty or forty years ago.

Not to say that gay people could get married, mind you, except for the rare interesting exceptions that John Boswell dug up someplace. But this is because other, larger fences precluded even the possibility. I once found a quoted letter written by members of the inquisition about five centuries back. They'd found a score of homosexual couples (all male) being married in a mass wedding at a chapel in some small town someplace- and killed them all, of course. But they discussed the wedding itself as an honestly funny sort of joke. "Gay marriage" just didn't have conceptual traction in the first place.

It wasn't until after Stonewall that the concept became basically imaginable- up until the moment that gay people spoke to society at large in the first person, the popular caricature didn't have enough personal agency to innovate and demand a different sort of society. There was just no precedent for straight people to wonder (as a group) what sort of world gay people might want to live in. Accordingly, the first explicitly and deliberately heterosexual marriage laws were passed in the 1970s.

So we should definitely resist any kind of 'positivist' interpretation of the anti-marriage crowd. They aren't just "in favor of traditional marriage", because marriage was never deliberately defined in heterosexual terms until gay marriage became an actual possibility. Not because they thought heterosexuality had some important quality lending itself to marriage that a homosexual relationship lacked, but because there were no other options available in their framework (polygamy excepted). Marriage had absolutely no relationship with the distinctions between gay and straight people.

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