Thursday, March 22, 2007

Till death do us part, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health


One of the most telling observations about the culture wars, at least in the gay marriage debate, comes from the commitment that a couple makes when marrying (or, if not legally recognized, a holy union or civil union). The two partners commit themselves not just to faithfulness but to a full emotional partnership that can challenge the deepest sense of each self – maintaining the interest that would share a bed. That kind of promise seems not to be for everyone, as to people outside of the relationship (or who do not have a similar relationship of their own) it seems to involve a lot of emotional indulgence and pampering. It’s a kind of personal insurance, not just of one’s life, but of that life’s meaning, at least to a loved one, and others in a close-in family network. It says that one will matter, regardless of external injustice or other calamities, including many disfiguring illnesses, beyond one’s control.

Social conservatives are that all of this is possible when one has grown up, accepted the gender complementarity that makes one open to rearing children and taking care of and giving deference to kinfolk in all sorts of ways. The Wissenschaft of all this, however, is that complementarity can be purely psychological, in terms of polarities, and does not require difference in biological gender, always. The questions become adaptive. Society needs to rear children, and maintain the belief that something is special about it for everyone.

Modern individualism encourages one to “be one’s own person” before even having a mate. The end result can be that some people may not believe they need mates at all, until suddenly they “fall in love,” unpredictably. Many people get along quite well without the personal emotional backup, even if they are, as Jonathan Rauch writes, “accidents waiting to happen.”

Some men may grow up to feel that they are not “competitive” enough in conventional ways of looking at things to find any special meaning in creating their own biological legacy, and in being “tamed” by a woman in order to do so. In some cases, they may believe they can “feel out” who really is competitive, and let their lives express their own judgments. “Gay male culture” seems to represent this kind of expression. “Straight” men may resent the idea that other men can snicker at them and “pass judgment”.

The “traditional” heterosexual world used to be quite protective of men who would at least try to become parents, even if the “outside” world was ready to take economic advantage of them and of the families that they raise. Any cultural expression that suggests or insinuates (even just by supporting certain kinds of media icons) that all men should be judged, even in romantic settings, by global norms, and that some men need not reproduce at all, or even be bonded to anyone at all, becomes quite threatening. It seems morally better, in this view, to create a world where practically every man becomes a father and is expected to assert himself in his own local domain as a role model and authority figure, no matter how abused his family may be by the “exploitation” of the outside world. The emotional complementarity of the marital relationhip, indispensable in this view, helps the adult develop the special interpersonal communication needed to raise a child or care for less intact people.

Married adults (especially those who remain monogamous for life) as a statistical rule, outlive other people. This makes sense, because they do have the emotional backup, which encompasses children (yes, babies), parents, and other kinfolk. The unquestioned support is a more important reason for cultural intolerance (of gay people or "behavior" or "lifestyles") than religious precepts themselves. Sometimes they (family-centered people) will not tolerate distraction or competition from ideas that would penetrate this emotional "cocoon". Sometimes they will interfere with the lives of those who do not want to be part of it, and demand sacrifice, deference, or at least silence from non-conformity.

As readers know, I have been very concerned about the possibilities that the unmarried will subsidize the married, and that the childless will subsidize families. For example, it isn’t a good idea that people get married just because of the social perks. That could undermine the love or bonded relationship of a particular marriage. Of course, there are some answers to this. One is that a person ought to develop the interpersonal capacities to be raise a family in a marital relationship; that observation becomes a moral issue. That claim certainly tests the limits of our notion of individual sovereignty, since many people, in a modern, technological culture feel that they do better when free on their own, although external calamtieis could force them back into socialization and dependency to survive. Another, as discussed by Maggie Gallagher in The Washington Times, March 24, 2007 in discussing David Blankenhorn ‘s book “The Future of Marriage” is that marriage, “as the crucial institution that connects Eros and generativity” and as part of the “common greater good” it supersedes individual rights and thinking about it in terms of individual “sacrifices”. Applied to me, this kind of thinking would ignore the possibility of immutable sexual orientation and insinuate that I, perhaps being overly precoccupied with my own needs while growing up, should be pressured into socializing into a "normal" interest in parenthood in a structured and pampered sexual institution; the needs of society justify compromising my own self-expression. Another way of putting it is to say that someone like me should be pressured to get out of my world of permanent adolescent fantasy, so that as a whole people will feel inclined to attach their most deep-seated activities to establishing and keeping families. If all of this is so, it’s dangerous to put it in the hands of politicians and preachers. Furthermore, from the point of view of moral thinking, that does not itself exclude recgonizing same-sex marriage.

This comes down to a tug between interdependence and independence, and every civilization must deal with this balance. A society that forces people to remain locally interdependent, in the nuclear family whenever possible, may be better able to handle certain hardships and threats. On the other hand, it may not be able to advance. A society always needs new truths from independent thinkers who do not play by the book. There is no escaping that at some point you wind up with a world where people have to be able to account for themselves, regardless of family.

Picture: Former president James Garfield at the Lion's Gate, in front of the U.S. Capitol

Coordinated blogger entry.

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