Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Moral" thinking on gay issues has long been largely "collective"

Recently, I made a retrospective posting about Lawrence v. Texas (May 12), and then did a review of a book by William Eskridge on the anti-gay criminal laws of the past (see the link on that posting).

I wanted to reiterate a bifurcation in the whole line of thinking that used to justify these laws. The original thinking was entirely collective in nature. Behavior which “polluted” or “destabilized” the cultural support for the family was considered immoral on its face, without regard to the modern notion of “personal responsibility.” Why? Beyond religion, the basic problem is that people thought they needed a cultural climate the reinforced their marriages and contributed to the sense of “reward.” But this led to an odd paradox. The male homosexual, who cannot or will not compete for a man’s wife or girl friend, becomes an “abstract” enemy, but not in the highly personalized sense of a rival who really does take away a man’s wife (a common situation in soap opera). He is a “threat” to a value system, but not to the husband himself. And that value system wants to maintain a myth of "moral perfection" to rationalize the hardships of family life.

Indeed, this doesn’t make much sense to a world that has a focus on individual choice and freedom, and judges people on their own competitive efforts. It sounds more like the way dictators (in the past, or in many governments today) squash dissent. They need control for its own sake, as its own reward. It’s part of their own system.

After World War I, as Eskridge points out, the theories of Sigmund Freud allowed a new kind of “rationale” to develop. That is, sexuality is so sacred that it must serve the common good – through openness to procreation. Another way of putting this kind of thinking is to say that the individual is expected to share the “risk” of what may follow – rearing a child of uncertain or unknown capabilities. In a sense, this got to be seen as part of “reverence for life” and avoiding “the knowledge of good and evil.” Eventually, with decisions on contraception, abortion, and finally litigation on sodomy laws, this notion receded as it seemed separate from modern ideas of immediate personal responsibility and seemed to violate modern notions of privacy and adult individual sovereignty. However, people in "earlier" societies often did not have the opportunity (or "luxury") to envision themselves as expressing identities that transcended their biological families with their emphasis on complementarity; "personal autonomy" is partly the result of a technological society.

Nevertheless, as “problems” accumulate, more attention in moral thinking goes toward the idea of sharing or burdens and (as in the past) of family responsibility, even among those who did not have their own children. Emotional loyalty to family comes to be perceived as an issue, even in individualistic terms. The idea of remaining aloof and choosing intimate partners by a principle of “upward affiliation” is seen as bad karma, possibly even having “sadistic” motives that could even discourage some heterosexual marriages. The moral idea develops that there is an obligation to be open to “downward affiliation” because one’s parents did that at one time. Furthermore, the idea develops that one should live for the experience of family, even when one does not marry and have children oneself, instead of one’s own chosen purposes, which may become disruptive. Many other partially collective (and often religion-based) moral ideas may follow, such as the notion that every adult should be a cultural role model, even when without children. This circles back to the original cultural problem, that the belief in meaning and importance of the family as a function unit is important for many people in making lifelong marriage work.

This kind of thinking ends around the idea of “second class citizen” (inherent now in the gay marriage debate) because one is supposed to experience blood family for its own sake. Nevertheless, this mindset has to answer for why it expects young men to “compete” to prove themselves worthy “providers” and then does an about face and wants the “waverers” or less competitive men to marry anyway so they cannot disturb or perturb the values of the majority. The mindset also has to answer for how it perpetuates inequality among families.

My own take on this is that it does matter, especially now, how we all share “burdens” or common responsibilities as they develop with historical and demographic change. The capacity to serve the military (in the face of “don’t ask don’t tell”), to raise children, and to provide caregiving for parents all become issues that go beyond the usual sense of being responsible only for the choices that one deliberately makes. That’s one reason why debates on the military gay ban, gay marriage, gay adoption, online “reputation”, and now, increasing concerns about filial responsibility, as well as global citizenship (carbon footprints) are becoming morally compelling.

Update: May 30

Philip Chandler has a link at in his "Gay Equality and the Law" blog at discussing the California opinion in detail, and also discussing a disturbing First Amendment case in Holmes County, Florida where a schoolboard tries to suppress support of gay rights among students, link here.

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