The US Supreme Court decision preventing states from banning same-sex marriage amounts to a national sanction of the redefinition of marriage across the United States. But given that previous Supreme Court decisions have amounted to the redefinition of human life itself under the guise of abortion, redefining marriage can hardly be considered a major philosophical hurdle.
We should not be surprised or alarmed at the recent Supreme Court decision, because our surprise and alarm should have already been ignited by the audacity of a legal order that arbitrarily determines the boundaries of humanity and the right to life. If a court can redefine human life, of course it can redefine marriage.
Yet abortion has been cast as a fundamentally private matter, and so in a cultural and social context if not a philosophical one, its significance has been obscured. By contrast, marriage is by no means a private matter. Especially in a contemporary context of widespread informal sexual relationships, marriage has become an explicitly public and formalising act. Marriage highlights and draws attention to sexual relationships; that is why the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual relationships has been met with surprise and dismay that, philosophically, it does not merit.
If we truly understood abortion we would not be surprised at same-sex marriage. But truly understanding abortion is painful, unpleasant, and runs fully counter to the spirit of the age. In addition, understanding abortion has required effort – a determination to think through something near-universally regarded as unpleasant or even tragic, that even those who oppose it would prefer not to think about. Same-sex marriage is promising, if only because it will be inescapable: people will no longer be able to ignore the moral character and identity of our legal and political order. The public nature of same-sex marriage will bring many to a recognition of the philosophical tension – the cognitive dissonance playing out in our society.
At the same time, same-sex marriage is popularly presented as nothing more than an extension of the marriage franchise. This idea borrows its strength not from a philosophical inquiry into the nature of marriage and human sexuality, but from an uncritical familiarity with the status quo and an equally uncritical imagination of a new one. In other words, many people imagine, and are encouraged to imagine, that same-sex marriage is simply bringing homosexual partnerships “on board” with existing heterosexual marriages. Imagination can thereby combine reassuring elements of the familiar past with strikingly different novelties and reforms of the future, a combination that careful analysis cannot endorse.
Imagination can gloss over a multitude of inconsistencies and logical conflicts, and its emotive sway can draw our attention away from critical details.
In my city there is an outlying township in the hills where my grandparents used to live. It enjoyed a quaint and idyllic village atmosphere, with a rural character that the local municipality sought to promote and preserve. Unfortunately it was overruled by the state government, and planning approval was given to developers and prime agricultural land was rezoned to accommodate a trebling of the population.
As many as 20,000 people will eventually be offered the opportunity to buy an affordable home in a quaint and idyllic rural township. Perhaps they imagine that they will be living amongst the century-old buildings, and enjoying the village lifestyle?
But massive growth and a village atmosphere are mutually exclusive. A decade of growth will transform an historic country town into a hideous amalgam of housing developments and large-scale shopping precincts. The “rural town plus extra residents” will become “bland housing development in the hills”, with residents discovering to their dismay that no one really wants to pay for infrastructure to support the expansion.
Likewise, we have been encouraged to view same-sex marriage as “marriage as we know it plus homosexual partnerships”, without considering that for subsequent generations “marriage as we know it” will come to reflect whatever the shifting status quo turns out to be.
Our children don’t marvel at international video-calls, streaming video on demand or ubiquitous smartphone technology; their generation won’t regard same-sex marriage as “marriage plus” either. Rather, the whole concept and experience of marriage will be something new for their generation to comprehend and tackle with, just as our generation grew up having to grapple with a view of marriage as almost entirely optional.
We do not know what “marriage” will look like or mean in the future, just as most people a few decades ago never imagined the advent of same-sex marriage, let alone the recent Supreme Court decision. What we do know is that tension will only grow between the shifting public and legal definitions of marriage, and the traditions – primarily religious – that have stood the test of time and hold within themselves a coherent understanding of their own foundation and practice.
Those of us who might like to live amidst bucolic rural charm should also want to avoid the cognitive dissonance of buying into a township on the verge of a dramatic upheaval. We cannot control such changes but we can at least try to see them for what they are, instead of depending on the empty assurances of popular imagination.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com.