Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bite me.

Oh, for crying out loud. There's a controversy around one of the superbowl 'leventy-one ads this year. From what I've read, two guys are chawing on a Snickers bar, Lady and the Tramp style, and when they finally lock lips, they do manly man things to recover from the moment.

This has been labeled as homophobic by some gay groups, and so the commercials (there were several versions, I guess) have been taken off the official sites. Jeez.

Let me point out the obvious: if you're not gay, kissing someone of the same sex on the mouth is gross (in most Western cultures anyway). This is not homophobia, this is preference.

Following the logic of the offended groups, we shouldn't cringe when Bill Murray bites into the candy bar found in the pool in Caddyshack, because that's discriminatory or phobic against people who ... let's not complete that thought - you get my point. (And if there are any freaks like that reading this, please do not chime in with any details in the comments. Please. Keep to yourself.)

The real rub is essentially a group that's dedicated to communicating the fact that allowing people to live according to their preferences (as they should, with the caveat of consenting adults only) is only fair, this same group wants people who don't enjoy same-sex contact to feel bad about that, and deny and suppress their preferences. Short version: It's ok to be gay, but it's not ok to be straight.

Let's imagine the commercial from another perspective. A guy and a gal are working down the candy bar, and - surprise - they lock lips. They lunge backwards in shock. She's got a shirt with a pink triangle, he's got on a "queer eye for the straight guy" tshirt (thus we've been telegraphed their preferences). They both go "eeeewwww!" Commercial ends. Cut to homes across America. Are hertero activists (let's just pretend there are some) lighting up switchboards saying it's heterophobic that they didn't like the kiss?

In the comments on digg linked to above, there's a lot of "I'm gay and I liked it." Well, duh. I'd love to post "Hey, I'm straight, and I didn't like it," but the howling that would ensue just ain't worth the pain for me. (And perhaps someone has since I've read the thread.)

Well, let's stop the pounding on that one as the people in China are asleep.

Why can we not discuss issues around the topic of being gay reasonably in this country?

I tried recently on 2blowhards to propose that the recent debates about gay marriage should really be a debate about marriage as a larger topic, but no one would bite. (Most typical response: that's silly/a red herring/etc.) I think it's because the "logic" used as the "pro" arguments for gay marriage tend to fall apart quickly when you try to apply them to other types of marriage not allowed in American. A lot of the "con" arguments are flawed, too, for the record.

I've let the debate go over there because I don't feel it's correct to hijack someone else's blog and bandwidth to debate a topic of your own. (Well, if the blog owners agreed with you, but I know suspect that all the blowhards have a different take on it than I do.)

Let me excerpt myself:

The fact of the matter is that debate about what marriage is and isn't implicitly includes any and all states thereof, even though currently people try to keep the debate focused on gay marriage.

Jon Krakauer explores polygamy in his great book "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." Before reading that book, I had kind of a free-floating dislike of polygamy because it seemed to be seedy, mostly about power, and it seemed most societies had wisely left it behind. But he points out in white hot brilliant detail how depraved it is and why we should never allow it as a society. Now, if we allow gay marriage (something no society in written history has done before our age), how can we deny the polygamists? Could we?

Also, another hidden form of sexual expression is incest - brother/sister, parent/child, first cousin/first cousin. If we restrict it to the world of consenting adults, then why can't incest relationships also have the "benefit" of marriage? If they would get themselves sterilized so they can't have deformed children, how can we deny their "special kind of love," either?

The larger debate is and should be, what is marriage, and what is not marriage?

OK. This is my blog. C'mon, someone give me a good argument how these other types of marriage are radically different from what's being proposed regarding gay marriage.

Keep in mind that historically all these forms of marriage were allowed and gay marriage has never existed in a society in written history. I find that interesting.

Does that mean gay marriage will be accepted, but then eventually abandoned as a failed social experiment?

Also, I'm pretty sure that if gay marriage is ever allowed in America, the very next thing will be polygamists saying, "How about us?"

What are the other angles of this? Anyone?


Dave said...

Does Krakauer (or do you) distinguish between polygyny and polyandry (both of which are polygamy), and the modern concept of polyamory?

Polygyny, which is what most people mean when they refer to polygamy, is indeed linked with questions of power and patriarchy, but it seems to me that polyamory does not have to be. I know several people who are living or have lived in polyamorous relationships, at least one more than twenty years, and it seems that it can be a reasonably successful form of marriage, given the right people. (Of course, it's not for everyone--I think, given current acculturation, that few people can handle it.)

So for me, at least, worrying about gay marriage because of "polygamy" is indeed a red herring.

Yahmdallah said...

Thanks for responding!

Why is it a red herring? Aren't the justifications for gay marriage typically a comparison to traditional marriage? Therefore, aren't comparisons and considerations of all types valid to the discussion?

And, yes, Krakauer explored the topic pretty thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

It is a thoroughly valid question, and not at all a red herring, to ask: TO WHAT DEGREE SHOULD MARRIAGE BE REDEFINED TO ACCOMODATE THE FRINGES OF SOCIETY?

The answer may be "a lot," or it may be "none at all." But it is the question that we need to be asking, as dave above acknowledges. (He doesn't say "fringe," of course, though he might as well when he says "it's not for everyone.")

At any rate, gays, polyandrists, first cousing, and even those Nero-wannabes who would marry their horses need to be discussing this question in public, and not just focusing on the narrow cases in point presented by gay couples.

Whisky Prajer said...

I might as well give you one Canuckle-head's thoughts, from the True North Gay & Free: state, or government, recognition of marriage will finally be informed by its principle values. If its values are freedom of choice, well, that's just the way the ball of wax is gonna roll.

As for other cultures and societies, there were aboriginal tribes (the Blackfeet and the Assiniboine, possibly others) who accomodated gay ("Two Medicine" or "Two Spirit") marriages. But then they also occasionally accomodated polygamy, usually after a nasty turn on the battlefield, or following a plague.

I think the Christian proscription is fealty and monogamy - you marry, you stay married and you don't fuck around. All worthy values that would serve the gay community well, I think. If you're curious, I've opined a little further on the matter here.

Anonymous said...

whisky wrote: "there were aboriginal tribes . . . who accomodated gay marriages."

Can you document? I never heard this before.

If this is true, then the first question that comes to my mind is whether "gay" marriages in these society were strictly lesbian marriages. If so then that, along with polygyny, would be a practical solution for a society whose young men keep getting killed in battle. (The practice of polygyny by the ancient Hebrews seems to have been motivated by the same factor, as evidenced by its disappearance under the pax Romana.)

The second question that comes to mind is whether these "Two Medicine" marriages were regarded as equivalent to straight marriages; i.e., were people in these marriages really given the same rights and priviledges as straight married people? Gay unions were widespread in ancient Greece, but no one regarded such unions as equivalent to straight marriage. I would be interested to compare attitudes between the societies.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I'm not going to touch the legal issues here, except to say that your last paragraph shows you haven't been following the legal blogs: "What's next?" arrived a couple of years ago, amusingly using Scalia's dissent in Romer v. Evans to argue for polygamy.

Here's a take on it that I never see discussed by anyone, but that makes me pause for thought. See what you make of it.

Right now, "marriage" in all U.S. jurisdictions I know of is (a) male/female only; (b) two persons only; (c) unaffected by the existence of living prior spouses, recognizing civil divorce as dissolving the marital bond; (d) but forbidden by law if there's a living prior spouse but no civil divorce.

Now while (a) is standard throughout all cultures, (b), (c), and (d) are not. And in fact, significant cultures exist in the U.S. that do not or have not agreed that (b), (c), or (d) are part of what "marriage" necessarily means.

Mormons have held (b) and (d) not to be part of "what 'marriage' means"; and if I correctly understand their theology, they don't hold that (b) and (d) are a part of the natural meaning of "marriage" but simply reflect God's will for man at the moment.

Moslems, as has been much publicized, don't consider (b) or (d) to be part of the inherent meaning of "marriage," and are an increasingly significant culture in North America, to the extent that Canadian law is currently wrestling with accommodating actual bigamy without changing its statutes.

Jews, while holding to (a), (c), and (d), have an ambiguity with regard to (b), as a Jewish man can remarry without having given his first wife a "get" (certificate of divorce), meaning she is still technically married to him (an "agunah," or "anchored woman" who can't marry someone else). While no Jew would violate bigamy statutes or cohabit with two wives, the existence of the "agunah problem" in U.S. caselaw demonstrates that (b) is not inherent to the meaning of marriage for American Jews.

Catholics are fine with (a), (b), and (d), but disagree with (c), regarding the nonexistence of a living prior spouse as essential to the meaning of "marriage." U.S. marriage law as it stands, therefore, recognizes a vast number of "marriages" that the Catholic Church considers not to be marriages at all.

In fact, the *only* culturally significant group in the United States for whom current marriage law reflects its views on the nature of marriage is Protestants. Keeping this in mind, we see that changes in U.S. marriage law have closely tracked changes in American Protestant attitudes toward marriage. Whereas divorce has always been permitted in Protestant churches, it was once strongly discouraged; at the same time, U.S. law permitted but actively discouraged divorce. The liberalizing of divorce laws coincided with a liberalizing of Protestant ecclesial (not just social) attitudes toward divorce.

Similarly, the increasing legal/cultural acceptance of same-sex marriages (or civil unions)--acceptance at least in that twenty years ago it was a ridiculous idea, and now it's one that is at least up for debate--reflects the increasing acceptance of same-sex unions in mainline Protestantism. American Catholicism, Conservative/Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam, however, show no signs of institutional moves toward same-sex marriage; and in fact have not altered their institutional understandings of marriage at any time, despite the changes in U.S. marriage law, with the exception of the LDS change regarding polygamy, (which was effectively politically forced by the U.S. government, and not voluntary).

So if you'll excuse the lengthy build-up, here's the problem. In a country which theoretically does not have its laws dictated by a single religious group, it's remarkable that laws regarding marriage do in fact seem to be identical to the views of a single religious group, and in fact to change as the views of that religious group (taken as a whole) changes, further adding to the suspicion that U.S. marriage law is not determined by some inherent meaning of "marriage" but by what Protestant Americans think about marriage.

To a fair-minded person, it looks like the claim that (a) above is simply a religious view imposed by law might well be true, since (b), (c), and (d) all seem to correlate with the religious views of that one group. The answer to your question "what is marriage" seems as a practical matter to be "whatever American Protestants currently think it is."

Whisky Prajer said...

*choke, splutter* "Document", you say?! Ah, heh heh ... yes, well ... I'd be happy to document, it's just that, you see, uh, oral traditions and whatnot ....

Alright, I'll stop with the Maxwell Smart impersonation. Full disclosure: I drew my assertions from some antrho-lit I'd recently read. After some frantic e-mailing, one of the authors got back to me and set me, uh, "straight". Basically, "marriage" was a fairly malleable concept for most aboriginal tribes, with the economic rewards favouring the men, whose mortality rates were naturally higher than the women. The "Two Spirit" designation was given to a man who showed remarkable aptitude in women's work. When we say that, we're not just talking about sewing and cooking and childcare, but of a way of relating to the women as well. These men were free to dress as either gender, and to form bonds with either gender. As for the "marriage" issue, it doesn't sound like there was any sort of chattel exchange, or any other formal recognition of tribal/familial duties when it came to man-to-man bonding. So in that regard I'm off-base in my assertions.

Make of it what you will, I still think that seeking a definitive "answer" to this issue by referring to history or anthropology is slippery, given how the "problem" is something we've created for ourselves in this particular cultural/historical petri dish we call secular (North) America.

Anonymous said...


1) Protestants are and have always been the majority in this country, after all.

2) Are you sure the Catholic idea of marriage is really that different from the Protestant one? In most dioceses, annulments are a rubber stamp. Point c only matters to a minority within the Church.

3) Protestants are by no means the only group lobbying for recognition of gay marriage. In fact, while I haven't actually looked for numbers on this, I would bet that Catholics, atheists, and agnostics are represented among gay marriages (in places where that is allowed) at at least the same percentage that they are found in the broader population. Which doesn't disprove your thesis, of course, but does raise questions about whether it is significant.

yahmdallah said...

Yay! Finally, finally, a discussion about the issue.

Opinionated Homeschooler - Thanks for that great "what it is" exposition. I especially like the point that currently the public perception of marriage in the USA is essentially the Protestant one.

Whisky - I've always been dubious about moving marriage into the "rights" column, and you touch on the bad side of that yourself.

In other news - Just last night on one of the major network news shows they had a whole hour on the polygamists in the southwest. One point of the story is that these groups are now petitioning the govt. for their "rights" to practice polygamy.

So it looks like the debate will be larger than just gay marriage.

Btw, it may look like I've arrived at conclusions regarding this stuff, and in some cases I have, but others I haven't.

I honestly haven't decided what I think about civil gay marriage. (From a religious perspective, the discussion's moot. All religions have clear stances on their view of it.)

I think polygamy is an archaic tradition that is not practiced in most countries because it's primarily about power and ownership, whereas most of the world views marriage as a being about the individual's desires and needs, which usually is best satisfied by a two person arrangement. However, if we allow same sex marriage, will that leave us any ground to deny polygamy?

I also don't know what I think about first cousins (or even incestual relationships) marrying and group marriage. I have the natural (and I think it is instinctual) aversion to incest, but should that influence my opinion? From what I can see, aversion to homosexuality is partially instinctual. Even most gays admit they enjoy the fact that it's sorta taboo. And group marriage would be a different social dynamic than polygamy, meaning it wouldn't be about power but options. (As much as the very thought leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I think we're jealous creatures and if everyone in the group marriage is getting some, but one's not, that's gonna be cruel.)

That's why I've wanted an honest, open debate like we're having here. I just don't have enough info to decide, and like Whisky points out, history/tradition/anthropological observations aren't all that useful.

Interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

One more minor point, just because I was abjectly curious and decided to look it up: marriage between first cousins is widely accepted around the world. The US is almost the only western industrialized nation that does not allow it. The medical community does not see a significant genetic risk in a first cousin marriage. Some states here do allow it: the list of states where cousins can marry does not include Kentucky or West Virginia, but does include New York and California.

Just thought you'd want to know . . . .

Yahmdallah said...

Anon, yeah, it is interesting about the cousin thing. I hadn't even thought of it in my life until my wife and I went to get our marriage license, and one of the questions they asked was if we were first cousins or not. I said no, but asked what would happen if I'd said yes, and was told we wouldn't get the license.

In other news - I figured I'd better explain what I meant by "aversion to homosexuality is partially instinctual". (It's hard enough not to get called a homophobe when attempting to discuss these kinds of things without saying something potentially inflammatory.)

When we had to explain to our daughter what gay is, her reaction was "eww, gross" - not the reaction she had to what hetero sex is. College profs. who don't have kids sometimes make the fallacious assumption that kids are "Tabula rasa" and if you take a little boy into the Barbie aisle the first time he goes to a toy store, he won't care or react; and if you take a girl to the truck aisle, same thing. Not so, mon ami. Kids have a pretty strong gender identity. They will go to the aisle marketed at them.

This gender identity (or sexual preference related identity) is sometimes so obvious that you can sometimes pick out kids who are gay - or at least have unusual gender identity. A neighbor who's son is gay said she knew from the time he was 5.

So while we need to get over our bad selves and not be homophobic, I believe our original, instinctual reaction to homosexuality is "Ew. Not for me." And from what I've been told, my gay friends report that gut reaction to the thought of hetero sex. Thus, our sexual preference, I believe, comes part and parcel with an aversion to the sexual preferences that differ from our own.

Dave said...

Upon reflection, I must admit that the polygamy issue is not a red herring, nor is the possibility of any other relationships based on equality of power and mutual consent. That, however, rules out bestiality and adult-child marriage or sexual relationships, so bringing those up is a red herring.

My view on the subject is that of F.A. Hayek:

"To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends. It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits."

It would be best, IMO, if the state had nothing to do with defining marriage, and confined itself to the enforcement of whatever contract the consenting parties entered into. That would leave faith communities entirely free to define marriage in accordance with their beliefs.

BTW, this has been a topic of discussion in our Quaker Meeting on and off for a while now, with some advocating that we refuse to act as the state's agent in marriage (i.e., signing the marriage license) and only celebrate the marriage as the act of the two people involved, which is the (liberal and Conservative) Quaker understanding of marriage. This would free us to celebrate same-sex and opposite-sex marriages in exactly the same way, and liberate us from any appearance of sanctioning the state's discrimination against gay couples, which is not in accordance with the Quaker testimony of equality.

yahmdallah said...

Dave, that is one of the more sensible suggestions I've heard. I especially agree with: "if the state ... confined itself to the enforcement of whatever contract the consenting parties entered into". That seems to be the norm for most other legal agreements, would make sense, and be consistent.

My only question then would be what would those who have or want no religious affiliation - how would secular marriage work? Wouldn't the state have to get involved, and then allow any type of marriage (with provisos on age, of course). Most gay marriages would be secular, I'm guessing.

If we went with what you suggest, I think we would also have to agree as a society that we can disagree with some forms of marriage and teach our children we don't approve of them without being labeled as bigots. I certainly am going to tell my girls that I think polygamy is wrong, and why.

Dave Trowbridge said...

In one sense, given my proposal, all marriages would be secular, but only some would be recognized by a religious body. Quakers would recognize more than Roman Catholics, for instance.

And yes, the state would have to allow any kind of marriage between consenting adults--that's the point of treating it as a contract. A plus here for people worried about extreme weirdness is that since one cannot enter into a contract with an animal or a child, those forms of marriage would be ruled out ipso facto.

I do not agree that "as a society we can disagree with some forms of marriage..." No, as individuals. Don't confuse society and the state: they're not the same thing, and when we confuse them we cause endless trouble. The whole point of Hayek's statement is that the state should not be enforcing social norms.

But, of course, you are free to teach your children what you believe to be the proper definition of marriage. But I trust you will also teach them tolerance for those who disagree.

Yahmdallah said...

Good points, all, Dave.

For myself, I finally got what I have been looking for in these discussions - a way to sort it out that makes sense to me. Thanks, everyone.

Of course, tolerance is a given (to me anyway).