January 2006

First published as “Angry Lesbians and Right-Wing Nutcases” in Between the Lines on January 26, 2006

In a few weeks I’ll be doing a “Michigan tour” debating same-sex marriage with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. People sometimes ask me whether I ever encounter hostile audience members at these debates (I do).

“Which kind do you fear the most?” they press. “Rednecks? Bible thumpers? Skinheads?”

Actually, none of the above. The audience members that scare me the most—that strike fear into my very core—are the Angry Lesbians.

I’m only half-joking here. You know the type I’m talking about. They need not be female, much less lesbian. But they are technically on my side, and they’re pissed off.

They’re angry at my opponent for his anti-gay views (both real and imagined). They’re angry at me for my willingness to engage in friendly dialogue with that opponent. They’re angry at the event organizers for setting the whole thing up, as well as for not providing (take your pick):

(a) Free parking.
(b) Better seating.
(c) More Q&A time.
(d) Universal health care.

They’re angry at the world generally, and they want you and everyone else to know it.

There are times when I say sincerely, “Thank heaven for Angry Lesbians.” (I capitalize the term as a reminder that it represents a character type. As I’ve already remarked, AL’s need not actually be lesbians: some of the best examples I’ve known are men.)

AL’s perform an important service: they jolt us out of our complacency. They remind us that the issues I debate from a comfortable dais, in a well-lit, climate-controlled room, can have life-or-death implications. Yes, AL’s make us uncomfortable, but sometimes we should be uncomfortable.

Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back comfortably and have a civil academic discussion.

I say that not just because I enjoy such discussions. I say it because such discussions can be conducive to our community’s shared goals—far more so, I think, than simply screaming at our opponents all the time.

Let’s be clear about something: I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince Glenn Stanton (although I’d like to believe I have some positive effect on him). And I don’t debate Glenn Stanton to convince the Angry Lesbians. I debate Glenn Stanton to convince the fence-sitters: ordinary people who make up the bulk of society. They might think same-sex marriage is a little weird, but they might also be willing to support it if we make a strong case.

Glenn’s presence helps me to do that even better, since it gives me a chance to create “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” in the words of the great liberal theorist John Stuart Mill. Mill understood that truth is durable: it need not fear open dialogue. “Got a counterargument? Bring it on!” Mill might say.

“But doesn’t debating someone from Focus on the Family give legitimacy to that side? You wouldn’t debate someone from the KKK, would you?” I’ve often been asked.

No, I wouldn’t. But there are at least two key differences here. One (and it’s a biggie) is that Glenn Stanton does not want us killed. There’s a serious difference between opposing same-sex marriage and advocating violence against gays. Although it may be tempting to label all of our opponents as “right-wing nutcases,” doing so is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

Granted, these debates don’t occur in a vacuum, and some of Stanton’s supporters may choose to warp his message. But the debates provide an opportunity for us jointly to prevent such misinterpretation—indeed, it’s rare that I get a chance to talk to his supporters otherwise. Granted, too, that the policies he advocates are not merely wrongheaded; they’re harmful. They needlessly make people’s lives more difficult, in serious and palpable ways. The debates provide an opportunity to point this out, forcefully and publicly.

The other reason the KKK analogy falls apart is political reality. The KKK is indisputably a fringe group, reviled by most Americans. Not so for same-sex marriage opponents, who have won in every state where they’ve put anti-gay constitutional amendments before voters. Like it or not, we have yet to capture the mainstream on this issue.

I’d like to think that someday, debating same-sex marriage opponents will be as much a waste of time as debating flat-earthers. Until then, we’ve got work to do—angry lesbians and philosophy professors alike.

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First published in Between the Lines, January 11, 2006

Stanley Kurtz is at it again. In the cover story for the December 26th Weekly Standard—“Here Come the Brides: Plural Marriage is Waiting in the Wings”—Kurtz cites a recent Dutch “triple wedding” as further evidence for the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy. (The Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage in 2001.) In Kurtz’s ominous words:

It’s easy to imagine that, in a world where gay marriage was common and fully accepted, a serious campaign to legalize polyamorous unions would succeed…. For a second time, the fuzziness and imperfection found in every real-world social institution will be contorted into a rationale for reforming marriage out of existence.

I have argued here before that there is no essential connection between same-sex marriage and polygamy. But it’s worth pointing out several confusions in Kurtz’s current iteration of the slippery-slope argument.

Confusion #1: The “Dutch triple wedding” was not a marriage at all. It was a private cohabitation contract signed by a Dutch notary public. It is not registered with, or sanctioned by, the state. It is no more a legal plural marriage than, say, a lease signed by three roommates.

Of course, lease-signings are not usually followed by cake and champagne. But if the fact that this Dutch trio had a private ceremony means that they actually have a plural marriage, then plural marriages are already taking place—not just in the Netherlands but in the U.S. Any group of people can put on any ceremony they like. That doesn’t make it marriage.

Confusion #2: Kurtz obscures an important distinction between two understandings of the slippery-slope argument. One can understand the argument as a causal prediction: if gay marriage happens, plural marriage will follow. That doesn’t mean that it should follow, or that there’s any logical connection between the two.

Alternatively, one can understand the argument as a statement of principle: regardless of whether gay marriage leads to plural marriage in the actual world, there is a logical connection between the rationale for one and the rationale for the other, one might argue.

Kurtz, like many same-sex marriage opponents, seems to switch back and forth between these two versions of the argument. The distinction is subtle but important. By itself, the causal-prediction version is weak, for two reasons:

1. Because there may be a good principled case for gay marriage despite some adverse consequences. Same-sex marriage might lead to any number of things, some good, some bad. It might lead to higher revenues for the catering industry. It might lead to increased gay-bashings. Neither of these causal predictions affects the validity of the case for same-sex marriage, which ought to be evaluated on its own merits.

This is not to say that consequences are irrelevant in determining public policy—far from it. But that point leads us to the second weakness of the causal-prediction form of the slippery-slope argument:

2. The prediction seems unlikely. Plural marriage won’t ever have widespread appeal in this country, as long as sexism and religious extremism are kept in check.

Polygamy typically flourishes only in societies with rigid gender-hierarchies. In egalitarian societies, most people find it challenging enough to maintain a long-term relationship with a single partner. (Indeed, insofar as gay marriage undermines gender hierarchies, same-sex marriage may make plural marriage less likely.) It’s also worth noting that many prominent same-sex marriage opponents—including Maggie Gallagher and Hadley Arkes—find the causal-prediction version of the slippery-slope argument unconvincing.

So that brings us to the other version, which asserts a logical connection between same-sex marriage and group marriage. Allow gays to marry, the argument goes, and there’s no principled reason for forbidding polygamy.

Why would anyone think this? After all, polygamy can be heterosexual (for example, with a husband having one-to-one relationships with several wives), homosexual, or bisexual. What does one thing have to do with the other?

The answer reveals the third confusion in Kurtz’s current argument:

Confusion #3: The myth that gay marriage rests on the claim that people should be allowed to marry “anyone they love.” Although careless gay activists occasionally make this claim, it is foolish and easily refutable. Consider the absurd entailments: if I love my sister, I should be allowed to marry my sister. If I love my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, I should be allowed to marry my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. (Do you know how much beef jerky costs in the store?)

No, the case for gay marriage is not (or not merely) about whom people love. It’s about whether these marriages are good for individuals and society. Increasingly, the evidence suggests that they are.

Whether plural marriages are good for society is quite a different question. Switching the focus to that question may be a good debate tactic, but it’s hardly an argument against gay marriage, much less a new one.

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