Virginia Postrel recently implied that family values and gay marriage are not incompatible. For her trouble, a reader called her a “fuckin idiot. (all references below.)
Why is the issue of gay marriage so charged? Why do people react with un-parliamentary language and such charged emotion?
Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, offers this explanation of the larger phenomenon:
People tend to project disgust properties onto groups of people in their own society who come to figure as surrogates for peoples anxieties about their own animality. Such irrational projections have been involved in anti-Semitism, misogyny, traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, and discrimination against homosexuals.
According to Nussbaum, we project disgust to vent self loathing. We project onto others what we fear in ourselves.
No doubt, this is part of the explanation. But I wonder if there is not a more culturally particular account. We might be looking at “dynamism panic, the fear that the world is on tilt, that our innovations have gone too far, that now is the time to “draw the line.
Certainly, we are a culture of ceaseless innovation (as Virginias The Future and Its Enemies demonstrates so brilliantly). In the domain of the family, we have seen lots and lots of change: single parent families, multiple parent (melded) families, serial monogamy, divorce amongst seniors. And this is just the domestic sphere. We see dynamism in the social, political, corporate and cultural worlds as well.
Whats odd is that we have backed into this dynamism. It has been in the works for a very long time. The academics and intellectuals called it long ago, and issued fair warning. But we have adapted to dynamism in an ad hoc way, preferring case by case accomodation to a shift in values that says, effectively, “got it: all change, all the time.
In sum, we have been dynamic in just about everything except our response to dynamism. For some reason, we continue to use adaptive strategy machined in the 20th century.
This creates a problem: without a standing expectation of change, and an adaptive strategy to deal with it, we are bee keepers on a bad day. Things keep coming at us “out of nowhere, and failing our arms only seems to make the problem worse. At some point, “dynamism panic sets in. Along comes a cultural innovation that makes us go, ‘thats it, it is time to make the world stand still.
Gay marriage is turning out to be that innovation. But why this issue and not some other? Why did this become the place where people feel obliged to draw a line and refuse to budge. Why did this induce “dynamism panic?
The answer here needs a culturally and historically nuanced explanation that blogging does not allow (and that I would be hard pressed to supply, in any case), but a couple of things suggest themselves.
First, gay marriage violates our “benign neglect rule. We have dealt with cultural innovation with the New Yorkers “do whatever you want, buddy, just dont ask me to like it. This rule meant that contemporary culture was prepared to endure the gay revolution and inclined to refuse gay marriage. This asked for formal acknowledgement. It asked for us to “like it or at least accept it. (Wolfe’s book gets at this issue nicely.)
Second, the family is a social boundary nearest to the self. The family is the space ship that is meant to protect us, most of us, from the blooming confusion and dangers of the world “out there. If marriage, the fundament of the family, was going to admit gays, perhaps this boundary had broken down. Perhaps, it was now admitting change, instead of repelling it.
Third, the family was once the Trojan horse of the Protestant church. Early leaders of the reformation were, necessarily, denied an institutional locus from which to prosecute their cause. They chose to make the family “a little church that could be founded anywhere. Family was a special domain, the Protestants “cosa nostra. “Gay marriage? Get your own institution! This ones taken.
It may be that we vilify others to project our self disgust, as Nussbaum suggests. But its also possible that the present reaction to gay marriage is a symptom of a more contemporary problem, a growing panic in the face of our growing dynamism.
Fouroborous. Comment on “Thinking Physically. Second comment. This blog sits at. Aug. 27, here
Kuczynski, Alex. The 37-Year Itch. New York Times, August 8, 2004. (for divorce among seniors.)
McCracken, Grant. Thinking Physically. 10th paragraph. This blog sits at. Aug. 27, here
Postrel, Virginia. 2004. Cheney bucks the party line on gay marriage. Dynamist blog, Aug. 24. here
Postrel, Virginia. 2004. Family Values. Dynamist blog, Aug. 29, here
Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: The Free Press.
Sanches, Julian. 2004. Discussing Disgust. Reason. July, p. 15. (for the Nussbaum quote)
Wolfe, Alan. 1998. One Nation, After All. New York: Viking.