Dynamism panic?

future and its enemies.bmp

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 people’s 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 Virginia’s 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.

What’s 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, ‘that’s 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 Yorker’s “do whatever you want, buddy, just don’t 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 Protestant’s “cosa nostra.” “Gay marriage? Get your own institution! This one’s taken.”

It may be that we vilify others to project our self disgust, as Nussbaum suggests. But it’s 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.

10 thoughts on “Dynamism panic?

  1. Gabriel Rossman


    I agree with your three explanations but I would suggest a fourth, the institutional locus of the push. That gay marriage has largely come through the courts — the political institution most loosely coupled to elections — makes it seem like an imposition. There is a strong “I’m not asking” aspect to this choice of venues that almost inevitably breeds resentment. This is especially a sore spot for social conservatives who have done alright in legislatures and referenda (from the defeat of ERA to the passage of all the federal and state anti-gay marriage legislation of the last 6 years) but they’ve been getting a severe beating from the courts for at least the 30 years since Roe. Whenever a state legislature proposes, or even votes in, domestic partnership registration or something ike that, there’s hardly a cultural ripple. In contrast, whenever a court rules in favor of gay marriage, the opinion polls register that the movement becomes more unpopular. Basically, I think that opposition to gay marriage has at least as much to do with resentment of judicial activism as it does with distaste for homosexuality or fear of marriage’s fragility. Talk about an emanating penumbra, strict constructionism, or the sweet mysteries of human life, is total gibberish to the broad middle, but to the base on both sides this is the single most important issue in Senate and Presidential elections, at least in peace-time.


  2. Grant

    Gabriel, Oh, good, the anthropologist misses the most salient cultural “actor,” in this case the courts. Thanks for the correction. Best, Grant

  3. Joe Grossberg

    “Virginia Postrel recently implied that family values and gay marriage are not incompatible.”

    She should find solace in the fact that, not long ago, it was similarly outrageous to say interracial marriage was compatible with family values.

  4. Grant

    What a good eye you have. Guilty as charged, I’m sure. I might resist this attribution but then you’d just say I was resisting. Thanks, Grant
    Thanks, Grant
    p.s., I am changing the text in question, but leaving Patrick’s comment that all might see.

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  6. Grant

    Liz, I am sure there are doctrinal subtleties I’m missing, and social ones as well. But it feels like this is an issue that the Church, however we define it, is just going to learn to accept. It has accomodated on many, many points, and, again, if it doesn’t, we can expect the faithful to move on and start something new. Not sure this is much help. But thanks for this and other comments, one of which helped form the next day’s post. Best, Grant

  7. kevrob

    This “panic” has been around for a while. “…if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” National Review, Publisher’s Statement, William F. Buckley, Jr., November 19, 1955.

    The courts have been messing with the public’s head for a lot longer than Roe. The statement above was contemporary to the rise of the Warren SCOTUS.

    Then there were the people, like the lady in the Thurber story, who were afraid that electricity would leak out of the outlets and zap her. Before her were the jokers who yelled “get a horse.”

    I think some may go “zero to panic” faster nowadays, in no small part due to media penetration.


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