Morality is not magic. Find the right formula, and though the Earth may appear to move, that motion is part illusion. Much of the earth-shattering/world-transforming work has taken place only in our heads. There’s still more work to be done.
Mike Riggs, at Reason‘s Hit & Run, provides some evidence for this thesis, telling us of Sen. Rob Portman’s change of mind on the subject of gay rights . . . to marriage. He was against them, for the usual traditionalist reasons. But then his son came out of the closet (endlessly rocking), and Portman realized that a different perspective meant more to him, “that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love. . . .”
Portman has received more flack from the left than from his fellow conservatives. Matt Yglesias called the decision narcissistic, and Jon Chait argued that Portman’s reasoning reflects a conservative “inability to give any weight to the perspective of the disadvantaged.” This is, of course, concern trolling at its most formulaic — 10 percent approval, 90 percent goal-post moving.
I like that phrase “concern trolling.” It captures the ethos of today’s “liberal-progressive” scolds quite well.
And yet Chait is correct. Conservatives tend to be ruled by traditional in-group/out-group demarcations. Their map of the social world tends to get stuck in the recent past, sometimes in the very, very distant past, with Bronze Age morality. Conservatives see the world far more like an ancient would have seen it than a modern leftist sees it. Gay folks are just beyond the pale in the conservative imagination. Homosexual activity seems repulsive to them, and the sexually divided social roles (“gender”) do not seem to apply easily or neatly to actually, existing gays and lesbians.
The reason for the general trend of laxity, tolerance, and acceptance of gay folk, from the years of my early adulthood to the present, is largely about experience with gay folk, either as “played” on television, as “come out” in the general culture, and as touched on in private life. In the days of the taboo, most homosexuals were unknown. Nowadays, people think they know more gays than they do, as some bisexuals and even heterosexuals are misidentified as gays.
This latter has been important, for modal gay behavior among men tends to annoy or disturb quite a few folks, including some other gay men and lesbians. But when people learn that not all gays are alike, they act differently, and many, many of them seem like just normal folks, that helps greatly in acceptance in general. And misidentified heterosexuals have been important in this.
Another reason? AIDS. The disease struck homosexual populations earliest and hardest. This led to sympathy, for many people.
A bigger factor in the growth of general acceptance has been simple reason. The common revulsion at what homosexual activity is (“sodomy,” mostly) lessened when the bulk of heterosexual men and women confessed to regularly engaging in those very same acts. If you have never given or received fellatio or cunnilingus, you can still plausibly find that especially disgusting when done by members of the same sex to each other. But once one has given or received oral attention directly to the genitals, or even yearned for such attention, the fires of revulsion dissipate. The mere loosening of the taboos on talking about sexual activities and desires led to increasing acceptance.
But, as Mr. Riggs points out,
A lot of people feel they need a morally superior reason to break ranks with their tribe; one that’s more righteous and admirable than the discipline it takes to adhere to dogma or code. In politics the need for permission only increases as people become more prominent and powerful. (A great fictional example is Michael Douglas’s drug czar character in Traffic, who renounces the drug war after his daughter starts hooking to get high.) This is how it works for so many issues important to libertarians–foreign policy, prison reform, gay marriage, immigration, drugs, asset forfeiture. People change their minds when their kid gets blown to bits by an IED, gets locked up for dealing, or falls in love with a day laborer. Condemning people for not coming around sooner, or for not coming around on more issues, is also a part of tribalism, but I can’t really see what it accomplishes.
For my part, I find the conservative stance a tad irksome. Why so late to the obvious? I was “for” gay marriage (to the extent I am: I think the state should recognize all voluntary contracts in aid of peaceful activity) before I knew any gay people. It was a simple extrapolation from the idea of freedom of contract. Conservatives sometimes say they are for freedom of contract, but their general unwillingness to accept innovations towards greater freedom strike me as more than mere traditionalist bias, more than acceptance of the presumptive case for the status quo. They don’t really believe in freedom. They are part of the problem, not the solution.
Conservatives are people oriented to nationalistic tribalism. They see the world as us vs. them, with the “them” being foreigners of various types, people with the alien religions or cultural habits, and criminals. They tend to see homosexuals as criminals, or at least not as “good, law-abiding folk.” The only thing that can really cure them of this is experience of enough law-abiding homosexual men and women to break the pattern of identification with taboo acts and poses.
Liberals of all kinds, including modern progressives, have their own problems with us vs. them. But their tribalism is not nationalistic, nor centered on crime, or sin. They are more ideological, they draw the lines at certain breaches of equality (and since inequality is part of nature, they have a lot to complain about), and they take their puritanism in the form of food puritanism. Still, they are aware of the problem of tribalism, and prove themselves disloyal to their government at root, because their level of moral perspective has transcended traditionalist demarcations. And this is where I find their endless talk of “exclusion” as a political problem right on the money: For it is how we draw the line between us and them that determines what kind of legal and political order we shall have. And I think those boundaries must be based on the nature of criminality itself.
Alas, lib-progs disagree. They don’t think carefully about crime. They just want to regulate everything to make the world over so that all are “equal” in wealth or “opportunity” (defined monetarily and institutionally, not legally). So they become the new conservatives, erecting new barriers.
Happily, though, on matters of sex they tend to favor libertarian or half-libertarian measures. Gay marriage is one.
And though liberals tend to scorn conservatives for conservatives’s lack of concern for the underdog, it is worth mentioning that lib-progs have historically come to their position through interaction with a wide group of underdogs, groups who tended to scorn conservatives. So it could be that today’s liberals changed their minds for the very reasons that conservatives are now changing theirs: propinquity to gays.
Mike Riggs makes the point that we should expect these low-brow reasons to be what actually sway people. And I agree. I am, after all, a proponent of the view that morality is not a very strong thing, and certainly not magic.
And yet I made the extrapolation without knowing any gay folks.
Indeed, when I finally encountered homosexual men and women, and boys, I was the one telling them about gay marriage. They were not asking for it or demanding it. It was only after the age of AIDS wound down that the issue became a hot topic amongst gays and then the “liberal” late-comers.
And yet I had been talking about it all along.
I always wonder about other people. Perhaps I should merely wonder about myself.