Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Common Sense Radicalism, Gay Marriage and the Weirdness of Marriage in General

Gay marriage: How the census will count gay marriages and couples in 2010

Before I talk about the 2010 census count and why it's kind of awesome, but also kind of fraught, a little political defining is necessary.

The more I think about it, the more I am willing to actually code myself in a non-tongue-in-cheek manner as a common sense radical.  The unfortunate thing about this willingness, is that in that serious coding, I should probably come up with some sort of definition.  Because, really, what could make a philosopher happier than creating new definitions, preferably using words people use anyway.

A sticking point in my life is that I think about things.  Constantly.  The ways in which different lines of action intersect, what a position held entails, you know, the fun stuff.  How this is a problem, is that my political positions tend to, after thorough thought, feel a hell of a lot like basic common sense.  Let's take marriage equality, right?  The fact that we should not give a fuck about whether it's two women, two men, or opposite marriage is self-evident.  I need offer zero argument for it, rather, those who want to deny basic civil rights need to come up with a decent argument as to why their homophobia trumps common human decency.  Given that equal marriage rights in no way affects your ability to be a homophobic fuckwad, opposition to gay marriage requires more argument.  This is one aspect of my common-sense radicalism.  As in, common-sense dictates many of my positions.

And I recognize that some of my positions require a little bit more thinking through that my common-sense approach to gay marriage, hence the radicalism, but these positions are still within the realm of common-sense.  Such as my position on abortion.  Look, it would be a great world if abortion was rare.  Fewer invasive medical procedures are better than more invasive medical procedures.  However, common-sense dictates what actually brings that about in a fair, reasonable manner.  And it's sure as hell not making abortion illegal, or restricting women's access to abortion.  Rather, to prevent abortions, prevent unwanted pregnancy.  Which means comprehensive sex-ed, the end of rape-culture, equal pay, cheap transportation, cheap day-care, the end of gender norms (particularly with respect to child care), a functioning education system that actually provides the skills for jobs that pay a living wage, equal access to sufficient, healthy food, affordable housing and I'm sure I'm leaving a few things out.  Doing the above reduces the number of abortions by taking the common-sense approach of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies.  Yes, it's harder than being the sort of person who fears women existing comfortably in their bodies as sexual beings and as the sorts of people who are valued for their own contributions to society rather than for their ability to pop out babies, however, and this is the important part, it's also more effective and more just.  Common-fucking-sense.

So the first part of my common-sense radicalism is that my positions that appear the most radical are also the ones grounded in a sense of basic logic.

The part that trips me up, is that I genuinely believe that, if people are given access to sufficient, credible and empathetic information, people are smart enough to achieve these understandings.  It's the access part that thwarts reasonable political discussion, not the smart-enough part.  Because, and this is probably where I'm wrong, I don't think people really want to live in the radically relativistic universe that seems to be offered to us by certain positions.  Yes, you can believe whatever the hell you want, however, common-sense dictates that it is foolish to expect that your factually wrong beliefs be treated with the same respect and deference that factually correct beliefs ought to be afforded.You can have whatever beliefs you please, you are not entitled to your own facts, however.  You are perfectly capable of believing that the earth is 6000 years old, however, expecting society to judge you as anything other than uninformed is unreasonable.  You can totally think that The Bell Curve is not a piece of racist trash, however, it is.  You are 100% welcome to think that the apocalypse will happen if two people who are in love are recognized as a familial group and consciously choose to align yourself with groups that offer that interpretation, and yet, you are also 100% wrong.  You can even be a libertarian and oppose paying taxes because you think that your right to have money is more important that your actual obligations to the community, but, again, you have to accept that most reasonable people will recognize that as being a profoundly immature philosophy, not to mention tinged with racism and classism and devaluing the enormous amount of privilege you, yourself, enjoy.

So my common-sense radicalism is that there are some positions that are so grounded in fact that a reasonable person no more needs to argue for their correctness than for the correctness of the fact that, as mammals, we have a 4-chambered heart.  It is also that, with sufficient access to quality information and empathy, reasonable people can understand those positions.

But there is a second part to the common-sense radicalism, and that's where the census count comes in.  I'm a common-sense radical in that I recognize that our political discourse in America has become so damaged that the ability to achieve access to quality information and empathy is actively suppressed, and so when offered incremental gains I take them.  I understand that I'll never see a world that is actually just.  I understand that people confuse their right to believe whatever idiotic crap they'd like with a belief that simply believing something renders it worthy of respect, even if that belief is grounded in hate and/or militant ignorance.  (We all believe things that are wrong or inconsistent, but, if after being offered multiple examples of the wrongness/inconsistency of our belief we still cling to it, the answer can only be hate or a sort of militant ignorance, and then, really, what else can be offered than ridicule?) And so, when the census this year actually makes an attempt to count the number of people who are in LGBT relationships, and thereby render them politically visible (and I am not the cynic Hypatia's Boy is to think that it will lead to some sort of round-up, a position he holds, I think, mostly in jest) I ask, does this increase the likelihood of more justice in our political discourse, and does it not decrease the likelihood of further improvements?  Yes and yes, then awesomepants.  We're a more moral society because of it.

What is interesting about the census count is a reaction a friend of mine had when I posted this on ye olde facebook.  You see, the census, apparently, gives LGBT couples a choice between "unmarried partner" and "husband and wife," irrespective of the legal situation in the given state (the best that I can tell from the article).  Passing over the actual linguistic challenges, it poses an interesting question, how do, say, two women living together in a homophobic state like Michigan answer that question?  Marriage is, thank you Britney Spears' 55 hour marriage, no guarantee of commitment and passion (nor, of course, is it, thank you my adorable parents' 30+ year marriage, a barrier to those).  Do you answer in a legalistic sense, recognizing that you are not married and so are technically unmarried partners, do you answer in a hopeful sense, that if the people of Michigan weren't so arrogantly in love with their own hate that you would be married and so are for all purposes "husband and wife" (that is outside of all of those nagging concerns like equal access to employer provided health insurance, inheritance, child custody, tax purposes, health care decisions and property law)? (If we include the inconsistent state legislation surrounding transsexual and transgendered people and the continuation/embarking of marriages it gets even worse)  What the hell does marriage even mean?

I can't answer her question about what she and her partner should do specifically.  I suppose it depends on the politics of the position they want to take.  (Also, I'm a political philosopher and not an ethicist for a reason, namely that I really am only worried about what a society should do, and figure that with a robust political philosophy, individual decisions become much more simple)  The question, it seems to me, hinges on what marriage is, and what purpose it serves in political terms to the state.

This is, in part, why we had to go into a long-winded explication of my own idiosyncratic political philosophy.  It seems obvious to me that the state has some interest in aspects of things that are currently achieved by marriage.  Some sort of politically recognized union does simplify aspects of interpersonal relations.  Child custody, inheritance, who is recognized as being able to make decisions for you when you are incapacitated somehow.  One could also argue that the state has an interest in achieving some sort of stable social unit, but I don't think that position is as obviously true as the former bits.  What also seems obvious to me, is that there is no legitimate state interest in coding those unions solely in terms of sexual relationships.  In fact, it seems pretty obvious to me that provided the sexual relationship is between enthusiastically consenting adults, the state has no legitimate interest in sexual relationships.  In the same way that I actually cannot understand why people cling to substantive gender differentiation, I cannot actually understand why we cling to an idea of "family" that is predicated upon sexual relationships and what is produced from those relationships.  Marriage, understood as a public promising of support and care to another person and the public recognition of those promises, isn't necessarily something that is within the interest of the state.  It, currently, creates a political structure that fulfills some state interest, it represents a legal binding of one person to another, it is a public promising, and as such serves a purpose in our current political realm. But a legal marriage contract,  especially if you ignore the creepy notion that you are contracting to have state-sanctioned sexual intercourse with that one person, is not necessarily  what defines a marriage.  And, frankly, if it is, you're probably doing it wrong.

So, I don't actually have an answer to her question.  And yet, this wall of text . . .

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