Sunday, June 28, 2015

On Marriage: Liberal Celebration? Radical Critique? Why Not Both?

On Friday, the US Supreme Court revealed their decision that all 50 states must allow same sex marriage.  The news was greeted by many, including myself, as a long overdue recognition of basic rights for millions of Americans.  But the decision was also met by some as an expansion of an inherently unjust system.  I also think this group has a point.  Let’s call the first group the Liberal Celebration group and the second the Radical Critique group.  (I won’t engage with conservative religious opposition here; I do think they’re worth engaging, but doing so requires a different strategy).

The first legally married same sex couple in my home city

Liberal Celebration

The Liberal Celebration group (hereafter, “liberals”) consists of many Americans who vote for Democrats, but also many “independents” (whatever that means), libertarians, and some conservatives (I lump everyone together merely on account of their overlapping opinion on this particular issue).  The liberals are right that the expansion of rights for same sex couples is worth celebrating.

Take healthcare.  Married same sex couples can now add their partners and families to their health insurance plans, visit their partners and family in the hospital, make healthcare choices if a partner or family member is unable, and so forth.  These are real, tangible benefits.

There’s also a less tangible benefit: being recognized as a full human being.  This is something that I, as a straight person, probably don’t completely understand.  Being told that you have fewer rights than your fellow citizens for no good reason would, I imagine, be hard not to construe as an affront, not just to your rights, but to your basic human dignity.  This is the deeper significance of the court’s decision.

Radical Critique

The Radical Critique group (hereafter, “radicals”) consists of some feminists, some queer theorists, many Marxists, some libertarians (they’re a wily bunch), anarchists, and others.  The radicals tend to critique the very idea of marriage as harmful to women, dismissive of LGBT people, a product of capitalism, a statist assault on personal liberty, and so forth. 

Each of these critiques is different, but many radicals share the idea that marriage engenders a harmful separation between married and non-married people.  There are other issues to consider, like immigration or economic benefits, but let's stick with healthcare.  Why should healthcare be distributed based on marriage?  Doesn’t everyone deserve equal access to healthcare, regardless of who they may or may not be married to?  Are there economic interests behind the history and perpetuation of marriage laws surrounding healthcare?  Do marriage laws limit freedom by enforcing a traditionally gendered and numbered partnership on your healthcare choices?  Why couldn’t you share your health benefits with a friend or with multiple romantic partners?

These are questions worth considering, and I hope radicals keep asking them.

Why Not Both?

The danger for liberals is a static complacency in which the struggle is thought to be over, while the danger for radicals is a kind of curmudgeonly utopianism, according to which all celebration must be postponed until the revolution is complete.

I’m a huge fan of utopian thinking in philosophy and science fiction, but the danger of utopianism in politics is that it can blind us to the needs of people here and now.  It also makes it hard to see how we'll get from here to there (hence, the curmudgeonly part).  While the radicals are right that there are real needs of non-married people, which should temper our celebrations, they may be forgetting the needs of many same sex couples here and now.  Contrary to radicals' often curmudgeonly and dismissive tone, it's worth celebrating that millions of people will benefit in tangible and intangible ways from this decision. 

However, precisely the opposite could be said for the liberals, who may be blind to the needs of non-married people.  The radicals are right to warn against complacency.  Just as many white people are complacent about racism now that many legal barriers have been removed, some straight allies may become complacent, thinking that the Supreme Court has erased homophobia by a 5-4 decision.  As The Onion so eloquently reminds us, "Only 47, 000 more social justice milestones to go before U.S. achieves full equality."  For instance, employment and housing discrimination is still legal in many states and LBGT people of color still face racism and violence even if they can be married.

Celebration and Questioning

When I made the decision to get married over a decade ago, I didn’t do so lightly.  I thought the ban on same sex marriage was wrong, and since then I’ve been considering the radicals’ questions.  Nonetheless, I thought that, aside from gaining certain rights, being a straight married person voicing concerns about marriage might make my critiques less prone to dismissal in a deeply marriage-centered society (it also made my partner happy, which is an important consideration in any relationship!). 

Radicals are free to psychoanalyze my actions as masking my complacency, and I am aware of my privilege as a straight, white, middle class man.  Also, my claims that the decision will benefit some people should not be seen as a position on whether marriage equality is good for LBGT communities as a whole; those are important discussions taking place within those communities, but it's definitely not my call to make.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the legalization of same sex marriage need not encourage static or regressive complacency.  It might -- and I think it will -- initiate a deeper questioning of what we mean by marriage and what we want it to do and for whom.  Instead of holding back the revolution, it just might be the first step to making it happen.  And that would be something worth celebrating!

[EDIT June 30, 2015: See this website for a collection of some philosophers' thoughts on the issue.  Also, I should clarify that I didn't mean that struggles on other issues, like homelessness among some transgender youth, for example, are "utopian."  These struggles are very real and very down to Earth.  I merely meant that what I'm calling curmudgeonly utopianism is a possible result of some radicals' refusal to recognize the good of the court's decision.  Sorry for any misunderstanding.]


  1. Thanks for the shout out to anarchists! I like your analysis of the celebrators and the criticizers. For an anarchists perspective on this issue, all people should of course be able to engage into any union or contract that they freely desire. However, I think too many people have become distracted because one right decision was made but the system has been ignored. That system, and more importantly, that principle, is authority. The state still has the authority to decide who can or cannot get mad and has the rights to define what a marriage is, regardless if it says gay people can now get married. What business should the state have in marriage anyways? Who thought, "gee, our relationship is so good, we should get lawyers and the government involved in this". Anyone should be able to enter into a freely agreed upon association without some third party having a say. This is called voluntarism, or the principle of voluntary associations; you have the free ability to enter into any association and still the free ability to leave it. So, I think it is great that gay people can now get married, as no one should be able to decide that someone else can or can not get married. But, the problem is that the state still defines marriage and decides who can and cannot get married. Gay people can now ask for permission to get married, as, in all reality, them and everyone else only has permission to get married because the state says so. It's a fundamental anarchist principle, do as you please so long as you don't stop others from doing the same. Everyone and anyone should be able to marry who they please so long as they voluntarily agree to it, and no one or entity should ever have the ability to control that, if they both voluntarily agree.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You may be interested to read this collection of thoughts from some philosophers:

      Several of the philosophers there bring up the idea that IF there is state sponsored marriage, then it should be granted to same sex couples. I've also seen that argument among some libertarians (I admit that the line between anarchism and libertarianism isn't always easy for me to see).

      What I take from this is that, even if in some utopian future there is no state involvement in marriage, it's still a good thing right now to expand marriage. I think the larger conversation about marriage and the state will happen, not in spite of, but as a result of this decision. And that's why those in favor of a radical critique of marriage, even libertarians and anarchists, should applaud the court's decision.

  2. And in this circumstance both anarchists and libertarians agree, which they often do, but not always.