Who Is the Aggressor in the Culture Wars?

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Traditionalists say it's gay marriage advocates, who want radical change. But settled customs are hardly without their fierce advocates.gay marriage full protest.jpg

America's culture wars make everyone feel like a victim. That is arguably its most lamentable feature. Lots of different kinds of people take themselves to be objects of unparalleled ire. It cannot be so. But we're often most sensitive to criticism aimed at the groups to which we belong.   

Take Rod Dreher, a traditionalist, a religious believer, a parent whose children are home-schooled, and an advocate for thick community ties. He is sometimes on the receiving end of intemperate, unfair criticism. And he correctly perceives that the culture is increasingly antagonistic to his world view, his advocacy for preserving marriage between a man and a woman especially. But his description of who the aggressors are in the culture wars isn't persuasive.

Here's how he explains it:

From time out of mind, the idea that marriage constitutes the union between one man and one woman has been the unquestioned standard in our civilization. Same-sex marriage has only been on the national radar since 1993, when a Hawaii court ruled that the state had to demonstrate just cause for why marriage ought to be denied to same-sex couples. That was fewer than 20 years ago, and in that time, support for same-sex marriage has increased at a pace that is nothing short of revolutionary. According the the trajectory of polling, at some point in the next few years, what had been the settled view of the nature of marriage for millennia will have been rejected by a majority of the American people. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, all must agree that it is a revolutionary thing.

This stunning victory has been achieved by mounting an all-out assault on tradition. It wouldn't have succeeded had the tradition not been hollowed out by the (hetero)sexual revolution, of course, but that's an argument for another thread. The point is, the marriage innovators assaulted the settled tradition -- and have just about won. But here's the thing: they won in part by framing their own assault on tradition as self-defense. This is what it means when same-sex marriage advocates talk about attempts by marriage trads to attack their families and their rights. It's brilliant propaganda, because it paints people who preferred the status quo into culture-war aggressors, rather than those who are actually aggressing against the settled tradition. The point is not that the pro-SSM folks are wrong, or that they're right. The point here is that they are by any rational measure the culture-war aggressors, but paint themselves as the victims of a right-wing assault. It's brilliant propaganda.

This is a narrow way of looking at the fight over same sex marriage. It proceeds as if prior to 1993, the status of gays in American culture was uncontroversial -- as if tradition itself is apolitical, by virtue of being the status quo. But that isn't an accurate account of history or politics.

For decades, American culture and law were openly hostile to homosexuals. They were mocked, demonized and beaten. Their relationships were criminalized. Religious observers contended they'd wind up in hell. For all these reasons, many were closeted or self-hating or suicidal. Despite the fact that gays and lesbians bore these indignities across many centuries, no one now defends the sum of their treatment, because tradition alone doesn't confer legitimacy, nor does it define what is "settled," if that word is meant to imply consensus and consent.

This is almost universally accepted when we talk about slavery and bans on interracial marriage. Those abominations reflected longstanding traditions. It is nevertheless absurd to call slaves who sought freedom or mixed couples who wanted to marry "the aggressors" in a culture war. As clear is what's lost by referring to slaveholders or opponents of mixed marriage as merely "preferring the status quo," as if entrenching the status quo in law wasn't effectively an aggressive act. This isn't to say gay marriage opponents are the moral equivalent of slaveholders or mixed marriages opponents -- it's only to say that in all these cases, identifying what is "traditional" or what is "the status quo" doesn't tell us much about who "the aggressor" is in a dispute.

One thing Dreher does in the excerpt above is to conflate the religious, cultural, and legal definitions of marriage. That is misleading. For example, sacramental marriage as defined by the Catholic Church and civil marriage as defined by the state of California aren't equal inheritors of thousands of years of tradition, nor are their avowed purposes identical. I'll defend the Catholic Church's right to marry or refrain from marrying anyone it likes, whether because they're gay or previously divorced or of mixed faith or eat meat voraciously on Fridays during Lent.

Civil marriage is a different matter. Gays and lesbians who want to partake in it are insisting that tradition, embedded in law, treats their relationships as inferior and is aggressively discriminatory -- that it deprives them of practical goods and perpetuates the stigma against them through force of law, even if the fact that it has long been the status quo masks the aggression. They'd point out that many slaveholders thought themselves to be upholding the natural way of things, even as they perpetuated a status quo that in fact aggressively violated core rights.

Guys and lesbians aren't "painting themselves as the victims of a right-wing assault" as propaganda. They earnestly believe, for plausible reasons, that marriage excluding same sex couples is but one part of a status quo that has been aggressively antagonistic and discriminatory for decades, even if we're just starting to realize it. Meanwhile, people like Rod Dreher aren't attempting propaganda when they claim that their opponents are the aggressors in the culture war; they see themselves as defending marriage as a procreative institution, losing a series of cultural battles of which gay marriage is only the most recent, and being wrongfully conflated with anti-gay bigots, though they tout procreative marriage even when it has nothing to do with gays. As I see it, neither principled proponents nor opponents of same sex marriage are necessarily aggressors in the culture war. What I'd encourage, to make the fight a bit less unpleasant, is for gay marriage proponents and opponents to grant that at least some of their interlocutors have good reason to feel as if they've been unfairly demonized by the culture wars.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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