Last week’s post Horrible People got me thinking about the nature of progress. I’m planning on doing a few posts on the theme.
Progress is hard to define. Last week I mentioned the Women’s Suffrage movement. Today we see it as a huge step forward in social progress, but it is not as if before the Suffrage movement men were evil and women miserable; they operated in a different economic system and with a different concept of the individual’s role in society which made the voting arrangement perfectly reasonable. Once the economy changed, and once the concept of the individual’s role changed, the old voting arrangement made less sense.
So Women’s Suffrage can be interpreted as progress, or it can be interpreted as an adjustment to new realities. Imagine if an industrial country under the pressures of, say, extreme climate change, changed to an agricultural economy of small landholders. A new voting arrangement would be probably be worked out, such as one vote for every family owning land. It would not be “regress”, just a new arrangement for new realities.
I also mentioned gay marriage: why is it so hard for people to make a cogent argument against gay marriage? Is it because there is no argument to be made, and all opposition to gays entering a marriage contract is nothing more than an irrational hatred?
In fact, there is a perfectly good argument against gay marriage, an argument which is obvious and self-evident. But no one uses the argument because of a radical change in the nature of marriage that took place in the last couple of decades which few people noticed.
From primitive man up until about forty years ago, marriage was about the production of children; that is the only reason the institution exists. Some unlucky people who entered into the contract might turn out to be unable to have children, and in most cultures that is grounds for divorce, though Christian cultures typically encourage the infertile couple to just stick to it like Abraham and Sarah, trusting in the mysterious ways of Providence.
A union of a man and a woman was by nature fertile. Other unions which by nature are incapable of producing children were not a marriage, but something else. This was obvious. Even gay-friendly cultures like ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy or Shogun Japan knew this. It was not a matter of being mean and hatey, but a matter of calling a thing what it is. Ask a 16th century Samurai what he thought of the concept of gay marriage, and he and his boy concubines would laugh at you.
The argument over gay marriage was actually decided decades ago. Now that we have access to chemical contraceptives, there is no clear relationship between sex and reproduction. The definition of marriage was changed, not with a Supreme Court case, but with the invention of the Pill. If a couple could now marry, knowing they were fertile, but not intending to have children or considering children optional, then the union of a man and woman is no longer seen as naturally fertile.
Though I am told that such people exist, I have never actually met someone who argues against gay marriage by quoting biblical passages about men lying with other men being an abomination. I used to wonder why in a public policy debate someone would make an abstruse biblical reference rather than just stating the obvious, that marriage is about making babies, but now I have the answer: our hypothetical fuckwit fundamentalist friend is not clear himself about the fact that marriage exists for the sake of producing children. As far as he is concerned, children are an optional part of marriage, not it’s raision d’ etre. This is why he has no argument.
So, is gay marriage “progress”? Not in some moral sense. Sure, it is related to the happy fact that that today homosexuals can be public about their orientation without risking life and limb, but as far as marriage is concerned, is it not so much that attitudes about gays have changed (ours is not the first gay-friendly culture ever to exist) but the attitudes about marriage. And those attitudes changed not because of some new insight into old human nature, as if the right of homosexuals to marry their lovers were always there only to be denied to them for a thousand generations of spite, but because someone figured out how to manipulate a woman’s hormones with a handy little pill.