About two weeks ago, I asked: if this is really a “culture war,” what does winning look like? I was responding to Maggie Gallagher’s outstanding commentary on the recent unpleasantness. I wrote that I still supported the fight against the deinstitutionalization of marriage, but I thought there was also a need to resist the institutionalization of enmity between those of differing religious and moral convictions.
Among many others, Gallagher herself joined the discussion in the comments and asked a very good question:
Other than abandoning the uses of the word “war” and “victory” what are you proposing?
I promised a response. I hadn’t meant to let the question sit so long. I hope no one thinks I don’t take the question (or, God forbid, Gallagher) seriously. But I’m not paid to blog, so I have to wait for moments when my real job permits me to contribute.
Here are at least a few of the things I’m proposing. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s more than enough to start with.
1) Mrs. Gallagher, Tear Down this War
I actually think that asking for an end to the use of words like “war” and “victory” is such a huge challenge to the status quo that I don’t really think I’m under much of an urgent responsibility to propose much else. Asking “other than an end to the use of martial language, implicitly admitting that our opponents are not mortal enemies whom we need to defeat, subjugate and rule, what else do you want?” strikes me as a little bit like asking “other than a cure for cancer, what else do you want?”
Gallagher correctly points out that the term “culture war” began in the social sciences as a descriptive term. However, it has long since ceased to be a merely descriptive term. It is now a normative term; it is used to rally troops for battle to defeat the enemy. This normative use of the term, along with the whole constellation of martial language that surrounds it, is now ubiquitous. We ought to acknowledge this change and ask what its effects have been.
I believe this normative use of martial language has actually become the key obstacle to victory in our fight for life, marriage and even religious liberty. We have identified the success of these policies as a victory of our religious subculture over other subcultures. If you vote for marriage, you not just voting for marriage; you are voting in favor of being ruled by the conservative religious subculture. So people have to make a choice. What do I value more, marriage or my right not to be ruled by the conservative religious subculture? That’s a fight we will lose in the long run. And the main reason we will lose it is because we ought to. Our religion gives us no right to rule our neighbors.
The threat to religious liberty is especially acute. Because we have identified the victory of our issues with the victory of our religious subculture, we have effectively surrendered on the cause of religious liberty. If you vote for marriage, you are effectively voting against religious liberty, because you are voting to be ruled by the conservative religious subculture. If you vote for life you are voting against religious liberty. And this will remain true as long as we frame the issues in terms of a culture war. So we can talk about religious liberty until we’re blue in the face, but we will still come across as the enemies of religious liberty.
Just for clarity, I think the problem is not specifically with the use of martial language in any context, but with the identification of the battle for life, marriage, etc. as a battle for the victory of our religious subculture over others. So I’m not asking advocates to stop talking about “victory” for marriage, etc. I’m asking them to stop framing victory for marriage as victory for our side in a culture war.
Gallagher did not initiate any of this, and I’m not blaming her for it. But she is now in a position to initiate a change that could produce revolutionary benefits for our cause, and I am asking her to consider making it. Who am I? I’m some guy who writes books and blog posts. Gallagher is somebody; if she made a change, it would matter.
I will repeat that Gallagher is a personal hero to me; her book The Abolition of Marriage was a life-changing revelation. I repeat this in the hope that what I say next will be taken in the right spirit. Gallagher’s blog is called Culture War Victory Fund. She reports that she is uncomfortable with that title. I am only pointing out what I take to be the reason for her discomfort. If Gallagher renamed her blog and explained her reasons for doing so, that would be widely noticed. We might actually have a shot at reframing the fight for life and marriage as something people can support without signing up to be ruled by us.
Mrs. Gallagher, tear down this war.
2) Deinstitutionalize Enmity
The delay in my response was fortuitous, because in the interim Gallagher posted this in The Corner. In a debate, Gallagher said this:
A society that is serious about marriage would gently stand up to gay people and say ‘not this, not now.’ Changes in law are hard to undo, once they are institutionalized. I did not decide to debate gay marriage, gay-marriage advocates did. I responded to the challenge.
Gay website editor Ed Kennedy found this “monstrous”:
Wait our turn, Maggie? On civil rights? While teenagers kill themselves each day because they feel less than? [sic] That’s condescending and heartless. Monstrous, actually.
Gallagher is understandably frustrated:
It’s “monstrous” to oppose gay marriage. And the uncivil dialogue is my fault, in his view. That’s where we are.
This is what I meant when I wrote about “the institutionalization of enmity.” Nothing Gallagher said was monstrous if you interpret it in light of her real intentions, but the institutionalization of enmity ensures that nothing Gallagher says can actually be interpreted in that light. Expressions of support for gay marraige will naturally be construed as monstrous because the larger context of how the debate is framed ensures this.
So what else can we do besides drop the martial language? We can:
A) recognize that this perception of “monstrosity” is not Kennedy’s fault any more than the prevelance of “culture war” language is Gallagher’s fault; Kennedy’s reaction is perfectly natural given the larger context of enmity being institutionalized.
B) intentionally work to deinstitutionalize enmity by naming this phenomenon and demonstrating our desire to achieve comity (to “live together,” as it was put in Gallagher’s earlier article) without sacrificing our consciences – we need to “find new ways to combine truth and love” (Gallagher again).
So, for example, Gallagher could have responded to Kennedy with something like this: “My comments weren’t monstrous; I don’t think it’s fair to interpret them as indifferent to the suffering of gay teenagers or gays in general. I’m not. I want America to be a society where people who experience same-sex attraction are loved and treated with human dignity. However, given the ‘civil rights’ lens through which Kennedy is viewing my comments, I can see why he responds to them as he does. I would ask him to consider whether the civil rights lens is distorting his perceptions of my comments, and of me as a person.”
3) Don’t Rule Out Compromise Prematurely
It is possible that marriage is an issue on which America will find no stable ground to compromise – on which there will be no “truce we can all live with,” as I put it. That was the main point of pushback that I got to my post from friends over private email. To this I have four responses.
A) Most importantly, if it does turn out that marriage is an issue on which no compromise is possible, let’s at least not institutionalize that all-or-nothing dynamic across the board on all issues. America is defined by its commitment to be a society where people of diverse religious and moral convictions can live together as civic equals. George Washington expressed this beautifully in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport: in Europe Jews are tolerated – they are permitted to be Jews - but in America Jews are, for civic purposes, interchangeable with their Christian neighbors. As I once heard a prominent American pastor put it, the survival of the American experiment depends on Christians cultivating strong and deep ties of civic solidarity with their spiritual enemies.
B) Beware of the temptation to depict compromise as unachieveable for instrumental purposes – because we hope to strengthen our troops in battle by convincing them that there’s no alternative to total victory. This point does not address the actual merits of the argument, but it is a temptation we ought to name and be vigilant against. Henry V’s speech before Agincourt is admirable, but his speech before Harfleur (“your naked infants spitted upon pikes”) is less so. I understand the realities of political activism; you’re not going to rally the troops to fight for marriage by telling them that we’ve already given up on victory and our goal is to establihs a stronger position so we can negotiate a better compromise. But let’s not say anything now that we’ll regret later in the event that total victory is unachieveable. Remember, the more we give Harfleur speeches to our troops, the more free the other side feels to do the same to their troops. What if they prove the stronger?
C) As recently as a few years ago, a lot of people used to talk about all kinds of compromise positions on marriage as viable and even desirable. Now, suddenly, no one does. Were all of the earlier arguments wrong in every respect? Or did the arguments change because the circumstances on the ground changed? If the latter, couldn’t the circumstances change again? One main argument against the viability of compromise is that the opponents of marriage won’t accept a compromise because they think total victory is close at hand. Well, what if that perception changes?
D) All the arguments that compromise is impossible seem to rest on the presumption that America will inevitably be forced to adopt a neat and tidy marriage policy that is logically consistent, morally justifiable and produces no absurd and contradictory outcomes. I would love to live in such a world, but as a practical matter I see no grounds for the presumption that we actually do live in such a world. “But when such-and-such happens, government will be forced to choose where it stands on such-and-such.” No, it won’t. Politicians and lawyers (including judges) are actually pretty good at having their cake and eating it too. The end result of the conflict over marriage may not be a tidy, coherent policy that makes sense and is morally justifiable. In fact, I’d place a long bet that it won’t be.
There’s more I could propose, but that seems like enough to be going on with for now.