As I write, YouTube reports almost 50 million views of the music video for “Same Love” by the hip hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a single recorded to support same-sex marriage in Washington state. While not remotely approaching the 345 million views of their waggish “Thrift Shop” video, “Same Love” reached number 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this month and tops the charts Down Under.
“Same Love” critiques “right wing conservatives,” hip hop’s portrayal of homosexuals, “a preconceived idea of what it all meant,” “a world so hateful some would rather die than be who they are,” and traditional religion. Christianity, particularly Catholicism, receives the brunt of Macklemore’s disdain: “When I was at church they taught me something else / If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed / That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned.” Yet rather than reject the heritage outright, he transposes it, claiming both that “we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago / I don’t know,” while repeating “Love is patient / Love is kind / Love is patient / Love is kind / (I’m not crying on Sundays).”
Like so much of contemporary discourse, image is used to good effect, more powerful in creating associations and prompting sentiment than any argument or syllogism. The line, “right wing conservatives think it’s a decision,” flashes a non-Catholic cross and communion table before cutting to a grainy 60s-era film of a priest with a gaggle of first communicants. Similarly, “playing God” pairs with the young gay protagonist of the video sitting in a pew with his mother, the same mother who harasses him until he shuts the door in her face at “paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago,” and who aggressively makes the sign of the cross (to the lyric “preach hate”) before storming out (“holy water … poisoned”) when her son brings his soon-to-be spouse home for dinner. Further, the communion table cross is matched against a burning cross, to the lyric, “hate that’s caused wars from religion.” On the other hand, support for same-sex marriage is associated with civil rights—“Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment / The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins / It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!” and pictures of MLK.
In the end, the couple are married by a woman minister, very obviously not in a church, and while “a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all / … it’s a damn good place to start,” for “We have to change us,” as the formerly bigoted mother smiles warmly and walks her son down the aisle to his groom.
It’s quite masterful, actually. Beautifully produced, skillfully managed, and positioned within a moving narrative of birth, death, and love; it is, I suspect, devastatingly effective in using sentiment to shape judgment. C. S. Lewis identified this sort of discourse in The Abolition of Man where he explained how the grammar book of “Gaius” and “Titius” propagandizes rather than educates, having wormed into the inner recesses of the child’s mind: “It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”
So, too, with “Same Love.” At most, it theorizes that it’s the same love, that love is love however expressed, but this is never defended so much as assumed; and since, as Macklemore asserts, “We press play, don’t press pause / Progress, march on,” with all other positions retrograde and bigoted, the millions of viewers, “ten years hence,” may remember that there was a controversy, but not why.
As powerfully as any cultural artifact I know, “Same Love” reveals the odd imbalance or mismatch involved in the marriage dispute. On the one hand, the traditional, conjugal view held by, for instance, the Catholic Church, operates within the vocabulary of metaphysics (nature, being, cause, structure, purpose), practical reason/ethics (good, bad, right, wrong, proper, flourishing), and logos (causation, inference, syllogism, entailment). On the other hand, metaphysics is replaced with self-identity and expression (“Live on and be yourself”), ethics gives way to egalitarianism (“I might not be the same, but that’s not important / No freedom till we’re equal, damn right I support it), and logos to sentiment (“My love / She keeps me warm”).
So you have Theology of the Body or the arguments of natural law versus the word–image association of Macklemore—that’s not likely a ripe conversation—and Macklemore has a lead of 48 million views and a culture moving in his direction, not only in its beliefs but in its vocabulary.
That’s where the difficulty lies, not only in the conflict of judgment—conjugal versus revisionist beliefs on marriage—but in the mode of discourse, the process of how meaning is made. Neil Postman explained how the “Typographic Mind” utilized concepts, universals, and ideas in a way that images could not, for pictures present the concrete particular and cannot “argue” so much as offer “testimony.” So too did Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect, articulate the difference between intelligence and what R. R. Reno has called “urgent feelings and primal desires.”
I am in no way suggesting the absence of intelligent, coherent supporters of same-sex marriage who capably utilize metaphysics or ethics. I’m well aware and respect the work of John Corvino, Kenji Yoshino, Andrew Koppelman, and many others. I’m not claiming that we are smart and they are not, or that no arguments can be had, although a miniscule portion of the population reads, knows, or cares about such arguments. 50 million views of “Same Love” and roughly 10 million “Modern Family” viewers a week on the one side, and absolutely nothing of a similar mode of discourse on the other side. Nothing—that’s my point.
For Lewis the answer was not “to fortify the minds of young people against emotion” but rather “to inculcate just sentiments.” But here, too, the traditionalist is placed in a bind, for Macklemore has captured and co-opted the image and sentiments associated with justice, kindness, fairness, progress, equality, love, patience, kindness, care for the individual person, and human rights, while the tradition gets linked to poison, hatred, bigotry, discrimination, inequality, violence, and war. Of course, it doesn’t help that there are Westboro Baptist Churches. He owns the vocabulary of sentiment. And it is deeply unwise, and wrong, to use counter-sentiments of shame, disgust, or aversion in an attempt to capture back some of the emotional ground. Not only would this prove his point, but demonizing offends against agape, whether it works or not.
We can’t abandon the intellectual task of argument and research, or the political task of law and public policy, or education. All these are necessary and worth doing, but we also need the collaboration and help of artists, musicians, cinematographers, and poets, partly to show the beauty of conjugal marriage, but also, and perhaps more so, to tell the bigger story of the Church’s mission for dignity. So long as holy water means poison and Humanae Vitae is linked to burning crosses, our arguments will be received as abstract and inhumane moralism rather than the civilization of love they express in their own, faltering way.
But there’s more than one way to express that civilization, and just now we might need music videos.
R. J. Snell is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the philosophy program at Eastern University. Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.