Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Marriage Equality Denialism: The Case of Matt Walsh

You've probably heard of global warming denialism and evolution denialism. And of course there's Jesus mythicism, which denies the existence of an historic Jesus. But have you heard about marriage equality denialism?

I'm not talking here about the people who recognize, quite rightly, that marriage equality is not yet a reality in the world. I'm talking about those who deny that marriage equality is even a possibility. I should probably call it "the-possibility-of-marriage-equality denialism," or IPOME denialism...but, well, no.

The other day, the Supreme Court refused to consider appeals of lower court rulings, rulings which overturned same-sex marriage bans in several states. This opened the door for same-sex marriages in Oklahoma and elsewhere. In the wake of this, blogger Matt Walsh--who is good at constructing arguments that include a few true premises--came out as a marriage equality denier. Here's how he puts it in his post, "There Is No Such Thing as Marriage Equality":

I have no problem with marriage equality — except that it doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. It never has existed. It never will exist. ‘Marriage equality’ — that is, the idea that the union between a man and a man can achieve equality with the union between a man and a woman — is nonsense. 
How would I oppose that which cannot be? That’s like trying to pass a law to deny Santa Claus his voting rights.

On one level, Matt's claim here is silly in the way that willful pig-headedness tends to be silly. When people talk about marriage equality, they typically have in mind granting to same-sex couples equal access to the distinct bundle of legal rights that come with civil marriage, rights which are presently available to heterosexual couples.

Is this possible? Of course it is. The proof is in the pudding: There are states which have extended this bundle of legal rights to same-sex couples. Same sex couples in these states have been able to make use of them.

In this straightforward sense of "marriage equality"--the sense that most people actually intend--marriage equality is clearly possible. So what's going on with Matt Walsh's strange assertion? Well, what's going on is that Walsh is deliberately using the term "marriage equality" in a sense different from the one that people today actually have in mind when they discuss marriage equality. This is the willful pig-headedness that I mentioned.

More precisely, what Walsh is doing in this essay is adopting an understanding of what marriage is that's especially popular among Roman Catholic theologians (although, interestingly, is rather different from what one would expect were one to use Roman Catholic marriage vows as one's standard for defining marriage). Walsh then takes "marriage equality" to mean a same-sex relationship "achieving" the same thing that a heterosexual relationship achieves when it becomes a "marriage" in this distinctive sense. And since, in this distinctive sense, a marriage is essentially a procreative union--and since a same-sex couple can't be a procreative union (although they can make babies with third-party help and raise them as a couple)--he denies that same-sex couples can have a marriage. If they can't have one, then marriage equality for them is impossible.

Given that this is what Walsh means, it turns out that his marriage equality denialism denies none of the following:

(1) The legal recognition and rights bestowed through civil marriage can be equally extended to heterosexual and same-sex couples. (They can, even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(2) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming a loving, intimate, monogamous relationship. (That's true, too, even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(3) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of making lifelong commitments of fidelity and mutual support. (Yup. True--even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(4) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming life-partnerships in which they join their personal, material, and emotional resources together and jointly face the challenges and opportunities of life. (Can be done, even absent baby-making powers.)

(5) Same-sex couples are just as capable of promising "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part." (No promise to make babies is included on this list, so there's nothing keeping same-sex couples--and infertile straight ones--from making these vows.)

(6) Same-sex couples are just as capable of keeping those promises. (And just as capable of breaking them. Baby-making involves a different skill-set than what's required for faithful monogamy.)

(7) The chance to publicly make these promises before a religious community--and be held accountable to them by that community--can be equally extended to heterosexual and same-sex couples. (Yup. Communities and societies can do it, even if the couple lacks baby-making powers.)

In other words, when Walsh says marriage equality is impossible, he's using the term "marriage equality" in such a narrow sense that his claim does not rule out...well, marriage equality--at least when that term is used in the ways that most of the people fighting for marriage equality have in mind.

Or let's put it this way: There are all kinds of ways in which same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual ones of doing what married couples do. Some of these things are really central to what it means to be married--so central that they are expressed in the traditional marriage vows, something that can't be said of what Walsh treats as essential. 

Furthermore, it's clearly possible for both the state and religious communities to extend to straight and gay couples alike the same opportunity to publicly vow to do these things. It is clearly possible to equally support them in their efforts to live up to these vows. It is clearly possible to hold them equally accountable when they fall short.

All of this means that Walsh's claim that same-sex marriages can't possibly exist amounts to little more than an oddity of language--"If you happen to ascribe to this particular definition of 'marriage,' then same-sex marriages are impossible"--unless Walsh can give compelling reasons why marriage must or ought to be defined in terms of procreative potential instead of in terms of all the other things that characterize marriage as we understand it. And he needs to make this case even though what he treats as definitive isn't even mentioned in the traditional marriage vows.

This is an important point, because it is widely held that marriage vows are performative, in the sense that the act of making those vows before witnesses and appropriate authorities establishes a marriage. If that is true, and if the things that one vows to do are things that same-sex couples can do as readily as heterosexual ones, then it is indeed possible for same-sex couples to be wed, whether or not we think they should be.

It's as if Matt Walsh wants same-sex marriage to be impossible so that he doesn't need to defend his controversial claim that it's wrong.

To be fair, however, Walsh recognizes that his argument won't go very far unless he can make the case that his preferred definition of marriage is the one society must (morally?) adopt. His strategy for making this case is fairly conventional. In recent years, Margaret Somerville and Jean Bethke Elshtain have made essentially the same argument Walsh makes, but at greater length and without Walsh's Wonder Twins simile.

Yeah. The Wonder Twins. Remember those guys? They had super powers, but they had to touch each other to activate them. Walsh likens the human reproductive power to them. You see, most of our powers as human beings--the power to walk and talk and digest potatoes, for example--are powers that we have in the way that Superman has his powers. He's got them all by himself. But our reproductive power is activated only when a man and woman come together and have sex. Which is kind of like the Wonder Twins, except that they don't have sex (I think).

So, this unique and important power requires that a man and a woman get together. Neither has the power alone. And that's pretty special. It is. It's pretty amazing that the power to make a baby requires collaboration between two people, one from each side of what is probably the most visible and significant divide in the human species. It's also pretty amazing that the same collaborative act which makes babies can be an expression of love and intimacy of a uniquely powerful kind (although it can also be an act of violation, an act of mutual recreational use of another's body, a chore, etc.)

But what do we do with these facts? Do we use them as an excuse to marginalize people who are different? Do we make second-class citizens of those whose capacities for sexual intimacy are disconnected from their reproductive powers (disconnected because they are capable of genuine romantic intimacy only in sexual relationships with persons of the same sex)? Do we deny their intimate partnerships the legal standing of civil marriage?

Walsh thinks so. But this isn't a matter of "It's impossible to include them." It's a matter of "I think it's wrong to include them." The language of impossibility is simply operating as a smokescreen in his argument, perhaps because it seems less discriminatory, less deliberately marginalizing, if what you're doing is just describing the cold hard facts.

Walsh wants to avoid the appearance of deliberately trying to exclude same-sex couples from the social and legal goods of marriage, and so instead of taking a stand for discrimination and trying to show why he finds it justified, he says the following: "Marriage is essentially a procreative unit. Your partnership isn't a procreative unit. Hence, it's a sad but inescapable fact that you can't have a marriage. No one's denying it to you. It's just not possible for you to have it."

What's funny is that he recognizes that such a message would be seriously troubling to many (maybe even to himself) if its target were an infertile couple rather than a same-sex one. And so he flails mightily--with rhetorically empty rhetorical questions--to cast the illusion that he has made an argument that somehow immunizes infertile couples from the marginalizing message.

But let's be clear here. Infertile couples are, by virtue of their infertility, non-procreative. They don't make babies. Marriage, by Walsh's definition, is reserved for procreative pairs. So doesn't it follow that in addition to excluding same-sex couples from marriage, we should also exclude couples known to be infertile prior to marriage, including elderly couples who fall in love at the Bingo table?

Walsh tries to say no. He makes the point that infertility is like deafness in humans. Humans have ears--the natural structures whose function is to transfer auditory stimuli to the brain in a useful form. But in some people these structures are broken somewhere. They have a disability. What Walsh notes is that while the non-procreative character of infertile couples springs from a kind of disability like deafness, the non-procreative character of a same-sex couple springs from the fact that their kind of couplehood is incapable by nature of making babies.

This is a difference, but is it a relevant one? I think I mentioned early on that Matt Walsh is one of those bloggers who can be relied upon to use some true premises in his arguments. But more is required of an argument before we call it a good one. Even if all the premises are true, the argument is bad if the conclusion doesn't follow.

So let's explore Walsh's deafness analogy just a bit further. Imagine there's a species of persons in the world who lack ears. Unlike humans, they have no sense of hearing. In their case, their inability to hear isn't a disability. They just aren't designed to have hearing. And suppose that these persons are systematically denied jobs as music critics because they lacked the power to hear. They aren't being denied it because of a disability. They're just members of a species without hearing. But if their inability to hear is the reason we withhold music critic jobs from them, then consistency demands that, for the very same reason, we withhold music critic jobs from the deaf--even though, in their case, the lack of hearing is a disability. If it's just not possible to be a music critic without the power to hear, then it makes no difference whether the lack of hearing is "natural" to your kind or a disability.

Likewise, if our reason for withholding marriage from same-sex couples is that they don't form a procreative unit, then we should also withhold marriage from infertile couples for the same reason. And if we don't withhold marriage from infertile couples, it's because we think that it is perfectly possible for non-procreative couples to have marriages that are fulfilling and meaningful.

In other words, we don't think that lack of procreative capacity is to marriage what deafness is to music criticism. Instead, we think that marriage is the sort of thing that people can enter into for a range of interconnected reasons. People do it for the sake of having a partner in life, for the sake of establishing a crucible of monogamous commitment in which they can better learn how to love in the face of challenges, for the sake of support and nurture and the joy of companionship in life's ups and downs.

While we tend to think marriage provides the best context for child-rearing, it doesn't follow that child-rearing is a necessary part of marriage. While we encourage amorous pairs to limit potentially reproductive sex to marital contexts (for the good of the children that may result), it doesn't follow that we must limit marriage to amorous pairs who engage in potentially reproductive sex.

Of course, there's more to be said. But we can't even begin to explore our moral disagreements about what marriage should be about, and which policies best serve our interests and responsibilities, if we hide behind a smokescreen of impossibility.


  1. Excellent post! I admire your ability to engage with Walsh's argument calmly and rationally...I know for a fact that I lack the patience to do so. (I really need to stay away from his blog for my own sanity.) I think I'll be returning to this post for further reflection.

    1. Thanks, Laura. I must concede that before I could sit down and rationally engage what he says, I spent some time paving the length of my office, fuming mad on behalf of my loved ones who are so glibly shunted aside as if their experience and their needs are irrelevant in the face of Walsh's invalid arguments. I hissed out hyperbolic responses as I paced, probably sounding like I was demon-possessed to passers-by. Then, with that out of my system, I sat down and wrote.

    2. Pacing my office, not paving it. I think university officials might have something to say if I got in the habit of paving my office to let off steam.

  2. Nice work. He in no way deserves this kind of engagement but it's good to see nonetheless.

  3. Makes sense. I used to disagree with the idea of homosexual marriage because it appears to require a redefinition, or at least a broadening of the definition of marriage from a biblical point of view. That being the bit in Genesis about a man and a woman becoming one flesh. I was also irritated by the aggressive promotion of the idea by homosexual people. But I eventually decided that marriage as we understand it today is more than this idea of joining from Genesis, and also that it's wrong to deny people something based on religious principles when they don't share that religion. And I decided that I shouldn't allow my irritation to determine my opinion on the matter. So I'm broadly in favour of it being legally allowed by the state. But I don't think that religious people should be forced to participate in homosexual marriage ceremonies if they consider that that goes against their religious convictions. I regard that as offending against their freedom to practise their religion.