What the Gay Marriage Debate Is Ultimately About
Updated: Feb 12
As the globalizing world underwent unprecedented changes that shook previously accepted values, many an intellectual took consolation in social constructionism - a perspective that offers innovative ways of thinking about social sciences and the human experience in general. In a nutshell, social constructionists claim that reality and our beliefs about it are dependent on our social selves. An important corollary to this view is that social constructs could have been constructed differently had we so chosen. Whether we look at international relations or gender studies, the wave of social constructionism swept through with remarkable influence. International relations academic Alexander Wendt rejected the realist notion that the international system must inevitably assume the form of anarchy by proclaiming that anarchy is what states make of it. Gender studies scholars have long distinguished between biologically determined sex and socially formed gender. In important ways, social constructionism elaborates on the conclusion reached by Jean Paul Sartre in the 1940s, i. e. that existence precedes essence and that humans, whether they like it or not, have to define what it means to be human. There is no doubt that social constructionism shed some light on the ways in which we form the essence that Sartre talked about. Yet many have taken social constructionism too far. Our societies are surely dynamic and it is correct to observe that social reality is, to an extent, socially constructed. Yet, do individuals or even generations truly possess the powers of constructing reality as hard-core social constructionists would have us believe? In Arthur Schopenhauer’s words: we can do what we want, but can we will what we want? I think not, at least not to the extent that radical social constructionism suggests. Our values and institutions may be socially constructed, yet we are not free to construct as we wish because the external conditions that we face, for all practical purposes, are remarkably stable. One example is the institution of marriage which is discussed in detail in this post and which has, in one way or another, formed in practically every society regardless of its temporal and geographical setting. Our energy will be better invested if we attempt to identify the avenues—cognitive structures—via which our brain engages with the conditions we face. Important work in the field of political ideologies has been done by the cognitive linguist George Lakoff.
Both moderate and more extreme versions of social constructionism have permeated discussions about social issues, most recently the debate about gay marriage. There are those who, implicitly or explicitly, base their argument in favor of gay marriage on the view that the traditional definition of marriage is a mere social construct and as such, it can simply be abandoned and replaced with another social construct. Yet there are also those who build on the previous proposition by not only first asserting that the traditional definition of marriage is merely an outdated social construct but also denying their own understanding of marriage the same status. In other words, they view the expansion of the definition of marriage as an achievement of true liberty, as finally accomplishing something which has long been overdue and which finally brought freedom to its full blossom. These individuals will, often unwittingly and quite naturally to their instincts, perceive and welcome the new definition of marriage with proclamations of “victory of love over hate,” alternatively asserting that “love wins.” American liberal commentator Sally Kohn summarized this view in a recent article in the Daily Beast by declaring: To those who remain in the fringe minority stubbornly mired in hatred and the dark rationalizations of the past, please try to lose gracefully. You are not being exiled. The world is simply moving on without you. Yet it must be clarified that what the likes of Sally Kohn celebrate is not a triumph of high ideals over some ulterior instincts. Rather, it is a victory of one social construct over another.
Let us discuss what lies behind the social construct of traditional marriage. Before we begin however, it is imperative to clarify two points. The first is that the author does not base his analysis on religious views or blind adherence to tradition. In any case, religion and tradition do not necessarily serve as the primordial sources of social norms and institutions. Religious tradition preserves these products of collective human experience by enabling their passage between generations and it does so without necessitating that each individual rediscover these institutions for himself. Secondly, it is not my objective to question the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, above all because the debate about the role that we accord to social institutions cannot and was not intended to be resolved by the Constitution. It suffices to remark that the Founding Fathers had no idea about the complex world that future generations would inhabit. For this reason, they equipped the Constitution with mechanisms that enable the citizens to resolve their differences in a democratic manner – the possibility to amend the Constitution and the power to legislate as Americans deem proper. It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court overlooked these options just when they were being utilized across the United States and turned to judicial activism instead.
The traditional understanding of marriage is composed of three complementary parts – an emotional bond, a base for legal privileges, and a safe environment for procreation. Even though these three parts are not easily separable precisely because they jointly form the institution of marriage, a safe environment for procreation is of special importance. Marriage is thus more than a sincere commitment to an interpersonal relationship, it is an institution designed to ensure successful reproduction. The basic human function to reproduce, by the way, is about the only answer to the question of life’s meaning and purpose that cannot be disputed by any social (shall we say socially constructed) or philosophical viewpoint. One may agree with Sartre that existence precedes essence and that, in fact, there really is no essence before we create it. One may also side with others who claim that the purpose of life is of one or another kind but at the end of the day, these conclusions will always be normative in the sense that the opponents of a given view will always be able to suggest a plausible alternative. The fact that we can only have this debate because our parents procreated, however, cannot be possibly denied.
An orderly society will encourage sexual relations that are enabled and bolstered by an emotional bond between the parties to marriage. While a tight emotional bond certainly ought not to be restricted to married couples, marriage is deemed recommendable for emotional bonds that result in childbearing and -rearing. Legal privileges are attached to stress the social importance of marriage as well as an incentive for couples to enter into such unions. The arguments of proponents of gay marriage often center on the first two concepts, i. e. those of an emotional bond and a base for legal privileges. They are perfectly justified to offer such understanding, for every society should create institutions that serve its members. To demand a union that enables two loving individuals to seal their emotional bond by an official act and acquire the legal privileges that make their life convenient by removing onerous bureaucratic obstacles is fully legitimate. However, when such effort does not aim at merely creating a new societal institution but rather, when its objective is to replace or redefine an already-existing institution, it must be admitted that the original social construct cannot be preserved. Namely, procreation ceases to play the role that the traditional understanding of marriage reserved for it. To many, this constitutes a fundamental alteration.
An analogy is often drawn between the Supreme Court opinion in Loving vs. Virginia that struck down bans on interracial marriages and the decision that was handed down in Obergefell. Indeed, this analogy stretches beyond legal disputes and readily compares the struggle for racial equality to opening up of marriage to gay couples. Yet it is crucial to recognize that doing away with racial discrimination that concerned access to the institution of marriage did little to alter its traditional definition. Importantly, it did not remove procreation as the central component enshrined in the institution. Another argument rightly raises the objection that marriage under the traditional definition does not lapse if a couple cannot or chooses not to have children. Yet no sound social institution should be rejected because of an exception. Even though every marriage will not produce children, every child has a mother and a father. Numerous studies have corroborated what thousands of years of the human experience already suggest – a child’s prospects are best when her parents raise her in the stability that marriage provides.
Ultimately, the debate surrounding gay marriage is a discourse that I am, if events turn out that way, prepared to lose. What I am not ready to do however, is to yield to the misplaced notion that the debate about the meaning of marriage is simply one where bigotry battles tolerance. For I am deeply convinced that the Western civilization’s ability to carefully identify and stand behind its values and importantly, to grasp what our discourse is really about, has long been one of its perennial strengths.
 See, for example, Lakoff’s book Moral Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1996)