Saturday, August 4, 2012
I’m not sure what to think about the whole gay marriage, Chik-Fil-A thing. Most people my age grew up in a time when being homosexual was anything but cool. It was seen by most as morally wrong, perverse, or at the very least – pretty weird. Forty or fifty years ago, any suggestion of homosexuals having the right to marry would have been just ludicrous to anybody outside of the gay community.
But that was then, and this is not. Today tens of millions of people, especially older Americans and many devoted Christians, still see homosexuality as wrong. A majority of us have changed with the times, however and now see it as either as a legitimate lifestyle choice or a natural state to which a certain percentage of the population is genetically predisposed. Nowadays being gay is cool, or at least accepted, more often than not. And I’m pretty OK with that. I’ve got gay family members and gay friends, and I like them, and we get along just fine.
However, I’m still kind of hung up on the marriage thing. I guess a couple of thousand years of western culture, where marriage has always between a man and a woman, isn’t something you just toss away without some serious reflection. I remember a few years back, asking a couple of my good gay friends (and they were a couple) if they were going to get married when it (briefly) had become legal in California. They said they really weren’t interested; didn’t see what would be gained by it. Well, you could say that about lots of straight couples too; many don’t see the point in getting married, and live together, unmarried, for decades. Yet many other gay couples, just as most straight couples, see marriage as the natural step to take in a mature relationship. Not being able to take that step unfairly discriminates against them.
I think I see their point. Unmarried gay couples don’t have all of the same legal, health care, and financial rights as their straight, married counterparts. Furthermore, not being allowed to marry their partner denies them the social status – the pride, the respect – of being a married person. So even though I personally have some qualms about gay marriage, it’s doesn’t make much difference to me, so who am I to object, to say what’s right and what’s wrong?
But it DOES really matter to a lot of people. Their answer to that question is: God. God says what’s right and what’s wrong, and his thoughts on this are clearly stated in the Bible. Homosexuality is wrong, and marriage is between a man and a woman – period. Well, I don’t agree with all their thoughts on God and the Bible, but then I don’t have the right to tell them what to think. After all, a couple of thousand years of culture and morality and whatnot based on the Bible, you know. Plus, the Founding Fathers of our country, while not all Christians, did all believe in God and most of what the Bible taught. And up until the last 40 or 50 years, that’s where the vast majority of Americans stood as well. So it’s not right, in my opinion, to simply say the religious right is just plain wrong and irrelevant to our times and to this issue.
As for the Chik-Fil-A mess, I haven’t followed it closely, but it seems to be a case where a person of sincere Christian belief is saying that he thinks gay marriage is wrong in the eyes of God. I don’t endorse his opinions, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with him expressing them. I’m not aware of any efforts on his company’s part to discriminate against gay customers or employees, or to mount an effort to ban homosexuality in America or anything. Maybe I’m naïve or just plain wrong, but I don’t see what all the hoopla is about.
The bottom line is that a great many Americans see gay marriage as an absolute right, while a great many Americans see it as totally wrong. Both sides (surprise!) interpret where you stand on the issue as a real litmus test of who you are. Support gay marriage? Aha – then you don’t believe in God! Oppose gay marriage? Ha – you’re a hater, a gay-basher!
OF COURSE, it’s not nearly that simple. And OF COURSE, few on these two sides are interested in seeing the other point of view, or finding a reasonable compromise. But if they were….
What if we tweaked things so that gay couples could have the legal, financial, and otherwise equivalent rights of a marriage – without calling it marriage? What if they could make end-of-life decisions for their partner, get their partner’s Social Security benefits – and all the other stuff that now may be within the rights of a married couple but not an unmarried gay couple? What if we said: “Marriage is between a man and a woman, but we can have this other situation that’s called something else, with the same rights and obligations.” I don’t know what you’d call it: legal life partners? Whatever - would that option be so bad?
Sure, some of the hard-core religious right wouldn’t go for this, and neither would some of the more extreme gay-rights folks. They’re right, the other guy’s wrong, and they’ll accept nothing less than their way. Whatever… But I bet that we could get maybe 80 or even 90% of all Americans to go: “Look – it’s not perfect, I’m not happy with it, but I can live with it.”
This 80 or 90% idea reminds me of something from economics (oh no!); it’s the concept of diminishing marginal benefit. A good way to understand this is by considering pollution and the environment. Suppose that the environment is badly polluted, and we’re trying to decide how and how much of it to clean up. What’s going to happen is that some sources of environmental damage are relatively easy to fix, while others aren’t. In a rational world (OK – we can dream, can't we?) it would probably go something like this:
There are some very big sources of air and water pollution that can be significantly lessened, and at not that great a cost. Without going into specifics, we can make a few relatively cheap changes in how we do things and – as a result – let’s say we cut pollution levels by 50%, at a cost to America of only $50 billion. Wow! Not much question about whether we should do that or not, right? Clearly, the benefit to the country will be much greater than the cost. But what about the other 50%? Well, let’s say we can get rid of another 25% of the pollution, but it’s going to be harder and more expensive to do. So maybe it costs us $100 billion; twice as much money, to reduce pollution by half as much. Should we do it? Hmmm…. $100 billion’s a lot of money, but most of us would figure that it’s worth it to cut pollution by another 25%, so we’d almost certainly do that.
Now, however, we’re left with the really tricky and expensive kinds of pollution to deal with. So let’s say we can get rid of half the remaining pollution (12.5% of the original starting amount), but it’ll cost us $300 billion. Geez – I dunno. With the economy and the debt in such bad shape, is it worth it? Is that extra 12.5% less pollution going to make enough difference to be worth $300 billion? Think about what else we could do with $300 billion! We’re going to have a lot of argument on this, but suppose we decide to go ahead. That then leaves us with only 12.5% of our starting pollution, and man is it going to be tough getting rid of that! Maybe $2 trillion tough. And at that figure, few Americans are going to think it’s worth the price. The benefit to society just isn’t equal to the cost, and so we’d almost certainly decide just to live with what is really a pretty good situation: we got rid of 87.5% of our pollution! Yea!
It’s the same general idea with my proposal on gay marriage. Nobody gets 100% of what they want because the cost of doing so would be just too great. Imagine the damage to society and our political process if the religious right’s concerns were entirely ignored and gay marriage was aggressively promoted and celebrated across the land. Imagine the damage if gay marriage – and homosexuality itself – were completely outlawed throughout our nation. In either case, we’d have protest movements that make the Occupy thing look incredibly lame; we’d have God knows what kind of ugly division throughout the country; we’d have secession movements a la the 1860s. It’s not worth it.
So how about we abandon the “it’s my way or the highway” approach, and find a reasonable compromise like the one I suggest? Or some other compromise that allows us to move on as a country to things that really matter instead of being divided as we now are, basically 50/50 for and against gay marriage. Because in truth, it’s not our decision on gay marriage that will decide the country’s future; whether we start working together and compromising, or remain polarized name-callers will decide that.