Jonathan Chait has written a piece on opponents of gay marriage that departs refreshingly from the usual self-satisfied tone of such pieces:
The ubiquity of this hollow formulation tells us something about the state of anti-gay-marriage thought. It’s a body of opinion held largely by people who either don’t know why they oppose gay marriage or don’t feel comfortable explicating their case.
Chait pinpoints what has been the most interesting feature of the gay-marriage debate, namely the inability of opponents to articulate their reasons for opposition. Chait doesn’t try to psychologize gay-marriage opponents, which is a welcome relief from those who assume that bigotry — or fear, as Andrew Sullivan believes — entirely explains the oddness of anti-gay-marriage arguments — or non-arguments, as they may be. Chait’s next sentence hints at the real source of the oddness, which is our odd political system:
In a liberal society, consenting adults are presumed to be able to do as they like, and it is incumbent upon opponents of any such freedom to demonstrate some wider harm.
Marrying someone isn’t quite the same thing as doing what you like. The Supreme Court has ruled that consenting adults can do whatever they want in the bedroom, homo- or hetero-, and most Americans, I think, have no problems with this freedom. Marriage is different. It is a cultural and legal artifact. Same-sex couples who seek to marry are not seeking freedom to do whatever it is they consent to do as a couple, but recognition that their union is worthy of public affirmation by means of a cultural construct designed exactly to recognize some sexual unions as worthy of public affirmation. Recognition really is the central issue, as Prop 8 demonstrated. In question was not the civil-union arrangements that duplicate the substantive state benefits of marriage, but the word “marriage” itself.
Opposition to gay marriage, inarticulate though it is, stems from this fact. The inability to articulate any reasons why same-sex marriage should not be institutionalized is due to the inability of our political system to understand cultural institutions. We are capable of arguing about whether our government should treat everyone with merely formal or fully substantial equality — this is what arguments about affirmative action are about — but we are not capable of arguing about institutions that are simply ours — ours to destroy, modify or preserve, because they are part of our culture, and belong to us. And so when one side stakes out a claim that makes reference to fairness, equality, and liberty, the other side, inarticulately uncomfortable, unable to make arguments about cultural artifacts, is tongue-tied.