It’s sometimes unflattering to look back at the record of history one leaves behind. When I was twelve, I remember the mortification I felt when my dad brought home a video camera with which he intended to record one of his classes. He let me and a friend record ourselves yammering into the lens, and when we took the video tape out and replayed it on the television I felt like I was looking a poorly formed worm in a baggy t-shirt. My voice sounded somehow pig-like. The thrill I’d felt in seeing the glinting new piece of technology suddenly turned to resentment. “Get that stupid thing out of here,” I thought.
Facebook has accelerated this metaphysical nausea with the cataloging of other people’s pictures. The difference between how I look in the mirror and how I look in a picture on some day in the park or a Thursday happy hour is sometimes bracing. I’ve found myself looking at pictures in a bad light or from a rough angle trying to somehow explain away the unflattering appearance. I feel sometimes like a skeptic trying to discredit a photo with a blur in the corner that a nice retiree from Arizona insists is an alien space ship. I can’t accept the fact that I sometimes look just so. Reasonable evidence to the contrary must be produced. I don’t want things to be the way that they sometimes are without the forgiving haze of subjectivity.
I get a sense of that same haze when encountering the common arguments against same-sex marriage. “Marriage is, and has been for millennia, the institution that forms and upholds for society, the cultural and social values and symbols related to procreation,” said Margaret Somerville in a brief for the Catholic Education Resource Center.
“By institutionalizing the relationship that has the inherent capacity to transmit life — that between a man and a woman — marriage symbolizes and engenders respect for the transmission of human life.”
History provides a latticework of regulations and social obligations between men, women, and their families in the case that they should spend a few moments humping in the hut and spawn a child. Regulating this relationship occupies significant parts of the Hammurabi Code, the writings of Confucius, Roman legal discourse, Greek philosophical inquiry, as do all the formal documents of the Abrahamic religions. There have been societies where sexual encounters between same-sex couples was allowable. A kind of sexual instruction was the norm for older men and young boys in Rome, as was philandering sex of a nobleman with a lesser. Bisexual play is said to have been a part of more than a few Chinese emperor’s courts.
Writing in the Weekly Standard, Sam Schulman described marriage as a necessary social constraint that preserved women and children from the unpredictable brutalities of humankind through the creation of a kinship system. He invokes indecent specters that require the creation of a system in which men aren’t simply bound to their lovers but a whole network of extended family.
“In a world without kinship, women will lose their hard-earned status as sexual beings with personal autonomy and physical security,” Schulman writes. “Children will lose their status as nonsexual beings.”
The history of marriage is indeed a mortifying record of mammalian barbarity and cretinism to which we’re still uncomfortably connected. Reading the Hammurabi code does not inspire much faith in humanity, and for every golden rule in Confucianism there is a snaggletoothed delusion. In the articulation of these primary scrawls on the moral chalkboard, an anarchic din of masculine violence is described.
If same-sex marriage threatens the foundations of traditional marriage, then so much the better. There isn’t much in those traditions that deserve preservation. The most frightening part of accepting same-sex marriage is that it leaves up to two individuals the choice to stay together for a lifetime. The time when relationships were rationalized as selfless forms of participating in the oceanic swells of a larger society is waning. It’s this fantasy of supporting some larger social ideal by simply doing your part and starting a family that’s been eroded morally. Marriage has long ago ceased being about procreation and the creation of a social scaffolding to protect its offspring.
For all the things we discover beneath the evolving lens of history, there remain unanswerable questions that evade our senses of logic. We have built comprehensive models for how and why we need to eat at regular intervals, just what happens to that food as it transforms inside our bodies. And none of that describes in any way the meaning of the despairing anger that one can fall into after having gone too long without lunch, or the beautiful sense of contentment that arrives after a good meal. There’s a difference between the functional description of a thing and the individual meaning that a person experiences as a result.
Marriage is the most knowable and mundane face of something unknowable, the will to companionship in the shadow of immortality. It is the boring molecular truth of what happens when you look someone in the eye and touch their most sensitive places while your heart thumps against your ribs like a bridling horse. Who wouldn’t say “I’ll stay with you forever” in a moment like that? And who would want to deny another person the chance of struggling to make good on that promise? What sort of rancorous barbarians do we make of ourselves and our neighbors in trying to rationalize that denial with the bones of our ancestors. The ones who killed their children in effigy to spirits, the ones who bought wives with money, the ones who were allowed second wives if their first was infertile, the ones who needed to be told not have sex with their children, the ones who were allowed to kill a woman who was caught cheating?
If marriage is changing, let it come. The picture that remains of its traditions is in need of a touchup. We were uglier than we think back then.