The campaign to legalise gay marriage in Western countries has been wildly successful. Political and popular opposition has crumbled in the face of the reasonable demand for a public justification for banning it. The feeble excuses for arguments trotted out by its opponents - including religious institutions, talking heads, politicians and lawyers in court - are increasingly perceived as mere rationalisations for bigotry. This is democracy as public reasoning at its best (and has been cited as such by political philosophers - e.g.).
As a liberal I find much to celebrate about this victory. Yet, at the risk of offending the righteousness of the left, I also see something to regret. The line of reasoning behind the marriage equality movement is disappointing in the smallness of its ambition. It holds up a mirror to the wider renunciation of radical idealism by what passes for the left these days.
Proponents of marriage equality have overwhelmingly argued that it is unfair to treat homosexual relationships differently from heterosexual ones because they are in every significant respect the same. As a rhetorical strategy to advance marriage rights and the acceptance of homosexuals in general this argument may be justified by its political success. But as public reasoning such a justification is disappointing. It does not really advance the idea of equality of deep freedom: it is a demand to have one's conformity accepted rather than to have one's difference respected.
Discrimination is a very real injustice that is worth fighting against. Preventing homosexual couples from marrying violates the principle of equality under the law - treating similar cases in the same way - and the principle of equality of dignity in a democracy. There are hundreds if not thousands of government benefits and ancillary rights linked to marriage status - from tax filing to health insurance benefits to parental rights - which it is unfair and demeaning to deny to people on the basis of an irrelevant feature: their sexuality.
In terms of justice, opening these benefits to homosexual couples is a comparative improvement. Yet it is only an incremental movement and not necessarily a step in the right direction if it forecloses further progress.
A genuinely just society would respect everyone's equal right to live your own life for yourself, rather than to have to satisfy other people's ideas of how you should live. Moving towards that goal would seem to require more than merely tinkering with the distributional rules about who gets the legal and financial benefits of marriage. It requires challenging their legitimacy.
A great many of the benefits of marriage have been explicitly designed by governments to support one particular way of life - long-term conjugal monogamy - at the expense of alternatives, like singleness or non-monogamous, non-sexual, non-long term relationships. These benefits make marriage artificially attractive, and also serve to make pursuing any of the alternatives artificially difficult. This is the bureaucratisation of morality - the use of state resources and power to institutionalise certain private moral conventions in the order of society. Extending membership of the marriage club to homosexuals merely extends the benefits of conventional conformity to them: the right to live in the same way as heterosexuals are supposed to, to live what they consider a normal life.
The reason why marriage equality may not be a step in the right direction is not only that it has taken the form of a demand for inclusion within the conventional order rather than a challenge to that order, but that it thereby implicitly endorses the primacy of conventional institutions like marriage. After all, it is hard to oppose an oppressive institution when you are petitioning to be allowed into it. As Betsy Lucal puts it very well, "the freedom to marry also signals the tyranny of marriage".
And this itself is somewhat surprising, for until quite recently the gay rights movement was characterised by a radical and foundational challenge to society's heteronormative institutions and norms. When Andrew Sullivan, a conservative gay activist, first argued for marriage equality he drew a lot of criticism from the gay community. As he noted in his 1989 essay, Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage,
Much of the gay leadership clings to notions of gay life as essentially outsider, anti-bourgeois, radical. Marriage, for them, is co-optation into straight society. For the Stonewall generation, it is hard to see how this vision of conflict will ever fundamentally change. But for many other gays - my guess, a majority - while they don't deny the importance of rebellion 20 years ago and are grateful for what was done, there's now the sense of a new opportunity. A need to rebel has quietly ceded to a desire to belong. To be gay and to be bourgeois no longer seems such an absurd proposition.
Achieving marriage equality is a conservative victory, in that it is an implicit endorsement of the social primacy of monogamous sexual relationships and the state's involvement in maintaining that primacy by the very group that was once most critical of such uses of state power. The fact that some conservatives are too blinded by bigotry to see this is irrelevant.
Indeed, given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps we should not be so surprised by the speed with which support for marriage equality has become mainstream common sense in straight society. Permitting homosexuals to join the marriage club requires almost nothing from the rest of us. It allows self-professed progressives to congratulate ourselves on being open minded and open hearted, even though it actually presents no challenge to our sense of self or to our preconceptions about the good life.
Strangely enough, it is only among the minority of conservatives who continue to oppose marriage equality for religious reasons that the end of marriage is openly contemplated. The slippery slope arguments they come out with - about people marrying their horses and what not - are rather silly. But the fear behind them is driven by the recognition that without social and state backing their moral ideal of marriage has no substance. These conservatives suddenly recognise the malleability of the institution of marriage, the fundamental truth that as a society we can make marriage mean whatever we want it to. We can give legal recognition and social status to whatever kind of relationship we choose to.
Again this is strange. In the old days conservatives were the ones who saw the social order as unalterable natural fact and progressives were distinguished by their belief that the social order is human made and contingent (and improvable). Nowadays it seems that the left sees social institutions such as marriage as a recognition of human nature: our intrinsic, supposedly universal, desire for monogamous sexual love.
No wonder the left is in such a dismal state. If self-professed progressives can't even see that marriage is a human invention - with a social and political history, and the power to perpetuate itself once established - no wonder they are unable to imagine how better inventions could improve the world. No wonder their politicians and activists demand nothing more radical than incrementally tweaking distributional rules in the direction of fairness.
The left's stunted imagination affects us all. For we can't rely on the pursuit of fairness to bring us any closer to a just society of real equality and freedom.
A just society would be one in which we all have the real freedom to be ourselves and to reject the structuring of our lives by state backed social conventions about how we are supposed to live and what we are supposed to value.
Of course it is eminently unreasonable to expect gay rights activists to do all the work of bringing that about! There was a time, not long ago, when the gay community represented a particularly significant practical and moral challenge to the social order, but the character of the campaign for marriage equality suggests that time may be over.
Yet where can one look now for a radical critique of our social order and a radical vision of a just world? Mainstream feminism, the other major source, seems to have decayed into not much more than interest group advocacy (focused on motherhood and the interests of a professional elite - e.g.). Indeed, the left in general seems to have lost its ability to imagine a significantly better world - which is its whole point - and instead talks only of legalistic fairness.
Fairness makes bad institutions better, as social mobility makes gross inequality more palatable. But it does nothing about the real problem of the domination of those bad institutions in the first place. The challenge is the same as it has always been, How do we get to justice from here? Fairer access to the unjust institutions handed down to us by ages past is not enough.