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Monday, July 6, 2015

Pursuing happiness together

Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka's wedding
with fireworks. Source
Over the Independence Day weekend, I kept on thinking about dignity after writing this post.

In particular I considered dignity as it relates to the pursuit of happiness, to which we all have a right according to the Declaration of Independence.

I wondered if I'd managed to articulate that if dignity is an innate quality, then it's an innate need, not an innate possession. No matter how you treat a human being, he or she still needs to be treated as having control over his/her own life.

When this control is denied, adult human beings are made unhappy. It's understandable to deny control to a child or someone otherwise not capable of making life-changing decisions, but if we presume that neither of these is the case, then we're talking about a human being who is at the pinnacle of his/her ability to make decisions for him/herself. If Beth is an adult woman of sound mind, there is no point in Beth's life at which she will be better equipped to engage in the pursuit of happiness. So to deny Beth the ability to do this is to deny her the dignified treatment she needs.

Thomas's treatment of dignity as an immutable quality has it that Beth's dignity will be completely unaffected by whether or not you acknowledge that she has a right to marry. Hell, his treatment of dignity has it, as we have already seen, that Beth's dignity will be unaffected even if you intern or enslave her.

Which would make a person logically ask-- what, then, is the moral infraction involved in interning or enslaving people? What is the wrong action committed when a person is denied the right to pursue happiness by joining his/her life to another person on the basis of factors like race, religion, or sexual orientation?

Because that is, fundamentally, what "marriage" means, isn't it?

It doesn't mean binding yourself to another person in order to have children (though that might be a choice you make).

It doesn't mean binding yourself to another person to get tax benefits (though you may get those too).

It doesn't mean binding yourself to another person to please God (though that may be involved in your decision).

And it doesn't mean binding yourself to another person in order to survive (though opponents of any sort of social safety net would seem to prefer that).

The pursuit of happiness is not survival. Survival is what you have to take care of before you can pursue happiness. And people shouldn't have to get married to survive.

Which dovetails nicely with this column by Amanda Marcotte, that I also came across over the weekend:
Right Wing Watch posted about Christian conservative activist Wayne Allyn Root—the same one who posited that Obama must have blackmailed Justice Roberts on the Obamacare decision—going on a radio show and positing that gay people are just going to be getting all divorced all the time. From their coverage: 
“Marriage is the most difficult thing in the world,” he said, “I’m talking to you as someone who has been married 24 years, marriage is so difficult that if you do not go to church every Sunday and your whole life isn’t built on a bedrock faith in God and you don’t have kids and your whole life isn’t built around those kids and none of that’s in place and you’re married, the odds of you staying married are close to zero. Divorces will now triple. Gays will never stay married. They just bought themselves the biggest bunch of unhappiness and legal bills that they could ever imagine.” 
I always found it facile to write off homobigots as all closeted gay people who are afraid to let their true desires out, as that is statistically impossible. But I do think you hear that theory a lot because there is a weird kind of resentment and jealousy that radiates off these people and it demands an explanation. I think these comments get to the root of it. They’re not jealous that you get to have a bunch of gay sex. (Though I do think some do think that gay people have more and better sex, which creates some envy.) What I think is going on here is a little more complex, and Root’s comments about what a miserable slog and hellpit of suffering marriage is gets at it. 
Look, I believe Root when he says that not only is his marriage miserable but that he believes marriage is inherently miserable. The religious right argument is that men and women are deeply, fundamentally different—opposites, really—who will never really understand each other. They often talk about marriage as a tense transaction, where women exchange sexual access and family service for financial support and a promise of fidelity. It’s a worldview where marriage is seen as a grim duty, instead of something you do to be happy. 
This isn’t even that hidden from the surface, as Ross Douthat’s sour response to this decision shows. For a lot of homophobes, the logic appears to be something like this: I had to give up hope for happiness by saddling myself with a marriage to someone I don’t really like much in order to fulfill my procreative duties. Who do you gays think you are, with all your talk of love and passion? You’re starting to give other straight people the idea that they should marry for love? Piss on all of you. If I can’t be happy, no one can. 
Indeed, if you think marriage should be about duty and not love, and that it’s meant to be a slog from which only death provides sweet relief, then you probably don’t see the problem with bullying gay people into marrying people of the opposite sex and committing to a life of pleasureless sex and resentment. That may, in fact, sound like your life. 
This kind of thinking was even in Justice Scalia’s unhinged dissent in this case. In response to Justice Kennedy arguing that marriage allows people to “find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality”, Scalia cracked a take-my-wife-please joke. “Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.” Hurk hurk, because people stop having sex when they get married, right? Thigh slap! Bitter laugh. 
Considering that these are the same folks who think you should not have sex before marriage, one does wonder when sex happens, in their worldview. It appears the answer is “rarely, with the woman in particular being reluctant”. 
Needless to say, the impact of this decision on the divorce rate will be negligible. There’s no reason to think that gay people think about marriage differently than straight people. The mentality Root is decrying—the belief that marriage should make you happy instead of being a miserable slog—is widespread amongst straight people. And it’s actually associated with a lower divorce rate, because people hold out for partners that make them happy, making the commitment easier to stick with once it’s made.
Marriage is not part of everyone's pursuit of happiness. The nature of happiness, and humanity, is that different humans have different ideas of what happiness entails. But binding yourself to another person in such a pursuit, legally or spiritually or otherwise, is central enough to our notion of what it means to be a human in our society that there can be no justification for denying that equal right to people on a basis which has nothing to do with their equal ability to make that decision for themselves.

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