Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Pessimist's Perspective

When I was in my mid-teens a prefect at my high school derided me as a pessimist. Since then as an adult I have been described by friends as too trusting of others i.e. someone who is too optimistic about human nature. Sounds contradictory perhaps, but in my mind there is no contradiction between anticipating individual people will generally behave well, and questioning the reasoning in collective popular enthusiasms.

In a nice blog piece called "When Hope Tramples Truth" British philosopher Roger Scruton looks at what makes it difficult to be a contrarian around popular perceptions. Yesterday I saw another news-writer claim that gay marriage in Canada, unlike the US and the UK, is a done deal and off our radar. Scruton warns us that this change might not be so simple: "..Gay marriage. What could be more sensible than to extend marriage to homosexuals, granting them the security of an institution devoted to lifelong partnership? The result will be improvements all around – not just improved toleration of homosexuals, but improvement in the lives of gay couples, as they adapt to established norms. Optimists have therefore united to promote this cause, and, as is so often the case, have turned persecuting stares on those who dissent from it, dismissing them as intolerant, “homophobic,” “bigoted,” offenders against the principles of liberal democracy. Of course the optimists may be right. The important fact, however, is that hope is more important to them than truth. 

People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavillings of mean-minded bigots. Here in Britain, discussions on gay marriage have been conducted as though it were entirely a matter of extending rights, and not of fundamentally altering the institution. Difficult issues, like the role of sexual difference in social reproduction, the nature of the family, the emotional needs of children and the meaning of rites of passage, have been ignored or brushed aside."

My doubts about homosexuals legally marrying have always been focused on, in Scruton's words, "fundamentally altering the institution (of marriage)".  Not long ago in the early days of this country's debate on the issue, two homosexual intellectuals wrote a prominent front page op-ed taking the same line as Scruton. Nowadays in Canada no gay writer would dare suggest that same-sex marriage fundamentally alters the nature of a time-honoured institution that has formed the bedrock of nearly all human societies over our species' existence.

"Personally, I don’t think the two are quite comparable. Straight marriage had been around for thousands and thousands of years. It’s not disgraceful to be careful about seeing it redefined. I was never an opponent of gay marriage, but I can’t dismiss the skepticism of people who instinctively resisted change to an ancient and fundamental institution." From US commentator David Brooks in Marriage Security & Insecurities

For myself I feel the historic meaning of the word family is being changed right before our eyes as  a number of major adjustments have been made to the institution within our lifetime. Equal tax treatment for cohabiting (common law) couples and married ones, and legal marriage for homosexual couples are in some ways contradictory. As straight individuals choose to marry less, gay couples insist on making it legal. Along with no-fault divorce, these trends threaten in different ways the concept of a permanent socially-blessed liaison between each sex, one purposed to raise the next generation.

We really can have no idea what these historically unique societal experiments will produce, for there are no precedents. However to doubt, as some of us do, the essentially positive nature of the eventual outcome is to be ignored at a time in Western society when optimism about wholesale social experimentation is oddly partnered with increasing economic pessimism. One result is a declining and  below-replacement birth rate that current lawmaking enthusiasms will do nothing to change.

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