By now you've probably heard Dr. Ben Carson comparing gay marriage to pedophilia and bestiality, remarks that many have found deeply offensive. What you may not have heard is how conservatives are defending them.
It's worth hearing, because while their arguments tell you very little about gay marriage, they reveal a lot about the ugliness that still pervades conservative thinking on the subject.
Take Fox News's Megyn Kelly. The other day she said, basically: Hey, give Carson a break; if you're trying to think of another relationship to compare to gay marriage, how many choices are there?
Then her guest, Ben Ferguson, chimed in saying words to the effect of: And anyway, if we extend the definition of marriage to include same sex couples, how will we ever stop the kinds of "relationships" cited by Dr. Carson from also being accorded marital sanction?
First, a note about analogies. When you make an analogy it means that you see similarities in the things being compared sufficient to make discussion of one relevant to understanding the other. So what are the similarities you must see between bestiality, for example, and gay marriage to make discussion of the former relevant to the latter? For conservatives, apparently, it's the presence of a sexual transaction or, perhaps more to the point, some sense that the defining element of both activities is sexual.
Ok, let's assume that there is a sexual component involved in the relationships contemplated. That is also presumably true of heterosexual marriage. Which leads one to ask: Is the prominence conservatives give to sex when considering gay marriage consistent with how we think of marriage between heterosexuals?
Lots of times, people who care about each other have sex. And under a variety of value systems, the only place where sex is considered neither sinful nor shameful is within the marital construct. Propagation of the species, etc. If that's what you believe, terrific. Follow your views.
But no argument can seriously be made that sex is the defining element of heterosexual marriage. If that were the case, we would prohibit marriage among those who are psychologically or biologically unable to consummate the sex act.
Of course, we don't do anything of the kind. And the reason is pretty obvious: Sex (and children) are only one component of what most of us recognize to be the profound and varied set of connections that bind a marital couple together. Things like shared values, expectations and aspirations. Interdependence, caring and compassion. And, of course, love.
So why the conservative fixation on sex when discussing gay marriage? Because by defining it down to a sexual transaction conservatives seek to remove the other profoundly enriching and constructive elements that most of us associate with the marital relationship from our consideration of gay marriage. It's a way to degrade the love between individuals of the same gender, and to remove their relationships from the space conservatives would prefer to reserve for relationships between those of different genders.
And then, having stripped gay marriage of everything but the sex, conservatives go a step further, lumping it in with the kinds of behaviors engaged in by the criminal and the insane.
So let's talk about that. Is it really true that if same sex couples are allowed to marry there will be no way, as conservatives like Ferguson seem to believe, for us to draw lines between sexual relationships that should and should not be consecrated as marital ones? I suppose that is a risk if the collective IQ of the human race is reduced to that of a solitary snail.
Sex between same-sex partners is like pedophilia or bestiality in exactly the same way sex between partners of different genders is like rape. Which is to say: It isn't.
Though apparently some conservatives fail to apprehend it, there already exists a bright line in our culture between consensual sex acts and those that aren't. A child cannot consent to sex. And, for that matter, neither can a cow. A mature adult can, and when he or she consents to sexual behavior with another consenting adult, we usually leave it be.
If you understand these things, that marriage is the product of a rich and profound shared emotional experience and that, yes, there are bright lines between consensual sexual relations and those that aren't, then things like bestiality and pedophilia simply do not occur to you when thinking about gay marriage, any more than they would if you were thinking about marriage between a man and a woman.
I think one reason for the furor over Dr. Carson's remarks is that we've heard this kind of thing before. Proponents of the segregated South not infrequently justified Jim Crow laws by comparing African-Americans to lower forms of life, like primates. Now, I suppose the Megyn Kellys of that day shrugged their shoulders and explained: Well, if you're trying to think of an animal that's like a human being but isn't…
But that explanation proves the charge, so to speak. If you think one person is less worthy than another because of skin color, sexual orientation, gender, etc., well, that alone ought to be sufficient to disqualify your opinion from the public discourse. And yet conservatives rush to defend.
Kelly's objections notwithstanding, it's really not very hard to think of other kinds of relationships that could fall under a more elastic view of marriage. How about an employee entering into an employment contract with an employer? Or the purchaser of a product and its seller? Or a landlord and tenant? They all involve two presumably mature, consenting adults entering into a relationship aimed at benefiting them both.
Do these examples seem ridiculous to you? Of course they do. They're nothing like marriage. But they've got vastly more in common with both the hetero and homosexual varieties than child molestation.
At the end of the day, we hardly need go far afield to find a comparison to gay marriage that makes perfect sense: It's heterosexual marriage. Because, no matter how much conservatives try to make it un-so, they are in the most important and fundamental ways, exactly the same.
And that's how they should be treated.