Monday, January 2, 2012

Winning the battle for morality

Linda Hirshman  writes in Salon that 2011 saw gay rights victories due to a surprise weapon:  morality.

How did they do it? They did it – and this is the lesson that the gay revolution holds for any progressive movement – not by asking for “tolerance.” They didn’t ask people to accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses. Rather, they set out to change change people’s minds about what is moral. 
Moral relationships are not about what sexual positions or organs are involved, the movement argued, no matter what the Bible said (or didn’t say) and no matter what Queen Victoria thought. Against the impermeable wall of religious sexual morality, the gay marriage movement fired the armament of other measures of morality. Sexual relationships are about relationships. What is the content of a moral relationship with another human being? 
The gay marriage movement told the stories of its courtships, invoking the ancient Platonic idea of love as the recognition of the goodness in the other person…. 
It was an uphill battle. For too long in America the subject of morality has been collapsed into sexual morality. For most of Western history, morality had richer content. Morality meant proper conduct regarding wealth, just as one example…. 
But as inequality rose, moral debates about economic justice fell until only sex was left as a subject for moral conversation. Worse, in response to the sexual revolution of the ’60s, moral sex was defined by a snapshot of the 19th century Protestant, monogamous, heterosexual, reproductive family. Same-sex sex was the definition of the immoral. Except for those uppity women wanting to abort their “babies,” it dominated the field. With the arrival of religious activists into U.S. politics in the ’70s, this religiously defined sexual morality was promoted as a proper subject for politics. 
Gay activists reversed this trend. Asserting their claim to marriage, gay activists told the predominantly straight world that there are more ways to think about morality than the Evangelical Christian morality of Victorian sexuality. And they were persuasive. When conservative lawyer Ted Olson, former solicitor general under President Bush, explained why he sued to establish gay marriage as a constitutional right,  he invoked the essentials of the activists’ argument: “We believe that a conservative value is stable relationships and stable community and loving individuals coming together and forming a basis that is a building block of our society, which includes marriage.” 
In this, as in so many things, the gay community were early adopters of the only strategy that beats the resurgent religious right: fight morality with morality. Once the category of morality was opened, every kind of debate became possible — and so did victory. It arrived in 2011.
Well, I'm not so sure about victory. But the gay rights movement is at its heart, deeply conservative.  It is very conservative to want to serve your country, get married, and contribute fairly to society.  Those aren't revolutionary, in fact completely the opposite.

Sure, there are gay folk who don't want that, who reject marriage as heterosexual patriarchy, and so on. Lots of straights don't want it either.

But increasingly, gay people want to be just regular neighbors, living their lives as part of what I like to call the "tapestry of community": just regular folks, not limited to a gayborhood or gay culture.  And supporting that is a deeply conservative argument.

Which just goes to show that there aren't a lot of conservatives left in the political world.

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