This is part of my series on Matt Walsh’s book, The Unholy Trinity, Blocking the Left’s Assault on Life, Marriage, and Gender. Chapter 6 is titled “The Impossibility of Same-Sex Marriage.”
I’m glad to get back to writing, graduate school has gotten in the way recently. I’ve been trying to do this book review more frequently, too. Unfortunately, this chapter wasn’t terribly exciting, as I suspected. In this chapter, Matt Walsh retreads all the arguments against same-sex marriage we’ve heard before. Additionally, as is standard for right-wing reactionaries, he seems to willingly and deliberately avoid how left and liberal leaning people value the importance of informed consent.
I personally don’t think any of these arguments need retreading. We have had the conversation on LGBTQ relationships and marriage for decades, and the arguments have been beaten to death. My country has had same-sex marriage for a couple years, Johno’s country has had it since 2014, and Australia finally got on the boat in December (congratulations!).
The arguments against same-sex marriage are flimsy, and I don’t feel the need to dignify them by dredging them up, and it would feel disrespectful to the readers here to rehash them yet again. There are many, many resources for countering religious objections to LGBTQ relationships that you can find if necessary. I would rather discuss something as ludicrous as Flat Earth belief than engage in flogging dead, homophobic horses.
There were a couple points, however, that were worth discussing, if mostly for a broader philosophical discussion of social interaction, or for countering a sneaky argumentative tactic. These I point out not really to make a case for gay marriage, but to address forms of lazy or dishonest argumentation.
The chapter title is certainly provocative, as Matt Walsh is declaring same-sex marriage to be impossible. This is a bold move. Walsh delves into why he believes this to be the case. He begins by stating that redefining marriage to be something other than a monogamous union between a man and a woman would be akin to a government decreeing that a circle is the same as a square or that cubes are triangular.
He further laments the introduction of the phrase “traditional marriage” as a contrast to gay marriage. He gives a few reasons why:
You wouldn’t take your kids to the zoo and say, “Oh look, kids it’s a traditional penguin,” would you?
If your child is doing his math homework and writes down that 2+2=4, you don’t say, “Yes, that’s traditional arithmetic,” do you?
No, because to tack “traditional” onto something is to imply that there are completely legitimate nontraditional versions of it.
Traditional marriage isn’t traditional-it’s real, it’s actual, it’s marriage. It’s the only kind that exists or can ever exist.
It’s always occurred to me that the marriage debate, like many philosophical or political debate, is a question of labels more than anything else. What often seems like a heated discussion can be disappointingly be reduced to semantic disagreement. In many cases, the debate over gay marriage is an argument over what the term means politically more than anything else. This is clearly the case all over this chapter. Walsh pushes back on labeling something “traditional” since, in his worldview, marriage comes in one singular form and doesn’t need a modifier to distinguish straight marriage from anything else.
While he doesn’t express this very well, I think by the terms “real” and “actual” Walsh is trying to appeal to a Platonic ideal of what marriage is. He’s insisting that the concept of marriage exists in the same sense that a square or a triangle or a circle exists, and only this one, pure, concept is the only legitimate form of marriage.
Certainly, we as a society could simply declare a square to be circular. This would only really change the language by which we discuss shapes and not the metaphysical nature of their geometry. This would not change the fact that there are shapes in 2-Dimensional Euclidean space, like a rectangle with four equal sides, or a set of all points that are an equal radial distance from a point. Whether or not it was “traditional” to characterize and use the properties of these shapes or not, these two shapes would be mutually incompatible simply by the nature of how they are defined. There are essential logical properties of these definitions. Once you know the radius of a circle you know every useful thing about the circle, and the same with a square’s width.
Certainly, shapes (or penguin taxonomy or basic arithmetic) have traditional names, and we communicate their properties through language and the labels we give them. By using anything that is incompatible with the previous definition of a circle, you get a fundamentally different shape and different properties. Regardless of what our tradition is or what we call it, the emergent properties from these incompatible definitions must logically diverge.
Marriage is not the same, and there is no essential Platonic ideal for what a marriage is. You can’t really know what entails in any given marriage just by looking at the couple. You can’t tell if they are happy together, or if they will only part upon death. You can’t know if they will have children, or want to have children (they could both be anti-natalist). They may not even want to have sex, since asexual folks can certainly get married. Two people undergoing marriage could perform the exact same behavior and their genitalia or gender identity could be thoroughly interchangeable. Yet we’d still call it a marriage.
Defining marriage is much looser than geometry or taxonomy. Anthropologists have discussed that these unions vary widely throughout history and cultures. As much as Catholics like Walsh insist on declaring by fiat and by pounding their fists that marriage must be one thing, they struggle to support it using anything other than The Bible. Walsh later brings up Bible verses, of course*.
Marriage is a social behavior. Trying to nail down some sort of essentialist behavior of marriage would be like reducing other social behaviors to one or two simple defining characteristics. Most folks think of cooking ribs or pork all day when they hear the word barbecue, but if a bunch of vegans spend all day grilling kebabs and stuffed peppers and they called it a barbecue, wouldn’t we know all the essentials of what’s going on? We often categorize music as instruments and singing different tones over time, but if someone put spoken word over some sounds of household objects making noises in a rhythmic fashion, would it be wrong to categorize that art as music?
Social behaviors aren’t as simple as circles and squares. Instead of being one simple thing, the labels for marriage, barbecues, and music seem to refer to clusters of things that have many commonalities, but many of these similarities can also be non-essential. If I were to tell Walsh that two of my gay friends got married to each other, he would know exactly what I meant, regardless of his protestations to the contrary.
Let’s move on.
Walsh raises a common talking point among conservatives, one that states that marriage shouldn’t be recognized by the government. It’s no surprise at all to me that this objection to government-recognition of marriage only seemed to become more popular when the fight for gay marriage really took off. After all, if you don’t want to grant rights and privileges to one subcategory of people, then you can still posture yourself as neutral if you just rescind the same rights for everyone. If you don’t want to share your toys, you can just take them away for everyone.
While I do think that social conservatives simply don’t want to grant marriage to gay couples, I somewhat agree that the government shouldn’t privilege some relationships over others. It has a degree of arbitrariness, and in a world where economic disadvantage in the west is such a large concern it seems silly to give different amounts of economic benefit and access to society to folks simply based on whether or not they have a mate. I think a good case can be made for this based on inequality and social justice, but I’m interested in what the readers think.
Nevertheless, Walsh’s position on government involvement seems bizarre and nonsensical.
I don’t want the government “involved” in my marriage. I am not asking for a state-appointed representative to come to my house and oversee the whole arrangement. What I want is for the government to simply recognize the institution, generally speaking, because it is a real thing and an important thing and there is no credible reason for the government to deny its existence. There is nothing wrong with the State saying, “Our country needs children, children need parents, and parents need to be married to provide stability for their children, so we will do certain things to protect and encourage this valuable institution.” The only problem is that it offends the emotional sensibilities of some people, but that is not actually a real problem. It is a problem only for the person who is offended, and her problem should not be our problem.
Calling someone offended is an easy way to dismiss someone as a whining crybaby without actually addressing why they might be offended (even if they aren’t particularly offended in the first place). Of course, I am certainly offended at unequal access to certain rights, but my objection to granting rights to certain folks and not others is not based on me being offended. We can recognize that it is morally unacceptable to discriminate against certain people, and we are better off when everyone has the same rights and privileges. We make laws based on what will promote well-being for the most people, so it makes sense to change the laws when that standard isn’t being met.
That being said, Walsh is talking out of both sides of his mouth here. He says he doesn’t want government involvement in marriage, but that the country should do “certain things” to help this social institution. In the United States, “these things” refers to over 1,000 rights and privileges. Perhaps Walsh only wants a small number of these privileges granted, but he certainly doesn’t imply this. The fact of the matter is that any government recognition of marriage is not a small-government position.
Walsh makes the bizarre claim that it’s only when the government “decides not to recognize things for what they are”. When the government doesn’t recognize fetuses as persons, that is intrusion. When the government doesn’t recognize slaves as human, that is intrusion. When the government doesn’t recognize marriage as a fundamentally same-sex endeavor, apparently that is intrusion.
This is simply absurd. It is a politically libertarian position (in the broadest sense of libertarian) to grand bodily autonomy to people and not prohibiting abortion. In no sense is allowing abortion “intrusion”. Additionally, any government should recognize slaves as people, but forcing a state or nation to end slavery is intrusion, and that intrusion is a good thing. The least intrusive thing for a government to do regarding marriage is to ignore it completely, whether or not you think that is a good thing. To go back to geometry, I’d be surprised if most developed nations had any laws defining what a square or a circle is. Is the government intruding on mathematics by refusing to recognize the difference between a circle and a square? Certainly not.
Let’s get on to one more attempt at rhetorical sleight-of-hand in this post before I call it yes?
At one point in the chapter, Walsh tries to insist again on procreation being a necessary component of marriage. While he recognizes that many heterosexual couples are, for example, infertile or don’t want to have kids, he insists that we can still cram procreation into the essential definition of marriage. He uses an analogous statement to make his point. He asks if it’s accurate to say that, in principle, humans have legs.
If so, what about a person born legless or a person who loses her legs in a tragic accident later in life?
Is she now subhuman?
Does she belong to other species?
What about lazy couch potatoes who choose not to use their legs, electing instead to sit on the couch and watch Top Chef reruns?
Do any of these examples falsify my “human beings have legs” statement?
I understand where he’s going. I can provisionally accept that in an informal sense, “human beings have legs” is a true statement. Physiologically, our species is bipedal, and even though some individuals don’t have that characteristic, in a broad manner of speaking most of our species have legs. This is roughly as true as me saying “New Yorkers take the subway” or “You start a car by turning the keys”. Despite numerous and important counterexamples, in a conversation we don’t need to nitpick these statements, lest we become that boring person at a party.
Walsh says these counterexamples to humans not having legs exist only due to accident or as a result of free choice. He says this to insist that married couples not procreating is the same way. While it’s broadly true that marriage is for procreation, he states, heterosexual couples still will not procreate for one reason or another, much like the reason humans may not have legs.
Anyone paying attention sees what’s going on. Matt Walsh is playing an inconsistent game with the level of rigor in defining terms. He’s spent a lot of this chapter insisting that marriage has an essential, unchangeable, immutable characteristic, and that definitive component is creating children, and gay couples by their nature can never meet that requirement**. However, he lets up on this essential nature when he makes the case for something analogous. He doesn’t make the case that humans by definition have legs, because he knows that’s not true. He knows that losing our legs doesn’t make us less human.
If we recognize marriage for folks that can’t or won’t procreate, then we are forced to recognize that procreation is a non-essential characteristic for marriage. It doesn’t matter the reason why folks don’t procreate; we can’t insist on that definition if there are exceptions. He’s not making a case for procreation to remain essential to the definition of marriage, he’s making a case for using loose language with many exceptions. He’s allowed to do that, but he can’t insist that marriage must involve procreation.
I didn’t include many citations in this post. As I said earlier, the arguments over the facts of gay marriage and how it affects society have been done to death. I picked a handful of things that I could address without spending too much time combing through the internet and just address the structure of the arguments.
I suspect that most statements in this chapter that were in principle verifiable or falsifiable were wrong due to my past history reading through this book, but I’m not going to waste much time to support my suspicions. Like the last chapter, unsupported statements are thrown out haphazardly with no regard for citations. For example, at one point, Walsh makes the following wild assertion:
Indeed, over 350 studies from over a dozen nations confirm the importance of a household with both parents present.
In the context of the paragraph and chapter, the author would have you believe that this supports a male and female parent. However, if you look at the wording, you’ll see that there’s no gender involved. “Both parents” could mean any gender of parents, not just exclusively male and female. This type of rhetorical shoehorning is much like when Focus on the Family attempted to defend against the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, and tried to insist that “nuclear family” necessarily implied opposite-sex couples.
Oh, when I could watch a video of Al Franken and not be disappointed.
Perhaps those 350 studies actually do support Walsh’s point, but it’s his goddamn fault he’s being so sloppy with language and logic throughout his writing. I doubt that there are 350 studies promoting heterosexual marriage, since there are many studies that show that children raised by same-sex parents turn out just fine (and better than heterosexual couples, by some measures. Dammit, Walsh, you got me digging for citations again.) If I ever get to writing nonfiction, this is a lesson for me to cite everything I can.
The good news is that I’ve passed the halfway point for this book, both in terms of page count and chapters. A quick glance at the final chapter indicates that it’s a sky-is-falling ominous prediction of disaster due to our culture’s heathen ways and deviation from God’s light. This is the shit that keeps me going, so I’m motivated to keep digging through this tripe.
I took a bit of a break writing in December, mostly due to graduate school demands, but I’m glad to be back. I have a handful of interesting questions I’m looking forward to exploring, and maybe some new content in a different medium beyond writing which I’ll share here. Happy New Year to the blog and the readers, perhaps 2018 will be better than 2017! I’m not holding my breath, but we’ll certainly see.
*An excerpt from Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Romans 1:26-28, and 1 Timothy 1:10 if you’re interested.
**This leads to the question of whether or not conservative Christians would think a marriage between a transgender woman and a cisgender woman is legitimate or not. Either way, somebody’s going to be a little pissed off.