Monday, April 6, 2009

Stop Bullshitting Us, Rod Dreher

A friend forwarded this Rod Dreher article on Real Clear Politics. Entitled "Secular Liberalism as Consensus," it's about how the liberal framework of the United States favors arguments for, rather than against, gay marriage.

The thing that caught my attention immediately was his use of Alisdair MacIntyre, as he's a philosopher I've also used extensively. That's great, as far as it goes. It's an excellent point that we often disagree not only about the Good in a situation, but also about the means of determining the Good. The ways in which liberals and conservatives can "talk past" one another are, indeed, vast.

But really, is it the aim of Dreher's article to reinforce that point? Here's a section that particularly stands out:

Conservatives find it hard to articulate a case for traditional marriage in terms acceptable in liberal rights discourse, as well as in the shallow rhetoric of contemporary debate. Defending traditional marriage requires burrowing deep into the meaning of the human person, sex, gender, society and law - and that's just for starters. Life in community is a mysterious and complex thing that cannot be radically remade to suit a preferred outcome.

"If you can redefine [marriage] so that the sex of the parties has nothing to do with it, then you can redefine anything in human life any way you want," Kalb told me in an interview. "Man becomes the artifact of whoever is in power."

This, I think, is what scares ordinary people the most about the swift attempt to kick the foundation out from under traditional marriage. They intuit that there is something, well, tyrannical in the idea that virtually overnight, the long-settled meaning of marriage could change in a vast social experiment without historical precedent - and that any attempt to resist this radicalization stands condemned as God-intoxicated bigotry.

First of all, even if it wasn't straight ad hominem crap to blame the shallowness of the debate on a lack of thought by liberals, it's factually nuts. There has probably been more academic work on gender and sexuality than by the whole of non-legal American conservativism in the last 40 years. I would hazard a guess that most of it, furthermore, supports the contention that the supposedly "alternative" sexual practices have a history that is far older than the human race. And that most of it agrees with Draher's call for more study into the nature(s) of human sexuality. So whatever the problem is, it's not that people haven't thought long and hard about these issues or are avoiding additional thought and research.

In fact, it is precisely all of that research that leads me to my primary question: who does Dreher think he's fooling by resting his entire argument on the "traditional" status of heterosexual marriage? As historical, anthropological and ethological studies attest, homosexuality does not represent a redefinition of human sexuality, but one of a number of vastly diverse but time-honored sexual practices that don't fit with the relatively new ideology of American conservatism. Even aside from the infinite anecdotal evidence that homosexual relationships are just as wonderful, complicated and life-defining as heterosexual ones, we have all the scientific evidence we need to reject Draher's belief that the meaning of marriage is "long-settled."

So, about those differences in the ways that different people determine the Good? There's one right there! I can point to it in the very article that starts out trying to expose the scary liberal pattern: the conservative movement's tendency to grab at the moral high ground and redefine all of history by labeling the last several hundred years of ideology an infallible "tradition."

And hey, I'm even willing to overlook some of the looming is/ought fallacies when it comes to arguments from tradition. There's some useful stuff about piety and reverence in Confucianism, to take one example. But we're talking about a "tradition" that has been deeply distorted (read, substantially fabricated) in recent years, used as the sole argument against extending the legal right of marriage (and the human rights that accompany it) to a major segment of the population. I can't tell whether Draher is actually trying to lie to us, or if his bullshit is just so thick that he can't see through it.

Either way, it's amazing that this article got past an editor.


  1. I could attack your post line by line, but it's getting late, and I have class tomorrow morning (proof by omission). Instead I will only attack part of it line by line.

    1) Speaking of ad hominem crap: how, exactly, does evidence of giraffe homosexuality, or homosexuality throughout human history, undermine Dreher's presumption that MARRIAGE in particular has, for many (thousands of) years, been defined as heterosexual in (most?) major civilizations and religions. How, exactly, do you intend to tie this precedent strictly to American Conservatisim? Straw man, I say.

    2) Is/ought fallacies? Come on.

    3) "I can't tell whether Draher is actually trying to lie to us, or if his bullshit is just so thick that he can't see through it." Well, I can't see through it either, so I can relate to the guy. You, too, have reinforced Dreher's point with your hyperbolic hyperbole.

    4)"it's amazing that this article got past an editor." Well, I thought it was an interesting, and well balanced article about the decay of the public discourse between liberals and conservatives - about how this country is pulling itself apart a bit politically.

    Now, I felt that this article was wanting for something. It managed to be pleasantly vague when it came time to explain just which rhetorical practices the left has unjustly dismissed. But still, I thought the premise was compelling, and over all it was well presented.

  2. 1. The connection was implicit, but commonly stated enough that I didn't think I had to make it. For one, marriage in this country confers legal rights such as hospital visitation that amount to basic human rights. (My addition: homosexuality is as natural a human sexual practice as they come.) Denying marriage to homosexuals without changing the legal rights conferred by the practice intimately links sexuality, marriage and morality. (In any case, my argument was not ad hominem, while Draher's was.)

    More importantly, and I should have stated this: the notion of marriage is made up, and the entire debate about it is a straw man. Without all the "In the sight of God" stuff, how do you argue for marriage? (Yes, we do have to argue for it). Based on tradition and the desire to culturally sanction sexual relationships. This debate is about marriage because American conservatism wants to sanction some of those relationships, but not others. Thus, everyone pretends that marriage is a sacred thing that all humans practice that is necessary for the survival of the human race.

    But it's crap, as much as everyone believes it. Even among those cultures that partake of the practice – which is not all of them – there's tremendous variation in both the meaning and practical enactment. If marriage was sacred and inviolate in this country, we wouldn't allow divorce. But we do, because it would be fucking cruel to outlaw it for obvious reasons. The fact that marriage has probably done more good than harm in our society is not cause to just overlook the harm it does on a daily basis: WE CAN FIX SOME OF IT.

    Yo, though, do you seriously think the shallowness of debate is due to the lack of deep thought about sexuality on the left? That's exactly what Draher said, hence my getting pissed off and making that paragraph more about sexuality than marriage. Have you never met a smart gender studies major?

    2. What? Arguments from tradition are subject to is/ought fallacies. I've got some sensitivity to Searle's position, but it only goes so far.

    3. No shit. But he's the one whining about it.

    Also, it was a serious question. Is he avoiding the academic work on the subject or denying it?

    4. Look, I'm down with the man's use of MacIntyre as far as that goes. My point was that he departs from that worthwhile premise the second he states it, and if he was serious about trying to fix a rift then he'd lead by example. But he clearly does not actually care about doing that (shit, it'd put him out of a job), and just wanted to sound smart by quoting a smart dude. He wasn't, as you point out, even making a specific point.

    And on that front, explanations of why people fail to communicate are a dime a dozen in philosophy. It's sorta the point of the discipline, when you cut out the stuff it can't actually talk about with authority. If you're interested in this problem, there's better reading than Dreher.

    Anyway, I wholly reject the premise that there has been a decay in the public discourse in America caused by an increasing rift between between liberals and conservatives. People of different political persuasions have never talked to one another directly, even when they were in the same room. Hell, look at the ancient Greeks or the English: at least we don't execute fellow citizens over the disagreements.

    Yeah, things'd be easier if we all agreed on the Good or used the same framework for reasoning about it. But that would be as terrible as it is impossible. That would be tyranny.

  3. Lemma 1: I'm smart and I see it this way, so there must be some merit to this viewpoint.

    1a) The significance of 'marriage' itself in the gay marriage debate has come to consist largely of symbolism, rather than human rights, as the debate has shifted recently from civil unions to 'marriages.' So I think it's quite fair to consider marriage primarily as symbolic.

    1b) I should have stated this: regardless of whether some powerful notion of marriage is universal across cultures and through time, in this country marriage is largely viewed as a hallowed institution. Culturally significant traditions have been built on less, such as American football, Japanese sumo or Scottish kilts. Try suggesting that the NFL switch to a round ball. That's even the same sport up to homotopy equivalence (unlike gay versus straight sex).

    For what it's worth, I think that many of the ideologues opposing gay marriage are not exactly sympatico with the American culture of divorce either, although I recognize that this does present a double-standard in the sanctity of marriage.

    1c) Most importantly: Dreher's article is not about the liberal thought process excluding academia. If it were, I agree, it would be complete malarky. I don't think that's what Dreher said (see Lemma 1), although I'm sure you could make some reasonable case that he did. And I'd like to see that, so I could argue with it more specifically. Or maybe even agree with you.

    2) Arguments from tradition all rely on the premise that we live in a society (or world) that is the product of ages of tinkering (evolution, even) and slowly arriving at this near-equilibrium. There's your is -> ought. I'm not sure what the real issue here is.

    3a) I agree with Dreher that this is an issue. How can you be open minded when you don't even have the ears to hear another view? Or more crucially, when you delight in antagonizing everyone who disagrees with you?

    3b) I still need to really see where you think Dreher dismisses the academy on the topic. If he does, my guess is that he would say that the academic work is mostly developed in the same philosophical framework on which he titles his article: secular liberalism.

    4) Dreher's tone (and this is what struck me) was even keeled and open. I think that he does care. See Lemma 1.

    You do make a good argument that the partisan divide in the US is far from unprecedented. But what concerns me is what seems to be the growing sense of a corresponding cultural divide between the Anointed of Knowledge (us), and the Great Unwashed (them). Or between the Irreverent Communists and the Sensible Earth-People, if you prefer. We can't afford to dismiss the very people with whom we disagree.

  4. I have many comments regarding the Dreher article, but since I am at work, I'll keep it short.

    The idea that traditional or "bedrock" values of society should not be changed is ridiculous. It wasn't so long ago that slavery was a "bedrock" value of American society. According to Noah's logic, since slavery was ok for thousands of years, it should still be.

    The biggest difference between liberals' "imposing" their morality and conservatives "imposing" their morality is that liberal morality allows choice. Liberal morality allows people to make a choice to do something or not. Conservative morality removes choice, and dictates to people what they should or should not do. The rigidity of conservative dogma is my fundamental problem with the traditional conservative world view.

  5. @Anon
    1) I should clarify, I support gay marriage. But I believe that there is merit to an argument based on tradition. I don't want to dig myself into that position; slavery is a great example of a case where the merits of tradition were totally insufficient. But I'm just not sure how a question of "is/ought" fallacies have a place in political discussions. I think that Nick might well help me with this, but I don't yet see it.

    2) Don't confuse yourself with a Libertarian. Should people have a "choice" about carrying guns? How their hard earned dollars are spent (by them or the government)? How they reward their executives, run their banks, or how unions and businesses interact?

    A restatement and justification for Lemma 1
    Lemma 1: My views have merit insofar as they are the view of a smart person.
    Proof: Immediate.

    I do just like bringing joke math into real debates, but this Lemma is relevant, because the views that your dismissing, and the people you want to dismiss with them, sometimes include me. I'm obviously not talking about gay marriage, but for instance seeing merit in Dreher's article. I did it, and thus so could a (though not every) smart man.

  6. Why is intelligence relevant here? Smart people are completely wrong 99.9% of the time, and say stupid things constantly. Almost everything anyone has ever thought up, with the possible exception of parts of your very specialized field, is wrong. You can’t just waltz into a subject and expect to get it right: it’s the work that gets us anywhere at all.

    Anyway, no one was insulting anyone's intelligence here. Is Lemma 1 your way of asking for a more civil tone, or trying to get me to see Dreher's point? I do see and understand what he's saying. I can take the curse words out of my writing, but it won't change the fact that I think you're both dead wrong about this, despite the fact that I trust you're both intelligent people. And since we've made the distinction, I also think Dreher's reasoning about this issue is crappy. Here's why:

    Deriving an ought from an is is a fallacy. Period. A fallacious argument may still ultimately be right, but it’s insufficient to prove anything. As I said, I agree with you (and Searle, and Confucius, and Dreher) that traditions carry moral weight that should be respected. But that respect is NOT a valid argument for those traditions being right, it just means that we shouldn't steamroll them for no reason, or try to fix institutions that aren't broken. Granting that traditions are important is lightyears away from an iron-clad proof that we should take extreme action to uphold a tradition that is demonstrably harming the lives of participatory citizens in a legal democracy.

    So yes, it’s great that marriage has a long, wonderful history TO SOME PEOPLE. To others, in this very country, it carries completely different connotations. To literally millions, it has always carried the reminder of exclusion from arbitrarily restrictive social norms. It's clear to me, and I think it's clear to you, that there’s a strong sense in which American marriage is broken: it gets in the way of millions of peoples’ happiness. To the precise extent that it does that, it's fucked up. Dreher presents no valid argument to the contrary, hence, I find his reasoning insufficient.

    Let's run with your football example: if it was revealed that the only way for football to function required murdering people, we'd ban the sport and get the fuck over it. Just like we banned slavery, and just like we're going to remove the legal restrictions on non-heterosexual marriage.

    And screw the paranoia about “liberal” ideology that justifies gay marriage under Dreher’s view: this is still about basic human rights. Civil unions do not carry the same legal definition as marriage. If you want to fall back to symbolism, by my guest, but that sword cuts deeper for gay rights than right-wing Christianity: no one's committed suicide over gays' being granted the right to marry; people have committed suicide over being symbolically excluded from the cultural life of this country. Those are precisely the stakes.

    As for Dreher's tone, I feel I've put forward a clear demonstration of the way in which his article sets out to resolve a dispute, then makes precisely the same argument it claimed to transcend. Which is to say, regardless of how else Dreher fails, he fails on his own terms as well. (Note, not incidentally, that "balance" is not something I claim about my writing on this blog). I don't know whether these discrepancies are intentional or not, but if you want to disagree with me about their existence, it's on you to resolve them.

  7. Tight counterpoint to your evolution parallel: there's evidence that human evolution was more random genetic drift than natural selection (which, amusingly enough, is not true of Chimpanzees). Point being, just because something exists doesn't mean it exists for a reason, or that it represents the eventual equilibrium of conflicting forces.

    Here's the bottom line: it makes me really uncomfortable that people like Dreher can't articulate sound reasons after the fact. And I think it should make you uncomfortable too.

  8. 1) Nick, you could say that 'Lemma 1' was about civility, as you could say the same for Dreher's article. But you would be missing the point. When you imply that Dreher may be deliberately misleading his reader, that strikes me as dishonesty on your part. If an intelligent reader can see merit in Dreher's article, then by good 'ol benefit of the doubt (a sympathetic Occam's Razor), one should assume that the article is sincere. That's the point of my lemma, is that you're kind of being dishonest, or deluding yourself, because somehow you find a viewpoint counter to your own is so inconceivable.

    How can you be comfortable with that? How can you hope to win over the minds of others if you can't even try to see the world through their eyes? And we do have to win them over - 2008 was lucky. McCain and Palin both sucked, and the economy collapsed. So think of it this way: you have a patriotic responsibility to try getting out of your own head, and seeing the world from foreign (and offensive) perspectives. If not to challenge your own views, then to convince others.

    2) Who mentioned 'proof' (seriously (ambiguous construction intended))? That is ridiculous, and we both know it.

    3) About tradition not being a sufficient basis to defend traditional marriage, I couldn't agree with you more. That marriage should either be taken out of the government's hands or made equal for gay people, again, you know we're in agreement.

    In this article, Dreher says that he has a complex viewpoint to present, and he feels that the nature of the modern discourse prevents him from portraying it. He is not arguing that his opposition has done insufficient research or has insufficient understanding to defend their own view. But rather that their whole outlook is insufficient to comprehend his, as his outlook cannot comprehend theirs.

    I don't know what this 'complex view' of his is, and it does make me uncomfortable (or comfortable) that he can't articulate it. I'm beginning to doubt its existence, simply because the more I think about it, the less I like traditional conservative thought. But,

    4) the article that I sent you was NOT ABOUT GAY MARRIAGE. It CANNOT be reasonably construed as "set[ting] out to resolve" the issue of gay marriage, nor does it present any specific arguments for or against gay marriage, aside from a paragraph about "ordinary people" reasonably (in Dreher's opinion) fearing change. So his article cannot be said to talk past liberals on this issue, since it doesn't really address this issue.

    So no, I don't think that Dreher exemplified the bad behavior that his article discusses.

    Theorem: A liberal-minded person can grasp the arguments put forth in Dreher's article.

    Pf: Me.

    My point is that you've successfully deflected the content of the article. So congratulations. Go read something you agree with.

    5) The genetic drift article is pretty cool, although obviously evolution by natural selection has treated humans remarkably well in several areas. Of course the tradition-for-stability's-sake argument isn't bullet proof. It's not even water-proof. It's just an argument.

  9. Dan Snyder's left shoe4/7/09, 11:40 PM

    wow civil debate, where did those resistnetters labeled anonymous go??

  10. @ Dan Snyder's left shoe - I know right? I would have thought that simply seeing the word "gay" on our site would have sent them back to commenting in droves, but they seem to have lost interest.

    I also find the "institution" or "sanctity" of marriage to be hilarious. as a society, Americans don't value marriage as much as we claim to. we make a mockery of it on so, so many levels, whether through infidelity, soaring divorce rates, etc... i guess what bothers conservatives about gay marriage is that it would officialy validate same-sex relationships as "ok." my belief is that if something has no direct effect on my life whatsoever, as in two people of the same sex getting married if that's what they want to do, then let them do it. my life is in no way affected by it so what difference does it make? if you value marriage so much, then put the proper time, energy, effort and love into your own.

  11. Nah, man, you misconstrue me. I do understand. That's exactly why I took the time to write this. The very underpinnings that Dreher uses concern two branches of philosophy I've done a fair bit of work with. The strength of the points he's making are overly conceivable to me, not inconceivable: they can be made in a vast variety of domains, not just political divides.

    My post and comments are about a series of points Dreher made that I found to be sloppy enough to be worth debunking. As I've maintained all along, some of his analysis is right on. But also, other people have done it better and without the paranoia of his writing style (MacIntyre in the original, for one).

    Since his points are representative of a larger debate – which was a feature of Dreher's article, as well as mine – the implications of both articles affect larger and more explicit issues than the discourse itself. Both of us aim to illustrate problems in the discourse; in just this manner, we are also making arguments about gay marriage to precisely the same extent.

    In any case, I agree with you that the "problem it set out to resolve" isn't gay marriage, it's that of the discursive practice. His approach to that is also what I was attacking. Gay marriage was just the surrogate. For both of us.

    Let me restate everything, for clarity. My post was mostly inspired by this paragraph:

    "Conservatives find it hard to articulate a case for traditional marriage in terms acceptable in liberal rights discourse, as well as in the shallow rhetoric of contemporary debate. Defending traditional marriage requires burrowing deep into the meaning of the human person, sex, gender, society and law... Life in community is a mysterious and complex thing that cannot be radically remade to suit a preferred outcome."

    I articulated several problems with this:

    1. This is an almost-too-perfect example of the tendency (not universality) of arguments against gay marriage to ignore the established academic work on human sexuality.

    2. In light of that work, which supports marriage more easily than his position, fuck him for saying that the reason gay marriage is increasingly popular is that people don't think deeply about sexuality. Hence my question (which was serious, despite the curse words): is he unaware of the work, or conveniently ignoring it?

    3. That academic work provides some pretty fantastic demonstrations of the fact that marriage is a social construct with a history of manipulation. The history is not vague: we know it. The notion that marriage hasn’t or can’t be tampered with is simply not supported by the facts. There is, furthermore, no clear definition of "traditional marriage" whatsoever, as it varies with time and between cultures (and subcultures, within America). Even if we wholly accept the validity of arguments from tradition, we can dispute the point that marriage is a tradition with the strength that Dreher would need to argue against the inclusion of such a major section of the population. Indeed, the ball has been in their court about that for a long-ass time now.

    In light of all this, I also advanced the contention (which DC Jonesy just agreed with) that the recent political emphasis on marriage arises out of a desire to control the sexual practices of some parts of the population, not out of a desire to protect the sanctity of marriage. THAT point is addressed by Dreher's framework, as it’s a mirror-image discrepancy in the way that each side views the situation, thus a way we can talk past one another: both liberals and conservatives think the other is trying to control their lives.

    All of this talk about the fallacy of arguments from tradition arises from this: given two opposing viewpoints, pointing out a fallacy in the argument for one aids the other. Particularly in the total absence of other arguments.

    And that’s really the damning thing here. If we can agree that this debate is not shallow, on either side, then what’s left of the argument that Dreher puts forward? Almost nothing: His framework relies solely on a fallacious argument. There’s a damn good reason that so few on the left buys into it, right there. You don’t need to bring a heavy-hitter like MacIntyre into the discussion at all.

    I’m honestly surprised that you think Dreher’s piece is "even-keeled." I find it to be sloppily argued, factually offensive, only willing to see one side of the debate. In exactly the manner that he discusses at the beginning.

    I'm sorry you think I'm so closed-minded as to not take this other side into account. Frankly, the fact that I took the time to understand and write so extensively about about his views strikes me as extraordinarily respectful: if I wasn't willing to debate on the level, I would have simply dismissed him without thought.

    But I do strongly disagree with him. And there are specific reasons why I disagree, some ideological and some that relate directly to years of work in my discipline. Really, what more are you asking for from me?

  12. Oh, cool. Not to link to two Andrew Sullivan pieces in a day, but here's one on what I presume is the article in question here:

  13. That Sullivan article was great :-).

    At this point, I still think that there are three issues with your response to Dreher:

    1) I called Dreher's article "even-keeled," or something to this effect, because nowhere in the article is there a stated assumption that Dreher is ultimately right about gay marriage. Only that he has a point. This is, of course, because his article is more of a meta-article (sorry) about gay marriage.

    On the other hand, in your response to his piece, you speak with such righteous conviction that you're compelled to call into question Dreher's integrity, and suggest that his article wasn't worth the server space it eats up at RCP. I think that both of these points are ridiculous.

    2) This article is clearly a house of cards if we assume that Dreher has no ace up his sleeve - no really excellent argument in defense of traditional marriage which our liberal minds cannot comprehend. But we cannot reasonably read this article while assuming he has no such ace. The whole point of the article is that if he did, we wouldn't know it. So for the sake of argument, we must assume that he does have such an ace.

    In truth, I don't particularly care for his argument, if it exists, because I'm pretty comfortable with the range of arguments that I can comprehend (as are most of us, I imagine). But for the sake of argument...

    I've asked you to clarify where you think Dreher dismisses academic work on sexuality etc. I imagine it's the following quote.

    "Defending traditional marriage requires burrowing deep into the meaning of the human person, sex, gender, society and law - and that's just for starters." I assume that you've taken this to mean that Dreher is disregarding all of the academic work on the subject. But I imagine that almost all of this work (which, in fairness, I've read none of) is done be people with our agenda at heart, and not Dreher's. And social science being what it is (bullshit, mostly (jk jk rotfl! But you know...)), Dreher (or anyone) would be a fool to consider this research to have the weight of finality. If Dreher has his ace, then there are equally valid intellectual arguments to defend traditional marriage. These are the arguments to which he refers, and which cannot be aired out in public debate due to "shallow rhetoric." In fact, the first several paragraphs of Dreher's article present the gay marriage debate as one of equal(ish) and opposite sides, so it might be fair to infer that a full accounting for the support of gay marriage would also delve into deep, academic issues.

    3) Even though you know that this article is not about gay marriage directly, you treat it as though it is, and that's not an appropriate approach. "I find it to be sloppily argued, factually offensive, only willing to see one side of the debate." For the most part, Dreher's article does not argue, nor does it purport to give a full account of anything. The whole premise of his article is that he can only see one side, so presumably he couldn't do the other side justice if he tried. And what 'facts' in this article are so offensive?

  14. 1. As I've said repeatedly, my aim was not to question his integrity, per se, it was to add humorous force to a deadly serious question about how he means to deal with the massive weight of scholarly work against his entire framework. My attack was based on the fact that he simply ignores it.

    2. All I can say is, read up. I suspect we wouldn't be having this conversation: marriage has such a weird, convoluted history that it's well beyond the "trusting academia to get it right" level of information. Dreher's article borders on disrespect for the facts, which is a big reason I'm up in arms about it (and you, apparently, are not). If he was on the level, he wouldn't use the ideologically biased phrase "traditional marriage" at all.

    For the record, I'm hungry enough for serious debate on this that I'm willing to jump all over your shit just to have an excuse to talk about it.

    3. I don't think you've read what I've written carefully enough. The argument was not that Dreher should give a fair account of both sides, but that the reasons and explanations he gave did not entitle him to the commitments he made. In the end, it may be that we simply disagree about that.

  15. I just added your blog site to my blogroll, I pray you would give some thought to doing the same.