Happy Contrarian’s Day

This Darwinian valentine courtesy of defectiveyeti.com.

It’s Valentine’s Day, which means I will be taking even more opportunity than usual to discomfit others with jokes about how I will inevitably die alone. The best part about feeling incapable of normal social interaction is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; you keep telling people that you don’t know how to get along, and eventually they are forced to concede your point. The power of such contrarianism is nowhen more evident than on Valentine’s Day, when smug assholes like myself are moved to observe that A) the holiday and probably the very concept of romantic love are blatant constructions of a society bent on making us buy stuff and/or have children who will subsequently buy stuff, and also B) we do not have a date this year. There are so many of us, and yet we are all alone. Contrarianism is a trap, and I submit as proof this amazing letter to the editors of The Economist refuting it.

Regular readers may remember ) this post discussing Zach Wahls, son of gay parents and articulate video evidence that such an upbringing does not make you weird and gross. For those of us who remain committed to keeping gay marriage legal—or, at least, not committed to rigidly obeying the pronouncements of desert nomads in a millenia-old book—because of our interest in reason, Wahls presents a conundrum. He’s right, he’s convincing, and he’s completely anecdotal. In the game of reasoned argument, he should rate not at all. That’s the contention of economist Steven Landsburg, at least who offers this scathing assessment:

In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion [that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents] without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine (except, perhaps, for their ability to reason)…What’s particularly disturbing to me is all the chatter about how eloquent this kid is, as if eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection were somehow something to be admired.

Presumably, once our society’s “particularly disturbing” praise of eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection subsides, Landsburg will be able to relax and go back to watching rap videos. As W.W., the author of the counterargument that we are just now getting to, so drolly puts it, “One may wonder…whether this commonplace error is among our society’s most pressing problems.” Better than just burning on killjoy economists, however, W.W. puts forward a sharp point:

I take it that Mr Wahls’ problem, the problem he was addressing in his uplifting oration, is that a powerful political faction convinced of the essential evil of homosexuality by a magical book seeks to injure his family by voiding his mothers’ marriage of its legal standing and stripping his family of the status and respect that flow from that. The science-minded Mr Landsburg may be shocked to learn the assault on marriage equality in Iowa and elsewhere is not predicated upon the modest empirical hypothesis “that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents”; it is based on a conviction of faith that homosexuality is a sinful perversion inherently corrosive to the values that make healthy families possible.

Here is an aspect of the marriage equality debate that is commonly ignored: as defenders of gay marriage look for ways to demonstrate that it’s not a threat to society, we forget that the argument that it is is founded on no proof whatsoever. Clearly, democracy has no problem deciding arguments between factions who refuse to provide evidence for their claims. But when it comes to making laws prohibiting stuff, we typically require something.

Hence my weaselly use of the phrase, “those of us committed to keeping gay marriage legal,” in an earlier paragraph. At least in Iowa, marriages between same-sex couples are provided for by the state constitution. The state supreme court said so, in a decision that, if controversial, was reasoned entirely on legal grounds. The burden of proof, in this situation, rests more heavily on the people who want to prohibit something the law currently allows.

If a bunch of church people joined together to make horse ownership illegal, my testimony about the satisfying relationship my horse* and I had together might strike everyone as less than compelling. But so, too, would the smug assertion that we all read Animal Farm and saw what trouble horses can cause. A free nation does not make laws out of popular prejudice and then selectively refute them by logic. As we reflexively take up positions in all manner of argument re human coupling, we might consider not just the strength of our barricades but also where we have erected them.

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  1. Nice post. I think an essential part of the same-sex marriage debate is that the burden of proof (quantitative, qualitative, or otherwise) rests with the group trying to deny a civil right, NOT with the group defending a civil right.

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