Peter Wood: Debating Same-Sex Marriage


In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, President of the National Association of Scholars Peter Wood writes:

…The debate over gay marriage ought to be considered one of the central social issues of our time, and indeed for many Americans—left and right—it is. It deals with a question of basic social relations within and between generations and I find it perfectly sensible that advocates and critics of gay marriage should both see it as a matter of urgent concern. The perspective that seems less sensible to me is the one which dismisses the controversy as a bore or nuisance: the idea that when it comes to marriage, all we are talking about are private choices that are no one’s business other than the parties directly involved. That’s an atomistic view of society. Marriage, whatever else it is, is a social institution. People marry because it means something beyond a private choice, and we have good reason to concern ourselves with that broader meaning.

One might think on that basis that higher education would be at the epicenter of the debate—that we could turn to the university to hear both sides (or all sides) making their best case.  Unfortunately that’s not how it has worked out.  Rather, the academic discussion has been dominated by those who view gay marriage as a civil rights issue. Those who argue against gay marriage haven’t been entirely silenced, but you have to look pretty hard for their words. One source is Lynn Wardle’s edited volume, What’s the Harm? Does Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Really Harm Individuals, Families, or Society? (2008) which gathers together arguments on both sides.  The unusual thing in this book is the inclusion of academics who dissent, on more or less conservative grounds, from the prevailing pro-gay marriage position. David Blankenhorn’s The Future of Marriage (2007) offers the most extended liberal critique of gay marriage position, and Blankenhorn was notably the star expert witness who spoke in defense of Proposition 8 in last year’s trial.

The voices of dissenting academics are underrepresented in this conversation, mostly because dissenters know that they will be subject to pretty extreme verbal abuse if they speak up. [Continue reading]