The speed at which marriage was redefined last month in the state of Minnesota has left me with a sense of vertigo. My head is still spinning. And though the war wages on, one thing seems clear: Those of us for whom same-sex marriage has been, until now, almost impossible to contemplate, have some things to figure out. Of those, the most urgent is the question of what we are to tell our children.
I am the mother of a ten-year-old girl, a beautiful child, more precious to me than anything you can imagine. When, on June 1, same-sex marriage became legal in the state of Minnesota, I needed to know what to tell her. How is this supposed to work—actually—in the concrete world of a ten-year-old child and her mother? Her father is wondering too, of course, but he is rather speechless at the moment. And the way it works in our house, though he is really good at protecting her from possible physical threats, it usually falls to me to protect her from the more psychological threats she encounters occasionally in her young life. But this is a new one. So I need some advice.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that, as a philosopher, I have gotten fairly skilled at treating the philosophical errors of our age in the classroom setting. But a ten-year-old is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the arguments I have developed against relativism, nominalism, dualism, materialism, and so on. And then of course, parenting comes with its own specific challenges. So I am hoping those who advocate same-sex marriage have given some thought to this, eager as they seem to be to take on the task of parenting themselves.
For starters, can we agree that, along with her father of course, I am still responsible to her for doing my part to raise her to be the intelligent, responsible young woman she is destined to be? If so, how should I help her grapple with what it means to know the truth about something? Doesn’t any claim to the truth have to begin with a grasp of what is actually so? Should there not be some sort of correspondence between what is so and what she thinks is so? At least, that is what I have been trying to teach her.
Can her efforts to come to grips with reality as something independent of her personal opinions still include the evidence of her senses—or not? Is she now required by law to doubt them? In other words, if she sees a man—or a woman—walking down the street, whether together or alone, is she now required to pause before drawing any conclusions about them?
With her child’s natural grasp of real things, she already knows that married people have babies, and she knows it has something to do with mothers and fathers. But since our state has declared that the categories of mother and father are no longer relevant for marriage, that marriage has nothing really to do with children, how shall I explain to her where babies come from? She already knows that little people like her would not even exist in a world where same-sex marriage was the norm. Do I get to make any claims about the fact that only a mommy and a daddy can actually produce one?
And what shall I tell her about what her body is for? Am I to tell her that it is sort of like a ship and her personal identity is the equivalent of the ship’s pilot, someone in charge but not personally affected by any damages to the vehicle in which she is riding? That her identity has actually nothing to do with her embodiment in a female body? That self- consciousness resides in her mind and that at some point it will simply be a matter of discerning which way her body is leading her? (She is pretty smart and so she might ask me if those two ideas don’t contradict each other somehow; any guidance on that would be appreciated).
But help me understand this. Is it sort of like one of those divining rods they used to use to find water? That might be hard for her to get at first but if we all keep at it, I am sure she will understand it eventually. And just as an aside, how shall I help her to reconcile this idea with all that stuff about the mind-body connection everyone is talking about? Her school offers yoga classes now and her teacher is always talking that way.
Oh, and will I now be required by law to sit silently when, a few years from now, I find her school has introduced a module into her sex education class on how homosexual persons go about having sex? Any suggestions on how I should help her with her homework for that class?
And how I should help her with her language arts studies? Do the definitions in the dictionary have any reference to any reality at all? Or am I now to teach her that words are just labels we annex to things, that they have no real meaning, no matter how long we have connected a word with the reality to which it points? What should I do if she argues with me about the definition of parent? Of freedom? Of truth? It has already gotten a little tricky—children seem to grow up so fast these days.
It doesn’t help to simply explain to her that same-sex marriage is a matter of civil rights. There are all sorts of things we are permitted to do in our culture, choices we make for which there is no actual law identifying it as a specific “right.” If marriage were a “civil right,” a lot of single women I know would be married already.
Besides, this issue has absolutely nothing in common with the civil rights movement. My daughter already knows that the civil rights movement had to do with who gets included in the category of human. Hopefully we have figured that one out by now, at least on paper. People have civil rights in virtue of being human and you have all the same rights that I do.
No, this debate is not about a civil right. No one has a “right” to pretend that a physical union (one of the characteristics of marriage in that dictionary I was talking about a minute ago) is possible when the body parts involved simply do not fit together in any feasible way.
The more I think about it, I am pretty sure those who favor redefining marriage have taken on a battle that they will never be able to win. Because as any parent knows, raising a child requires that I help my daughter grasp that there can be no debate whatsoever about whether or not any of us—gay or straight—get to define reality for ourselves.
I am also pretty sure that, even though the Supreme Court seems to have ruled that we all get to do that (remember Planned Parenthood v. Casey?), in the end we will discover that nature’s laws determine what is so.
I’ve also heard that rumor about reality being socially constructed. But I experimented with that when I was in my twenties and I have empirical evidence that it just isn’t true. No, really. And I think it will continue to be false no matter what our legislature says, no matter what the president says, no matter what the Supreme Court says. Even the media can’t make it true.
Which reminds me—it might be worth your while to take another look at George Orwell’s novel, 1984. It is amazing how prophetic that book was, though I doubt Orwell had in mind our current situation. But to save you some time, let me provide just a brief summary.
In the novel, Orwell’s hero-of-sorts, Winston Smith, works for the totalitarian government—everyone does as a matter of fact; his job is to change history by changing old newspaper records to match with the new truth decided by the Party. At the beginning of the novel, Winston is trying to find a way to escape the Thought Police long enough to join a mostly imagined resistance movement. He becomes obsessed with this and takes the incredibly courageous and foolhardy step of beginning to keep a journal to record his thoughts on the matter. Somewhere along the way, he encounters someone named O’Brien who he thinks is in the resistance. And at one point, Winston writes:
The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
This debate is not merely about whether or not you get to have sex with whomever you like and still qualify for spousal benefits. Ultimately what it is about is the freedom to say that 2 and 2 is 4. At the end of the novel, poor Winston, having been captured and tortured by the Thought Police, having finally submitted to the demands of the Party and relinquished his grip on what had seemed patently obvious only months before, writes in his journal at a moment he describes as a victory over himself—that 2 + 2 = 5. And his life is over.
A long time ago, August Comte (the father of positivism) said something quite profound. He said that the only safe way to destroy something is to replace it. Clearly, this is the attempt that is underway. But I will never abandon my child or my grandchildren—or my neighbor’s children—to this.
For when you ask my daughter to accept that a man may marry another man, that a woman may marry another woman, you are asking her to suspend her capacity to judge the world around her and judge it truly. You are requiring her to declare that 2 + 2 = 5 as an act of victory over her natural inclination toward the true and the good. You are trying to trap her in a world where nothing is as it seems.
Deborah Savage is a professor of philosophy and pastoral ministry in the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas.