There's Nothing to Fear But All the Awful Things That Might Happen

In his ongoing debate with Rod Dreher, the estimable Damon Linker writes:

…that brings me to what I think is the core of Rod’s case against homosexuality. It seems to me that Rod’s opposition to gay marriage and social acceptance follows less from an argument or an assertion about the world, nature, or God than it does from a disposition or temperament — from a disposition or temperament inclined toward fear. (In retrospect, I can see how significant and telling it is that one of the first questions I posed to Rod in my original post was “What are you afraid of?”, and that Andrew fastened onto that passage in his initial response and returned to it in the title of his longer post in response to Rod. Fear has been at the center of this debate from the beginning.)

Rod imagines a future in which homosexuality has been brought completely into the mainstream of American life, and he responds with a shudder. But why? What does he fear?

First, as I noted above, he fears change. This is perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of the conservative temperament. (And that’s just one of the reasons why I think Andrew is wrong to insist on calling himself a conservative. But that’s a topic for another post.) Rod fears that if our understanding of marriage changes to include homosexual unions, this bedrock institution of civilization will collapse. Pretty soon we’ll have polygamy. Then before you know it, I’ll be taking my golden retriever to dinner parties and introducing him as my fiancé. The assumption behind this fear is that change tends to make things worse — that the primary thing holding civilization together is received custom. Without those limits to channel and direct and limit our actions, human beings will behave like beasts, or worse. We therefore tinker with and change those customs at our peril.

Although I favor gay marriage, I think Damon is giving insufficient due to conservative skepticism of change. I say “skepticism” rather than “fear” because the former suggests rational precaution, whereas the latter implies that conservatives are basically irrational reactionaries.

For example, I am not afraid of pre-nuptial agreements, but reason and observation persuade me that they weaken the institution of marriage by changing received custom with opaque, poorly understood, and unpredictable results. To cite an issue unrelated to marriage, consider the paleo-cons who opposed the Iraq War. Those folks harbored grave doubts about the ability of the United States to install a new form of government and civil society in a complicated foreign culture, even as neocons argued that the progression from autocracy to representative democracy is a universal human desire. Is it accurate to say that they were motivated by fear? Perhaps it is, insofar as they were afraid that the United States was engaging in a historic blunder with profoundly tragic consequences, but describing their opposition as rooted in mere fear hardly does justice to the more complicated roots of their beliefs.

This isn’t to say that conservatives are never unduly motivated by fear — many surely are, just as many liberals have been unduly motivated by fear of welfare reform, or media consolidation, or airline deregulation. Fear of change, whether rightly or wrongly held, is hardly an exclusively conservative trait, as is amply demonstrated by the way global warming fears are distributed across the political spectrum.

Damon writes:

Say what you will about this view of things, try to come up with empirical examples to demonstrate its paranoia, etc. But, in my view at least, it has a certain dignity. I don’t view the world that way. I don’t fear that if I tell my young son that the men living together down the street are married to each other that he will join a group-sex club in high school or be any less likely to marry when he grows up, or be more likely to divorce. But as a humanist — as a student of human history and culture — I can understand where Rod’s fear is coming from, because I’ve seen it before, and I’ll see it again. And I can accept that nothing I say to him is likely to change his tendency to view the world in the way he does. Because temperament isn’t the product of an argument; it’s what leads you to find certain arguments more compelling than others.

When it comes to gay marriage, neither Damon nor I view the world as Rod does — we reject the notion that mere acceptance of gays and their marriages threaten society. But Damon is saying more when he writes, “I don’t view the world that way.” He is asserting that he doesn’t fear change as a general proposition, that he doesn’t share what he regards as a conservative temperament. I find that hard to believe. Would Damon worry if instead of backing gay marriage, a substantial percentage of citizens and several states were working to legalize polygamy, incest, or group sex clubs in high school? Is there no social change whose implications Damon fears, though they aren’t entirely clear beforehand?

I ask because when he writes, “I can understand where Rod’s fear is coming from, because I’ve seen it before, and I’ll see it again,” he is being rather uncharitable to those who view change skeptically. Sure, Damon understands Rod’s fear of rapid social change partly because he’s observed the same temperament in others, but can’t Damon also see the same temperament — albeit a diminished variety — in himself? And if not, can’t he at least see that history amply demonstrates the perilous nature of rapid social change, and often enough vindicates those who were shouting stop? It isn’t as though everyone grasped beforehand all the nefarious consequences of communism, or national socialism, or Mao’s agricultural tinkering, or the widespread absence of fathers from the lives of their offspring, or the spread of crack cocaine, or even changes that most of us, myself included, regard as beneficial, like the discovery of fossil fuels, or the widespread availability of cheap food, or the anonymity afforded by the Internet.

Anyone who, having studied history, doesn’t have a healthy respect for the fragility of civil society, and some tempermental aversion to rapid change, is both foolhardy and quite unlike most people in Western society, whose tempermental conservatism reflects the fact that they’ve got a helluva lot to lose. Those who adopt conservatism as their political philosophy are seeking to distill the wisdom gained by observing humanity’s tumultuous past, reasoning through its lessons, and applying them to the present.

Non-conservatives may emphasize other lessons drawn from reason, history, and experience, but they hardly rid themselves entirely of the human impulse to resist change (and they’re well-served by the vestige). At times, Damon treats this aversion as a temperament that one either possesses or doesn’t, but the truth is that almost everyone resists “progress” to some degree, and that the objectively correct position on the spectrum running from extreme reactionary to revolutionary isn’t always the same. Who disagrees at this late date that racial equality should have progressed faster in the United States? Or that humanity would’ve done well to rein in the proliferation or nuclear technology, and the weapons it spawns? With regard to biotechnology, is the appropriate stance to oppose it entirely, to embrace it wholeheartedly, or to fall somewhere in between, making prudent suggestions on a case by case basis? It is a question we might be able to answer with certainty giving more data — if we knew, for example, that current research will lead to our extinction in 5 years, we could all agree to shut all research down — but with imperfect knowledge, whether the progressives or conservatives are objectively correct on this matter, as opposed to making the smartest bet given what we know, is impossible to determine.

Rather than stray farther from the topic at hand, I’ll close by suggesting that if Damon should reconsider his dismissive take on the conservative temperament, and that if he really wants to grapple with gay marriage as it relates to conservative skepticism of rapid change, he ought to respond to this post.

UPDATE: Note that Damon updated his post.