Saturday, May 17, 2008

Amicorum communia omnia

There is a tendency, both by social conservatives and progressives in the United States, in any case—though no less a European than the current incumbent of the See of Peter is guilty of it—to view all of human history as if it were the history of the English-speaking world, and to limit the scope of even this history to roughly the late Victorian period through perhaps the late nineteen-fifties. Few places is this more obvious than in debates over marriage, presumably because it allows us to have a particularly idyllic view of that august institution.
Both those opposed to same-sex marriage and those in favor of it are fond of speaking of marriage as the eternal basis of (all parts of) society. For social conservatives, this claim often has the form of arguing that there have historically been no arrangements in society through which people have allied themselves other than "traditional" marriage. It must be noted that "traditional" marriage is usually meant to be something like the legal construction of marriage in Anglo-American (Protestant-inflected) law and not any of the other traditional models of marriage. (This is much like forgetting that the popular "Wedding March" comes from a scene in Wagner's work that represents rape more than marriage.) Thus, to alter this arrangement can only be detrimental to society as a whole. In addition, it is pointed out that we have made changes in recent years—no fault divorce, community property, etc.—and society has not generally benefited. It is rarely noted either that the relative equality of rights within marriage, the possibility of marrying across class and racial lines, et alia, are recent developments of the institution of that it was good, in these cases at least, to tinker with the institution. Nor is it noted that there is no longer tradition than common law marriage, having roots in the long-standing practice of concubinage in the West and recognized in such practices as the Catholic view that it is the partners to a marriage who make the marriage real, something that the Church can only witness.
For progressives, the claim often has the form of saying that since this is such a basic institution within society it must be manifestly unjust to exclude same-sex couples. But what is often missing from their consideration are the ways in which marriage has traditionally represented an unequal partnership between two already unequal members of society. Or, and I hate to take a page from the conservatives here, the ways in which marriage assumes a complementarity of partners, and not just a complementarity of personality but a complementarity of natures. Or, to put it another way, marriage is traditionally conceptualized as a relationship of difference.
So, you might ask, what am I a getting at here? Well, there used to be members of the gay and lesbian community who imagined different sorts of relationships for themselves. I don't just mean people who imagined sexually open relationships, I don't just mean people who imagined a radical reorganization of all society starting with the family. But I do mean all sorts of people who thought they could form relationships based on responsibilities and obligations and, yes, rights that did not thereby have to be marriage.
And, throughout history, there have been many different sorts of arrangements than just marriage. History is not just the story of husbands, wives and children and those defined by the absence of marriage: spinsters, bachelors, widows, widowers, divorcés and divorcées. There were also people whose lives were not defined in relation to marriage at all: monks and nuns, beguines and beghards, crusaders, hospitallers and nursing sisters, educators like the Brothers of the Common Life and Oxford and Cambridge fellows and many others.
I've picked on a lot of religious groups here both as a reflection of my own educational biases and because they ought to appeal to at least some conservatives. I realize that these were not groups whose lives were defined by sex but, then again, neither are the lives of those in same-sex relationships. No relationship that lasts, that matters, that forms its own society, that feeds into society, is based only on sex. What all of the groups I have mentioned have in common—and have in common with the relationships with which I am here concerned—is a shared view of life, a common purpose, shared goals, an interest in the good for one another, a desire to form a bond in which this view and purpose are furthered in new and interesting and mutually beneficial ways, in ways that themselves build up society. These were relationships built on mutual responsibility and 
You know, there is a figure way back in Western history, Aristotle, who thought that friendship was the basis of society. He didn't think marriage was a particularly good example of friendship either; the conflation of marriage with friendship is quite recent. Perhaps we could all benefit from considering just what sorts of friendship are worthy of society's protection, approbation and sanction. A little history and imagination couldn't hurt.

Friday, May 16, 2008

On forms of the common life

The state's Supreme Court has ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriage is contrary to the state's constitution. What this means is that in about thirty days, city halls within California will begin to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 
It also means, predictably, that conservatives of all stripes will be more motivated than normal to vote for the referendum already on the November ballot to amend the state's constitution. I'm not sure about the most recent referendum, but some of the most recent attempts have also sought to overturn California's current system of domestic partnership. 
In California, domestic partnership is an almost marriage. It gives you most of the legal and (state-based) tax rights and responsibilities, without calling it marriage. Because I am a pessimist most of the time, I fear that we will end up not just without marriage but also without domestic partnership, an arrangement that was also to the benefit of older couples who may not have wanted to lose federal benefits by remarrying. 
I am perfectly happy as a domestic partner; I think it perfectly well describes and fits the relationship I am in (and have been for the last 11.5 years), one in which no one is a husband or a wife, where two people are united in a home and a life and a life project, where two people have made a common life, but which is not much like a traditional marriage, and I think that I will probably end up losing that relationship either through referenda or through being made to marry.
I just heard on the radio that San Diego's gay and lesbian community was celebrating the decision. Some of us are not as sanguine.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More about teaching

So, it's the end of the semester and this means that I am thinking way too much about my classes and wishing, no matter how much I may like some of my students, that the semester would finally end. So this will be another post about class and, alas, about God.
Thus, I will delay for at least a post any discussion of the California State Supreme Court's ruling regarding gay marriage. I think I am supposed to have a public opinion as a gay intellectual (?). My dream, of course, is to be a public intellectual, but there aren't enough openings right now.
Today, in one of my classes, we were doing a bit of review. And the topic turned to God and the difference between revealed and natural religion. I was explaining the distinction and how it is possible to get from natural arguments for God's existence—assuming they work—to a position of choosing which purported revelation might be best as a student interrupted to ask me whether I personally believe in God. I noted that this was irrelevant—in any case, as I was telling my friend and colleague Kevin (I hope I can call him a friend and I'm at least an adjunct colleague) yesterday, my views on God and what "belief" means when applied to the supernatural are a little much to explain to an introductory student, i.e., more than anyone would want to know—and that we were talking about other people's arguments and not my views.
He interrupted me again, to point out that I ought to believe in God, that he was the Son of God and that he was here to love us all. I herded him out; he was dressed all in white flowing robes and I was scared witless. There are great days in the college classroom and then there are days where I wonder if I shouldn't be armed. They killed Socrates, after all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On the other hand

Since I was just complaining, I also got a number of real—not just last-minute grade grubbing—thanks and handshakes and even one thank you card and a nice little gift from my introduction class that had its final today. That is always a gratifying experience: to be reminded at the end of a semester when you are sure that they must long for your absence, that you may have actually connected with a student or two. I even inspired a few to minor or major in the love of wisdom. So, teaching has its moments, too.

End of the semester frustration

While giving an exam today, I powered through the grading of just over twenty short papers on the existence or non-existence of God. I was in a zone and I want the semester to be over. It was the second set of papers about the same topic I had read this semester, and I was reminded of two things: 1) it is unwise of me to teach two versions of more-or-less the same class with totally different structures—granted they are taught at different institutions, but...; and, 2) I ought not to assign God as a paper topic, as it always depresses me.
The one that hit me the hardest today, was the one that informed me that the author's life was eternally happy because of her belief in God and that I, too, could be happy if I were to believe in God. So, I learned from this that my student believes that theism is a guarantee of happiness—apparently not all Bibles still contain Job and not all Christians were raised in the same tradition of 2000 of thinking over problems like suffering as I was—that she believes that the self-deprecating manner I affect in class is truly a reflection of a deep and abiding unhappiness and she assumes that she knows that I am an atheist or at least an agnostic. I take it that they teach youngsters in certain types of churches to evangelize all people at all time, but I wasn't in need of it—and it won't make me happier.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A refreshing moment

I've mentioned before that teaching philosophy can seem pretty thankless. I am always surprised—and I was reminded this week that I mention this surprise every semester, so my memory isn't too good either, I guess—that students actually enjoy my classes and request to take more classes with me. I am surprised because looking into the sea (or pond) of faces present in a typical class on a typical day I see mostly looks of confusion, boredom, frustration and a little bit of anger
In part, I can understand this. Philosophy and issues like what makes me the same person today as the person who was born in Austin in 1973 matter a lot to me; they are important and I think that they can be deeply mysterious. But, these aren't issues that matter as much to my students, and listening to someone go on about things he cares about can be pretty painful if you don't also care about them. So, I understand. I understand, but to understand is not, in fact, to excuse. 
But, twice this week, students held me after class, not to worry about their grades or what particular issues were most likely to appear on the final. No, they held me after to talk about philosophical issues and the way that they actually impact their lives. In one case, it was issues about the existence of God and our access or lack of access to theological truths. In the other, it was Meno's paradox and how we can learn anything and what it means to communicate how to be a good person to one's children.
To get to be that professor—lecturer, technically—who is standing around talking to students about important issues that relate to class is such a nice feeling. It makes me feel like what I do matters and matters to the very heart of my students' lives. And it makes me about as happy as I can be.