Bolting the Door of Social Change

In the April 29, 2013 issue of The Weekly Standard, Ivan Kenneally writes in “Is Traditional Marriage Toast?” that

… same-sex marriage is a culmination of a long-brewing development, an unspooling of essential modern premises. The relentless logic of modernity is unrestrained individuality, the lonesome sovereignty of the singular person. The pith of matrimony is natural gregariousness, our completion of human beings through coupling. It was only a matter of time before the crashing tide of autonomy reached the shores of conjugal union, pitting the inviolability of the individual against the venerableness of the family. If anything, it is remarkable marriage has remained intact for so long, a testament to its profound allure even in a culture whose trends undermine it.

Kenneally runs through the standard libertarian boilerplate that same-sex marriage is odd, but that the institution itself is not the unchanging bulwark of domestic bliss that it’s often alleged to be.

The SSM angle aside, what struck me about this argument is the implication that conservatives, by and large, have taken perhaps too seriously the drive to stop social change without really thinking about the usefulness of their objections or the seriousness of the battle.

Change is inevitable. True, much change that originates from the Left is not so good; in broad strokes, progressive social change de-emphasizes institutions in favor of radical individual autonomy. Except in economic contexts, of course, in which progressives favor socialization — mostly to pay for the net result of their focus on equality of outcome.

The conservative movement relies on a reflexive No. Often, standing athwart history makes sense. But too frequently, conservatives rely on reflex and never evaluate whether it might make more sense to shape change rather than to block it.

Consider same-sex marriage. Love it or hate it, it appears inevitable. So what’s a conservative to do? Some duck their heads in the sand, some advocate ideological purges, others don’t give a rip. Very few conservatives publicly acknowledge that SSM isn’t the disease, it’s the symptom. Marriage is an increasingly incoherent institution. It serves basic legal purposes, but other institutions could serve those same purposes.

A prudent conservative would look at SSM not as a broadside, but as an opportunity to refine and make more useful an institution that’s been undermined ever since easy contraception and quick divorce made a joke of the “bonds of matrimony.” Maybe that newly reinvigorated institution includes SSM (or polygamy, or whatever) or maybe it doesn’t. But the first step in “saving traditional marriage” comes in acknowledging that SSM isn’t the most lethal enemy on the radar. It’s probably not even in the top 10. Heterosexuals have done more to screw up traditional marriage than homosexuals have, and the culture of indulgence that promotes “the lonesome sovereignty of the singular person” is a much stronger threat to family life than same-sex spouses ever will be.

In other words, the marriage debate opens up a door through which conservatives should gleefully charge, instead of hitting the alarm button and reaching, panicked, for the deadbolt. For as long as conservatives abandon the ideas to the Left, the Left gets to twist the ratchet of change.