Monday, June 20, 2005

Gay Marriage: Folkways Part 3

Now we'll branch out from Fischer's own work, to examine how understanding the four folkways explains the country's different perspectives on gay marriage.

Yankee Contracts
The East Anglians who settled New England had close contact with the Netherlands, and much of their cultural emphasis on contracts and covenants stemed from this influence. In religion, one of their main considerations was the Covenant between God and his People. In government, much of their political discourse was framed in terms of contracts (as opposed to the Scots-Irish emphasis on rights for example). So it's not surprising that they conceived of marriage primarily as a contract between two people, for the purpose of establishing a family.
Therefore from this perspective, any two people can enter into a contract as they see fit. If they choose to structure it like a marriage and call it a marriage, it cannot affect other peoples' marriages. This view is atomistic, as it does not recognize marriage as an institution, but as a type of contract.

Tidewater Formality
The younger sons of Royalist Wessex nobility who peopled the Chesapeake Tidewater were committed to preserving the hierarchical order that maintained their social position. As such, marriage was an institution that allowed families to survive over generations, using the authority and tradition vested in the Anglican Church.
When marriage is seen as a means to the end of family survival, gay marriage is absurd as it does not advance that goal. Marriage has a very specific meaning, and interpreting it differently, from this viewpoint, is to interpret it out of existence. Given this folkway's value of family heritage, any threat to the institution of marriage can evoke a strong reaction borne of the drive to protect what's dear.

Quaker Reciprocalism
We've discussed how Quakers systematically structured their polity to protect the rights of minority groups. This folkway is likely to see gays as a minority, and thus interpret gay marriage as a part of the gay minority's conscience freedom which ought to be protected under law.

Backcountry Self-Determination
There's little I can detect in the British borderlands or early American backcountry folkway that bears directly on gay marriage. But since there is little impetus for establishing gay marriage as a right or a tradition arising from the backcountry folkway itself, those raised and living in it would be more likely than others to perceive legal or legislative action establishing gay marriage as an imposition of foreign values from the outside.
Thus, even though from a libertarian viewpoint one might not strongly object, if the source of the gay marriage movement is not perceived as legitimate--eg. unelected judges or activists from other folkways--it will accrue substantial resistance. The gay marriage movement may be seen as just one part of an attempt to make inroads against a way of life.

The Debates
This analysis shows how people from each tradition can talk past each other. How often have you seen this type of dynamic: a New Englander asks how gay marriage harms anyone else's marriage, while a Southerner counters that gay marriage simply is not marriage, and the conversation devolves to gibberish. Or someone raised in the Backcountry folkway fights gay marriage politically in order to 'take back' his state while a baffled listener from the Yankee or Quaker folkway never felt the state was taken away.

Finally, I'd point out that this type of analysis is deeply conservative, in the Burkean sense. That is, without totally ignoring materialist explanations of social processes, it is more interested in understanding Americans as Americans: what our unique culture means about who we are and what we stand for.


At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Loren Cobb said...

Now this is what I call a good essay. It brings new light on a topic of great concern, it introduces historical developments and trends in the service of our understanding, and it is deeply informed with compassion for the human experience. Best of all, I learned something. Great work, Jeff! Keep 'em coming.

At 10:30 AM, Blogger fmodo said...

Another analogy may help to explain the Tidewater view of marriage:

Most Americans believe that when one person's rights under the Constitution is violated, all of our rights are endangered a little.

Likewise, for these folks, marriage is a cultural institution like the constitution, that you don't construct your self, but rather agree to participate in. Thus, whenever someone damages the institution, all other marriages are damaged a little.

While I don't see things this way myself, I think those who see marriage as a contract really need to understand how some people might feel gay marriage endangers marriage itself if we're to discuss this sensibly.

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