I went to a debate on same-sex marriage this evening, pitting folks from Marriage Equality California and the No on Knight Campaign against representatives from the American Family Association and the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families. (Appropriately, as it may seem, they were seated on the left and right of the moderator, respectively, from the audience's perspective.)
I found the debate predictable and mostly disappointing, marked by the unwillingness of either side to directly address the other side's arguments and a total lack of evidence for wide-ranging claims about history and anthropology. The pair on the right claimed that no civilized society in history had ever survived for more than three generations after allowing the definition of marriage to deviate from any of the three rules: (a) two people; (b) man and woman; (c) unrelated. They also referred to, but did not specify, "overwhelming evidence" that heterosexual marriages were beneficial to society and a better environment for raising children. They even claimed that sexually transmitted diseases were only a recent problem, manifested only as a result of modern legitimization of promiscuity and homosexuality.
As much as i agreed with the people on the left, they responded to not a single one of these claims. In fact, i observed a total disconnect between what the two sides were arguing about. In my opinion, you can argue social issues from two perspectives: the civil rights perspective and the social theory perspective. The team on the left argued that recognizing same-sex marriages followed from the principle of equal rights, while the team on the right argued that society functions better when heterosexual marriages are encouraged, and each completely neglected to address the other perspective.
If i were a debating coach, i would have had to hand the debate to the right side. Here's why. There is a logically coherent argument to be made that heterosexual marriage has a positive effect on society, which they stated, and which could be supported or falsified by appropriate evidence if it existed. Neither side presented evidence for or against this argument. If you're going to argue in terms of marriage as a social mechanism for building a society, i think there are many real and interesting questions to be asked. What are the best environments for raising children? What are the positive or negative effects of encouraging lifelong commitment? What does the historical record tell us about civilizations that have had different formulations of marriage and the family? What is the real data on sexually transmitted diseases and the effects of homosexuality, promiscuity, or commitment? I want to know about the studies and the data on this.
On the other hand, the civil rights argument made by the left side was weaker because they refused to take a logically consistent position about whether the state should offer marriage benefits at all. I personally agree that if marriage is made available to heterosexuals it should also be made available to homosexuals. But if you're arguing on the basis of individual equality rather than societal good, there's no reason to treat married people any differently from single people. Why shouldn't people be able to designate anyone to receive their inheritance, social security money, and hospital visitation privileges? Why restrict them from designating children or members of their own family to receive such benefits? That seems to be the most consistent civil rights position.
Finally, a common argument used by opponents of same-sex marriage, also used during this debate, is to ask why it makes sense to allow same-sex marriage but preserve a ban on marrying relatives or multiple people. They typically suggest that if we recognize same-sex marriage we'll fall down a slippery slope and soon incest will be next (with the unspoken implication that the destruction of civilized society will soon follow). Why are the proponents of same-sex marriage almost universally afraid to address this issue? The team on the right correctly pointed out that they failed to answer this direct question three times during the debate. I think they should have directly confronted the question rather than silently conceding that incest destroys societies. It's a real, substantive issue to discuss. Why shouldn't the state recognize marriages between relatives, and how can an argument about this question be distinguished from an argument about same-sex marriage? And why shouldn't the state recognize group or line marriages as well? When do you think the first legal challenge will come from polyamorists, and what do you think will happen then?
So, speak up. I'd like to hear what you think, and i'd love to see pointers to real data to back any of it up.