Saturday, December 04, 2004

Approaching Social Change and Tradition

Read Part 2 here.

[note: unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in Part 1 are from Warren Postlewaite's article Beyond The Same-Sex Backlash in Planet S]

Social change can be more stressful when engaged with tradition. It also pressures us to adjust. Yet, while social change and tradition are complex and ambivalent (at best), how it's approached is not. The usual tendency is to make things simpler and easier than they really are. This results in otherwise decent perspectives becoming mediocore and unhelpful.

To get a sense of this, let's consider two articles discussing issues of homosexuality. Both of them deal with social change and tradition from different perspectives.

Part One: The Pro Position

The first article we'll be examining is Warren Postlewaite's Beyond The Same-Sex Backlash. This article focuses on the struggle for gay rights against meddling from government and religion. It starts off by describing how homosexuality became more accepted and legalized by the Canadian government, with the newest wrinkle being gay marriage. Postlewaite states that "the case for gay marriage is simple: Equal treatment under the law." * So in time the courts will oblige and make marriage available to gays and lesbians. Yet, the article reminds us, all this social change doesn't come easy, and the fight still continues. "The case against [gay marriage] is led by the Church, or to be more fair and accurate perhaps, unrefined religious doctrine. What is a judiciary to do?" *

Too Negative? Too Easy?

With that introduction, the article then turns to the opposition to gay marriage, starting with how the "anti-gay avant-garde" argues against gay relations. Proof-texts from the Bible are crudely used as their "manifesto" to resist homosexuality and same-sex marriage. For example, take Leviticus 18:22, which condemns same-sex relations as an abomination. This type of negative press can fuel "some of the most hateful anti-gay speech and propaganda", which avoids the broader, gentler context of the issue.

To augment his concern, Postlewaite tries to demonstrate the absurdity of this particularly negative reference by comparing same-sex relations with discouraged cultural practices (like tattoos or eating pork). Since the latter are not prohibited now, why should the former be? Otherwise, shouldn't tattoos or eating pork be outlawed too? Yet by comparing two different categories, he undermines his point unnecessarily. (Try the previous argument using incest instead of same-sex relations, and see how it comes across.)

Although it is easy to see how being narrow and negative is counterproductive here, it is unclear how to manage negative or hostile elements of tradition effectively concerning this issue, since homosexuality was not understood the way it is now. The article does not indicate anything specifically. Moreover, there is no indication why a more positive response is required, other than it had not been that way beforehand and seems inadequate because of the struggle for gay rights. Either way, it definitely seems not as easy as it looks.

Change Good, Tradition Bad

After deeming "unrefined religion" * lacking, the article focuses on the relations between "traditional Christian precepts" and the "conservative legal culture". Postlewaite determines that the church hinders and discourages the state from initiating social change, because they are too similar. Therefore, the courts do not reappraise their "assumptions, prejudices, or practices". Over time though, change is inevitable and so tradition must lose out to reform.

How does that apply here? The article explains:
"Like the anti-divorce and anti-abortion lobbies before it, the current backlash against same-sex marriage has come about precisely because of the vast sea in change in public values, reflected in the latest [Canadian] Appellate courts' decisions. Thirty years ago, the Vatican wouldn't have bothered going on television to say that homosexuality was sinful. After all, who would have argued with that? All these rearguard actions reflect the increasing desperation of religious and social traditionalists in a modern, secular world spinning increasingly out of their control." *
So, just as tradition is depicted as universally bad because of a restrictive understanding of homosexuality, social change is deemed universally good because it reflects a relaxed attitude toward the issue. What the article doesn't make clear is how to integrate both groups with the complex and ambivalent reality of these circumstances. Traditionalists may see more mixed consequences with social change, especially looser configurations in relationships, yet the traditional solution could be insufficient anyways. However, while social change may be warranted, it may be more difficult than the courts (in this example) could resolve.

Optimistic and Simple

While Beyond The Same-Sex Backlash contains an optimistic expression of hope for gay rights, the way it construes and handles tradition sabotages this message to some degree. This is partly indicated by the flawed rebuttal of a negative Biblical reference, and using unflattering language only about tradition throughout the article. Moreover, the presumption that social change is the only response to the issue of gay rights and gay marriage is just as easy and simple as the tradition portrayed here. All in all, Beyond The Same-Sex Backlash contains enough significant problems to make it unsatisfying and unimpressive.

*emphasis mine

[End of Part One..."Turn Tape Over"...errr...stay tuned for Part Two]

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