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25.12.03

Habermas And Gay Marriage

As usual, after I post my "I'll be gone for a while" message, I think of a good post to make.

I'm starting to read Jürgen Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action, and it's suggesting a new set of terms in which to put some of the ideas I've been tossing around about what the gay marriage debate means.

Basically, it seems that the gay marriage struggle can be looked at as a problem of what Habermas calls "the colonization of the lifeworld." He divides society into two parts: the system and the lifeworld. The system -- made up mostly of what we call the economy and politics -- is a rationalized, functional setup. The lifeworld -- culture and social interaction -- is the site of values and social solidarity. Modernity is characterized by the separation of lifeworld and system into semi-autonomous spheres, through the rise of administrative politics and market economics. For example, whereas economic relations were once deeply embedded in lifeworld institutions such as kinship (people lay claim to goods by asserting a kin relation), they're now characterized by relations mediated through the abstract medium of money. At the same time, however, the system is at work "colonizing" the lifeworld, drawing off more elements of the lifeworld and subjecting them to the system's rationality. This process is what has also been described as commodification when the colonizing agent is the market.

Marriage, as an institution rooted in kinship, affection, and socialization, was originally a part of the lifeworld. As the system broke away from the lifeworld, it adopted the concept of marriage as a constitutive institution. Though it was initially parasitic on the lifeworld for the idea and its definition, it eventually became necessary to "write down" marriage in the language of system -- to formalize the institution in legal terms. This shared institution formed a basis for interaction between system and lifeworld.

The dual nature of marriage went unremarked so long as both lifeworld and system defined it in compatible ways. This unremarkability provided an avenue for the system to colonize the lifeworld, expanding its involvement in the shared institution. But there comes a problem when the definitions diverge.

The fight for gay marriage is currently focused on making a change in the system definition of marriage -- the legal recognition of the institution, with all the benefits that come with it. As I see it, changes in the system can be more acute issues because bureaucratic rules are more static, as they're literally written down with formalized processes for changing them. Rules in the lifeworld, on the other hand, can happen more gradually and smoothly because the lifeworld is as described in Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration) being constantly reproduced in social action, and is thus constantly subject to renegotiation rather than being presumed fixed until change is officially undertaken. Within the system, political rules seem likely to be more bureaucratically static, as evidenced by the fact that corporations have moved more quickly than states to change their definitions of marriage to treat gay and straight relationships as equal (to the extent that they're independent of, rather than parasitic on, the political definition of marriage).

The degree of colonization of the lifeworld that has already been carried out makes the system level a crucial struggle for those who would open marriage to homosexual couples. These activists use the logic of the system -- for example, by appealing to constitutional principles of equality -- to effect a change in the system. Yet this systemic activity is percieved as threatening to the lifeworld, a threat expressed in the fear of the commodification and individualism of homosexual marriage (as well as of heterosexual marriage under the influence of the new marital paradigm). Changing the system definition exposes the degree of colonization of the lifeworld that has already occurred by making the two definitions jar against each other. And it reveals the weakness of the lifeworld to resist a new definition of marriage that is sedimented in law. For example, take the fear that churches (religion is a quintessential lifeworld issue) may be forced to recognize homosexual unions, in practice if not in theology, because ministers have been colonized through being given the authority to formalize system-sanctioned marriages. (Apropos of my earlier comments on conspiracy theories, note the frequent references to the "gay agenda" that is said to be engineering this change.)

The analysis presented thus far seems rather favorable to the anti-gay-marriage position. Indeed, the idea of colonization of the lifeworld seems to parallel a common procedural complaint -- that judges, representatives of a highly rationalistic system, are foisting gay marriage on a culturally unwilling society*.

However, it is incorrect to place lifeworld unproblematically on the anti-gay-marriage side. Certainly that is the historical position, and it remains true for many people. But the gay rights movement came out of the lifeworld, as a sort of cultural politics. In many gay-friendly areas, homosexual couples can already acquire most of the purely lifeworld trappings of marriage, from being recognized by their friends to having their union sanctified by a (Unitarian or Episcopalian) church. It's the colonization of the lifeworld by the system, making so many aspects of married life dependent on meeting the system's definition of marriage, that has spurred the legal fight over gay marriage. The incongruence of a pro-gay lifeworld with an anti-gay system motivates the progressive side as surely as the threatened incongruence of an anti-gay lifeworld and a pro-gay system motivates the conservative side.

Further, conservatives are willing to make use of the system to defend their side. The prime example is the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, an attempt to very thoroughly solidify in the system a certain definition of marriage. This movement goes beyond an attempt to keep the system from interfering with the lifeworld to an attempt to use the system to shape the lifeworld. Eugene Volokh has written of his concern that, in moving the scene of struggle from the lifeworld to the system too soon, the pro-gay will provoke a backlash that puts the system definition of marriage permanently out of reach (and thus cramps the lifeworld definition to the extent that it has been colonized).

Habermas urges decolonization of the lifeworld. The simple interpretation of decolonization would lead us to the view (popular among libertarians, who have a tendency to merge the economic system with the lifeworld in opposition to the political system) that marriage should be privatized. The goal here would be to take away marriage as a point of articulation between lifeworld and system by reorganizing the system so as not to use the marriage concept. The effect of this would be to place all authority for regulating marriage back with the lifeworld (though it says nothing about whether the functions served by system-marriage would devolve to the lifeworld along with marriage, or would be retained by the system but served in a different way, thus weakening the overall institution of marriage). This idea is not popular among social conservatives, who believe a degree of colonization is needed to save the lifeworld from its own liberal tendencies. This is perhaps connected to a view that marriage is defined on a moral level by an immutable natural law, which leads to an affinity for whatever social mechanism -- in this case, the constitutional system -- can best make that permanence materially real.

Pro-gay people have reason to be skeptical of such separatist decolonization as well. The system can be a powerful tool when wielded properly by the lifeworld, as evidenced by the way the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas was able to take the national majority feeling that sodomy should not be a crime and extend it to places like Texas where the lifeworld (and the democratic politics that feeds off of it) is of a different opinion. But perhaps this view of the system as a tool of the lifeworld is a form of decolonization. This partakes of Max Weber's view of the system. He thought that the system's rationality was purely instrumental, enabling you to get what you want but offering no clues as to what you should want. Colonization involves a sort of idolatry, subordinating the user to the tool.

*Yet conservatives are unable to fully make this argument because it requires assenting to the idea that the judges' decision is the result of legal rationality. They would rather keep all rhetorical options open by maintaining that the derivation of a right to gay marriage from existing law is an incorrect -- irrational -- deduction, and hence illegitimate by the standards both of lifeworld and of system.

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