Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Marriage equality is a family value

In art, song, poetry, fiction, and film, Family is perhaps the most common way for imagining membership in a group, including the nation.

Think of the Civil War in the United States and how it was described as being a war between
brothers, which was literally true at times. Think of the HBO series about World War II, Band of Brothers.

Think of Walt Whitman in Song of Myself claiming that all men and women "ever born" are his brothers and sisters.  Although his statement is made in relation to all humanity, the poem is most clearly about his nation; the brothers and sisters he describes in his epic poem are his fellow Americans.

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson considers the ways humans create nations through their imaginations. Nations are rather large groups of people, and often times those people do not have that many things in common.  One way of overcoming potential divisions is by imagining connections.  He writes that a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."

Thinking of themselves in terms of a family allows a group of citizens to imagine they have a shared history and a shared future -- as do members of a family who have common ancestors and descendants.  For instance, a group of school children might have been born in a dozen different countries, but, now that they live in the United States, they are encouraged to think of George Washington as a type of shared father figure. 

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Families and nationhood came to mind recently when Sen. Rob Portman ended his opposition to same-sex marriage after learning that his son was gay.  (And it is especially pertinent now that the Supreme Court is hearing arguments concerning legal definitions of marriage.)

My initial reaction to Portman's announcement was, "How convenient."

He changed his mind only after learning that a member of his family would be negatively impacted by a legal principle he had supported.  While I appreciate his new outlook, I am troubled by what this says about his old outlook -- and the outlook of many others who have not changed.

Although Portman has changed his perspective on same-sex marriage, the reason for his change may mean an earlier principle remains in place: a mindset that extends justice and compassion only to members of one's family and those who closely resemble one's family.

It is a principle that suggests: If you are different from me, I am not concerned with justice for you.  

I would prefer a sense of justice and compassion that extends to everyone, regardless of whether they look or act or think as I do.  In other words, I would prefer we treated all people in the country as if they already were part of the family.  Just as Portman wants justice and equality for his son, we should want the same for all of our "relatives" -- which is to say, "everyone."

When it comes to the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship, we should ask not "What is right and wrong?" so much as we should ask "How would I want my brother or sister treated?  How would I want my son or daughter treated?"

In this sense, I wish Americans more thoroughly imagined themselves as members of the same family, people who can find ways to overcome their differences in order to preserve and honor their greater shared humanity.  I wish we had that kind of "family values," rather than the kind that are often used to justify the limitations of another person's rights or privileges.

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As an addendum, I would say that the notion of kinship is a powerful tool among Indian tribes in the United States and First Nations people in Canada.  To treat fellow citizens as family members is to seek resolutions to problems in a particular way.  In American democracy, we resolve problems with voting, and the majority rules; the system is built upon power and who possesses it.  The tribal conception of democracy is built more upon consensus; each party in a dispute should consider seriously what the other side wants or needs.  Both sides of a dispute should seek a resolution that keeps both parties healthy and fully engaged and invested in the community.  Like a family.

One articulation of this principle is frequently used by a university colleague of mine in American Indian Studies.  She signs off her correspondence with a phrase in Lakota: Mitakuye Oyasin.  It can be translated as "We are all related." 

I realize this is an ideal.  Many disputes within tribes can get very ugly, and people can behave according to their power or desires rather than their responsibilities to each other.  But that ideal relationship -- citizenship as kinship -- can be a powerful tool.  Perhaps it is a tool powerful enough to remedy our nation's political and cultural paralysis.

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