As Michael Crawford posted earlier today, NBC's Brian Williams said on the Nightly News that we live "in an era when marriage is under attack." Speculation has run as to whether he was referring to the Religious Right's use of that expression, "marriage is under attack", which means that gays are trying to get marriage and this will somehow devalue the institution itself, or whether he was referring to a seven-year divorce rate that hovers at around 50% in the US. The general answer, as expressed by GLAAD and others, is that it doesn't matter what he meant, he was using a common homophobic frame that's rather hard to ignore and hard to believe that a news anchor would be unaware of.
Williams responded on his blog that he was referring to the divorce rate:
My meaning? Our national divorce rate, which is currently somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.
I'm not going to speculate as to whether or not he's being honest, but, either way, what he said is pretty ignorant. Whether it's two women or two men trying to get hitched or it's currently married people wanting out of their marriages, marriage is not under attack.
This particular framing of the question has been repeated ad nauseum by many advocates of same-sex marriage: You say we're attacking marriage? No, straight people are because they're the ones getting divorced! It's quick, easy, puts the blame elsewhere, changes the argument, and may feel satisfying, but it's definitely not the way we should be framing our response.
Divorce, as I once heard a feminist describe on Oprah, is a wonderful thing. It gets people into marriages who might not otherwise do so and it gets them out of marriages that are hurting them. The process isn't fun, but it's definitely better than living in a society without divorce. There are many, many valid reasons to end a marriage and lots of situations where being unmarried means more happiness all around than being married
Part of my perspective on divorce comes from being raised by a latina feminist, who is still married to the same man after almost thirty years. I remember my mother bemoaning the fact that her parents didn't divorce earlier in their rocky relationship to give each other enough space to be better parents. And my father's mother wouldn't sign the divorce papers even though my grandfather checked out of the relationship fourteen years before she finally did. (Their Presbyterian Church used to advise people to wait it out for fourteen years and see if you still feel like getting divorced. Talk about a waste of precious time!)
It's not fun to go through one, but divorce is a wonderful invention. But our (and Brian Williams's) snappy retort that "straights are destroying marriage with divorce" still buys into the militaristic rhetoric that only serves to stigmatize those people who choose to get divorced.
Especially considering that marriage can't be under attack by divorce since it can't really be at war with anything. The rhetoric of war (found also in the "War on Christmas" or the "Culture War"), much like real war, only benefits the rhetorical arms dealers while everyone divides themselves, attacks others, and lives more fearfully that they will lose what they value. When we go to battle with concepts, the only thing we can attack is not the opposing concept, but the people who buy into that concept.
For example, the "War on Christmas" assumes that:
- Christmas has always meant the same thing to all people who matter,
- those who choose to celebrate the holiday pluralistically are attacking those who don't, and
- the only way to resolve that conflict is to dominate the outsiders until they capitulate and buy into the one true way to celebrate the holiday.
It's a divisive way to look at a cultural difference, and one that's useful to demonize difference and ensure that people follow O'Reilly, Hannity, and anyone else who speaks on it lock-step. Shoot at those Secular Progressives! Or Democrats! Or liberals! They
are attacking our
In much the same way, defining divorce or same-sex marriage as a threat to marriage stigmatizes those who participate or want to participate in either. Two men or two women getting married isn't going to tear apart anyone else's long-term relationship, just as a man and a woman getting divorced isn't going to hurt those who'd rather stay married.
So, no, I'm not satisfied with Brian Williams's "clarification". Even though many of us are desperate to try to jump into the institution, the straight folks who are desperate to jump out aren't frivolous and self-centered people who can't appreciate how good they have it. If our movement is truly about people having the autonomy to decide for themselves what works, then we ought to drop the warlike language.
Because, as a gay friend once told me, the best part about legalizing gay marriage will be finally getting gay divorce.