Alex Blaze

Not satisfied with Brian Williams's answer

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 21, 2007 2:02 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement, The Movement
Tags: Bill O'Reilly, Brian Williams, feminism, GLAAD, marriage, relationships, war

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:

  1. Christmas has always meant the same thing to all people who matter,
  2. those who choose to celebrate the holiday pluralistically are attacking those who don't, and
  3. 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 institution!

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.


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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 21, 2007 4:19 PM

Alex, you've obviously given the matter a lot more thoughtful and detailed analysis that I have, and I certainly agree that (1) what Brian Williams said about marriage being under attack sounded a lot like the Righteous Right uses to blame gay marriage for everyting wrong with the universe including the over/undercooked turkey many may experience tommorrow in the US of A, (2) couching every disagreement along an already bullet-singed cultural fault line as a "war" dims the hope of any degree of civil discourse, and (3) there are certainly situations, the number of which could be endlessly debated, where divorce is anything but a bad undertaking.

Having said that, though, I would offer the thought (here I go with a dive into heteroassimilation....inside joke between Alex and me, other readers) that most people have some reasonably firm desire for a relationship, by whatever name, with another human being that involves intimacy and some degree of endurance beyond tommorrow morning. Add to that some form of a desire to produce (by whatever means) one or more members of the next human generation. The quality and endurance of that relationship has not an insignificant bearing on the secure upbringing of that generation. So in that sense, although I would hardly parrot the phrase "marriage is under attack", I would say that as a BROAD GENERALITY (so I don't get beat up by individual exceptions), the termination of a relationship that was at least once idealized as lasting a long time, and especially where dependent minor children are in the picture, must be viewed as a negative rather than otherwise. That's in no way to be critical of those choosing not to have long term relationships, however denominated or sanctioned. I don't really think it's my business if two people agree in advance that they're likely not going to be together "until death do us part". But for most, I think, the ending of a relationship has negative consequences, albiet often short term, and when children are involved more so with more lasting effects. In that sense, the idea of strengthening marriage, or any reasonable approximation, is worthwhile. I'm not saying your analysis rejects that...I just want to throw it out there to supplement the discussion and reflect what I think a significant number of our own GLBT community thinks. As usual, I stand to be shown incorrect.

This a great post-- in fact, it's one of your best!

I was the child of divorce too-- my mother divorced 3 times. Thank god-- each husband was worse than the last. She wasted 10 years of her life and mine in a marriage to an extremely abusive man (he once threw my sister down a flight of stairs because she made a telephone call without asking his permission to use the phone (we had to ask his permission because he paid the phone bill). Thank God my mother was able to divorce.

As for the military language often used in these discourses-- if you haven't read Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors give it a look. I'm re-reading it now for a paper I'm presenting at a conference for the National Writing Project (where I'm a Fellow & teaching consultant). She says many of the same things you are saying here in regard to this type of rhetoric.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 21, 2007 5:37 PM

Divorce, as I once heard a feminist describe on Oprah, is a wonderful thing.

Alex, what a refreshing way to look at it!

But for most, I think, the ending of a relationship has negative consequences, albiet often short term, and when children are involved more so with more lasting effects.

Don, I agree with Alex. I think a lot of the negative effects of divorce have a lot to do with people's unrealistic expectations for the longevity of relationships and the meaning of love. If people were taught to be more realistic about love, life-change, respect, parenting, etc. and schooled in how to be unselfishness, the negative emotional effects of divorce on adults and children (let's leave the financial and practical effects out of this discussion) would be mitigated.

My last romantic relationship ended before I wanted it to--I still love my ex and in many ways haven't moved on. But because I'd evolved (thankfully) to a place where I understood that love meant letting my beloved go when she needed to move on, our relationship didn't so much as "end" as evolve into a different sort of relationship. We're still very close, good friends, and we both value the special relationship we had then and have now.

I believe if more people were encouraged to take this sort of "let go," "accept change" and "embrace love in its different forms" approach, divorce and the "end" of relationships would be seen to be, if not a "wonderful" thing, a necessary and welcome part of life.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 21, 2007 6:38 PM

Bryan - I tend to agree with your comment that "I think a lot of the negative effects of divorce have a lot to do with people's unrealistic expectations for the longevity of relationships and the meaning of love." But that doesn't change the fact that there are negative effects, regardless of attribution of cause. I believe that being more realistic in expectations is something desirable, but I would also, for example, say I don't think that folks (gay or straight) with views that their relationship won't last beyond a decade or so ought to undertake the responsibilities of raising kids if they are not likely to be together through most of their pre-adult life. Somehow saying that if I tell a kid when they're 2 that mommie/daddy and daddy/mommie are likely to split when they are experiencing puberty, thus not creating false expectations of the kid doesn't sound like the way to deal with that situation.

And I guess when you parenthetically say "let's leave the financial and practical effects out of this discussion", I think you are underestimating the interplay between those effects and the overall emotional stress, etc. involved.

Jerry and I have a lesbian friend who we hadn't seen for a couple of years, and recently she told us she and her partner of many years were not longer together but that they remained friends. She added that one of their best set of friends, a straight couple, were quite upset over the split, because the lesbian pairing had inspired them because of its stability. A negative impact to somebody. We are all connected and perhaps unconsciously rely upon the stability of relationships around us. Maybe an excessive bit of romantic sentimentalism, but didn't have the best of days after hearing of our friend's parting.

Don~

The heteroassimilationists have gotten to you! You've been watching too much ESPN and playing too much football! R, grab your Madonna albums and put on "Material Girl"! Brynn, get a copy of The Joy of Gay Sex, start reading from page 68 and don't stop 'til Don's singin' show tunes! I'm going to make a wonderful quiche and tiramisu that could turn anyone gay! OK, break!

*ahem*

But seriously, I don't preclude the fact that some people want a lasting relationship or that divorce, much like marriage, can be done badly. I'm just saying pretty much everything that you agreed with in a different way.

the idea of strengthening marriage, or any reasonable approximation, is worthwhile.

Well, it depends on what is meant by "strengthening marriage", or, more specifically, what means we're going to use to that goal. If we're creating a context in which people can stay together if they want to, then, by all means. But I don't want to see us make people more hurt than they need to be if they choose/need to divorce. Things like increased economic equality, decreased materialism, better education, better unionization (the labor kind), and better and more widely available family planning aides would probably all increase the likelihood that two people will stay together till death do they part.

I don't know if that agrees or disagrees with you, but then again, it's not like I'd think that there are "two sides" to this "argument", as if it were some sort of war.... :)

Brynn~

Agreed. There are too many fairy tails in our culture where two people live happily ever after, both always getting their own way, for many people to be realistic.

R~

Fine! Fine! I'll read that Sontag essay!

Not to get-- or rather, stay-- off-topic (which was the divisive rhetoric used by Williams)

But:

I believe if more people were encouraged to take this sort of "let go," "accept change" and "embrace love in its different forms" approach, divorce and the "end" of relationships would be seen to be, if not a "wonderful" thing, a necessary and welcome part of life.

I just ended a 15 year relationship that-- for all intents and purposes-- has left me homeless.

"let go;""accept change"-- certainly. What choice do I have?

"embrace 'love' in its different forms"-- What's that have to do with it? That's incredibly naive

"wonderful" or "a welcome part of life": Hardly...and for you to suggest it is patronizing.

Will it keep me down? Certainly not-- I wouldn't give him or anyone else the satisfaction. But the end of any relationship is painful and challenging and your lack of empathy or compassion is insulting to anyone who has experienced that pain.


Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 21, 2007 7:23 PM

Don, it's not the longevity of a relationship that is most important when raising kids, it's the quality of the relationship. "Commitment" can mean that two people who undertake to raise a child only to discover that their plan to stay together romantically does not pan out, that they will still cooperate closely around the parenting, wellbeing, health and happiness of the child for the rest of their lives. It's a shift from the idea that children must be raised by two married parents, to the idea that regardless of their romantic commitment, parents--and society--will prioritize the child and do what's neccessary to raise that child well.

To me, it makes much more sense than linking a child's fate to something as fickle as romantic love--especially in an era when many people live to be 80 or 90 years old.

As someone who has pretty much been in debt my entire single life due in part to the fact that I raised a child on the salary of a woman with a high school degree, I am not inclined to underestimate "the interplay between those effects and the overall emotional stress, etc. involved."

Ultimately, though, the father of my child and I--after some destructive in-fighting--came to do pretty much what I'm proposing here. And I think we might have a healthier society if we concentrated on the goal of supporting financially, emotionally, and in every other way our children--personally and through social policy and tax spending--regardless of the state of the romantic relationship of the two people who conceived them, than on the goal of those two people staying together.

(Btw, it's "Brynn," not "Bryan.")

And Brynn: for you to say you are "more evolved" is arrogant beyond words....

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 22, 2007 6:08 AM

Brynn - sorry for my misspelling of your first name....I didn't notice. It has a very nice ring to it!

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 22, 2007 1:43 PM

And Brynn: for you to say you are "more evolved" is arrogant beyond words....

Just where did I say I was "more evolved"?

Please re-read my comments, especially before throwing around barbs like "arrogant" and "naive."

As for "patronizing," you're misreading me, but I have been on the receiving end numerous times in my life with friends telling me to let go and move on because when I fall for people, I fall hard and don't let go easily. So I know how angry their words made me feel, especially when they didn't seem to understand how much it hurt and how lost and wronged I felt. I may have never accused them of being patronizing, but it's certainly the way I felt.

So please let me say, I did not mean for my words to be insensitive or show a lack of empathy. And I'm really sorry that you were left after 15 years, effectively homeless. That's terrible, and wrong.

Brynn:
First, I, in fact, did misread you:

But because I'd evolved (thankfully) to a place where I understood that love meant letting my beloved go when she needed to move on, our relationship didn't so much as "end" as evolve into a different sort of relationship.

And I apologise.

In fact, I've been thinking a lot about what you wrote.

I think one thing (as so often happens in discourse like this) we are applying generalities to situations that are specific and unique.

I've had painful situations like the one I mentioned; but I've also had relationships like the one you mentioned which didn't end so much as change (in other words we stayed friends). Those are rare, I find.

I do think that the sort of "happy ending" you suggest in its own post-modern is every bit as...I dunnohow is saying:

I believe if more people were encouraged to take this sort of "let go," "accept change" and "embrace love in its different forms" approach, divorce and the "end" of relationships would be seen to be, if not a "wonderful" thing, a necessary and welcome part of life.

(in other wods: If you would just see it, do it this you'd be happy) any different than conservatives insisting that "If we would just pair off in monogamous sets and reproduce and buy a house in a closed community then we'd all be happy."

Just a thought...

My apologies for the bad typing. I'm on a comp in the library & the keys and space bar are sticking.....arrrrrrghhhh

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 24, 2007 4:28 PM

R, I honestly don't mean to be preachy. And I certainly don't feel like I know all the answers. I guess I'm just trying to share an insight that I've come to recently. From an early age, I've experienced a large amount of loss in my life, mostly to death but a significant amount to the end of deep love affairs. I have mostly fought against the loss each and every time and mourned long and painfully. I'm now 55 and it's only been in recent years that I've been able to "do loss" differently, to let go, stay emotionally open, roll with the feelings rather than shut down or resist. And while my last two break-ups have been extremely painful, they haven't signaled the bitter, ugly END in the way my previous break-ups did. I've become close friends with my last two exes and still have them in my life, which isn't always easy but is so much more rewarding than having them be completely gone. And like you say, it's RARE for this to happen. Partially I think it's rare because of the way we're taught to approach relationships in our culture.

Looking back, I really wish I'd learned the skill of letting go earlier in my life, but I don't think our society teaches us to approach loss in this way. We're taught to be all or nothing, to hang on and fight, that letting go of love means failure on some level. I think it might save many of us some pain if we were taught to approach love and relationships in a more flexible way.