It’s a frequent topic of discussion in any election year: just how informed is our electorate? How much does the average voter know about the issues we’re asked to vote on? Many of us wrestle, standing alone in front of our electronic ballot, with how (or whether) to vote on races or referenda on which we don’t feel educated enough to make an informed decision. Do we vote for this person because we’ve seen his/her name on a lot of campaign signs? Funding this or that public project sounds like a good idea, but have I taken the time to find out whether it’s projected to be worth the community investment, or is it some politician’s pet project that serves the interest of few at the expense of many? And what about when we’re being asked to vote on one group’s civil rights?
Last week in California, a judge ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional. Meanwhile here in NC, we prepare to vote in May on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Undoubtedly there are many voters at both ends of the political spectrum who already feel pretty unshakeable in their opinions on the matter, but some recent publications have made me think more about how informed the average voter is or needs to be about the institution of marriage and its role in this issue. Is it enough to rely on our own experiences or taken-for-granted notions without thinking more about what the purpose of marriage is in our culture, what it has been historically, how it has changed and what these changes might mean for its future?
I started thinking about this issue after catching an episode of the afternoon talk show Anderson devoted in part to Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks’ controversial new book Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. Though his work focuses mainly on race and marriage, when I got myself a copy and started reading, his research led me to other interesting works on the topic of marriage, family and American culture.
In his book, Banks examines two developments that he believes account for the African American marriage decline, the first of which interests me here: that the “rules of the [marriage] market have changed, so that people marry for different reasons and with different expectations than in earlier eras.” Banks references the work of marriage and family scholar Stephanie Coontz, whose 2005 book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, looks at the evolution of marriage from a practical business partnership to a more romanticized, idealized emotional commitment today. Both Banks and Coontz urge the reader to consider how today’s idea of marriage is a very recent development, not a timeless tradition, and how damaging some of our current expectations about marriage have been to the institution itself.
Another work of interest, Andrew Cherlin’s 2010 book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today looks at a related issue: the way religion and law reinforce “Americans’ embrace of two contradictory cultural ideals: marriage, a formal commitment to share one’s life with another; and individualism, which emphasizes personal choice and self-development” (Amazon.com).
Other works treat the issue of same-sex marriage more directly, like E.J. Graff’s What is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (a pro-gay work which also uses historical perspective to argue that the idea of ‘traditional marriage’ is an oxymoron) and the more conservative scholarly collection What’s the Harm?: Does Legalizing Same Sex Marriage Really Harm Individual Families or Society?, edited by Lynn Wardle. Whatever your position, why not check out one of these books to find out more about what the other side is all about? In the bigger picture, it can only help us bridge the painful divide over this issue if we all begin to understand more about the opposing sides’ needs, fears and motivations, even if we don’t agree with them.
Many people think that what we know about marriage from personal experience or the teachings we’ve grown up with is enough, but isn’t part of the purpose of higher education to make us question precisely these sources, or at least the practice of relying on them exclusively? Don’t we experience again and again in our BLS courses the benefit of having our ingrained ideas challenged, broadened, or deepened by new perspectives, new historical or cultural frameworks? Even if you think you know what marriage is, and why this right should or should not be extended to gay and lesbian couples, why not check out any of these books and see what others have to say on the topic? It may not change your mind, but it will make you more informed at the polls this May.