Why Instant Societal Change Sucks

Instant Societal Change Sucks

The recent Supreme Court decision concerning gay marriage came as a surprise to many on both sides of the debate. I myself had forgotten that such a case was still before the high court. But there it was, a five-four edict that brought with it instant societal change. The decision was a troubling one, not because of what it says about marriage or homosexual rights, but because of what it says about the childish, demanding ways of twenty-first century Americans.

Like most societies, America took the one-man, one-woman thing in marriage for granted. Some cultures are fine with polygamy, but until about fifteen years ago, I had not heard of any state-approved same-sex marriages. Yet even if history is on the side of traditional marriage, institutions, whether rightly or wrongly, do change over time. Interracial unions were frowned upon in the early decades of this nation, but demographics show that they are quickly becoming the standard for husbands and wives. That the definition of marriage would change can be shocking, but not completely unexpected. Women can vote, prohibition has come and gone, and cable TV is giving way to online methods of entertainment. Big changes happen all the time.

Such changes typically come with upheaval and conflict, with at least one side kicking and screaming the entire time. In dealing with the slavery issue, for example, America’s Founders understood that the elimination of that peculiar institution would bring with it economic, agricultural, relational, and political transformations, and perhaps even violent, bloody war. George Mason, a member of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and himself a slaveholder, warned of future trauma borne out of the slave trade and the push to eliminate it: “Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.” The association between wholesale change and societal disruption was no surprise to those who had just come through a decisive, even revolutionary, war with England.

But today’s society changers no longer speak of trauma. The current generation suffers from the delusion that massive societal change is by default trouble-free. “Fundamentally transforming the United States of America” is now declared at the highest levels as a right, and one that should not raise a single disagreeing eyebrow. An era of relative peace, financial comfort, and happy endings has dulled us to the reality that life is complex, and change is hard. Instead, when things we don’t like threaten to unnerve us, we impose solutions that maintain inner peace at the expense of reason.

Conflict avoidance stunts the intellect, preventing us from grappling with life’s most difficult challenges. This risk-averse stance is a major reason for the nation’s large financial debt; throwing borrowed money at a problem is less jarring than battling over no-win divisive issues. The Supreme Court’s action on gay marriage took away the need for Americans on either side of the issue to think deeply about the why of marriage equality, or to think at all. The saddest aspect of this is that many Americans find the elimination of intellectual rigor to be an overall benefit.

Those who supported the court’s decision do not believe in the core tenants of representative democracy and its need for an educated electorate. Instead, they support a representative dictatorship, an environment where difficult political and societal concerns always have one, simple, unchanging solution, and that solution is mandated by national leaders. Anyone who doubts the wisdom of a declaration is branded a bigot, or worse, stupid. It’s the reason that the White House was able to express its agreement with the high court decision so comfortably with a lighted neener-neener display of rainbow colors.

Gay marriage is a contentious issue, as it should be. It’s new, untried, challenging, and a little shocking for a large swath of the American public. That doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wrong. But it does mean that its introduction will—and should—come with some level of angst and turmoil. That arguments arise as to its validity should come as no surprise. But arguments are not harmful. Debating worldviews is healthy, and historically American. Fiat declarations that cheat us out of the growth and maturity that comes of conflict are not.

[Image Credits: The White House]


  1. Millions of Americans were acutely aware that marriage equality was before the Supreme Court and have been waiting for some time for the acknowledgement that they, like other Americans, deserve the right to marry the person they love whenever and wherever they wish. Yes, this change should be met with rational thought. I am not sure that angst and turmoil are necessary.

  2. I don’t believe that angst and turmoil are necessary either. I’m not fretting that much over the particulars of the decision. But there does seem to be a level of gloating by some over the decision that wasn’t just a “We’re so excited because we won” response, but instead a “We won, and everyone who opposed us is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed” response.

    My core concern was not with the case itself, but with the process of introducing societal change in America. The 50 states were well on their way to making gay marriage the law of the land. Many of them, like the Supreme Court, did so through fiat decision, but others did so properly through the legislative process. While there was ebb and flow on the issue, I think that over time, all states would have legalized gay marriage anyway, and in a way that was less dictatorial.

  3. I agree that there is gloating. It has been all over the media and it may seem as though I am part of it myself, though that is not my intention. For those who have religious beliefs that are in direct conflict with this decision, I am sorry and I am trying to understand how troubling this might be. The worst thing we can do is condemn those who we perceive as rigid and then turn around and do the same ourselves. I try to remind myself of this when I begin to think I have the only answer.

    Marriage equality is an issue about which I feel strongly. Those of us who are very close to gay individuals know the struggles they already face. My reaction to this decision and, perhaps, that of some of those who appear to be gloating, is joy. It is joy for those I love. In my mind, these are fine, highly moral individuals who deserve respect and freedom.

  4. The fifty states may have been on their way to making marriage equality the law, but I don’t believe this was guaranteed. What about states that might not have agreed? Should couples living in those states have to give up on the idea of marriage? Should they have to move to another state?

  5. Not guaranteed, but likely. On all big issues, all states have eventually come to agreement, either through natural societal change, federal legislation, civil war (in one case), or constitutional amendment. Long ago, the answer to “should they have to move to another state” would have been, “Of course.” The 14th Amendment (especially its equal protection clause) and the judicial extensions that came from it changed that viewpoint, not just for social issues like marriage, but on business and political issues as well. Such is the nature of national politics.

    I think that federal regulations, in large part, made the gay marriage issue much more contentious than it needed to be. Thanks to HIPAA, IRS regulations about who can share income, child adoption rules, and other similar privacy and relational mandates, marriage equality became a need, not just to be happy, but to deal with so much red tape.

  6. Tim, you should have done a book report on S. Coontz, “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” (Penguin 2005). I don’t know whether Justice Kennedy is on GoodReads, but evidently he did.


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