Archive for the 'gender' Category

gay marriage! controversy! slow down!

[by JSC5]

I’m a little late in getting to this, but a federal judge has ruled that California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited gay marriage in that state, is unconstitutional. I like to think of same-sex marriage is one of those “duh!” issues, like beer deregulation or early childhood education. We recognize, however, that despite how simple an issue it is for some, same-sex marriage has caused a great deal of controversy for other people. Orin Kerr had a post up recently over at Volokh Conspiracy that took this fact of controversy and conflated it with actual importance. He starts by quoting Judge Walker’s ruling, and then responds to it:

[Judge Walker’s opinion]: “Because the evidence shows same-sex marriage has and will have no adverse effects on society or the institution of marriage, California has no interest in waiting and no practical need to wait to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Proposition 8 is thus not rationally related to proponents’ purported interests in proceeding with caution when implementing social change.”

[Orin Kerr’s commentary]: Whatever your views of same-sex marriage — or Judge Walker’s decision as a whole — I think this particular part of the analysis is pretty weak. First, the idea that same-sex marriage is not a significant social change strikes me as plainly incorrect. This is one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time: Whether you think it’s the greatest advance for civil rights in America or the end of the world, it seems pretty clear that it’s a big deal.

Now, gay marriage is certainly politically salient in that it stirs up emotions and seems to divide people into two camps. That said, I don’t think it’s nearly as polarizing as he makes it out to be. Who exactly is Kerr hanging out with to make him think that mainstream opinion runs from “the greatest advance for civil rights in America” to “the end of the world”? I know a lot of pro-gay marriage people, and I don’t think a single one thinks that gay marriage clearly outranks the civil rights movement for African-Americans or the women’s rights movement. Furthermore, I know many (though fewer) anti-gay marriage people,  none of whom think it will seriously end the world. In fact, mainstream opinion on this subject seems to stretch from “good idea/duh” to “I’m concerned about it/ewww”.

Either way, I’m not sure that the actual level of controversy even matters. It seems that Orin Kerr is confusing (1) political salience with (2) actual breadth or depth of change. What exactly is the evidence Professor Kerr would offer up in defense of his contention that same-sex marriage is “one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time”? The simple fact that Americans fall into two broadly equal pro and con camps isn’t enough. Lots of issues – both important and superficial – are politically salient in a similar way,  so the mere fact of salience can’t help us to distinguish actual importance.

Just how important and sweeping of a change would gay marriage be? Judge Walker;’s answer (quoting a bevy of experts who testified at trial) is that it’s pretty important for the gay couples who would get married, and not at all important for everyone else. In response, Orin Kerr says that the mere fact of political controversy proves Judge Walker wrong.

It’s an effective strategy for troglodytes trying to make sure that gay people don’t have the same rights as everyone else. They don’t even need to marshal any real evidence or reasons as to why the proposed reform would be bad or that implementing it right now would be dangerous; all they need to do is disagree, and the disagreement becomes the evidence.That is, until smart professors like Orin Kerr, along with the rest of us, some day stop believing the hype.

Priests don’t understand sex

This isn’t a post about priests raping children. I’m not Catholic, nor do I have any special insight into the scandal that continues to rock the Church, year after year.

Instead, this is a post about common sense.

It’s been clear for a while now that the Church is a little embarrassed by its anti-contraceptive stance, especially when it comes to overpopulation, poverty traps, AIDS, and the third world. We hear stories about nuns handing out condoms in rural clinics far from the prying eyes of the Church leadership. Even in the developed world, many Catholics I’ve talked to personally admit that they see nothing particularly wrong with contraception and just think the Church is out of step on this issue. A section of the priesthood in America at least actively ignores Church teachings on contraception, or just doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

And that’s understandable. Official church doctrine can’t just change overnight, so a shadow, unwritten, “living doctrine” has emerged that adapts to modern needs. Think of Constitutional law in the US. We have an 18th Century document governing a 21st century nation. The document itself says nothing about freedom of movement, non-discrimination based on gender, the right to marry, the right to education, and so on. Yet all of those crucial freedoms have grown up into a shadow, unwritten, “living Constitution.” In many ways it’s unfortunate that some of our foundational ideals aren’t written down in our most basic law. But it makes sense given how politically difficult it is to amend the Constitution.

In the end, the the ambiguous status of contraception and sex within the Church — the official doctrine disapproves, while a growing shadow consensus says, “eh, whatever” — isn’t terribly surprising. In fact, it ought to be expected by someone who understands the politics of large organizations. But one unfortunate outcome is that church officials who try to reconcile their official doctrine with informal accommodations just end up sounding completely stupid.

Case in point: this guy. Here’s the BBC’s interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols:

Any form of birth control that might interfere with conception, such as condoms or the Pill, is regarded as sinful by the Catholic Church. The Church also argues that, in any case, all children should be welcomed as a gift from God. … [Quoting Archbishop Vincent Nichols], “I think when it comes to Third World poverty and the great pressure under which many women are put by men, I can see the arguments, why, in the short term, [the] means that give women protection are attractive.” … “If we solve the poverty, then consistently we know that the birth rate comes down. If we provide people with security, then consistently birth rates will come down. And they’re the radical issues that we should be addressing, not short-term intrusive fixes.”

Sorry, Archbishop, but you clearly don’t understand sex. “Solving poverty” doesn’t bring down birth rates on its own. If you give a Bangladeshi woman living in poverty with 5 kids already to her name a sudden infusion of cash that can bring her living standard up to US average, she will not magically become less fertile. The real reason that birthrates fall as incomes rise is that richer people have more knowledge of, access to, and ability to afford contraception. Period. [Pun intended].

It’s almost as if this priest’s basic reasoning functions have been attenuated by the drive to rationalize the Church’s awkward, contradictory stances on sex.

We shouldn’t necessarily expect a unitary Church doctrine that makes sense within itself and in relation to the real world. We ought to expect a messy, contradictory mish-mash that is the result of centuries of political and ideological compromises and a rapidly changing secular world. But we can at least expect some basic common sense reasoning from the Church. I realize all churches are political, but it’s just embarrassing when your religious leader sounds like a politician trying his best to avoid answering the question.

Title IX: the best thing since sliced bread?

The NYT reports on a robust new study on the effects of Title IX on women’s lives:

She found that the changes set in motion by Title IX explained about 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women.

That’s a very significant finding. Title IX seems to have had a large, positive effect on women’s lives years later. This study is robust in that it exploits differences in the size and changes in boys sports budgets pre- and post-Title IX across the 50 states to disentangle the effects of confounding variables like demographics, climate, income, etc.

Social scientists have known for a while that education is a large determinant of life outcome, but it is truly stunning that a specific policy intervention (in this case Title IX) would have such an outsized impact on employment levels years down the road. It’s pretty rare to find something that specific with explanatory power anywhere near 40% in the social sciences. The article is a little vague as to whether the study measured the specific effect of Title IX’s impact on sports, or its overall impact on non-discrimination in publicly-funded education. But for now, be sure to thank the legislators who enacted Title IX, activists who pushed for it, and litigators who defended it. That kind of political courage in the service of something that matters is … rare … these days.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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