Friday, August 13, 2010

Prop 8 and paradigms

Victor Hugo famously said that there is no stronger force than an idea whose time has come. I think we're witnessing that right now.

I came across two interesting comments on the Prop-8 ruling, and the Ross Douthat column I discussed in my previous post. One was actually a comment on the other—Andrew Sullivan quoting Ezra Klein—but I thought his brief observation was rather insightful, and it made me think. The key Klein passage:

America does not currently conceive of marriage in the way that Douthat … would like it to conceive of marriage, and in the way it would need to conceive of marriage in order for there to be a good reason the institution can't accommodate gays. So to oppose gay marriage, Douthat … must first construct an alternative version of marriage, and then argue that if real marriage opens to gays, that's another step away from the idealized marriage that would be closed to gays.

It's like partisans of VCRs opposing improvements to DVDs because they make the widespread resurrection of VHS unlikely.

I liked this analogy a lot, in part because it got me thinking about paradigm shifts. Sullivan's comment got my mind working in similar ways: "It seems to me that we are witnessing the much faster collapse of the anti-gay marriage case - on logic and public opinion - that almost anyone anticipated. It is as if suddenly, one consensus has imploded and another begun."

Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigms works along much this same reasoning: that societal change is not gradual, but tends to happen with remarkable speed when it happens, and one dominant world-view will be eclipsed by another apparently all at once. Basically, what we witness is the inertia of accepted wisdom being overcome by incremental change that has gathered weight and force until it can no longer be withstood. What seemed timeless and enduring can suddenly no longer stand.

Even just a decade ago, gay marriage was considered a possibility but decades away from broad social acceptance; two decades ago it was unthinkable but for a tiny minority. Resistance to the idea is still strong, but waning fast; the strongest signal of this shift is less its vocal advocacy than mainstream indifference, which suggests more than anything a fait accompli. I'd like to think that we've reached that historical tipping-point.

1 comment:

Ursula said...

“Whenever the people are for gay marriage or medical marijuana or assisted suicide, suddenly the "will of the people" goes out the window.”`~ Bill Maher