There is much of interest in Harris’s essay. Harris is alive to the problems of defending tradition:
Those defending a tradition at all costs must adopt the relativist view that there is no higher standard by which to judge one tradition against another, as this is the only way to make sure that tradition may not be overthrown by the confrontation with such a standard. On the other hand, those who wish to defend a tradition by showing it to conform to a higher standard reduce the tradition to the status of means to an end.Trying to defend tradition in general seems a hopeless task. It is all too easy to find traditions that one’s audience will find repulsive—“honour” killings, or female genital mutilation, for example.
Harris wants to make sure we consider tradition in full, not some superficial understanding of it. So he alerts us to the difference between overt justification and hidden utility:
The intellectualist interpretation of a tradition as a corpus of formal propositions whose truth or falsity may be argued lies at the heart of all efforts to find an objective or neutral way to judge among competing traditions. This is evident in the Enlightenment’s attack on tradition as outmoded superstition — an argument Hayek brilliantly demolishes. A tradition, he realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it.Quite so. I am reminded of the story of the friend of a English Lord Chief Justice who was offered the position of chief judge of a colony, despite having no legal training. The Chief Justice allegedly suggested to his enquiring friend that he take the position but never give any reasons for his judgments, on the grounds his decisions were quite likely to be correct, but his reasons were sure to be wrong. Traditions may evolve for reasons that are based on the “embedded knowledge” of experience not captured in abstract or conventional (or even after-the-fact) justifications.
Hence, Harris argues:
every inherited tradition has come down to us at two distinct levels — first, as a behavioral phenomenon, as an embodied value hardwired into our neural circuitry and into our sweat glands, and secondly, as an articulated value that can be analyzed and discussed, attacked and defended, in words.The “naturalness” of the familiar is a powerful thing. Indeed, a working definition of our sense of something being “natural” is ‘accepted background constraint’. But Harris goes too far: the notion that traditions are “hardwired into our neural circuitry” is nonsense, they vary too much across societies and across time.
The awareness of this variety is, of course, itself corrosive of tradition, for it means that tradition loses its sense of “naturalness”, of being part of the “necessary” and “normal” structure of things, because clearly, if traditions vary so much, they are not such.
Still, if we do not let our metaphors run away with us into actual empirical error, the distinction Harris identifies does meant that:
when confronted with any particular tradition, we now have two different criteria to evaluate its usefulness — first, the usefulness of the tradition’s base, the visceral code out of which the social structure of the community is created, and second, the usefulness of the tradition’s ideological superstructure.Though, of course, decoupling one from the other may be a difficulty. Particularly if it turns out the only real basis for the tradition is the “ideological superstructure”.
But Harris seems to want to wander off into the realm of, if not quite the consoling lie, certainly that of comforting ignorance:
Reason, logic, the endless quest for knowledge — these are all noble things. But no sensible person will agree to have them used against him to undermine his happiness and tranquility. … Yes, we are willing to admit that there is much we cannot know about the people we love, and much that we have to take on blind faith, and much indeed about which a skeptic can raise questions — but must we hear it all?Well yes, if it is causing people unnecessary hurt and misery, for example.
What is a very strong justification for a tradition? That it is a basic building block of one’s society:
We cannot ask whether the visceral code is useful to the community when it is in fact constitutive of the community: It is the foundation on which the community is built. It is a necessary precondition of achieving community at all, and hence it is improper to evaluate it in terms of its mere utility.But such a claim is standard for any oppressive tradition. Giving Jews legal equality was claimed to undermine fatally the Christian basis of society (or the constitutive national identity). Giving women the vote was equally undermining of basic gender distinctions upon which the society operated. Blacks had to be excluded because civilisation had been created, and was transmitted, by white people. All these claims turned out to be false—indeed, monstrously so. But they were made. The “basic building block” is a very big claim, with a very, very dubious history when used to justify exclusion.
Of course, if a tradition concerns the basic socialisation of new generations, then there may be more plausibility to work with in sustaining the “basic building block” claim:
Thus, a tradition can be a passive inheritance from the past that weighs heavily on the present generation or a vehicle for actively transforming the present generation in accordance with the pattern set by the borrowed tradition.Hence, Lee Harris argues, we must keep marriage solely for opposite-sex couples, due to its centrality in socialising new generations of our society. That is what makes opposite-sex-couples-only marriage a “constitutive tradition” which is fundamental and must be defended.
Where to start? First, with the presumption that same-sex couples are not raising children. Lots of them are, and, according to the evidence, doing at least as good a job at it as opposite-sex couples. This is enough on its own to demolish Harris’s argument: he is just wrong on the facts.
But his error is reflective of a larger error. Ultimately, his argument rests—as all exclusion arguments do—on the notions that the excluded group is some lesser or “failed” version of “real members” of the community. Not only does he fail to grasp that same-sex oriented people are parents, he also fails to grasp the reality that they are children.
If marriage is so constitutive of a society, what does forever excluding it from same-sex couples tell same-sex attracted or oriented adolescents about themselves and their role in society? This is what is so offensive about the nonsense that excluding the same-sex attracted or oriented is about “defending families”. Actually, such anathematisation has profoundly destructive effects on families. It alienates parents from their children, makes adolescence for an isolated and vulnerable group much more traumatic than it needs to be, encourages people to hide from their own sexuality in cover or desperation (or simply forced) marriages.
To define family life in general (and marriage in particular) as being required to be at war with the reality of human sexual diversity cannot be other than destructive. That such destructiveness is “traditional” justifies it not at all. Though it does make it invisible to the undiscerning eye.
Traditions are grounded in history and cannot be understood without examining that history. How was the tradition created? How did it originate? How was it maintained? Why is it under stress? These are all relevant questions that Harris ignores or skates over.
In particular, Harris ignores culture wars that are not convenient for his analysis—such as that between Christianity and paganism in late Antiquity. The exclusion and anathematisation of homosexuality and homosexual acts was not a tradition that “just grew”, it was imposed; imposed with considerable brutality, and maintained with brutality. Indeed, the reason why it is collapsing now is that the brutality (both public and private) necessary for its maintenance has been withdrawn or even anathematised itself. Harris is completely correct that we need to examine why a tradition or institutional arrangement persists: the actual why’s, not the “floating” why’s. Trouble is, that does not lead where Harris thinks it does.
Harris clearly thinks that there has been no tradition of same-sex marriage, that it is some strange, new anti-traditional claim. Far from it: traditions of same-sex marriage which were suppressed by monotheist colonisers and settlers—including in the lands now incorporated in his own United States of America. It was those who drove such social arrangements out who were destroying tradition.
But, again, this history is rendered “invisible”. For, of course, if same-sex attracted and oriented people are not “real folk”, then they cannot have a “real history”, can they?
This is what is particularly offensive about Harris’s generous “offering” that:
If gay men and women want to create their own shining examples, they must do this themselves, by their own actions and by their own imagination. They must construct for themselves, out of their own unique perspective on the world, an ethos that can be admired both by future gay men and women and perhaps, eventually, by the rest of society. But there can be no advantage to them if they insist on trying to co-opt the shining example of an ethical tradition that they themselves have abandoned in order to find their own way in the world. It will end only in self-delusion and bitter disappointmentIt is all about “you are not really like us”. If one took out “gay” and put in “black” or “Jewish”—or applied it to politics and put in “women”—we would see immediately how utterly offensive the “generous” and “reasonable” offer is.
But the argument about whether blacks, Jews or women are “full persons” or not is over—at least in mainstream society—so anything that makes it blatantly clear that they do not count as “real people” is obviously offensive. The trouble gay folk suffer is that their “real” humanity is still contested, so what would be obviously offensive if “offered” to blacks, Jews or women can still be passed off as “reasonable” even “generous”. But what it is really saying is you are not “real” people, and treating as if you were would profoundly corrupt the very structure of our society. Exactly the same claim the Jew-hater makes, the black-hater makes, the opponent of female legal and political equality makes. It is the constitutive claim of bigotry, the reviling against the “insult of equality”. Indeed, the embracing that—as a visceral reaction—such equality is an insult, a profoundly threatening corruption.
The essence of bigotry is that it excludes people from the moral community, hence equality being an insult and inclusion being an undermining “corruption”. The name we give longstanding bigotry is, sadly often, ‘tradition’. After all the push for same-sex marriage is not merely some "trouble-making intellectuals" idly asking questions. It is about people who voices have been so long suppressed—indeed, for long brutally suppressed—seeking legal equality. That Harris can class such an effort as merely being like the Sophists of Greece of the philosophes of C18th France engaged in intellectual games is, in its own way, profoundly belittling. A dismissal of human reality. A sign of how invisible to Harris as "real people" the same-sex attracted ultimately are.
Harris’s defense of tradition is just bigotry hiding behind the soft words of “reason” based on willful and systematic ignorance of the actual history and dynamics of the tradition he wishes to defend. A bigotry that is invisible precisely because it is “traditional”. His defense no more works than did the arguments to defend the traditions of excluding Jews, of keeping women legally subordinate to their husbands, of excluding them from political life, of keeping blacks subordinate. Or rather, it works just the same.