Over the last 20 years, there has been a vast and decisive shift in society’s opinions on same-sex marriage. Within a remarkably short period of time, same-sex marriage has moved from being virtually unthinkable to an unassailable cultural orthodoxy. How can we account for such a dramatic transformation? In his new book, From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel E. Paul presents a compelling case for the role played by America’s elite class in effecting this change.

Conventional accounts of this social transformation typically focus on the work of activists and the moral evolution they helped advance, yet fail to attend to the specific shape the same-sex marriage movement took or account for some of its contingent features (e.g., why has a normalization of same-sex couples occurred, rather than a recognition of them as a radical “queer” alternative?). As a professor of political science at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Paul seeks to address this deficit, particularly focusing on why American businesses and elites—not traditionally recognized as a vanguard of the left—played such a critical role in the movement’s success.

Examining Elite Support

To explain this phenomenon, Paul must first demonstrate its existence. Much of the book describes and substantiates the critical role played by America’s elites. Whether through their corporations, churches, universities, or cultural production, Paul shows that these elites were pioneers for same-sex marriage and the normalization of homosexuality.

Paul’s argument contains close analysis of data, using a more sophisticated array of statistical methods than the typical layperson will probably be familiar with (e.g., multiple correspondence analysis). While perhaps occasionally forbidding for the uninitiated, this statistical sophistication is one of the more impressive features of Paul’s case—especially in chapter 5, where it enables him to demonstrate significant clusters of practices and values representing distinct social classes.

Within a remarkably short period of time, same-sex marriage has moved from being virtually unthinkable to an unassailable cultural orthodoxy.

The title of Paul’s book foregrounds the importance of the distinction between “tolerance” and “equality.” Tolerance refers to the indulgence and protection of people and practices we find objectionable on moral or other grounds: “for a person to ‘tolerate’ something, she actually has to believe the object in question is deficient, false, or wrong in some way” (70). However, the assertion of equality denies the appropriateness of the negative judgment presupposed by toleration; “it demands public affirmation backed by state power and restricts the private scope for negative judgment to the narrowest range possible” (8). While attitudes to gay and lesbian persons even a decade ago among America’s elites were largely marked by tolerance, in the push for “marriage equality”—marriage being society’s sanctioning, celebrating, and privileging of certain sexual relations—a fundamental move toward approval was galvanized.

The inrushing tsunami of transformed elite opinion seemed to sweep away all before it. Heretics within their ranks, such as Brendan Eich and Mark Regnerus, were mercilessly denounced and expelled. Political leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—who once claimed to oppose same-sex marriage—rapidly “evolved” on the issue, becoming its prominent cheerleaders.

Same-Sex Marriages Embody Elite Values

Paul compares this shift to the dramatic collapse of a taboo whose rationale had been forgotten. The plausibility of the taboo failed, not least because same-sex marriages increasingly resembled the elites’ own marriages and symbolized their aspirations for the wider marriage culture.

From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage

From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage

Baylor University Press (2018). 256 pp.

Over the last 25 years, a dramatic transformation in the American public’s view of homosexuality has occurred, symbolized best by the movement of same-sex marriage from the position of a fringe few to the pinnacle of morality and a cornerstone of establishment thought. From Tolerance to Equality explores how this seismic shift of social perspective occurred and why it was led by the country’s educational and business elite. Rejecting claims of a commitment to toleration, author Darel E. Paul argues that American elites use opinion on homosexuality as a mark of social distinction and thus as a tool for accumulating cultural authority and political power.

Baylor University Press (2018). 256 pp.

Marriages between two persons of the same sex represent the dislodging of the gendered hierarchy in marriages between men and women. Same-sex marriages are less a shared commitment to the demands of a natural institution ordered toward the bearing and raising of children, than they are a potent symbol of individual autonomy, self-realization, and expression. When marriage isn’t a male-and-female reality, gender stereotypes associated with parenting and labor can be undermined. Indeed, for these and other reasons, in many quarters elite opinion swiftly moved to present same-sex marriages as the ideal, not just an exception to be tolerated.

Paul suggests that perhaps one of the greatest factors informing elite support for same-sex marriage is their own low fertility. Through his analysis of the data, he reveals that fertility is “the fulcrum around which family models turn” (109). The more children a couple have, the less likely they are to be sexually progressive. Conversely, by far the highest support for the normalization of same-sex relations is found in those groups with the lowest fertility, for whom sex detached from reproduction is most normalized.

Procreation is the elephant in the room of all of our cultural conversations about sex, sexuality, gender, and marriage. To the extent that it can be suppressed in our awareness by technological and ideological means, sex, sexuality, gender, and relationships can float weightless and ungrounded in a gravity-less vacuum.

Particularly important for understanding the support for same-sex marriage is its nullification of the father figure, who, though prominent in the high-fertility family, becomes increasingly dispensable as marriage and procreation are detached from each other. Paul writes that

those most opposed to women taking their husband’s name are generally those most supportive of same-sex sexual relations, of defining gay and lesbian couples as a family, of same-sex couple adoption, and of same-sex marriage. Vice versa, those most supportive of married women taking their husband’s name are the least supportive of normalization. (109)

With low-fertility families and the advance of contraception, sterilization, and abortion (to which one could probably add the considerably reduced dependence on male economic provision due to government welfare and women’s increased activity as wage earners), the patriarchal social power of the traditional father figure can be steadily undermined.

Employing conceptual frameworks drawn from Pierre Bourdieu, Paul presents the drive for same-sex marriage as a “class(ification) struggle”: the struggle isn’t merely about such things as material wealth and police and military power, but for the control of the symbolic reality of society and whose categorizations of the social order are dominant. The current elite are the heirs of the ideals of the old liberal Protestants—”authority of individual experience and a commitment to pluralism, toleration, gender equality, and social criticism” (142)—which were culturally victorious even as they steadily rendered their bearer religious institutions redundant. This elite now exerts an almost unassailable control over America’s leading cultural institutions—its universities, media, entertainment, and businesses.

LGBT persons stand as the symbolic antithesis of Christian fundamentalists, and attitudes toward these two groups have a pronounced inverse correlation (while groups such as Muslims, who harbor no less negative opinions about homosexuality, are regarded indulgently). Paul wants his readers to recognize that the significance of sexual orientation lies in its peculiar capacity to stand for the cultural values of the sexual revolution as they stand in opposition to the values of conservative Christianity.

Value of ‘Diversity’

In particular, LGBT persons are the great symbols of the cultural regnant value of “diversity”: “urban, edgy, hip, fashionable, successful, and, above all, cosmopolitan” (125). They represent the importance of “individuality and its associated characteristics—originality, uniqueness, creativity, authenticity” (125) and the necessity of performative self-realization and being true to oneself. “Race may remain the ‘modal category’ of diversity practices and thought, but homosexuality represents its ideal” (126).

Why do the elites support diversity? Despite popular assertions on the matter, for instance, the evidence that having more women in the boardroom benefits the bottom line is mixed. In fact, the elites have seemed to champion diversity before any supposed evidence came forward in its favor.

Paul argues that the elites have supported the ideal of “diversity” because that ideal has a special affinity with managerialism, which regards society chiefly as a “collection of organizations” (123) that coordinate a wide assortment of individuals through expert technique, maximizing efficiency and productivity and facilitating the self-realization of each person. While race may be a potent form of difference, homosexuality is far more apt to represent the contemporary valorization of diversity as such.

In contrast to the historical and cultural particularity of the difference marked by race, homosexuality—due to its more immediate rootedness in the deracinated individual—is a purer symbol of the cosmopolitan character of managerialism’s “diversity.” As a consequence, gay persons have become the darlings of the advertising industry.

Examined more closely, however, the value of “diversity” may often be little more than an attractive veneer. As Paul observes, “diversity bypasses the middle and working classes because, quite frankly, it has nothing to do with them” (128). Paul brings forward data that suggest, while America’s elites have a pronounced affinity with LGBT persons, they “seem to express actual aversion to certain forms of racial and ethnic diversity” (130) in the shape of their lifestyles. “Diversity” is a weighted value, which strongly privileges certain forms of diversity over others: “‘yes’ to the urban, mobile, networked, new, universal; ‘no’ to the rural or small town, static, self-contained, traditional, national (and especially ethnonational)” (129). This value of diversity, and the LGBT persons associated with it, are especially championed by “new economy” corporations.

Symbolic Diversity

Perhaps the greatest weakness of Paul’s argument is revealed in his conclusion, where he discusses the reprise of the cultural battles over same-sex marriage—this time surrounding issues of transgenderism. This presents something of a conundrum for his thesis, as transgender persons aren’t as apt to bear desirable symbolic meaning as gay persons: they don’t represent lifestyle values that powerfully resonate with elite culture and they even stand in some tension with feminism; they don’t symbolize success; and they advance a far more radical assault on social norms, even elite ones.

The sexual revolution is now no longer under the control of its revolutionaries, but is a careering juggernaut, pulling the elites in its wake.

Paul argues that the sexual revolution is now no longer under the control of its revolutionaries, but is a careering juggernaut, pulling the elites in its wake. In a remarkably daring claim to make on the book’s penultimate page, Paul asserts:

The rapid normalization of transgenderism among elites is a symptom of a larger crisis. Elites are failing to exercise authority. (157)

As evidence he points to the tanking levels of public confidence in institutions and the reactionary responses to the elites in the form of such movements as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

However, Paul fails to pay sufficient attention to what elites stand to gain from “diversity” and its associated identity politics. The elites situate their support for same-sex marriage within a broader narrative of liberalism’s triumphant emancipatory advance “from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall,” of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, and of the importance of standing on the “right side of history.” They are the heirs apparent of this weight of moral capital. Like same-sex marriage, transgenderism affords a relatively cheap set of symbolic battles in which elites can serve as the vanguard, but for which the rewards can be considerable.

The move toward diversity has represented a decisive move toward the symbolic and the cosmetic, away from the concrete and material, enabling the machinery of the neoliberal state to metastasize largely unhindered, protected behind the spectacle of a well-manicured façade. As Ben Southwood has argued, neoliberalism is social justice; social justice succeeds to the extent that it pushes society in “a marketized direction.” Daniel Denvir describes an illustrative episode from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, and I will if they deserve it . . . would that end racism?” Clinton asked a Nevada crowd last week. “No!” they roared back again and again as she criticized Bernie Sanders’s purportedly single-issue agenda. “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

“No!” “No!” and “No!” the shouts came, refracting across the funhouse mirrors of 20th-century liberal politics.

Social justice, diversity, and identity politics mystify the social and material inequalities on which elites’ power rests—not just to others, but also, perhaps more importantly, to themselves. They are also means by which that power can be both sanitized and vindicated: “diversity” names a social order where managerial elites are established as the privileged brokers. While the cracks in their power are certainly beginning to appear, so long as there are further minorities whose emancipation can be championed, its compromised character will not so readily be discovered.

Politics of Spectacle

And here there seems to be a glaring lack of attention in Paul’s argument to the growing power of the spectacles at the heart of contemporary society.

It’s difficult to understand the sheer rapidity of the culture’s shift toward supporting same-sex marriage without considering the intensification of the spectacular character of society—with the rise of social media and its amplification of the power of entertainment media.

A great deal of our political life and energy has migrated from concrete contexts to the realm of spectacle, in which politics becomes a continual management of our personal brand for our own and others’ consumption.

A great deal of our political life and energy has migrated from concrete contexts to the realm of spectacle.

The result is a superficial and insubstantial—albeit highly animated—politics, preoccupied with symbolic battles, manufactured spectacles, and competitive self-branding (in electing a reality TV star to the presidency, Americans elected a man with experience).

As Paul rightly recognizes, support for LGBT causes is a potent means of symbolic distinction both between and within classes, yet such symbolic markers wouldn’t have anything like the power they currently enjoy without social media as their resonance chamber.

While From Tolerance to Equality may fail to press its case as strongly as it should at certain points, it’s a welcome and perceptive challenge to prevailing narratives of same-sex marriage. Paul exposes a more complex reality in which the flattering conventional portraits of the elites’ part in the movement are unsettled—and some of their vested interests are unveiled. It’s a stimulating study and, while not a Christian book, will alert us to key social realities and dynamics of which we have been insufficiently cognizant.

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