First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
On Fairness and Families
The single most effective argument being used to gain support for the redefinition of marriage to mean anything, therefore nothing, is this:
"It's not fair that homosexuals can't get married just like heterosexuals."
This argument is only effective because nobody is bothering to define "fairness" or to figure out whether the result will be in any way more fair than the hitherto universal definition of marriage.
When our kids were little, we made it a very clear rule in our family that fairness didn't mean that everybody got exactly what anybody else got.
"Suppose we buy a dress for your sister," I said to my son. "Would you want us to get a dress for you too?"
"No, but I want clothes."
"Of course. But it doesn't have to be the same day, and it doesn't have to cost the same."
In particular, I pointed out to the kids that when I was traveling, sometimes I'd find something that was just perfect for one of kids -- or for their mother.
"If that happens," I said, "I'll come home with a present for that person. It doesn't mean I don't love the others just as much. And it isn't unfair. What would be unfair is if I couldn't buy that perfect gift for one person just because it would make the others jealous."
They got it. And in the long run, they recognized that people with different needs can't be treated exactly alike. In fact, it would be grossly unfair even to try.
For instance, our handicapped son, Charlie Ben, never got to run, or build with blocks, or go on a date with a girl -- and not because he didn't want to.
But we taught our other kids that they had no reason to feel guilty just because they could do things their brother couldn't do. Nor was there any reason to hide from him the fact that there were activities he couldn't take part in.
Instead, we provided for Charlie Ben everything that he could reasonably use, and showed our love for him in every way we could. He had the best life that we could put within his reach, and if sometimes he was sad, he was never resentful of his brother and sisters. Instead he delighted in the good things they did and was glad for them. They also rejoiced with him over his triumphs, even though they were things that they could do easily.
If we had demanded that Charlie Ben do everything his siblings could do, or if we had forbidden them to do anything that Charlie Ben could not do equally well, it would have been grossly unfair either way.
A fair society is one in which people don't put up phony barriers just to keep one particular group down.
But it's also one where people who have natural limitations don't try to drag down those who don't have those limitations.
And don't think for a minute that this is an essay against affirmative action for African-Americans. Quite the opposite -- considering that in American society, Blacks spent generations bowed down under the deliberate oppression of Jim Crow and the terrorism of "lynch law," simple decency required that besides stopping the oppression, we collectively offer a hand to help them recover from the damage so unfairly done to them.
It's good to be in a society that tries to raise the floor wherever we can. Handicapped parking places and ramps are a sign of public compassion. Welfare for children whose parents haven't been able to provide for them; grants and scholarships for bright, hardworking, but financially strapped students -- these things make sense.
The problem is when people think "fairness" means that society has to make up for every deficiency in their lives.
Worse yet are the people who, when it's impossible for society to give them the same benefits that others have, demand that those benefits should be taken away even from those who are in a position to make use of them.
Imagine how ridiculous it would be if blind people demanded that because we can't restore their sight, the rest of us should live our lives blindfolded. Fairness has to include a recognition of the differences between people.
It also has to be able to adapt to random chance. Not every inequality in life is somebody's fault. And even when some unfortunate inequality can be blamed on someone's action, there isn't necessarily any sensible remedy.
For some things, we just have to tough it out. Maybe even keep some griefs and frustrations private, put on a good face for the rest of the world, and be glad things aren't even worse than they are.
There are times when our government acts in ways that seem grossly unbalanced -- and yet these actions benefit everybody and should continue. Let me give you an obvious example: The mortgage interest tax deduction.
On the surface, this is about as unfair as a law can be. People who can afford to buy houses are subsidized by the government. Most of each monthly house payment consists of interest on the mortgage, so when the government allows interest to be deducted from taxable income, it can be a sizable discount.
Worse yet, it's completely regressive -- the more expensive your house, the larger your mortgage, the more you can deduct. And the higher your income and therefore the higher your tax rate, the higher the percentage of your house payment you end up deducting!
On top of that, these people are accruing equity in their homes -- enormous profits on which they don't have to pay taxes when they sell their homes, as long as they sink the money back into another house.
And there sit all those poor renters, getting no tax break, paying more than the actual cost of their housing (since the landlord gets his profit), and accruing no equity. When they move out of one rental property, chances are they'll forfeit some part of their deposit -- they lose out in every way.
Why in the world do Americans, who are almost obsessive about being "fair" these days, allow such an unfair system to continue? Why aren't renters rioting in the streets, or at the very least picketing Congress?
Here's why: Most renters fully expect that someday they will buy a house. And they know that without being able to count on that huge tax break on mortgage interest payments, it would be far harder to afford to make the transition to home ownership.
And it's more than the selfishness of those who hope to take advantage of an unfair system. Society as a whole benefits from ever-higher proportions of home ownership. Home owners tend to be more stable, to move less. They pay property taxes. They keep up their yards. They're more likely to pay their bills; and if they run into hard times, their home equity usually allows them to borrow the money to tide them over till the emergency passes -- without going on welfare.
America is a better society precisely because we bend over backward to make it possible for people to make the transition from renting to owning.
Now, not all home owners live up to these ideals. Some of them don't pay their bills; some of them can't handle their financial emergencies; some of them don't keep up their property and let them become eyesores or even hazards to their neighbors.
But the deficiencies of some home owners don't cause anyone to seriously propose that all home ownership should be abolished, or that the tax break for mortgage interest should be eliminated because some people are not living up to expectations.
So, in the long run, is the special tax break for mortgage-paying homeowners really unfair at all? Or is it, in fact, a way of being as fair as we possibly can -- to open the door to home ownership to as many people as possible?
(Now, personally, I think that there could be a reasonable ceiling on the deduction without losing a bit of the public benefit -- let's say that you could only deduct your mortgage interest until it equals some percentage of the amount of the national median income. I can't see that we get any benefit at all from subsidizing the huge mortgages on ten-million-dollar mansions.
(But that's a matter of tweaking the law -- the fundamental principle is, in fact, fair, even though it seems grossly unfair upon first examination.)
So now let's compare this to marriage. Historically, governments and churches came late to the game -- marriages between men and women were going on long before they were coopted by public laws or religious rites.
In effect, though, governments and churches gave their sanction to marriages in order to encourage people to live up to the obligations and expectations of marriage.
That's because nobody thought of marriage as a "right." It was a responsibility, one which some people took far too lightly. Governments and churches intervened to encourage people to take them seriously and help them to thrive.
If a woman and man promise to remove themselves from the marriage pool, take care of each other regardless of circumstance, provide for their children, and bring them up to be responsible members of the society, then they should get special benefits.
Churches provided the benefit of public ceremony, the promise of divine sanction for the sacred family, and such support for child-rearing as the moral teaching, charity, and neighborliness of the congregation offered.
Governments, in their turn, provided a much simpler ceremony, but could offer legal protection for the family from outside harassment, as well as additional financial and social support for families.
In addition, both power centers -- the church and the state -- promised not to meddle in or weaken the family unit, and to provide various penalties, social or legal, for those failed to live up to their marriage promises.
This system is obviously unfair to many people, not to homosexuals in particular.
It's unfair to people who, because of their looks or social skills or lack of money or prospects are unable to find someone willing to marry them. It's unfair to people who get bored or frustrated with their marriage or who, for various reasons, can't take advantage of the full range of benefits.
And, yes, it's unfair to those whose sexual predilections make marriage unattractive to them. Just because a person has a reproductive dysfunction shouldn't bar him or her from the full benefits of this widespread practice of marriage, should it? How unfair!
And so it seems -- especially to those who haven't given it any thought beyond sloganeering.
In fact, however, just as that unfair mortgage interest tax deduction benefits everybody, so does the special protection for marriage between a man and a woman.
Unfortunately, many of those benefits are hard to demonstrate right now because we have spent the past fifty years wiping out most of the things that once made marriage so valuable to civilization.
No longer does society discourage people from breaking their marriage vows, whether through adultery, abandonment, or divorce. Going after "deadbeat dads" is merely a clumsy, ineffective substitute that deals only with finances, and not with any of the other devastating effects of broken promises.
No longer are those who bear children out of wedlock socially stigmatized.
No longer are children protected during their vulnerable adolescent years from the possibility of entering into nonce relationships that lead to babies being born without responsible parents.
But the fact that our society has made some gross mistakes that cripple marriages and families doesn't mean that we will get any benefit from abolishing marriage altogether, replacing it with laws that allow any relationship to be called "marriage," thereby removing from real marriages the last shred of societal protection.
In the name of "fairness," what we are poised to do now is make it impossible to give any legal or social advantage to those who are actually engaged in bearing and raising children in households where a father and a mother provide the essential gender role models that will give their children the best chance of entering society as adults who are ready to take on child-bearing and child-rearing themselves.
We have vast scientific and statistical evidence already that children thrive best in families that have one father and one mother, who pool their financial resources, are sexually faithful to each other, and remain married to each other until they are parted by death, and provide for their children to the best of their ability.
In all the criticism of "traditional values" and all the attacks on "dysfunctional families," it's good to remember that nobody has yet invented a better system.
And until we have a better system, it makes no sense at all to destroy the last vestige of the old system.
So when you hear someone talk about how "extending marriage to gay people" is "simple fairness," think again. Is it fair to the children who will grow up in a society that insists on magnifying any trace of reproductive dysfunction? Is it fair for all of us to be forced to raise our children without public encouragement for reproductive normality and monogamous, heterosexual, lifetime marriages?
Just as there are people who for reasons of their own will always be renters, who never get to benefit from that tax deduction for home buyers, so there will always be people excluded from the joys and responsibilities of marriage and child-rearing.
But it should provoke, not sympathy, but scorn when some of those unfortunate people demand that special protection for marriage be abolished solely because they have no personal desire to participate in it.
Instead they demand that their non-marriage relationships be called marriage, and that public schools from now on should teach all of our children that those reproductively dysfunctional relationships should be held up as equally valid models for our children to aspire to.
Not only that, but even before any vote is taken, even before the courts have decided to dictate this course of action, they demand that their opponents be silenced because any opposition is "hate speech."
It should be obvious that we're no longer talking about fairness. Because once we allow one side in an argument to demand that their opponents be silenced, we have already decided that fairness no longer plays a role in our society.
It is pitiable, even tragic, when, for various reasons, anyone is involuntarily cut off from the reproductive cycle of life.
But it is grossly unfair to demand, in the name of "fairness," that the normal pattern of marriage and family be deprived of its privileged position in our society, just so a few people can feel better about dysfunctions that even they insist are nobody's fault.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.