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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Q&A With John Corvino

Posted by on Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 11:46 AM

John Corvino is the co-author of a new book, Debating Same-Sex Marriage, with Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage. It is the first and, without a doubt, the last book in the whole sordid history of books that will be blurbed by both me and Rick Santorum. John is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

So, John, you're gay. And you sit there on stage with Maggie Gallagher, calmly debating her. As a gay man myself, I'd like to know… how do you keep from throwing up? Or slapping her?

I drink a lot beforehand. No, seriously—I’m just not an angry person by nature.

Do you think Maggie ought to be slapped—I'm talking figuratively here, of course, not literally. No violence, no violence.

For me, it not primarily about what she deserves. It’s about what her arguments deserve: a good drubbing. I aim to do that in the book. It’s about going after the best arguments the other side has and showing why they don’t work.

Do you really think it’s argument that drives these people? And not simple bias? They used to argue that we were a threat to marriage because we didn't get married—our hedonism set a bad example (sex for pleasure! sex outside of marriage!)—and now that we can get married in some states, and we're fighting for the right in others, they argue that we're a threat to marriage... because we want to get married. Is it really about an argument if the argument is so elastic?

Generally, no. Nor do I think that it’s arguments that mainly drive our side, either. For the most part, people have gut feelings about these issues, feelings which are a product of their upbringing and their choices and their basic temperament and whatever. That said, I think that most people—I’ll be optimistic and say “most”—believe that public policy should be based on reason, not just gut feeling, and I think that many people are susceptible to reasoned argument.

What drives our side if not argument? Your new book, your half of it, is a long argument in favor of marriage equality, isn't it?

Yes, but I don’t think gay folks and their friends were just sitting around waiting for an argument before they make up their minds. I think moral insight often starts with gut intuition, which can—and should—then be tested against the world. The argument comes later, and that’s the real test: Do people just rest lazily with their existing biases? Or do they actually engage others, and move beyond their moral complacency? That’s what the book is trying to encourage.

So is there an argument that could sway Gallagher? Or Brian Brown?

Well, hope springs eternal. I mean, look at David Blankenhorn—prominent marriage-equality opponent and lead witness for Prop. 8—who recently changed his position. But keep in mind that I didn’t write the book to convince die-hard opponents like Gallagher and Brown. I wrote it to reach the many people who are still working through this issue. And also to give people on our side some useful ammunition in the states where this issue is being debated.

Some folks argue that by calmly debating Gallagher you play into her hands. Some say we shouldn't dignify NOM with a dignified debate. By sitting beside Maggie on stage, smiling and joking with her, you give her a legitimacy that she doesn't deserve. If she told similar bigoted lies about, say, Jews, no representative from a Jewish group would calmly debate her.

Well, if half the country were anti-Semites, and Jews were not allowed to marry in 44 states, I’d debate anti-Semites too.

What about the dishonesty? The lies? NOM, and Maggie, promotes false links between homosexuality and pedophilia (here, here), they misrepresent studies, they fund biased and inaccurate studies that slander gay parents.

Some of it is lies, some of it is laziness, and some of it is honest (albeit foolish) mistakes of logic.

Whichever it is, I think the best disinfectant is sunlight. You can shout “liar, liar,” or you can calmly explain
why they’re wrong. I think the latter approach actually convinces more of the people who need convincing. At least it’s an approach that works better for me.

So, what’s Maggie's best argument against marriage equality?

Oddly, I think her best argument is also her most underdeveloped one. Maggie thinks there’s something special and important about relationships that create new life—and I firmly agree. She also thinks that, historically, marriage has had a lot to do with such relationships. Again, true. So her argument is that by letting same-sex couples marry we move away from that core purpose of marriage. That’s the part I don’t see: how acknowledging marriage’s other purposes somehow takes away from its child-centered purposes...

Especially since gay people have children, too. Ahem.

Yes. It’s one of the points I emphasize in the book: forbidding gay marriage won’t cause lesbians to marry their sperm donors and form so-called “traditional” families, but it will mean that those children—and adopted children, like your son—live without the protection and support of marriage. It’s backwards, really.

The state's schizophrenia where adoption is concerned is just… untenable. The state made me DJ's dad and the state made Terry DJ's other dad. And then the state turned around and said that we couldn't get married because marriage is about the best interests of children and children need to have married parents because that's in their best interests. Except for our child, of course. It's not in our kid's best interests to have married parents somehow.

“Untenable” is a nice word. The words that more immediately come to mind would get us in trouble. But yes, the logical disconnect on the parenting issue is immense.

That’s one of the things that bugged me most about the recent Regnerus study, which compared child-welfare outcomes in different family forms. Social conservatives immediately started crowing, “See, this shows that same-sex families are bad for kids and that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry!” When in fact, what it showed was that instability is bad for kids and that pushing gay people into the closet and thus into unworkable heterosexual marriages is an excellent recipe for instability. Untenable, indeed.

What's Maggie's worst argument?

Do I have to choose?

Yes, you do. Pick one.

I think her biggest non-argument has to do with the definition of marriage. She claims that two men can’t be a marriage, and that calling them married is telling a lie. But she gets way out of her depth when she starts talking about how definitions work.

As you show very nicely in your rebuttal in the book. I’ve got to say, you’ve got a lot more patience for this sort of thing than I do. The NOM folks just makes me want to scream.

Well, you’ll have your chance if Brian Brown comes to dinner.

Brian Brown is coming to dinner. The date is set.

Excellent! Just remember to drink heavily beforehand.


Comments (26) RSS

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What a fantastic approach. And mercy me, he's adorable, this professor! I'm willing to become his first ex-husband if he doesn't yet have one skulking around.
Posted by gloomy gus on July 11, 2012 at 11:57 AM · Report this
2 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
This is slightly off subject, but to (not so) subtely remind my heterosexual married coworkers that my marriage isn't legally recognized, I've started referring to my parter as my "illegal husband" when he comes up. It definitely gives people a moment of pause.
Posted by The fag on July 11, 2012 at 12:33 PM · Report this
I'm really looking forward to seeing the video of "Dan's Dinner With Brian". Should be riveting.

Ane what's with the money troll @2? That shit just needs to get deleted.
Posted by SeattleKim on July 11, 2012 at 12:42 PM · Report this
Original Andrew 5
@ 1 - Whoa, too true--whatta hawttie!
Posted by Original Andrew on July 11, 2012 at 12:42 PM · Report this
Original Andrew 6
All excellent points in the interview. It's also worth noting that the Anti-gay Industrial Complex is an industry that gins up tens of millions of dollars each year along with the hatred. Asking its leaders to change their minds is akin to asking them to give up their jobs.
Posted by Original Andrew on July 11, 2012 at 12:50 PM · Report this
There's a date? Has it been announced and I missed it? I cannot wait for this debate...
Posted by daphne24 on July 11, 2012 at 12:55 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 8
I can't be as patient and polite as John Corvino. I can if I'm talking to someone who is a fence sitter and maybe doesn't understand the issue or has been fed a lot of lies about it. Someone who can be reasoned with. But faced with an outspoken bigot, like Maggie Gallagher or Ken Hutcherson, I just become too enraged to hold a civil conversation. I have to either change the subject or leave, otherwise I'm likely to completely go off.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on July 11, 2012 at 1:19 PM · Report this
Alanmt 9
Put me with those that believe NOM shouldn't be given the legitimacy of his studied interaction with them.
Posted by Alanmt on July 11, 2012 at 1:37 PM · Report this
daphne24@7, While Dan just announced that the date has been set, he has not actually told us what that date is. I have a feeling it will not be announced ahead of time. The dinner will happen, then they will publish the video. Otherwise Dan's neighborhood would probably turn into a Big Gay Party the night of the dinner, which would make Dan sad, because he wouldn't be able to attend.
Posted by SeattleKim on July 11, 2012 at 2:17 PM · Report this
So how many a**holes will brian brown have? While I am grateful that someone can be civil to the bigots, I say fuck them.I does not matter how nice we are. Its all about the hate and money for them. Rip brown a few new ones, Dan.
Posted by homo in the heartland on July 11, 2012 at 2:24 PM · Report this
BEG 12
Have y'all seen this?…

(could be nsfw for some folks)
Posted by BEG!/browneyedgirl65 on July 11, 2012 at 3:21 PM · Report this
Judging from this interview, the man is truly a delight to behold. I need to buy his book. Dan, I love how he neatly contests your idea that all pro-equal-rights people base their political views on logical and rational arguments, and all anti-gay whackos base their political views on emotion and bias. *Humans* join teams on the basis of emotion and bias, period. The rest is ex post facto pseudo-rationalization. (Which, of course, doesn't invalidate logical pro-gay arguments.)
Posted by dchari on July 11, 2012 at 5:54 PM · Report this
Dan links to:

"" . . . although NOM says it has no evidence that gay men molest children at higher rates than straight men, it frequently links to websites of others who claim to. We also point out that NOM, despite its claims, keeps bringing up the subject of children and sex." - Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center"

But in fact, ironically, Danny provides the most convincing evidence that in fact gay men DO molest children at higher rates than straight men.

It is called the "Youth Pastor Watch".

42% of the perverts featured in the "Watch" are homosexuals.

Compared to less than 2% of the population.

According to Danny's "Youth Pastor Watch" homosexuals are 21X as likely as heterosexuals to exploit minors.

It is called the Tisinai Effect.....

Danny used to post about it all the time.

Posted by Danny does Maggie one better on July 11, 2012 at 6:06 PM · Report this
Danny mocks the cost to society of
"sex outside of marriage!" (hahaha!).

How sad. And unaware.

Dany must not read the "Every Child Deserves..."

It chronicles the mayhem and misery extyramarital sex inflicts on children.

It's all a big joke.......
Posted by Perverts are the best ad for the ills of perversion on July 11, 2012 at 6:22 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 16
@15 - Dude, you're gay. Get over it.
Posted by Free Lunch on July 11, 2012 at 7:11 PM · Report this
We lose reasonable people who might take our side when we treat those who would dehumanize us as if they were decent and reasonable people. Debate them by all means, but do not give them anything one drop more cordial than strictest civility.

As long as it doesn't result in a net loss to The Cause, I'll just hope Mr Savage profits considerably one way or another out of the dinner - although I still am completely at sea as to how it could possibly be "excellent".
Posted by vennominon on July 11, 2012 at 7:59 PM · Report this
I highly recommend the Corvino/Gallagher book. It is simply the best exposition I've seen of all the arguments gathered into one book, which aims to produce more light than heat. As compelling as Gallagher's arguments aren't, I appreciate that she made a genuine effort at civility. And Corvino is a capable spokesman and a solid thinker. Departing from Corvino on one point, though: the only argument Gallagher advanced in the book that even made me do a double take was one that Corvino had the most difficult time addressing.

Basically, Gallagher says that same-sex marriage will alter the culture, probably gradually, such that people who adhere to the Pauline view of sexual morality (that all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful) will be marginalized, and to some degree criminalized. Corvino basically acknowledges the truth of the fear, and counters only that cultural marginalization will shift somewhat no matter who "wins" the marriage debate, toward the winning side and away from the losing side.

Where does that leave the people we call "the bigots?" Well, it's not good news for people who don't like normalizing the gays. So it's probably not fair to expect those people to listen to reason. And there are a whole lot of those people.
Posted by Meat Weapon on July 11, 2012 at 10:18 PM · Report this
@1 and @5 -- He's been with his partner, Mark Lock, for over a decade.

Meanwhile, I recall far too vividly my experience watching a "debate" between Corvino and Gallagher and being appalled at the churlishness, the sneering disrespect and condescension, the dismissiveness she displayed toward him in both her "reasoning" and her body language. To see someone who trumpets civility to speak and behave as she did was surprising, to say the least. She's bored me for years, but her behavior during the debate shocked and outraged me. Grifter is too kind, too neutral a word for her.
Posted by Calpete on July 11, 2012 at 10:27 PM · Report this
@10 - Thank you! That totally makes sense. I just wanted to make sure I hadn't missed anything :)
Posted by daphne24 on July 12, 2012 at 5:48 AM · Report this
@1 I went over to his website. There was a "calendar" link and I clicked on it, hoping it was like "12 months of sexy". Alas, it is his professional calendar. My heart sank a little. I love sexy academic men :-)
Posted by wxPDX on July 12, 2012 at 1:53 PM · Report this

As a lawyer (and thus someone whose job is to convince others) and someone whose instincts are to argue in the same way you do, I have to say that Corvino is correct when he says "You can shout “liar, liar,” or you can calmly explain why they’re wrong. I think the latter approach actually convinces more of the people who need convincing."

I have all impulses when I argue that you do. Preposterous arguments bring out the scorn in me. I tend to break things down very pedantically and talk down to people who are acting like retards. I don't mind yelling at people who are immune to logic. All of this feels good. However, it is good only for rallying the troops or preaching to the choir. No one is actually convinced by these tactics.

This is why Max Blumenthal who does some excellent reporting in "Republican Gomorrah" and Thomas Frank who does excellent analysis in "Whats the matter with Kansas?" will never convince anyone on the other side. They mix their very good reporting and analysis in with too much condescension and smug moralizing (and in Blumenthal's case creepy sexual theorizing). No one who doesn't already agree with them is going to want to read that stuff. It's so disappointing that they can't keep the tone even because I have lots of right wingers in my family I would love to expose to their analysis and reporting but can't because they would be immediately put off by the tone.

So really it comes down to whether you want to convince people or rally the troops. It probably is the case that you are best suited to rally the troops. It fits your inclinations and the public role you have taken on. You just need to realize that you aren't convincing anyone that way. That doesn't mean that no one will end up convinced as a result of what you do. Some of the troops you rally will go out and be convincing in ways they might not have been inspired to do without hearing you. It is also the case that actions can convince in ways that words might not. However, if you want your words to convince, Corvino's route is the way to go.
Posted by Learned Hand on July 12, 2012 at 3:04 PM · Report this
Alanmt 23

I disagree.

1. Rational argument, whether one-on-one or in the public sphere, is the least effective method for battling prejudice.

2. The most effective method for advancing gay rights is for gay people to live their lives openly, to be the change they want to see in the world. The most effective way to advance marriage equality is to present their marriages as though they were legally sanctioned and to be a married couple and family openly.

3. The next most effective method to change minds of friends and family is through social shaming; this phenomenon is a valid sociological utility, although it only works face ot face and within a family or friend group dynamic. It is not effective through media.

4. Rational argument generally affects those who do not have a visceral opinion or entrenched political loyalty tied to the issue. This is a decreasing percentage of society.
Posted by Alanmt on July 12, 2012 at 3:13 PM · Report this
22 very insightful.

23 you are an ignoramass
Posted by ....carry on on July 12, 2012 at 5:10 PM · Report this

I will address your points one by one.

1) Yes, that's probably true. However, I (and I think Corvino though I can't speak for him) are addressing persuasion more generally and not simply limited to issues of prejudice. Those of us on the left find ourselves arguing over lots of issues, not just gay rights. It is useful to keep general rules of persuasion in mind so that they become a habit even when rational persuasion is not the most effective route for a particular subject.

In other words, if you are able to talk persuasively about gay rights, it will help you talk persuasively about climate change or health policy as well. It's easy to excuse over the top and alienating behaviors by saying that the target isn't going to change his or her mind anyway so tactics don't matter. It is hard once you go that route to change tactics when you come to a topic where words might actually matter.

2) Sure. I agree with that. That is what I was alluding to when I said that actions can convince in ways that words might not.

Again, I was not addressing the most effective way to change minds on gay rights overall. I was addressing the most effective way to advance your arguments if you are tying to use words to convince.

That's why my conclusion was that Dan is probably most well suited to inspire people on his side rather than to convince people on the other side. I am sure what he does in rallying the troops has the net result of changing more minds through the actions he inspires others to take than he could accomplish with just his words directed to persuade rather than inspire. He just needs to realize that is what he is doing and not think that when he speaks in polarizing ways that it has any hope of changing minds on the other side.

3) I agree that this is an effective way to change behavior. I am glad you put caveats on it because people acting like generalized jerks rarely accomplish anything other than making their side look bad.

4) I definitely agree with your first sentence. Your second is true, but it is also easy to overstate this case. People who are informed on issues are definitely drifting apart and polarization is becoming a bigger problem.

However, the percentage of people who are well informed and thus polarized is pretty small. Most people are wandering around not paying any attention to any of the issues that you and I have very strong opinions about. So if once there was a country of 20% informed and 80% totally apolitical and apathetic where half of the informed people could be convinced and now only ten percent of the informed people are open to persuasion it just means that you have gone from a situation where 90% of the population was reachable to one where 82% of the population is reachable. A decrease but not an earth shattering one.

It just feels a lot different to us because we are in the 20% and we choose to interact as much as possible with others who are also in the 20%. Most people just don't care about the things we care about. I think this is probably a big reason why your points 2 and 3 are important. Uniformed people would rather pay attention to social cues than issues. This makes changing the social cues very important.

tl/dr: I agree with you in terms of achieving change on the issue of gay rights but stand behind what I said if your goal is to use words to convince.
Posted by Learned Hand on July 13, 2012 at 11:19 PM · Report this


Danny is the homo's Al Sharpton.
Posted by the hair gives him away..... on July 14, 2012 at 9:48 AM · Report this

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