We Need Forms to Function
MUCH has happened since I last wrote. Or, I should say, since I last posted. I’ve written something about nearly all of the momentous events of the last year but, for one reason or another, left all unpublished.
But, today I saw the above picture. It reminded me of a recurring theme in our society’s continuing dialogue about the organizing principles of our society—marriage, family, church, government—and even ourselves—gender, sexuality (ethnicity?).
This theme is the thought that aberration can imply the non-existence of an ideal. So, in the above picture, the family is defined by the emotional bond of a family (which exists) and nothing more because, if we define family by blood relation, adopted people cannot be a part of a family. Now, does it make perfect sense to call an adopted child family, instead of, say, friend? Absolutely. This is because we live in an imperfect world where parents die or are unable to care for their children. So, “family” can be opened to include the aberration of orphanage. But, the fact that we can respond in this way does not mean that it is “incorrect” to conceive of a family in its natural sense—people connected generationally by procreation.
Yet, we make this mistake repeatedly. Perhaps the most common objection raised to a definition of marriage that involves the union of men and women through procreation is that ‘we let infertile people marry.’ Yeah, we do. But infertility is not how people are meant to be. Accommodating what should not be does not change what should be.
The same error arises in discussions of gender and sexuality. Intersex persons, it is said, rebut distinctions in this area. Why? Do we say that someone born with a mental disability rebuts the idea of a healthy brain, such that no one can be described as either healthy or mentally ill? Now, of course, we still affirm the full humanity of people who are born with a disability, just as an infertile person is a spouse and an adopted child is family. But the fact that such arrangements exist do not force us to discard the concepts of humanity, marriage, or family—including definitions that rely on a natural ideal.*
Why do we allow them to? Why is a family a “collection of individuals who care for each other,” why is a marriage an “act of self-definition” (Obergefell), why are we so unable to define “humanity” or “person” when we discuss abortion or euthanasia that we don’t even bother to try? Because we don’t believe in forms. No, I’m not saying everyone should be a full-blown Platonist (but there are far worse things one could be). But, I am saying that we must realize that it is possible for a thing to have meaning outside of itself, and for that meaning to include a standard—a standard that is not tarnished when the thing itself defects.
Are these standards difficult (or impossible) to fully describe? Certainly. The mental health example above seems like a good one—I doubt that anyone is totally healthy upstairs, and I am certain that no one is capable of defining perfect mental balance or complete mental imbalance. Similar things may be said of gender, such that it takes serious and careful thought when we affirm distinctions and organize society around them. Our history in doing so is littered with failure. But, now that we have essentially admitted defeat by rejecting even the possibility that things have natures which generate standards (because we are too defective to figure them out perfectly—how meta is that?), our past failures will pale in comparison to our future ones. The only ones worse off than the men in the Cave staring at the shadows are the ones who shut their eyes. We need forms to function.
*Please note: I recognize that there are plenty of other reasons that one could object to rigid gender distinctions, a heterosexual definition of marriage, or whatever else. I do not purport to address them here. I am concerned, however, with this deep error that presents us from ever getting to those reasons.