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Letters to the Editor


Affirmative Action

To the Editor:

From the author's overly reductionistic opening analogy—likening college admissions to a timed footrace—stems a grossly misguided argument. The goal of most college admissions is not to select the "100 fastest runners"; it is to create a diverse community of accomplished individuals that functions as a team. While what determines the winner of a footrace is easily quantifiable (running time), what determines a winning basketball team, for instance, is not. Each player's unique abilities contribute to the team's overall success. Colleges want to foster successful communities that will later contribute to a successful society. If they wanted a group of successful multiple-choice-test takers, then they would surely save themselves a great deal of time and money in selecting an incoming class by simply ranking students according to their SAT scores. Fortunately, they do not because they know that many qualities are not as easily quantified as a multiple choice test score. How could a standardized test possibly quantify such qualities as inquisitiveness, integrity, and creativity? The author seems to have forgotten the holistic aspect of college admissions. While he agues that race is a superficial kind of diversity, I would not only argue that the SAT is a superficial measure of intelligence, but that race is far from a superficial kind of diversity. Being born of a certain race profoundly influences the way in which one views and experiences the world. Racial diversity also entails the cultural and socio-economic diversity that is invaluable in academic discourse. The end of affirmative action in favor of strictly quantifiable measures of achievement would mean the end of our vibrant college communities. While those who do not benefit from the current admissions system might view it as unfair, it is in line with the functioning of the strong multicultural and innovative society of which we are a part.

- Kali Frampton


Cory Liu Responds:

I am not calling for an end to holistic admissions entirely, but rather to simply end preferential treatment based on race. While diversity of viewpoints and experiences can be beneficial to a community, race-based affirmative action is not the way to accomplish it.

The purpose of my initial analogy was not to argue that college admissions should be reduced to a numbers game. I focused on SAT scores in the beginning only because it provides a concrete, statistical illustration of the effects of affirmative action. I agree with you that college admissions should remain a holistic process. An applicant's academic promise cannot be determined through the numbers alone, and the admission process should not be reduced to solely quantifiable measures like SAT performance. Extracurricular activities and work history, for example, are important to consider as well.

However, race is entirely different from these factors because it has nothing to do with the applicant's potential as a student.

A winning basketball team certainly requires players with a variety of abilities – some players will be small and fast, others will be large and slow. But a player's race has nothing to do with his ability to play the game. Likewise, race is different from other holistic factors in college admissions because it has nothing to do with the applicant's talents or abilities. Competing on a high school basketball team or Mock Trial team requires discipline and dedication. But race is determined at birth and is something that we have no control over. The analogy of the runners is not about judging people only on their numbers, but judging them on their abilities in general.

Now of course, universities are not competitive sports teams. As you point out, in addition to picking the most academically promising students, they should also seek to build a diverse community with a variety of life experiences. I agree with this point as well, but race-based affirmative action is not the right way to achieve this goal. While racial diversity can be related to socio-economic diversity and diversity of viewpoints, it does not entail them as you suggest. Within each racial group are wealthy families and poor families, liberals and conservatives, atheists and theists, extroverts and introverts, and every other possible belief and personality type.

In addition, there are many types of diversity that are missed by race-based affirmative action. Certainly an African-American from an inner-city neighborhood brings a unique set of life experiences. But doesn't a child from an impoverished family that emigrated from Vietnam after the Vietnam War bring a unique set of experiences as well? Both applicants have been through great hardships on the path to academic success, but one would receive preferential treatment simply because his race as a whole tends to present less competitive applications. Race-based affirmative action overlooks the various other types of diversity that students can contribute. It is a crude and ineffective method for creating a truly diverse student body.


Same-Sex Marriage

To the Editor:

Carl Roberts' argument in "Social Science's Case for Traditional Marriage" (Autumn 2010) is a far cry from his stated objective of providing a rational argument against same-sex marriage. First, he says, heterosexual, procreative marriages accrue unique societal benefits that same-sex marriages cannot duplicate; and second, same-sex marriage might disincentivize marriage in the same areas of society, so we shouldn't risk fiddling with so ancient, sacred, and unchanging an institution. Before addressing these arguments, I'll reproduce what the editors wrote several months ago when describing Counterpoint's purpose: "far from acting as a talking points repository, Counterpoint will provide students with critical, scholarly analysis of the great and timeless issues facing our nation" (emphasis mine).

In response to common claims of a parade of horribles following the legalization of same-sex marriage, Laura Langbein and Mark Yost examined and compared relevant data for states where same-sex marriage was legal and illegal, and concluded that "laws permitting same-sex marriage or civil unions have no adverse effect on marriage, divorce, and abortion rates, the percent of children born out of wedlock, or the percent of households with children under 18 headed by women." Surely "critical, scholarly analysis" of the same-sex marriage issue would include an explanation of competing evidence, so I find it surprising that C.R. makes no attempt to rebut or even reference studies whose conclusions disagree with his own. It is particularly surprising since Judge Vaughn Walker cited Langbein and Yost's study among his findings of fact.

C.R. later says that heterosexual marriage "is a fundamental building block of all societies, one whose absence or weakness causes great social dislocation and disorder." The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) released a statement in 2004 declaring that "[t]he results of more than a century of anthropological research ...provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution." Again, it's legitimately surprising that C.R. didn't consider the opinion of the AAA when Judge Walker cited this exact source in support of Finding of Fact 55 , the one that C.R. chose to set his entire 7,000-word argument against. Even supposing that C.R. did not read all of Judge Walker's opinion, and he is thus unaware of the work of scholars like Langbein and Yost, the premise that heterosexual marriage is the only way marriage has worked since time immemorial needs some legitimate foundation. C.R. is of course permitted to argue that the Executive Board of the AAA practices shoddy anthropology, but he should then provide some contradictory findings and put the two into conversation, because that is how critical, scholarly analysis is done. To do otherwise is just a charade.

Then there are the inexplicable claims C.R. makes about procreation: e.g., that "there are no cases in which it is possible for same-sex [couples to procreate]." The American Psychological Association's (APA) briefing on sexual orientation notes that according to the "2000 U.S. Census, 33% of female same-sex couple households and 22% of male same- sex couple households" have at least one minor child. C.R. may object that heterosexual couples are innately more fit to raise children. In opposition to such a claim, the APA concludes that "the research indicates that the children of lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from the children of heterosexual parents in their development, adjustment, or overall well-being." Why C.R. didn't provide any social scientific studies to directly refute the APA's broad conclusion is, again, a mystery; if, on the other hand, C.R. concedes that there are no different outcomes for children of gay and straight parents, then procreative fitness is no longer a valid rationale against equal marriage rights, if it ever were. There is other evidence, too: James Pawelski et al. find that "[c]hildren who are raised by civilly married parents benefit from the legal status granted to their parents"—so there are benefits to the children of same-sex couples by giving their parents' relationship's legal recognition—and they emphasize that "[t]here is ample evidence to show that children raised by same-gender parents fare as well as those raised by heterosexual parents." Ellen Perrin et al. conclude the same, namely that gays make the same quality parents as heterosexuals, and that "[n]o data have pointed to any risk to children as a result of growing up in a family with 1 or more gay parents." Mike Allen and Nancy Burrell performed a meta- analysis of available studies of children of gay parents, and concluded that "[w]hether the data are measured from the perspective of the parent, teacher, or child, no difference exists between heterosexual parents and homosexual parents."

C.R.'s own citations are disingenuous. Accompanying one citation, he claims that "[m]arried couples [i.e. heterosexual couples] seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples," but fails to explain why this finding is limited to heterosexual couples. He merely takes it for granted that the economic benefits of marriage must follow from the different sexes of the partners. Neither theory nor empirical evidence supports this conclusion. And even if gay couples make less money, on average, than straight couples, it is irrelevant unless (1) gay couples would choose to enter straight unions in the absence of marriage equality or (2) same-sex marriage disincentivizes straight marriage. Likewise for C.R.'s citation to a study arguing that high rates of marriage leads to better schools, lower crime rates, etc.: there is simply no evidence to suppose that these benefits uniquely accrue to heterosexual marriage, and there is no theoretical reason to suppose it's true while waiting for empirical evidence.

The same critiques apply to the Institute for American Values' (IAV) conclusions, which C.R. characterizes as being about "traditional [i.e., heterosexual] marriage," though I doubt whether the IAV endorses that interpretation. The founder and president of the IAV, David Blankenhorn, was reportedly unsurprised by new polling data showing that "[a] majority of Americans now say their definition of family includes same-sex couples with children, as well as married gay and lesbian couples," since he subscribes to what he calls "the standard definition of family: two or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption . . . " As I said, the same critique from above applies to the IAV's findings about the benefits of marriage: there's no reason to suppose these are benefits of heterosexual marriage alone. It may be the case that outcomes of children of two parents are better than those raised by a single parents, but since we're only talking about same-sex marriages—and not single-parent gay households—comparisons of two-parent households and single-parent households are in general beside the point. To repeat, the evidence about children's outcomes rejects C.R.'s claim; the sex of a child's two parents does not affect her own outcomes.

C.R.'s second argument, an appeal to the supposedly analogous effects of welfare payment changes, is, as far as I can tell, either irrelevant or actually supports the expansion of marriage rights. There is no evidence to suggest that expanding marriage to same-sex couples will effect decision-making by anyone other than potential gay married couples, let alone that it will effect in particular the decisionmaking of the poorest Americans. The analogy to welfare policy changes is inappropriate since in that case, C.R. describes financial motivations for staying single. Although I don't know enough about public policy schemes to judge whether or not that is an accurate description, it seems valid to suppose that the poorest are most likely to be successfully incentivized by a marginal income increase. Letting gay people marry, however, does not disincentivize straight marriage in this way. C.R.'s claim is better read in response to the views of some libertarians who want the government to get out of the "marriage business" and therefore remove the tax benefits that married couples receive, which may diminish the incentive for some couples to marry, under C.R.'s logic. However, proponents of the expansion of gay marriage support more couples' being eligible for these financial benefits, so I would expect C.R. to support the expansion of the marriage institution, in order to especially incentivize poor gays and lesbians to marry.

The most surprising claim C.R. makes is that "the social mores of the homosexual community . . . are simply not as conducive to producing highly functional monogamous relationships." For obvious reasons, appealing to gay men's allegedly inferior social mores is not an appeal to social science, and should be no part of serious scholarship. Further, unless there is a link between monogamy and successful marriage other than folk notion that married couples only have sex with one another, such a point is irrelevant. (Of course, just like heterosexuals, not all gays want to be married; a statistic about the average gay man's reported sexual behavior doesn't reveal whether the gays interested in marriage are the ones less likely to be monogamous. It's therefore improper to presume that the gays who want to get married are the supposedly promiscuous and morally inferior ones.)

In large part, C.R.'s argument is bunk because he doesn't take account of the great deal of empirical evidence contradicting his claims. In particular, evidence that allowing same-sex marriage does not disincentivize marriage among other sectors of society, and evidence that children of same-sex parents fare as well as other children. Counterpoint thus ought to correct C.R.'s piece or stop pretending that their authors provide critical, scholarly analysis. Charles Lipson, who wrote a piece for Counterpoint and whose book, Doing Honest Work in College, is given to every undergraduate, advises that "[w]hatever your subject, it violates basic research ethics to leave out unfavorable results."

- Andrew Thornton


Carl Roberts Responds:

First of all, I'm glad my piece has garnered such a strong response. At one level, the goal of all intellectual labor is the promotion of a discourse and I realize that any piece dealing with as controversial a topic as mine did was always going to engender something of a confrontational response. That being said, I'm sorry to say that Mr. Thornton does not address my central claims about same-sex marriage and instead seems much more intent in arguing against points he imagines I make, and dismissing evidence of mine that doesn't accord to his neat and tidy worldview.

The first point in response I'd like to make is more of a general one. Mr. Thornton, in his response, wishes to paint my position as being one dominated by at least an implicit prejudice against gays. Whatever the merits and demerits of my argument may be, I will proudly say that I make it without any intention of offense and with the utmost care to avoid the appearance of prejudice. I do not argue that gays are deficient people, that homosexuality is intrinsically sinful or wicked, nor do I argue that gays cannot be good parents. My argument boils down to this: same-sex marriage, in expanding the definition of marriage beyond simple procreative bounds, makes the general social importance of traditional marriage of less obvious social benefit, and in doing so, provides those marginal actors possibly seeking marriage less of an incentive to marry. In the long run, it will further increase the rates of the single-never-married, amongst whom are our poorest citizens.

This was why I began by citing the benefits of traditional marriage: not to argue that same-sex marriages will bring with it the downfall of civilization, or to say even that the benefits of marriage could not possibly transfer to same-sex couples, but rather that we know (as much as we can know any sort of social facts) that decreasing marriage rates will significantly harm society. If we hold this to be true, then anything that decreases the rate of traditional marriage is something to be avoided.

But even beyond this, there are serious problems with the evidence Mr. Thornton marshals to disprove this phantom claim of mine. The Langbein and Yost study of the differential effects of same-sex marriage on social statistics of the three states that legally recognize same-sex marriage that Mr. Thornton and Judge Walker eagerly cite does not have the power to make nearly the assertion that its proponents claim. Not to get bogged down in the details, but suffice it to say the sample size and the lack of controls for the racial and social make-up of the states they examine (Vermont, Massachusetts, and very briefly Iowa) makes the predictive power of their study somewhat dubious.

Furthermore, the differentials they do point to cover such a small period of time, particularly in relationship to the vast scope of social policy change, that it is hard to ascribe to this study any long-term validity. Marriage in the United States began to decline only at the end of the 1960s, yet much of what is often attributed to this decline—the rise of working women, the increased ubiquity of birth control, etc.—all predated this collapse by over a decade. Frankly, the purview of any single state is not enough to properly measure the impacts of given social policy; if, as I do, one argues that the problems brought on by same-sex marriage are largely cultural rather than political or economic, then it is rather hard to imagine that any state exists as an autonomous culture unaffected by (and unaffecting) any other state. The Langbein and Yost study, although certainly an important contribution to the discourse, is a rather incomplete reference.

The same cannot be said for the two professional organizations Mr. Thornton cites in support of his argument. The American Anthropologists Association (AAA), in arguing that the family is not a crucial social consideration for the advancement of civilization, interestingly enough, does not really act as if there are characteristics that make up a successful civilization. The AAA, I should remind you, has dropped the word "scientific" from its mission statement because it no longer believes that the scientific approach to knowledge is as valuable as the more relativistic one. They have "conceded" that most of what we understand socially is, in reality, impossible to actually understand. Which makes these sorts of "factual" observations they make seem all the more doubtful; if the only truths they can actually ascribe any meaning to are some sort of politically correct, universalistic non-judgmentalism, then pronouncements they make in favor of such propositions are simply not credible.

The American Psychological Association, another citation Mr. Thornton makes in order to justify dismissing my claims, is just as politically problematic as the AAA. Dr. Robert Perloff, past president of the APA, criticized the APA for pandering to special interests groups: "The APA is too politically correct...and too obeisant to special interests," particularly in regards to the issue of same-sex parenting.

Furthermore, the studies the APA cited in support of the claim that there exists no difference between the parenting abilities of same-sex parents and heterosexual parents are very seriously flawed. I'm not going to go into the details with the problems of each of these studies, but suffice it to say, the vast majority simply did not have strong enough experimental design to glean from them anything nearing the certainty of the conclusions drawn by the APA. According to the book No Basis, a meta-analysis done of these studies done in 2000, the vast majority suffered from an unclear hypothesis and research design, missing or inadequate comparison groups, self-constructed unreliable and invalid measurements, non-random samples (including participants who recruit other participants), insignificant sample size, and generally inadequate statistical analysis. Other, later meta-analyses done showed that the claims made by those support same-sex adoption and marriage had vastly overstated their cases; Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz's 2001 study of same-sex adoption studies, appearing in the American Sociological Review, showed that many of the same-sex adoption studies were vastly overstating their claims to show no differences between couples raised by two men, two women, and a man and a woman.

This brings me to the next issue Mr. Thornton brings up: namely, that my assertion that same-sex couples cannot procreate is equally unfounded. Certainly, there is no physical reason same-sex couples cannot adopt children, nor is there any reason that one of the members of the partnership cannot be involved in a procreative act with someone of the opposite sex. But those two actions, for all of their merits and demerits, are not procreation. No matter how much Mr. Thornton would like to bend words, a procreative marriage would still have to entail two people having children with each other. There is a reason procreation qua procreation is very important to marriage; the basic understanding of marriage as a social institution was completely tied to establishing a stable and beneficial environment in which to raise children. There is ample evidence to suggest that there is a fundamental way in which one approaches his or her own child that is different than the way one would approach any other child; this holds true even in the best of adoptive families. It is simply disingenuous to assume that there is no difference between procreation and adoption.

And this is where, in Mr. Thornton's response, he completely loses track of what I am arguing, and what the limits of observational studies are. The evidence I provide arguing for the positive social benefits of traditional marriage, the possible disincentivization of traditional marriage, and the social costs of such deterioration, is largely from long-term observational studies, and as such deal with only the reality as it is. In providing this evidence, the unit most often observed is that of the traditional marriage, partially because marriage itself is what is being studied, and partially because traditional marriage is the only unit they could study to determine these facts. More succinctly, studies determining the economic benefits of marriage, for example, would only be on heterosexual marriages, not same-sex marriages, because that is what is being studied. Mr. Thornton states at one point, "there is simply no evidence to suppose that these benefits uniquely accrue to heterosexual marriage," which, in and of itself may be true, but is a rather meaningless statement. The evidence collected in these studies was of heterosexual couples, a particular fact that makes inferring from them the effects on same-sex couples a rather dangerous proposition. Mr. Thornton cannot simply assert that there is no reason to assume these benefits do not extend to same sex couples without asserting any reason to do so.

But for the most part, this discussion is irrelevant because throughout this part of his argument, Mr. Thornton is refuting a point I simply do not make. I never argue that same-sex marriages couldn't benefit from the some of the same social conditions that benefit traditional marriage; for the purposes of my argument, this is a largely irrelevant question. What I assert is that declining traditional marriage is an unambiguous social harm, and that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage will provide, in the long term, less social incentives for those seeking traditional marriage, generally damaging traditional marriage as a result. Unless he is willing to argue that the number of same-sex marriages in the long run will make up for the declining number of traditional marriages—an argument I would be much more willing to take up, for which I think the evidence is simply not there right now—his arguments about the possible social benefits of same-sex marriage are not relevant.

When, more than three-fourths of the way through his letter Mr. Thornton gets to my incentivization argument—the core of my entire argument—he dismisses said assertion that same-sex marriage could radically disincentivize marriage by ignoring the social side of incentives and strictly looking at the monetary nature of incentivization. What he misses is that welfare policies, which admittedly started with monetary incentives that damaged marriage, eventually extended into the realm of social pressure; welfare was one of many things that changed the culture of marriage, greatly minimizing the social detriments of being a single mother. That is why the depressed state of marriage continued after the worst of the welfare payment systems, the AFDC, ended in the 90s; the web of social incentives no longer pushing people towards marriage far outweighed the simple elimination of the financial incentives against marriage. Without the great social incentive towards marriage, the institution—no matter how well subsidized—simply withers. And, in line with the first part of my argument, this disincentivization of marriage is socially and politically disastrous.

Furthermore, when speaking to the particulars of culture and the changing of a social institution, it is not unwise to consider the social characteristics of those who are going to be newly involved in the social institution. Invoking differential social mores is a serious point in determining the likelihood of the institution of marriage being permanently altered by its expansion to include same-sex couples. Contrary to Mr. Thornton, who thinks discussing social mores "should be no part of serious scholarship" (tell that to Tocqueville), the question of the sexual habits of homosexuals does play a role in shaping the social stigma surrounding infidelity. Also, Mr. Thornton's incredulity at the idea that there "is a link between monogamy and successful marriage" is rather remarkable. It is not simply a "folk notion" that monogamous marriages are more successful ones—read the Kinsey Institute study on sexual behavior (infidelity is the leading cause of divorce)—it is an anthropological fact that almost all marriages are monogamous. Consider what esteemed anthropologist G.P. Murdock said about monogamy and marriage: "An impartial observer employing the criterion of numerical preponderance, consequently, would be compelled to characterize nearly every known human society as monogamous."

In addition, the evidence on non-monogamous relationships has been rather conclusive about their stability, or their lackthereof. Morton Hunt, author of Sexual Behaviors of the 1970s, wrote that open relationships "have proven disruptive to the marriages of most of those who have practiced them, and too threatening to the majority of those who have not to be seriously tried out. Relatively few people, even today, manage to make permissive marriage work at all, let alone work better than exclusive marriage . . . Extramarital sexual acts are severely threatening to the emotional identity and security that marriage seems to offer." So yes, increasing the social acceptability of non-monogamous marriages would, ultimately, weaken marriage; the fact that gays, particularly gay men, are far more inclined to be sexually promiscuous, even gay men in committed relationships (a 2010 study by Colleen Hoff from the Center for Research on Gender & Sexuality at San Francisco State University found that 47 percent of gay men in relationships were in open relationships, while only 45 percent were monogamous ones, compared with over 80 percent of heterosexual relationships), does support the claim that the changing culture associated with same-sex marriage could lead to the decline in marriage.

So in regards to Mr. Thornton's adamant claims that my argument is "bunk," he simply does not make his case. Mr. Thornton, not quite unlike Judge Walker, needs to reexamine his perspective on the social science of same-sex marriage. Granted, I wished I had the time and the space to address every counterclaim made against my argument in the original piece. Unfortunately, as my piece was already over 7500 words, I simply did not have the room to do so. I would like, one day, to go back and revisit my original piece and expand it quite substantially; information included in this response would be the tip of the iceberg as to the additional information included. But, with that being said, I stand by every claim made in my original article, and I think that the supplementary information provided in this response should more than satisfy my critics' complaints.





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