“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”
My friend Matthew Sitman recently said to me, while sizing up the opposite sides of the Ferguson riots, “Maybe this just proves how conservative, in terms of temperament, I really am – I’m just not an activist.” He continued: “Any rage I feel is quickly tempered by the voice in my head that says, ‘Yes, but…’ I always go back to the great Max Weber line: Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”
An approach this deliberative doesn’t thrive in the world of social media, nor does it naturally attract allies, loathe as it is to jump off the sidelines, don a jersey, and play partisan games.
You will of course read Chesterton’s (and Matthew’s) quote in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, rendered last Friday. I don’t have anything to add to this debate, which, if you haven’t noticed, is no longer a debate at all. Though several contradictory emotions have arisen.
I am happy for my gay friends; I am surprised at the lack of gravity being lent what is a moment of apparent social and political liberation (not to rain on anyone’s parade). I don’t think gay marriage “threatens” any individual, current, heterosexual marriage; I do believe our society has forgotten how critical that decaying, traditional institution is, and that the upcoming generation will have an impossible time recovering it. I am amazed how quickly this has escalated. I am fine with the Supreme Court deciding issues like this, even though it was 5-to-4, and even though I think ground-up, organic change is preferable for social issues. I am disappointed the executive branch has taken sides in a contentious judicial issue, displaying cutesy memes of support for one side in what has been an honest debate that’s divided good people on both sides of the electorate. I despise the vapid phrase “… right side of history,” currently being thrown around to justify certain positions on this issue. History isn’t about opinions. It has no right sides for the exact reason Eliot could declare that, in this life, “There are no lost causes because there are no won causes.”
Two other thoughts spring to mind in wake of last Friday’s verdict. The first is from Max Planck, who sized up the unglamorous way in which scientific progress occurs: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
It’s no accident this ruling comes at a moment when the Greatest generation is quickly fading from public life just as liberal Boomers now sit comfortably at the helm, braced by upcoming Gen-X’ers and Millennials.
The second quote is from Alexander Herzen, who had the following to say about the tumult of the failed 1848 revolutions:
The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.