A Still Mind | Why Now?

Why Now?

October 14, 2014  •  2 Comments

The recent court decisions that led to marriage equality in my home state of North Carolina have prompted a flood of celebratory messages in my Facebook news feed. I share in the joy of this move towards more equality, but a voice of curiosity also appears, asking the question "why now?" I realize that the court decisions over the past couple of years have come in response to some recent laws and amendments in several states specifically outlawing same-sex marriage. But laws defining marriage as one man-one woman have been on the books throughout the U.S. for a very long time. If laws restricting marriage based on gender are unconstitutional now, then they were unconstitutional a year ago, and five years ago, and 50 years ago. The desire of same-sex couples to marry is hardly new, and there have been legal challenges to "traditional" marriage for many years. So why now?

Something has changed in peoples' attitudes and perspectives. "Enough" people now favor marriage equality for a change in the laws to take place. There has been a shift in public opinion that seems to enable these changes as well. For the first time, "enough" people are agreeing that limiting marriage based on gender violates the protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. We can study the history and watch the statistical changes happen, but my question remains: why did they happen? And perhaps more importantly, what makes this kind of change happen, and how can it be applied to other issues of importance?

This question prompted me to think about other changes in attitude that have occurred over the years, and I wondered the same thing. For example, voting in the U.S. used to be limited to males who owned land. At some point, people accepted that women should be granted equal voting rights to men, and that property ownership should not be a restriction either. In my lifetime, I have watched attitudes about the environment change, albeit slowly. I remember a time when there was no such thing as recycling; all of our garbage ended up in a landfill, or dumped in a river, ocean, or other unfortunate place. At some point, people accepted that pollution was a problem, and we have gradually enacted recycling programs for more and more materials. But why do these changes in perspective occur, and how do they reach a critical point at which there is enough change and momentum to produce to changes in behavior?

One thing that is clear is that there is a great deal of resistance among many people to these sorts of changes. Again, I've sought to understand why.  I've considered whether these changes make our lives more or less restrictive, wondering if perhaps that would provide an explanation. Marriage equality is a move to less restrictive laws, and those who oppose it often argue that it damages or undermines traditional marriages. Extending voting to women is also less restrictive, and many men opposed it because it took away some of their power. Recycling programs, on the other hand, are more restrictive, as the laws restrict what we can throw in the trash, and they require us to recycle many kinds of materials. Many people oppose these kinds of laws and similar environmental policies because it takes away some of their freedom to do as they please. I wonder what percentage of the changes in attitude that lead to marriage equality and recycling laws are more restrictive than the previous ways and perspectives, and what percentage are less restrictive. And I wonder if the percentage makes a difference. Many people seem resistant to societal changes regardless of whether they are more or less restrictive.

I've also wondered if these changes in perspective also indicate a change in consciousness. Are we are becoming more open to other viewpoints and more compassionate to how our actions and laws can cause others to suffer? Are we becoming more aware of our interconnectedness, seeing how doing what is best for others and for the collective "we" makes life better for everyone, even if it means giving up some individual freedoms? Are we awakening to our true nature and seeing what our minds are doing in the present moment? I have come to clearer and disappointing answers to these questions. When I look at any of these issues I've considered, I see a great deal of attachment. People on all sides tend to have a lot of their sense of self tied up in their position. Changing who votes or who marries or what we throw away is not simply an issue of how we behave; most people see it as strongly affecting "who I am" and "who I will be." This leads to long and hateful fights on so many issues. Over time, the changed perspective becomes the new norm, and new identities form. And people cling to these just as strongly as the old ones. And the cycle begins anew.

I don't think that there is an answer to my "why" question. (If you have one, by all means share it!) It's like asking why the universe exists. What we can ask is "what" and "how." What are we holding onto so tightly that it becomes an identity? And how can we listen to other perspectives, come to a greater understanding, and find the compassion, openness, and awareness that allows us to recognize the identities that we grasp so tightly? I hope that marriage equality will prompt more people to look at their sense of self and where they grasp tightly, to everyones detriment. Otherwise, we will continue to fight long and hard over every issue. Notice that even now, we are still fighting over voting accessibility and honesty. We still fight over environmental health and safety policies, and there is a fight almost every time an accident or failure dumps toxins into the air, land, or water. I hope that we can learn to relate to one another differently--better. I hope for less debate and more discussion. Less competition and more cooperation. Less "I" and more "We."

Do I ask too much?


A Still Mind
Thanks for your comment, John! Yes, we are definitely products of our environment, and people are slow to change their deeply rooted views. It still surprises me that compassion and openness in one (or many) areas of one's life does not always generalize to openness in other areas. I think it comes down to identity--what we identify with and define ourselves by. Many people still view homosexuality as a sin, and identify strongly with beliefs (religious or otherwise) that proclaim homosexuality to be a sin or a crime against God or nature. It's that grasping to the identity that I think causes us to change so slowly. When faced with something I find uncomfortable or wrong because it challenges or threatens my sense of identity, I try to remember how much identities change over time--even over relatively short periods of time. And I remember how much I suffer by holding to an identity that's stuck in wishing that the world were different than it is.
John Perriment(non-registered)
A very thought provoking piece, Hal. You ask, "why now?" Maybe "now" just happens to be the time that the tide of public opinion has turned enough to make this change possible. Attitudes change gradually and slowly, but also in generational steps and often a new generation are more comfortable about accepting changes that their parents would never agree to. That doesn't neccessarily mean that the older generation are less caring, open-minded or tolerant in general, just on certain issues which may be heavilly influenced by the society in which the grew up. Let me give you an example. My Dad was a wonderful, caring, loving, fair-minded person, but that didn't extend to homosexuality, of which he was particularly intolerant. How could that be? Well, we have to realize that he was well into adulthood before homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK - he was raised in a society in which same sex relationships were not only frowned upon but were actually in breach of the Law. It was official - homosexuality was a criminal offence, so why would he and others of his generation think anything other than that it was a disgusting and immoral practice? In fact, it was not until 1967 (When I was aged 12 and my Dad was 44) that homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales. Freed of this social burden, my generation were able to develop a more liberal attitude, which has broadend and stengthend with subsequent generations, to the point where same-sex marrages are now legal in the UK. I presume it has been a similar pattern in the USA, although I suspect it may have been complicated by individual states having different laws, making changes in overall American attitudes and social acceptability less straightforward.
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