When Plausibility Structures Collapse
Posted on July 26, 2013
Adapted from my upcoming book Are Christian Sexual Ethics Outmoded?
In confronting the routinization of same-sex marriage (SSM) we are witnessing the collapse of a massive “plausibility structure.” By “plausibility structure,” I mean what Peter Berger has described as a humanly constructed coercive objectivity that has gained the “power to constitute and to impose itself as a reality.” For thousands of years of human history what marriage is was taken for granted. Throughout its history it has been assaulted, injured, and diluted — but never redefined. The fact that the West in recent years is the first civilization in human history to redefine marriage verifies our apostasy. Our civilization was shaped by both Christian culture and the Greco-Roman world. Christianity has been unwaveringly opposed to homosexuality. The sophisticated paganism of Greece and Rome, unlike Christianity, was lax about homosexuality — but not about the definition of marriage: “[E]ven in cultures very favorable to homoerotic relationships (as in ancient Greece), something akin to the conjugal [“traditional”] view has prevailed — nothing like same-sex marriage was even imagined.” In creating SSM, our civilization is overthrowing an entire history of the definition of marriage. Our depravity isn’t merely substantive; it’s also structural. We’re not merely evil; we’re creating principles and institutions for the purpose of enshrining our evil. SSM is becoming a new plausibility structure.
When plausibility structures collapse, an entire way of thinking and, therefore, of acting in a culture changes. The transition between the collapse of the old and the adoption of the new creates, for a time, at least, a deep cultural unsettledness springing from conceptual conflicts to which humans are simply not accustomed. In the case of SSM, the conflict isn’t hard to demonstrate. Quick: what’s marriage? The fact that you fumbled mentally at a definition you could articulate (as opposed to merely intuitively assume) doesn’t prove that there is no workable definition for marriage or that it’s a hard concept to understand. It only proves that marriage has been a plausibility structure for so long that nobody thought about defining it. Is it a legal contract between any man and woman? No, because such contracts occur every day and nobody would call them a marriage. Is marriage a long-term sexually committed relationship between a man and woman? Nobody would call that a marriage either. What about commitment to fidelity (however defined) before witnesses secured by a state-sanctioned marriage license? This would disqualify most of what were considered marriages in human history. The reason we’re obliged to re-think these definitions (or think about them in the first place) is that nobody before recent times would have even considered that people of the same sex could marry. SSM wouldn’t have been deemed so much immoral as implausible; we would have lacked the conceptual formulations with which to conceive of such a scenario.
Another example in the last century was the (re-)definition of personhood in the Third Reich. A chief objective of the Nazi propaganda machine under the undisputed direction of Joseph Goebbels was to dehumanize (literally) the Jewish population so that the rest of society would accept their enslavement and eventual liquidation. In time, that objective worked. This transformation required a deep unsettledness, overturning as it did centuries of the Western plausibility structure of personhood defined as man created in God’s image and entitled to basic humane [!] treatment. To be biologically human was ipso facto to be entitled to spiritual personhood. The Nazis changed that formulation for the Jews, and that change, while successful, wasn’t easy. It’s unsettledness is captured in an exchange in the classic movie Schindler’s List, about German entrepreneur and war profiteer Oscar Schindler, who over time became horrified at the Nazi extermination machine and used his war-labor factories to shield Jews from it. In one scene, Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish assistant played by Ben Kingsley, quibbles with Schindler on the most effective words to use on Schindler’s list of names scheduled to be submitted to the Nazis to assure his Jewish workers would be considered worthy of not being exterminated.
In exasperation, Schindler retorts, “Must we invent a whole new language?”
“I think so, yes,” Stern responds quietly.
Collapsing plausibility structures demand replacement plausibility structures, and since all such structures presuppose concepts and language for converting those concepts, no collapse survives without conceptual and linguistic unsettledness.
Today we speak of “traditional marriage” and “same-sex marriage.” A century ago this language would have been as incomprehensible as if we today spoke of “traditional wars” versus “non-violent wars,” or “traditional widowers” versus “married widowers.” Some plausibility structures are so inflexible and deep-seated and their meaning so self-evident that defining them seems tautological. The fact that we today can speak of “traditional marriage” and “same-sex marriage” testifies to the nearly unprecedented success of the radical homosexual agenda in unseating a millennia-long marital plausibility structure that has never had a single competitor in any culture anywhere.
Whatever we may say of SSM, it transports us into uncharted territory. We have no idea what a non-heterosexual marital plausibility structure would — or even could — look like.