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Apr 04 2013

That Convenient ‘Evolution’ on Marriage Equality

John McWhorter takes aim at something that has annoyed me as well, the fact that so many politicians who are changing their positions on whether gay couples should be allowed to get married have described themselves as “evolving” on the subject.

Our times can lend ordinary words new shadings. It used to be that one thought of a fossil embedded in rock, but especially since the Iraq War, embed calls most immediately to mind a reporter covering military activity. In the same way, evolution these days is no longer about Darwin and finch beaks. Rather, the public figure opting to espouse a previously controversial position now tells us that their views have “evolved.” It is, in truth, a weaselly business.

And a ubiquitous one. “The term ‘evolving view’ has been perhaps overused, but I think it is an appropriate term for me to use,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said Wednesday, stopping just shy of endorsing gay marriage. What tipped the new usage would seem to have been President Obama’s claim that his take on gay marriage was “evolving,” after which he finally came out in favor. Since then Hillary Clinton tells us her views on gay marriage have “evolved,” while Sean Hannity, not usually one for intellectual flexibility, has come out as having “evolved” on immigration.

But these evolutions seem always to be towards targets that will lend political advantage. Indeed, the word evolution is handy, in this new variation on its usage, in its connotation of progress, enlightenment. One once was lost but now one sees. One does not say, then, that one’s views have simply changed, which would leave one open to the “flip-flopper” charge that so hobbled John Kerry in his attempt to elucidate his position on the War in Iraq.

I found Obama’s “evolution” on this matter particularly irritating because it was so obviously calculated. Does anyone really believe that he did not think gay couples should be allowed to get married before he “evolved” on the matter? I can’t imagine why. It just wasn’t politically safe to do so and Obama is, first and foremost, a shrewd and careful politician. I guarantee you that his public announcement of having finally “evolved” only happened after many meetings with Axelrod and Plouffe and a good deal of polling data analysis to determine that it would not hurt his reelection bid and might well help it.

But in reality, this is actually a good thing for equality. Few politicians can ever be counted on to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, especially when it hurts them politically. So the fact that it is now politically advantageous to be in favor of equality clears a major roadblock and paves the way for real progress. Politics almost always trumps principle, so having political leaders take such positions for political purposes is actually a great sign.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    Another thing to blame Darwin for!

  2. 2
    doublereed

    Well, evolution is all about adapting or perishing…

  3. 3
    embertine

    Like doublereed, I think this is a very appropriate use of the word. Politicians are adapting to a changing environment because they know they will get voted out if they don’t.

  4. 4
    gshelley

    I guarantee you that his public announcement of having finally “evolved” only happened after many meetings with Axelrod and Plouffe and a good deal of polling data analysis to determine that it would not hurt his reelection bid and might well help it.

    That and Biden coming out in favour, though I don’t know there is much to choose between the competing hypotheses that Biden forced Obama’s hand and that Biden was encouraged to go first to break the ice.

  5. 5
    janiceintoronto

    So these politicians are confessing that their ideas came from some damn monkey!

    Shame!

    /sarcasm

  6. 6
    heddle

    If their ideas evolve, why are there still gerrymanders?

  7. 7
    laurentweppe

    The thing is, I’m pretty sure the “evolution” of the public opinion regarding gay marriage is as calculated as the “evolution” of politicians: until very recently, the bigots held a powerful heckler’s veto on this issue: years of activism gave to an incremental number of people the confidence necessary to openly challenge the bigots stonghold, until said number reached a threshold where the hecler’s veto lost its potency, at which point the people “on the fence” (as in: not hostile to the principle but unwilling to say so) stoped pretending and joined the ranks of the proponants of gay marriage.

  8. 8
    Captain Mike

    Few politicians can ever be counted on to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing …

    True enough, but I think we could replace the word “politicians” with the word “people” and it would still be true.

  9. 9
    Phillip IV

    Does anyone really believe that he did not think gay couples should be allowed to get married before he “evolved” on the matter?

    Of course not, the “evolution” phrase doesn’t even make any logical sense in context. It’s absolutely illogical to say you’re of opinion A, but you already know that you’ll be of opinion B later – either the arguments for B convince you or not, there’s no perceivable reason why they could not convince you now, but you already know they will later.

    In Obama’s case you could, if you want to be charitable, say that it was an intentional dog-whistle…but now it has almost become the standard “moderate” position on the issue, and it still doesn’t make any fucking sense.

  10. 10
    democommie

    I disagree with McWhorter on a number of things but his writing on language and its effects on polity, among other things, are usually well reasoned.

    I don’t know, though, it could be that they’ve finally evolved a sense of smell, so that they KNOW that their shit, and their bullshit, stinks.

  11. 11
    Moggie

    Evolving belief is just a way of always being right. You used to believe x, and, hey, x was right for then, but the world has changed since then, and now you believe y, which is right for now. Next week, who knows what you’ll believe? But you’ll still be right!

    Bullshit. If you used to believe that PoC belonged at the back of the bus, the fact that your belief was widely shared and was convenient for you doesn’t change the fact that you were wrong. Have the courage to admit it.

  12. 12
    Doug Little

    How about they evolve to do the right thing for a change regardless of how many values voters or big money donors they piss off. That would be nice.

  13. 13
    abb3w

    I’m mostly bugged by how bad a metaphor it implies; and in a linguistic coincidence, metamorphosis seems it would be a more precise term.

  14. 14
    machintelligence

    Since evolution is change in gene frequency in response to selection pressure, describing a change in voting frequency in response to public opinion as evolution seems appropriate to me.

  15. 15
    Abby Normal

    Evolution is the process by which organisms change to become better suited to their environment and improve their long term survivability. It’s driven primarily by the external pressures of the environment. That seems like perfectly suited analogy for what’s driving the politicians changing positions. What’s the problem?

  16. 16
    Pierce R. Butler

    I found Obama’s “evolution” on this matter particularly irritating …

    Not to mention that of a certain former Secretary of State, whose party apparatchiks now plaster FtB (among other sites) with gaudy/tacky “STAND WITH HILLARY … SIGN HERE” ads in a pathetically brazen attempt to pad their fund-raising email lists.

  17. 17
    Sastra

    It’s probably less of an issue than the inability to admit a mistake, but using the term “evolve” to mean “progress” does tend to feed into the idea that biological evolution is about following the upward trend on the Great Chain of Being.

  18. 18
    Matrim

    I obviously can’t speak for the entirety of the LGBTQ community, but speaking for myself I honestly don’t give a tin shit if they’re being politically cautious about it or not, so long as they come out on the correct side. Yeah, I’d be awesome if they took a big stand, and appreciate all those who do, but I’m perfectly fine with “evolution” if it means they’re there. Hell, I’ll even take it if they claim the Angel Gabriel descended from on high and told them that marriage equality was the right thing. It’s stupid and self-serving, but it gets them where I want them.

    I’ll always prefer honest, open, and vehement support for what is right. But so long as the person is voting right, I’ll take it essentially any way I can get it.

    Man…I’m feeling exceptionally jaded today, I guess.

  19. 19
    Nemo

    I wonder how many of these “evolving” politicians are creationists.

  20. 20
    Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    I found Obama’s “evolution” on this matter particularly irritating because it was so obviously calculated. Does anyone really believe that he did not think gay couples should be allowed to get married before he “evolved” on the matter? I can’t imagine why.

    I seem to recall someone exposing Barack Obama’s hypocrisy on this matter by posting comments Mr. Obama made very early in his political career; where he was in full support of equal rights for gays. That is, until he evolved to being gay marriage, and the evolved back to being in support of gay marriage.

    It’s this very behavior that allows the argument that the president isn’t really a Christian believer, but instead that his faith is calculated to buttress his political ambitions.

  21. 21
    Gretchen

    Evolving happens on its own. Their support for gay marriage has a designer.

  22. 22
    laurentweppe

    Evolving happens on its own. Their support for gay marriage has a designer.

    A designer who’s Catholic.
    I mean, come on, we all know thet the right is evolving too and that 20 years from now they’ll brandish Sullivan’s writings as “proof” that Christianity invented marriage equality.

  23. 23
    gopiballava

    @Doug:

    How about they evolve to do the right thing for a change regardless of how many values voters or big money donors they piss off. That would be nice.

    There’s no shortage of candidates who say what they believe regardless of voters. Libertarian and Green Party candidates, for example. I’ll bet that the lower levels of the mainstream parties are also filled with many such people. Elections tend to filter them out.

  24. 24
    Doug Little

    gopiballava @23

    Yeah, but they know that they don’t stand a chance in hell of ever winning so the temptations of big money politics tend to be nonexistent with that crew. But yeah you’re right look what happened to Jon Huntsman.

  25. 25
    democommie

    “and in a linguistic coincidence, metamorphosis seems it would be a more precise term.”

    But, but, they’re STILL cockroaches!

  26. 26
    abb3w

    @15, Abby Normal:

    Evolution is the process by which organisms change to become better suited to their environment and improve their long term survivability. It’s driven primarily by the external pressures of the environment. That seems like perfectly suited analogy for what’s driving the politicians changing positions. What’s the problem?

    Because evolution is the process by which SPECIES evolve. Particular individual organisms such as my neighbor’s pet cat Ludwig do not evolve; rather, the species evolves, due to variation in the successive generations of offspring. A change in a particular organism, such as tadpole turning into a frog or a rabbit developing a white coat in winter, is a metamorphosis. (Folk with biology degrees, feel free to sound off; I got a B in high school honors bio, and have only done scattered reading since.)

    So, I’d say some of the change in the attitude of the Democratic party as a whole is an evolution (since it is largely driven by the arrival of newly minted “who gives a fuck” young voters), but the change in stance of a particular individual politician to deal with the environmental shift is a metamorphosis.

    @25, democommie:

    But, but, they’re STILL cockroaches!

    Comparing politicians to cockroaches is insulting to cockroaches.

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