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Tag Archive: Egalitarianism

Gay Marriage and the Handicapped Parking Spot Problem: A Parable

Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2010 (9:25 pm), by John W Gillis


Once upon a time, a certain society made a conscious decision to confer a particular benefit upon a specific segment of the population: the rationale being that people with various physical ailments encountered particular hardships when attempting to access various public places, because of the long distances they often needed to locomote themselves after parking their cars in parking lots and garages – their physical ailments and disorders making such treks tedious, and sometimes even dangerous. As a remedy to this perceived problem, the society – let’s call it Liberstan – decided to require the designation of a certain amount of choice parking spots for these citizens in all public parking areas, creating a phenomena known as handicapped parking spots.

Despite the occasional cheat, the program worked pretty well for a number of years. People who experienced difficulty walking could obtain placards or special license plates identifying them as legitimate beneficiaries of this perk, which in turn better enabled them to participate in public activities with their neighbors. Most able-bodied citizens respected the handicapped parking privilege, but human nature being what it is, not everyone did. Usurpers of the privileged parking, when caught, would have their cars towed, and would be subjected to fines. This punishment deterred most people, but it unfortunately eventually inflamed the passions of a small group of fully able-bodied citizens who felt wronged by the situation.

These citizens – let’s call them Samers – insisted that conferring this privilege on the other group of citizens amounted to iniquity toward themselves, reasoning that all drivers desiring public parking places should have equal rights to the choice spots. The Samers were offended that some people were being privileged while they were not, because the Samers were egalitarians; their definition of egalitarian being “everyone’s the same.” And, boy, they prized those choice parking spots.

Critics argued that having a physical handicap legitimately qualified the so-called handicapped for such a privilege, since it merely made it easier for them to engage in activities common to the rest of the citizenry; it leveled the playing field somewhat.

This sounded like a difficult argument for the Samers to overcome, but, boy, they prized those choice parking spots. So they were faced with a tactical problem: would their aim using the choice parking spots be better served by arguing honestly against the legitimacy of the policy of privileged parking spots for particular people (a legitimate policy question, even if transparently mean-spirited), or by undermining the intent of the policy through subterfuge, dissembling, and sophistry? Well, wasn’t that a no-brainer…

“Nobody’s perfect,” the ensuing counter-argument proclaimed: “hence we all have some sort of handicap, and it is therefore discriminatory to withhold choice-spot parking rights from citizens who are merely differently handicapped than those who have been historically privileged by this policy. Citizens Unite! Equal Parking Rights!”

The ensuing controversy was soon heard by a judge who, being far more clever than wise, and easily enthralled by reason that seems to emanate from penumbra, was delighted to find himself flummoxed by the Samers’ argumentation, and who decided that parking equality was an idea long overdue. Soon, people with any kind of handicap – that is, anyone who was not a physically perfect specimen, which meant… well, everybody – converged upon the RMV to pick up their special Handicapped Person placards, and the choice parking spots were finally available to everyone equally, regardless of handicap type. Furthermore, it quickly became a “hate crime” to question anybody’s claim to handicap status: “we’re all handicapped, and that simple truth unites us in a global brotherhood that just might somehow sow the seed of permanent peace and understanding among peoples.”

Now, some quicker thinking readers might at this point be predicting a logistical complication to the story. After all, if, say, 5 percent of the population previously had handicapped parking privileges, and 5 percent or so of the available parking spaces were accordingly designated as handicapped parking spots, how could these spots possibly accommodate the ninety-five percent of the population that was now legally handicapped? [In any population, it is fair to assume at least 5 percent of the people will not debase themselves by participating in such a self-serving scheme, but once the perks start to flow, most everybody else will.]

Well, not to worry: there’s no problem here a little paint can’t fix. The solution, of course, is to designate a full ninety-five percent of the available parking spaces for privileged handicapped parking. This not only allows everyone who desires it to enjoy the privileges of handicapped parking spots, but has the added social benefit of exiling those obnoxious, self-righteous troublemakers – who make up the recalcitrant 5 percent of non-conformists – to the far reaches of all parking areas. Equality wins out over bigotry again.

The moral of the story is that the kind of moralistic bullying engaged in by the “Samers” produces losers, but no real winners. You begin with a legitimate benefit, but end up with an anti-benefit for a minority of well-behaved people, and a loss of benefit for those whom good reason had once privileged. If the argument over “equality” could have been made in honest terms, the once-good-reasoned privilege could have been examined rationally and reasonably, and a good-reasoned decision could have been made to continue or terminate the privilege of the genuinely handicapped. But by using subterfuge to eliminate the once-privileged distinction (the state of being handicapped) by changing the definition of the criteria upon which the benefit distinction was made, reason was undermined by demagoguery.

With 95% of parking spaces marked as privileged, and 95% of the population eligible for the privilege, the idea of privilege becomes absurd. More to the point, so does the idea of handicap. By equivocating on the meaning of handicap, the antagonists are able to do sufficient violence to the meaning of the term as to render it impossible to use as a differentiator between those who face serious difficulties in accessing public places and those who don’t, despite the fact that the term was initially intended to mean precisely that. This not only all but eliminates the opportunities for the truly needy to park in the truly choice spaces, but makes it impossible to even have an intelligent discussion about the problem – at least using the term “handicapped,” which no longer has any distinction (i.e. meaning).

How does this analogy hold up to the case of the “gay marriage” movement?

In an important sense, this parable is more analogous to the question of the legitimacy of civil unions for gays than it is to “gay marriage” – because it turns on legal definitions for political concepts such as social privilege and benefits, whereas marriage is a pre-political institution that cannot in reality be defined by a polity. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate how the question of the political privileging of marriage in society (an early emphasis, one will recall, of the anti-marriage lobby – our own “Samers”) was used as a rhetorical tool to subvert the original intention of the political structure around marriage by a moralistic misrepresentation of the concept of equality, or egalitarianism. Still, the battle over marriage is not about benefits, or any other realm of politics, but about the survival in this present society of the fundamental institution of human decency.

More to the point of the “gay marriage” problem is the example of how the usurpation of the term “handicapped” to mean most anything at all only renders the term meaningless. This is precisely what the “gay marriage” advocates have largely accomplished with the term “marriage” – and note that I put that in the present tense, for this is a political accomplishment that is social in character, not legal, and is largely a fait accompli. The Left has successfully manipulated the terms of the controversy so as to make the arguments of the traditionalists incomprehensible in the ears of many. The looming legal victories, if they come, will simply make it illegal to engage truths that are becoming increasingly difficult for many people to understand, anyway.

It’s true that people are being bullied into abandoning the idea that marriage is different from other sexual unions out of fear of being called bigots, but they never could have found themselves in such a vulnerable position unless they had already lost the ability to see the differentiation for themselves; unless they were already prepared to believe that marriage is no more than an honorific bestowed upon a sexual relationship by some social authority – be it religious or the state.