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The End of an Old Trend Often Looks Like the Beginning of a New One

Lane Core quotes from a New York Times editorial that contains a factoid that I've heard quite a bit over the past couple of days:

In recent years, support for gay rights has sharply increased. A newly released poll found that although most Americans oppose gay marriage, views vary a lot by age. Older people oppose it 4 to 1, while young respondents are equally divided. That strongly suggests that eventually the views expressed by the Massachusetts court will be widely held. And Americans will come to regard this week's decision as they now do Loving v. Virginia — as a statement of the obvious.

The 4-to-1 versus 50-50 statistic is top-of-mind for those who support gay marriage, and as does the Times, they see it as evidence that gay marriage is in our future. But the language used for the statistics ought to perk up eyebrows; what are the cut-off points for "older" and "younger"? The first AP report to cite the study claims that opposition "grew steadily as people's age increased."

But perusing the actual Pew poll, one comes across this line graph of the actual results, which illustrates that the AP's view of "steady" is inaccurate to the point of being misleading. (Particularly if my suspicion is correct that a five-year "moving average" will tend to smooth out the curve.) Opposition to gay marriage shoots up almost 30% from those aged 32 to those aged 39; it then stabilizes among fortysomethings, dropping back down to about 55% (with some turbulence) by the early/mid 50s, but climbing back in the late 50s; it then climbs another 25% by 70 and plummets 30% from ages 70 to 80, before making up much of that loss by age 85.

Either a view of increasing conservatism with age or a gradual change in acceptance of homosexuality would seem to merit a smoother line. To make some sense out of these slopes, we have to consider that there are two ways to consider age-based data: as indicative of historical cultural trends, or as indicative of a single-person's lifeline. Although both are important in all cross-sections, I'd suggest that the significance of the lifeline view fades with age, while the significance of the historical view increases. For one thing, older people have been "formed" and "settled" for longer. For another, younger people are more in the midst, so to speak, of the cultural change, so they'll track more closely to the cultural elite's position on the issue itself.

Frankly, my historical knowledge is sufficiently lacking that I'm a bit puzzled by the huge drop in opposition among those who came of age in the 1940s. From personal experience, my sense is that people in this age group are more amenable to the comparison of the gay marriage movement to civil rights issues, seeing it in light of their generational experience with the Holocaust and racial segregation in the United States. This would seem to find some support in the fact that uncertainty (as indicated by the "don't know" line) shoots up from almost 0% to almost 30% for this age group.

More important to the future of the issue of gay marriage, however, are those born after 1940. Within this limited field, the largest dip in opposition comes among those in their late 40s to early 50s. This is the group of people who were born around 1950 — Boomers who hit college-age just at the ripe part of the 1960s. This is also the group that began coming into power in the early 1990s, when the push for gay civil rights really picked up steam... with increasingly ratcheted support from cultural elites.

It seems to me that their onslaught would have hit hardest among those in their 20s and early 30s, the same group, as it happens, that is evenly divided. I can't say for sure, but I would opine that this factor has gone a long way toward keeping opposition among this group so much below the middle line around which everybody else seems to hover. The question that I entered into this analysis to address is what this means for their future opinions.

Well, of course, the greatest determination will be what happens over the next decade or so. Nonetheless, if we assume that the lifeline, as opposed to the historical, analysis is strongest among this group, some hope emerges for conservatives: Uncertainty, here, is higher than for any other section under 70 years of age. Moreover, the "don't know" line more or less increases with age, before dropping dramatically among early thirtysomethings — the very same group that initiates the nearly 30% climb in opposition to gay marriage.

We can't put too much weight on this single poll — or on any polls for that matter. Society is in constant flux. But it seems to me at least plausible that, as this group enters into full adulthood — with all of the experiences and responsibilities that it entails — it will rebound to at least the median line. My own opinion, as a conservative Catholic convert who is still a few years away from the age at which the opposition to gay marriage currently takes off, is that mine will prove to be the most socially conservative generation that the country has seen in many decades.

Once we've fully shaken off the cultural dictates of the Boomer establishment, we'll see the fantasies through clarity provided by first-hand experience of their repercussions. No illusions have we. We have witnessed the horrible results that wishful-thinking weakness can beget, crystallized in attacks that killed or threatened many of our number. We are finding religion only to experience the scorn of our nation's elite. We are watching as popular culture hits the bottom and begins clawing at it, and while high culture and academia drift off into palpable nonsense.

All of us could have been aborted on a whim; some of us will learn, or have learned, that our siblings were. The wet dreams of our parents have been saturated with danger for us; we've felt that cold sweat when the blood results arrived. Our parents have divorced — some to enter into homosexual relationships.

To be sure, none of this belongs on the shoulders of people who are gay. Yet, it falls there because so much of it comes together in the issues in which they are involved. Mine has learned from previous generations that people ought to be free to live in ways with which we disagree. However, we have seen for ourselves that this freedom taken too far begins to affect us all, that the society does have legitimate claims on behavior the public sphere.

No honest thinker can deny that deception and delusion abound as our cultural pendulum swings out beyond the supporting beams of society. We who are "equally divided" have a central perch from which to watch attempts to sweep away a tradition that we are just beginning to explore, with the speed of change apparently justified on the basis of some strange fairy tale about a world without consequences.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 12:03 AM EST