At the Courage Campaign liveblogging of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Brian Leubitz shows us this blog post from Prop 8 counsel:
What is at stake in the Perry case is not just the right of California voters to reaffirm the definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman; a federal court decision overturning Proposition 8 could also ultimately nullify the people’s vote on marriage in 45 states and the federal Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996.
This brings me to my third (and presumably final) fisking of the arguments against marriage equality. As I said before, there are three basic categories of opposition to same-sex marriage, distinct from homophobia in general: children, religion, and tradition/definition. Everything else is indistinguishable from discrimination in general against sexual minorities. So, now I’m going to talk about marriage as a tradition and definition.
To say that marriage is traditionally defined as between a man and a woman sounds like the epistemological equivalent of a deepity, a coinage by Prof. Daniel Dennett defined approximately thus: a deepity is a statement with two meanings; one which is true but superficial, the other which appears profound but is in fact meaningless.
Don’t quote me on “deepity,” I might be using the term entirely inappropriately, but this particular argument against marriage equality is unique in that I don’t dispute the facts qua facts, I dispute their significance. It is partly true but entirely superficial, sounds deep but proves meaningless. It is the only category of opposition to equality that is not based on utter falsehood, yet it still depends on reinforcement from other objections.
If the argument is that we cannot make changes to the social institution of marriage because it’s been an unchanged tradition for 5000 years (and yes I have seen that number used without irony), then that much is simple: yes we can, and we already have. There is no unchanged tradition of marriage that any culture recognizable to most Americans has been using for 5000 years. I suppose there could be some primitive cultures in some remote corners of the world that have been marrying the same way for that many years or longer, but those cultures and those customs are a non-factor in American family life. Polygyny sounds like a good idea for a powerful man who wants to leave a load of descendants, but (most of) our ancestral cultures began to eschew the practice in favor of the more sustainable model of monogamy within the last couple of millenia or so. (I say monogamy is more sustainable because when some men take several wives each, then a lot more men never have a chance to marry at all. Polyandry would arguably balance the demographics out, and yet you don’t see polyandry gaining comparable acceptance in the cultures that have practiced polygyny.) For most of recorded history, and still in many parts of the world, marriage was approached as a business transaction in which one main either paid another for his daughter (bride price) or the father paid the bridegroom to take the daughter off his hands (dowry). We don’t accept those practices in the mainstream of American culture. We take for granted the freedom to choose whom we marry, when we do so, and if we do so at all. We frown on child marriage. We have the ability to divorce for no particular reason, and we very frequently do so. We have laws against domestic violence and spousal rape; these are very recent developments. Human cultures have shown, many times and in many ways, that they are more than capable of changing the definition of marriage when the previous definition did not suit their needs.
Why have we made these changes? Because marriage is not a law of nature, it is not a covenant handed down by God and written in stone; it is an institution which human beings developed and which we can just as easily amend and adjust. Most of the changes I’ve outlined above have had the effect of restricting marriage, or at least restricting the power it gives to men: no, you cannot be married to six women at a time, only one; no, you cannot purchase a bride from her father; no, you cannot force your daughter to marry a man she doesn’t like; no, you cannot marry a child; no, you cannot force any of your kids to marry anyone, period; no, you are not required to get married at all; no, you do not have to stay married if you hate your spouse; no, you are not allowed to beat your wife; no, you are not entitled to force your wife to have sex on any basis.
Perhaps the argument from tradition could be that all the major changes that various cultures have made to marriage as a social institution have effectively made it smaller rather than larger. They’ve restricted the size of an allowable marriage (down to two people), changed the incentives (by abandoning dowry and bride price), made it non-compulsory, made it more avoidable and more escapable, made it less life-altering (at least for women, by abandoning coverture), and reduced men’s privilege over their wives (by legislating against spousal abuse and marital rape). The way we approach marriage now is as a legal contract between two–and no more–consenting adults–not children, not coerced–of equal legal status, each of whom is free to initiate a divorce. Legalizing same-sex marriage is a different type of change: it expands marriage by allowing more people to participate. How this is supposed to ruin the institution, or indeed change it at all, for the many heterosexual couples already married, no one has yet given me a comprehensible answer.
The argument from tradition, therefore, is at best a piece of circular logic. Legal same-sex marriage is neither the first nor the most significant change that people have made to the institution. The only “tradition” in need of enforcement here is the tradition of excluding gay and lesbian couples, and why must they be excluded? Traditions are a lot like religions in that you’re not allowed to criticize any but no one ever defends it on logical grounds. “This is our tradition” is supposed to be a valid defense all by itself. It is a fancy way of saying, “This is what we’ve always done.” We can’t let same-sex couples get married because…we’ve always excluded same-sex couples from getting married. Why not? Well, because it’s our tradition! Why is that our tradition? And that is when we start talking about how marriage is for making babies through procreative sex, and only for that (wrong), or how marriage is a religious institution (false), or how gay marriage is a plot to corrupt our children (non-sequitur and ridiculous), or how marriage will be ruined for heterosexual couples (again: how?). There is no slippery slope: the idea of marriage equality giving way to bestiality and child-marriage only makes sense if you think these actions are the moral equivalent of homosexual (adult, consenting) relationships. We made other changes to marriage for their own reasons and those reasons will not change when a further, small percentage of society is allowed to participate.
Even putting history aside, my primary response to the “traditional definition of marriage” argument is: “Who GIVES a flying shit about your DEFINITIONS?” Here we have people who have never in their lives had to wonder what it’s like to be unable to marry the partners of their choosing, who have never had their marriages put up for a popular vote, who have, in short, never had to face the legal and social indignities which are a fact of life for most of America’s gay and lesbian couples, telling us that marriage is not a right. Civil rights are unimportant but an entry in the dictionary is sacred. Fuck that noise. Dictionaries are under revision on a constant basis. Every tradition started somewhere, and when it is oppressive rather than supportive, “tradition” is no longer an excuse.