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January 5, 2005

Inevitability and Marriage, One Step Removed

Well, there's frustration all around, I guess. Consider Jonathan Rauch on Marriage Debate Blog (emphasis his):

My biggest frustration in this debate is that I can't get opponents of SSM to focus on the potential risks to marriage of not having SSM. How will the culture interpret that? I agree that words and symbols matter, and if we don't have SSM, a couple of decades from now politically sensitive people (not just on the left) will avoid the word "marriage" because it will connote discrimination. They won't talk about "husbands" and "wives" at all, because that's non-inclusive language.

Everyone will just be "partners." As George F. Will likes to admonish conservatives, "Cultural change is autonomous." I'm not saying Maggie should accept SSM as inevitable. It isn't. I'm saying that if we don't have SSM, the culture won't stand still. It may bypass marriage.

The denial that he's arguing inevitability is glare on a well-polished prognostication. Rauch may not be insisting that legal redefinition of marriage is inevitable, but he's clearly suggesting that cultural redefinition is. I'd say that it's at least as likely that decisive defeat of the SSM movement would lead its supporters toward advocacy for a gay-focused alternative.

If they succeed, the culture will subsequently internalize the reasons for the different institutions (not meaning discrimination) and marriage will have found renewed strength through the challenge. Moreover, homosexuals' unions may be better able to draw on the relevant expressions and expectations of marriage (which Rauch has claimed as his motivation for SSM advocacy) than if they are part of a movement that has just succeeded in erasing a difference as profound as the ability to procreate.

This outcome — if the push for SSM fails — seems much more likely to me, given broader trends in American culture, than Rauch's prediction, which relies on the continued expansion of social radicalism.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 5, 2005 9:36 PM
Marriage & Family
Comments

I have recently predicted that we are on the verge of a marriage renaissance in the US, and a sharp decline in the divorce rate. Not because we did or did not allow SSM, but because the issue has forced us to have a long national conversation about what marriage is, what it isn't, and why it's so important in the first place. When that long-forgotten wisdom is brought back into the cultural conciousness, people cannot help but treat the institution with more seriousness.

Posted by: Marty at January 6, 2005 8:57 AM

"My biggest frustration in this debate is that I can't get opponents of SSM to focus on the potential risks to marriage of not having SSM. How will the culture interpret that? I agree that words and symbols matter, and if we don't have SSM, a couple of decades from now politically sensitive people (not just on the left) will avoid the word 'marriage' because it will connote discrimination. They won't talk about 'husbands' and 'wives' at all, because that's non-inclusive language."

Perhaps my analogy is a bit extreme, but isn't that argument a lot like what would be made by a kidnapper holding a knife to his hostage's throat and ready to put the blame on the hostage's family for his death if they don't meet the criminal's demands?

Notice also the failure to... well... to discriminate. Not all discrimination is wrong. In fact, much discrimination has been mandated by laws or rules passed by supposed liberals. So, the alleged argument also fails because it neglects to make necessary distinctions.

Posted by: ELC at January 6, 2005 1:04 PM

Actually, ELC, I kind of like your analogy. But I think Rauch's point is not that the family should take the blame for the hostage's death, but that they should seriously think about the possibility that if they don't meet the kidnapper's demands, their family member will be dead. If the family goes into the situation not thinking that there are any risks in refusing to pay the ransom, they might wind up with a dead relative.

But the way you hear the SSM-opponents talk about it, there are no risks. They can't even fathom them. Maybe the way they see it, the kidnapper is a weakling with a tiny little pocketknife and they can overpower him easily and don't have to consider the ransom. But he still has a knife and someone's still going to get hurt. And it's quite possible that the hostage could still get killed.

Posted by: Michael at January 6, 2005 6:04 PM

Actually Michael, I think you just made ELC's case with a glimpse of the thought process that goes along with it.

Posted by: smmtheory at January 7, 2005 12:08 PM

I'm not sure I'm following the analogy in the discussion here. Is the argument that those who support SSM have already severely damaged marriage, so we should give in to their demands or they'll damage it further?

I'm surely not the first to say this, but this and many other pro-SSM arguments would be far more convincing if they were tied to serious proposals to strengthen marriage. But every pro-SSM argument I can recall reading has been either explicitly destructive or at best neutral about SSM's destructive potential.

To cast this in this discussion's analogy, whether you give in to the kidnapper's demands depends on what effect you think that will have on his future behavior. Giving him some money may free the hostagres, or it may encourage him to keep them and demand more money, or kidnap them again later. Paying the kidnapper may also encourage others to try kidnapping.

This is where the old polygamy, bestiality, and incest (PB&I) argument comes in. We have no reason to believe that the destruction of sexual mores will stop with SSM. We have every reason to believe that various other sexual minorities are watching SSM closely for encouragement and strategy. Polygamists have already sued for legalization using SSM arguments.

Pay the current kidnappers and all you'll get is more kidnapping.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at January 7, 2005 3:11 PM

just as tangential anecdote, one of the SSM couples married in MA has already filed for SSDivorce.

Posted by: Alessandra at January 8, 2005 7:18 PM

Also, as lots of people have commented, homo activists don´t really have a goal of SSM in itself, SSM is just part of the way to get total social approval for everything else in homosexuality and stifle any anti-homosexual criticism and also SScouple´s adoption of children.

The last I head, in all countries where SSM became legal, the numbers of homos that actually marry legally is very low.

Posted by: Alessandra at January 8, 2005 7:25 PM

Pay the current kidnappers and all you'll get is more kidnapping.

Correct. But the way that I took the analogy is that if you don't pay the kidnappers (ie give gays marriage), which may be the best strategy, you might still end up damaging what you were trying to protect, ie the hostage (or marriage). This isn't to say that SSM would necessarily be good (although I of course think that personally) but that by not allowing SSM there will be negative consequences. They might not be as severe as the negative consequences of allowing it, but to pretend that there are no negative consequences is akin to believing that if you don't pay those kidnappers, the hostage will fine. You have to admit the possibility that he might get hurt.

I think Rauch makes very valid points about the discriminatory nature of a country without SSM. It's very possible that people will shy away from using the terms husband and wife, or marriage. Or if marriage isn't available for all, many people might choose civil unions over marriage. Then half the country will be married and the other half won't be and is that the goal of the so-called "marriage protection" movement? You might not think it's likely, but it's still a possibility.

So it's not so much that the *kidnapper* is blaming the family for the death of the hostage because they didn't give into the demands. It's the family being surprised that the hostage is dead when they should have known full well that it was a possibility.

Posted by: Michael at January 10, 2005 3:27 PM
It's very possible that people will shy away from using the terms husband and wife, or marriage.

I don't know. This isn't meant to suggest a deep alignment, but the "spousification" of marital terminology seems to me to be turning around, just as the happy-holiday-ification is turning around for Christmas. Cultural trends appear to be in the other direction, at this time.

But even so, I have to wonder what the difference would be. With SSM, the words "husband" and "wife" will expand beyond current usage (beyond utility, in my view). Currently, one implies the other; even though SSM advocates dispute this, both imply a leaning toward procreation; and both still carry their religious connotations for much of the society. In a culture with SSM, it seems to me that they would drift toward a gendered version of "spouse" anyway (meaning "person who is married").

Whatever the case, you're still relying on argument from inevitability and, frankly, that tack has the air of an attempt to distract from merits and delude the public.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 10, 2005 3:41 PM

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the kidnap analogy is off kilter. Maybe it would be better to make this analogy...

The opponents of SSM are walking down the street with an aged grand-parent (marriage) that faints and falls to the ground. While the grand-child is trying to revive their grand-parent, a total stranger runs up and claims they can heal the fallen person by hacking away at the groin.

Is the grand-child suppose to believe the total stranger?

Posted by: smmtheory at January 10, 2005 8:37 PM

But even so, I have to wonder what the difference would be. With SSM, the words "husband" and "wife" will expand beyond current usage (beyond utility, in my view).

I don't see exactly how. Maybe in the limited sense of the phrase "the husband and the wife", where you're not entirely sure whether the husband or the wife are married to each other or to someone else. But English relies a lot on context anyway. I cannot think of another situation in which it "husband" (def. male spouse) and "wife" (def. female spouse) would lose utility if SSM occurs.

If you, as a stranger, said to me "My wife gave me a book", I would make the immediate assumption that you were heterosexual and married to a woman. If I replied, "My husband gave me a book, too", you would presumably make the assumption that i was homosexual and married to a man.

We wouldn't, however, be able to make any assumptions as to whether or not either one of us had only a civil marriage, a Catholic marriage, a Jewish marriage, a polygamous marriage, whether or not we had children, were married for a long time or a short time, etc.

But you can't make those assumptions now without SSM. But if I told you my partner gave me a book for my birthday, you would have no idea if we were gay, straight, married, living together or just co-workers. Marriage still implies life-long monogamous commitment. And husband and wife still imply marriage.

and both still carry their religious connotations for much of the society

So we're legislating on preferred connotations now? The definitions of "husband" and "wife" will not change, especially in their gender differences. But of course connotations differ, temporally and geographically. If this were the fifties and you referred to your wife, it would connote that she was unemployed and raising your children. In a heavily Catholic area it would connote that you were married in the church.

And I think this is a thoroughly relevent discussion and that dealing with connotations is important, since anti-SSM people tend to bring up the changing definition of marriage and the importance of words for this debate (otherwise there would be significantly less of a debate). But are you trying to preserve meanings or connotations? Because one is valid and the other isn't. A husband, no matter how you slice it, will still be a male spouse.

You said that using the term husband implies a wife. But since we're talking about utility, show me where the meaning of husband, in an actual sentence and context, becomes useless. "I am a husband"? When does anyone ever say that? It is usually the person speaking who refers to his/her spouse.

Posted by: Michael at January 11, 2005 2:56 PM

I made a point — which wasn't even the most significant point of my comment — and provided three suggestions by way of explanation; it seems that you set about attacking the explanations using whatever rhetoric you could think of, even if it drew on context utterly irrelevant to the point. To repeat:

With SSM, the words "husband" and "wife" will expand beyond current usage (beyond utility, in my view). The current usage includes the following, which provide much of the utility of the word:
  1. One implies the other
  2. Both imply a leaning toward procreation
  3. Both still carry their religious connotations for much of the society

In a culture with SSM, it seems to me that they would drift toward a gendered version of "spouse" anyway (meaning "person who is married").

You responded to this primarily with reference to the mechanics of English, essentially saying that context would make it different from "spouse" because one could thereby determine gender. Well, that's what I said. Moreover, I said it, responding to the suggestion that we might stop using the terms "husband" and "wife," by way of saying "so what," because the terms would become gendered versions of spouse. Your response? "A husband, no matter how you slice it, will still be a male spouse."

The second piece of explanation you skipped entirely. And for the third, you inexplicably made this a discussion about what we should legislation.

Perhaps I wasn't clear that my point was meant to be more existential than linguistic. What does it mean to be a husband, as opposed to being a spouse? What would it mean, assuming you already knew the gender of my significant other that I refer to her as a "wife" rather than a "spouse"?

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 11, 2005 4:52 PM