Monday, August 23, 2004

Definition, Semantics and Future of Marriage


During the pre-primary period (roughly August 2003 - January 2004) much interesting discussion transpired on the Edwards campaign blog. The subject of gay marriage kept cropping up over and over again. The debate was quite heated as Edwards supporters spanned a broad spectrum, from very lefty gay activists all the way to quite conservative ex-Republicans. This is combo of a couple of my posts started on November 09, 2003:


The thousand provisions in various laws are not favoring just hetero- over homo-sexual marriage. It also favores a particular, narrowly defined type of relationship over all others, including over living alone. That narrow definition of marriage contains several criteria: 1) church-sanctioned, 2) state-sanctioned, 3) monogamous, 4) exclusive, 5) heterosexual, 6) fertile, 7) indefinite (till death do us part).

Roots of these criteria are complex: biological, historical, social, religious, political and economic. Recent book by Laura Kipnis "Against Love", although brilliantly-written and very thought provoking, is deficient because it stresses the economic and ignores other factors. Vast increase in life-span, invention of contraceptives, cures for most STDs, gender equality, increasing secularity, as well as economic forces are making the 7 criteria obsolete, whether you like it or not. Marriage is not about inheritance along patriarchal line any more. It is not about the first son inheriting the family farm. With 1/4 billion people in the US now, there is a wide variety of needs and wants people have regarding relationships. Many marriages are not church-sanctioned any more. Getting hitched in the courthouse is quite acceptable these days (that was not always the case). There were always infertile couples, but only recently it has become acceptable for a couple to DECIDE not to have kids. Living together with no state sanctioning is also not a no-no any more (it is legally the same as marriage in places like Sweden). Divorce has become common-place and, although it is still set up to be costly and painful, is mostly not perceived as sin any more. Actually, serial monogamy is quickly becoming the norm. Cheating has been going on since the beginning of time, because the marriages were arranged for economic reasons, nobody expected to find love in marriage, nobody connected sex with love, so people naturally found love (with or without sex) outside of marriage. It is only in this century that we started to expect the equation marriage = love = sex to be true. Every time any of these criteria started being eroded, there was an outcry from the social conservatives, but you can not stop these changes. Gay relationships, as marriage or not, are the current fight. When that is over, just wait and see, we'll be fighting over polygamy vs. monogamy!!! I bet, within 50 years or so, the definition of marriage is going to become so vague, the variety of types of marriages and other relationships is going to be so large, and legal (financial) differences between all types of relationships erased from the books, we will not have this kind of issue to discuss at all. It will transform itself into a much broader discussion about varieties of human experience, for better or for worse, you decide.

Why all the fuss about gay marriage, or marriage "tax penalty"? What is marriage? How should one define it? I think there are several criteria for a relationship to be considered a "marriage".

1) Humanity. Marriage is reserved for human beings. Performing a wedding ceremony for a pair of dogs does not make them married. No matter what a guy and his sheep do at night in the barn, they cannot get married. I do not see this criterion being questioned or eroded any time soon. However, if Neanderthals survived and evolved in parallel with us, developing comparable intelligence and comparable civilization, I bet you a dollar this would be a big issue right now. The churches would be against, yet many people would be for inter-species marriage. The odds are very long, but if we ever ancounter alien humanoids, this issue will raise its head. Until then, I think this aspect is in no danger of cultural erosion any time soon.

2) Indefiniteness. Till Death Do Us Part! Marriage is supposed to be for life. This also means that one cannot marry someone who is already dead. In extension, this also means one cannot marry someone who is not born yet, or, importantly, someone who is not "marriage-ready", i.e., of appropriate age. I doubt that necrophiliacs and pedophiles will ever try a push for a change in the definition of marriage towards their lifestyle choices. However, on the other end, the indefiniteness is already pretty much gone. Divorce is legal and happens to more than half of the marriages in this country as well as in many other countries in the world. This is to be expected. Never in our evolutionary history did we live so long. Instead of 30 years, we now live, on average, about 75 years. And that average is calculated using the numbers that include infant deaths, soldiers killed in action, young victims of violent crime or traffic accidents etc. If those are excluded, the average gets to be higher than 80 years. As we have never lived this long before, evolution had no opportunity to act on our propensity to pair-up for life. Instead of mating, raising kids and dying, we now linger on for many more decades after the kids are gone. Quite a unique siuation in human history. We are not designed to be in such a long relationship. As there was no natural selection on this trait, there is expected to exist a great amount of variation on it in the human population today. This means that we can expect to see a whole range, from very short-lived to practically indefinite relationships and everything in-between. Serial monogamy has already become the norm, and will be so even more in the future, once the stigma of divorce dissappears completely.

3) Monogamy. Marriage is supposed to be between two people. Although polygyny and polyandry have been practiced in many places and at many times in human history, it is out of style today. It may come back, though. Be prepared!

4) Fertility. Marriage is supposed to lead to progeny. The main reason the institution exists is to ensure inheritance of family property. This is no longer the case in most marriages. People do not get married so the family farm can go to the first grandson. There were always infertile couples, but only recently it became acceptable for a couple to DECIDE not to have children. Of course, inventions of The Pill and other contraceptive methods led to the possibility of such a decision being made, as well as a greater ease for adultery.

5) Exclusivity. People who are married are not supposed to copulate with anyone but their marriage partners. However, adultery has been going on since times immemorial. As the institution was based on family economics, nobody expected to find love within marriage, so everyone looked for love outside of marriage, with or without sex. Contraception just made adultery easier, and so do effective prevention and treatments of most STDs. Connection between marriage, love and sex is a recent invention. Wives of old had no problem having sex with husbands they despised, while a love affair need not have involved sex. Due to loss of economic importance of marriage for family lines, as well as more liberal views of the society in general, adultery will be even more usual in the future. Open marriages are going to be more and more attractive to people in the future, as they help towards the indefiniteness of the relationship, i.e., make divorce unnecessary in many cases.

6) Heterosexuality. Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. Gay marriage involves love, as is fashionable now, and involves sex, as is fashionable now. Infertility should be no societal problem any more, particularly in this age of overpopulation, but even that can be overcome with adoption, especially if people stop the foolish belief in genes as all that matters in inheritance. So what’s the problem?

7) Legal advantage. There are 1046 provisions of various laws in the USA that favor married couples over every other type of relationship or lifestyle, including living alone. There is only one provision (the marriage tax penalty) that favors single people over married couples. Most of the fight over gay marriage is really a fight over these legal rights, e.g., to adopt, to make life and death decisions for one another etc. If these provisions are erased from the books, then who cares if you are married or not? A simple signature downtown in the courthouse can give those rights to anyone and everyone who wants them and that is just fine.

8) Church sanction. This is the key to this whole issue. What gay couples want most is the symbolism - white dress, candles and flowers in the church. But, it is no business of State to in any way dictate to any church or denomination who they will or will not marry. Case closed.

So, how shall we define marriage? One solution is to start using the word "marriage" for relationships that are not adhering to the most traditional definition. As each of the criteria listed above slowly erodes, the meaning of marriage will be lost. We are about to allow gays to be married, who knows what is next and next and next. Conservatives draw a line at the traditional marriage, liberals at gay marriage, but if you want to follow the logic to the end, every conceivable type of relationships between two or more humans should be called marriage, thus rendering the term meaningless and useles. The other solution is to reserve the term marriage only for the most traditional form of it: monogamous, heterosexual, indefinite, Church-sanctioned etc. That leaves people with other needs and wants with a term "civil union". This term can cover EVERYTHING else, not just gay marriage: polygamy, open marriage, serial monogamy, self-love etc. As long as no law makes a difference between and among all kinds of relationships everything is fine and everyone is happy. And one can also have a choice between a simple signature (and a fee) in front of a clerk of a court, or the baloons, drunk best men, and big white cakes. That should be a personal choice anyway.

To clarify why I think the word "marriage" is tricky: it is a religious term. First marriages were performed in Babylon by priests and, ever since then, the institution was always under provenance of a church. Thus, only the church has a right to define what it means. Under Separation of Church and State clause in the USA, the State has no business telling the various churches and denominations how to define marriage.

For a long time, the only kind of marriage was the 'traditional' one, thus the paper you signed in the courthouse after your church wedding is called 'marriage licence'. That is quite an unfortunate mix of terms. Religion is the most conservative institution in any society. It always takes years, decades, sometimes centuries for church teachings to catch up with the general progress of the society. The paper you sign downtown should be called something else and 'civil union' sounds just fine. The point is that, no matter what kind of relationship, if any, you want to have with another human being, you should have equal rights under law - to inherit, to adopt children, to make decisions about taking a person off life-support, etc. Insisting on calling it a marriage is misguided. Gays who want to get married by a priest should appeal to their churches, not the State. On the other hand, equal rights to all people, no matter what type of relationship (or living alone) they are in, should be guaranteed by the State, as that is the provenance of the government, not the Church.

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