Saturday, October 21, 2006

THE ETHICAL EQUIVALENT OF MARRIAGE

Today, I’m going to solve the national/cultural dispute over “gay marriage” using the opening anecdote from William James’s essay “What Pragmatism Means.” The anecdote involves an argument about a man, a squirrel, a tree and the meaning of the word “around” and I need to quote it for you in full:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

Although one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ‘round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.

I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? – material or spiritual? – here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.


What does this have to do with marriage? Consider that the debate over gay marriage is nothing more than a fight over the definition of the word marriage. If by marriage you mean “a union between two consenting adults, not related by blood, whereby they agree to love each other and treat each other as a single functioning unit within a larger community; and whereby said larger community also agrees to treat them as such, bestowing on them such benefits (e.g. the sharing of insurance and estate benefits, visitation rights, etc) as will make the maintenance of their union as easy as possible” then you are “in favor” of “gay marriage.” If, on the other hand, you mean by marriage “a union between a man and a woman, not related by blood, whereby they agree to love each other and treat each other as a single functioning unit within a larger community; and whereby said larger community also agrees to treat them as such, bestowing on them such benefits (e.g. the sharing of insurance and estate benefits, visitation rights, etc) as will make the maintenance of their union as easy as possible” then you are “against gay marriage”. That’s it.

By these definitions, you could be quite easily FOR “a union between two men or two women, not related by blood, whereby they agree to love each other and treat each other as a single functioning unit within a larger community; and whereby said larger community also agrees to treat them as such, bestowing on them such benefits (e.g. the sharing of insurance and estate benefits, visitation rights, etc) as will make the maintenance of their union as easy as possible” and still be AGAINST “gay marriage”. In this case, you would tell people, you are “for civil unions.” Here we might use James’s pragmatic method to sort out the argument likely to ensue when I call “a union between two men or two women” as described above marriage and you call that union “a civil union.” (Here we are presuming that the legal benefits bestowed on these unions by local, state and federal governments are identical.) James might say, “We are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the noun ‘marriage’ in one practical fashion or the other. But since we both seem to agree that me and my wife on the one hand and the two men over here on the other should receive exactly the same legal recognition, assistance and protection from the community at large, then, since no practical difference whatever can be traced, the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.” If this pragmatic line of argumentation proves convincing, then we will have cobbled together a veto-proof majority out of those people who believe gays and lesbian should have the legal right to marry, and those who believe gays and lesbians should have the legal right to enter into civil unions. [Note: There are those of course who don’t believe that gay and lesbian couples should have ANY partnering rights whatsoever, not even those rights afforded to long-time un-married straight couples. But those people have already given up the game: they have gone beyond the rhetorical position, “I am defending ‘marriage’” to the position “I am against gays and lesbians as such.” These citizens are, polls show, in the minority.]

There are however some problems with the logic and approach proposed above. These problems are related to the way the word “marriage” and its cognate verb “marry” function in our culture as symbolic action. Even if the social and economic rights of married people and people in civil unions were identical (as far as local, state and federal law were concerned), those who were “married” would still benefit from that designation relative to those in civil unions. In our culture, marriage continues to imply (within certain margins of error) specific levels of piousness, stability, long-term planning (because of its association with children, grandchildren), fidelity and trustworthiness. (We are talking here of course about connotation, not about the actual behavior of married people.) Hence, people who have to answer, in a variety of institutional contexts, the question, “Are you married” with “No I am in a civil union” are being put in the awkward position of having to participate in their own othering and in the depreciation of their social worth. The very structure of that answer –– which presumes a norm from which all other answers are a deviation (and which effectively reads the answer “single” as “not yet married”) –– forces them to designate themselves as, to one degree or another, LESS pious, LESS stable, LESS interested in or able to plan for the future, LESS loyal, LESS trustworthy.

Self-styled “defenders of marriage” tend to emphasize its role in Christian theology and practice: specifically that marriage is a Christian sacrament and that various Biblical narratives make clear (so the argument goes) that marriage is “between a man and a woman.” By a dexterous act of sophistry, their rhetoric tends to suggest that to re-define marriage in our civil institutions would be to re-write The Bible. It is a logically specious but nonetheless powerful argument in a nation where the majority of citizens flatter themselves through religious observance. The word “marriage” comes from the Latin “maritare” (to wed), derived from “maritus” (basically “conjugal,” a seemingly neutral meaning as in “to yoke together” except for the additional etymological connection to “mas,” male [or “person”]). Being Latin, it precedes Christianity by hundreds of years at least. The idea that the word means to us what it meant to Cicero or Virgil, Juvenal or Pliny is absurd. But I think trying enact lawful, protected and respected gay marriage in the United States by telling its detractors that they have no idea what the word marriage means is a hopeless strategy. Witness the zombie-like way in which our political office holders and candidates (including many of those we would otherwise define as “liberal”) answer the gay marriage question by repeating, “I simply believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.” But why? “I just believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.” Why? “I was brought up to believe it.” Couldn’t you change your mind? “I simply believe it.” “It’s my faith.” “It’s an important tradition.” Important how? “It’s what I believe.” To argue that marriage is NOT limited to the union of a man and a woman is to repeatedly butt up against an unbreakable tautology. The Right has come to OWN the word “marriage” –– not least because, truth be told, the Left (myself included) doesn’t actually CARE that much about the word, except insofar as we don’t like being told that we can’t use it the way we want to.

I believe I may have found a way around this impass. I propose that state legislatures begin enacting the following law:

“We, the People of the State of X, agree to recognize a union between two consenting adults, not related by blood, whereby these two agree to love each other and treat each other as a single functioning unit within a larger community; and whereby we, said larger community, also agrees to treat them as such, bestowing on them such benefits (e.g. the sharing of insurance and estate benefits, visitation rights, etc) as will make the maintenance of their union as easy as possible, such rights being exactly commensurate with the rights and benefits we, The People of the State of X, currently bestow on the union known as marriage. This new union described above shall henceforth be known as ‘merriage.’ All laws, customs and practices relevant to the licensing of marriage in this state shall henceforth also apply to the licensing of merriage with the single notable exception that all references to ‘marriage’ will be replaced by references to ‘merriage.’”

What would happen if a state enacted this law? Gay couples could get “merried” but straight couples could as well. Some straight couples would in fact CHOOSE to be merried instead of being married, making merriage a new solidarity movement. The legal effect would be no different than enacting a good, comprehensive Civil Unions law. But the cultural effect would be something more. Gay and straight couples in the movement would now be uttering sentences like: “I’m merried.” “He’s merried to my brother.” “She’s merried to my cousin Lisa.” “We’re related by merriage.” “We were merried last October.” The sonic semblance between “married” and “merried” would function like a piece of comic theater or social satire on a vast scale, making those who cared listen REALLY hard for that minor distinction in sound, calculating in the regional accent factor, asking the absurd question, “Did you say married or merried,” etc. If all the conversants were in fact not hung up on the definition of “marriage” in the first place, the benefit would be a practical erasure of the self-othering aspect of the term “civil union”. [Note: I have chose “merriage” over a second option “mariage” with one r because a) I think “marriage” with one r, being pronounced exactly like “marriage” might lend itself to more obvious court challenges than “merriage” which is clearly a different word; and b) because “merriage” is a play on “merry marriage” which in turn is a play on both “gay marriage” and on the notion of a so-called “happy marriage.”]

Best of all, though, is this likely outcome: that the American Right, sensing that “merriage” was a new example of barbarians storming the gate, would be forced to argue, in Congress and in court and on every other national stage, that the State cannot legally determine the meaning of the word “merriage”. This, despite the fact that, according to these same folks, Congress has every right in the world to legally “defend” the word “marriage” by defining it. Additionally, all politicians that have claimed support for Civil Unions as a means to position themselves as “moderates” while stonewalling gay marriage and its attendant civil rights would be forced in opposing “merriage” to –– ahem –– come out of the closet as explicitly anti-homosexual. Someone that has claimed to be in favor of civil unions could not logically claim to be against “merriage” without confessing that what one is “defending” when one defends “marriage” from re-definition is not an institution, not a social and/or religious tradition but rather a recognizable and revered pattern of sounds.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would agree. In fact, I would like to see us renew our merriage vows. That would allow us to celebrate our more perfect union without weighing in on the side of judgement, masquerading as piety. Thanks for your solution.

October 22, 2006 at 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations passes the "BluestFist Law", the author will just have to officiate our Merriage! T&B

p.s. Interestingly, Rhode Island's gay marriage lobbying group is called...MERI.

October 22, 2006 at 7:45 PM  

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