May 13, 2012

Word Play

One of the constant themes in discussions of same-sex marriage is the "just don't call it 'marriage'" meme — call it a civil union or a domestic partnership. 

Well, as to "union" Websters Unabridged (2d edition 1975) lists as definition 4 of marriage, "Any close or intimate union." The Book of Common Prayer itself refers to marriage as a "union" in its opening exhortation. So all this definitional fuss about "civil marriage" versus "civil union" is not based on any real usage of the terms, but is an effort to introduce a lexical distinction where none exists, or need exist. This is not to say that same-sex marriages and mixed-sex marriages are the same; obviously they differ in one important feature. But the word marriage is big enough to embrace them both.

We have marriages of high-boys with low-boys, as the Keno Twins will testify on "Antiques Roadshow"; laundries regularly marry matching socks, left to right; and Shakespeare argued against the introduction of impediments to the marriage of true minds. The word marriage has needed little expansion, and perhaps only the slightest of redefinitions, in order to cover, as it now does in a number of jurisdictions around the world, couples who happen to be of the same sex.

However, if you want to see a real assault upon language, read some of the tortured efforts to claim that infertile heterosexual couples are still somehow "open to the possibility of procreation" or "in principle capable of generating life" — which does more violence to the meaning of the words possibility, in principle and capable than "same-sex marriage" does to the word marriage.

 Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

17 comments:

idiosyncraticpastor said...

Thou hast a perfect thought.
Shakespeare

Erika Baker said...

I always find it astonishing in Britain, where we have Civil Partnerships that are virtually the same as marriage in terms of the legal rights and responsibilities, people now argue against gay marriage asking us to find a different word for it.

We have a different word, it's Civil Partnership and it's not working. Because neither the Civil Partners nor their friends and families nor, increasingly, the general public use the terminology. Most use husband and wife and talk of being married.
Precisely because of the deep meaning of those words.
Partner, civil or uncivil, just doesn't convey the same meaning.

And our Civil Partnership experiment has shown that it is completely irrelevant what official terms people dream up to cover up their own unease.

Language is a living thing that evolves around how real people use it.

Mariage it is called because marriage it is.

IT said...

Actually, current politics has clearly disproven the "all it anything but marriage" meme. Just look at laws in NC and VA,that seek to outlaw anything that in any way provides remote recognition. Candidate Romney is opposed to civil unions if they offer all the same benefits as marriage. The RC church robustly opposes any attempts to pass civil unions.

And in California, ALL they got was the word "marriage". In allowing PropH8 to stand, the CA supreme court made it clear that all the benefits had to accrue to DPs (domestic partnerships, our version of Civil Unions) even while allowing marriages such as mine to stand.

No, the hate isn't about the word. Their claim that it is, gives them a convenient figleaf for their disdain .

Grandmère Mimi said...

I may somehow be "open to the possibility of procreation" or "in principle capable of generating life", but I would be shocked beyond description if I became pregnant at the ripe age of 77. Honestly, I laughed out loud at the twisted logic, though its not the first time I've heard it. And, of course, there were Sarah and Elizabeth....

Richard Edward Helmer said...

Exactement!

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

A few weeks ago I did a talk on marriage issues and what is coming to General Convention. One man there pulled the "just don't call it marriage meme" and I asked, "Why not?" "Well," he said, "now [this bing in NY state] when someone tells me he is married I can't tell if it is to a man or a woman." The need to categorize seems to be a driving force here -- the need to know the details of a person's private life. And of course that "need" is there because people want to treat others differently based on their perceived class or category. (Hence the strait terror of androgyny or gender-bending.) Sexists want to treat the sexes differently, and heterosexists want to treat people of differing sexual orientations differently.

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

I'm looking forward to the day, which will come, when this particular debate will be thought to have been really realy silly.

Because it really really is.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

BTW, thanks to all for the comments. Charlie, I agree this is a silly notion -- but it keeps coming up. I think, as IT and Erika show here, that it is also a phoney argument. And yet, it keeps being made -- just like the polygamy slide argument, which I hope to address shortly.

Erika Baker said...

Mimi,
for me, the astonishing twist in logic is that it seems to be acceptable, even required to believe in the possibility of a miracle pregnancy for you, but no-one talks about a possible miracle (or nightmare) for me.

I don't know who of us would be more surprised if we became pregnant. But if we must pin our belief in marriage on the possibility that God could grant you another child, why should his miraculous powers not stretch to me having another baby?
You're not the only one with a biblical precedent.

If it's your turn - can I be godmother?

dr.primrose said...

In 2008 the California Supreme Court gave one of the best explanations of why it violates equal protection to give opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples essentially the same rights and obligations but calling the relationship different names, "marriage" for the first and "domestic partnership" for the second:

"First, because of the long and celebrated history of the term 'marriage' and the widespread understanding that this term describes a union unreservedly approved and favored by the community, there clearly is a considerable and undeniable symbolic importance to this designation. Thus, it is apparent that affording access to this designation exclusively to opposite-sex couples, while providing same-sex couples access to only a novel alternative designation, realistically must be viewed as constituting significantly unequal treatment to same-sex couples. ...

"Second, particularly in light of the historic disparagement of and discrimination against gay persons, there is a very significant risk that retaining a distinction in nomenclature with regard to this most fundamental of relationships whereby the term 'marriage' is denied only to same-sex couples inevitably will cause the new parallel institution that has been made available to those couples to be viewed as of a lesser stature than marriage and, in effect, as a mark of second-class citizenship. ...

"Third, it also is significant that although the meaning of the term 'marriage' is well understood by the public generally, the status of domestic partnership is not. While it is true that this circumstance may change over time, it is difficult to deny that the unfamiliarity of the term 'domestic partnership' is likely, for a considerable period of time, to pose significant difficulties and complications for same-sex couples, and perhaps most poignantly for their children, that would not be presented if, like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples were permitted access to the established and well-understood family relationship of marriage." In re Marriage Cases, 43 Cal.4th 757, 845-46 (2008).

Br. Chris said...

The "open to the possibility of procreation" argument is ridiculous on its face unless it is applied with absolute consistency. If I understand correctly, there are some sects of Hinduism in which it is only permissible for a husband and wife to have sexual relations during the woman's fertile period -- sort of the "rhythm method" in reverse -- and sex after menopause is strictly forbidden. Somehow I don't think that's what opponents of same-sex marriage are looking for.

As for the "don't call it marriage" meme, I am reminded of my mother's answer to my question as a six-year-old about whether her aunt Poppy and aunt Julia were married. In her old-fashioned, proper way she said "They are an elderly spinster couple." "Is that like they are married?" She answered, "I suppose it's exactly like they are married." Poppy and Julia had been together for over 50 years at that point and were founding members of the League of Woman Voters.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks again, Erika. I'd like the honor of presiding at the baptism!

Dr. Primrose, thanks for the reminder of the sanity and clarity of the court in this case. Common sense is a wonder sometimes.

Br Chris, thanks for the wonderful image of Poppy and Julia. On the procreation issue, and what I would call the "dynastic model" of marriage, in which procreation is the primary goal and purpose; Jewish law did have a similar view, though it did not restrict sex to the fertile period and permitted non-procreative sex between husband and wife; but progeny was the ultimate goal, and infertility was grounds for divorce. This conclusion is much more rationally understandable than the "virtual fertility" argument of some in the anti-SSM contingent.

Grandmère Mimi said...

If it's your turn - can I be godmother?

Absolutely, Erika, if you will choose me as godmother when you have your miracle baby.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

I'll have to schedule two miracle baptisms then... ;-) Count me in.

rick allen said...

Sarah laughed.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

As did Abraham. And Hagar came to rue the day. Do you regard this as a normative example for marriage?

It's amusing to me that folks will reject the account of Acts 10-15 as relevant for changing our ways because there is no sign of a miraculous gift of tongues, but will hold up the miraculous pregnancies of Sarah and Hannah as if relevant to the issue of procreation and marriage. Besides missing the point entirely that this is part of God's pattern of "lifting up the lowly" -- as Hannah observed. With God all things are possible, and that includes same-sex marriage.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Rick, that's easy for you to say. The church does not go so far as to claim that men will be open to the possibility of becoming pregnant, but, why not? In principle, the possibility should be there for you, as well as for me.