Friday, July 05, 2013

If Marriage Were Infinitely Malleable

Let’s assume that the meaning of marriage is infinitely malleable, that it is a social construct and can mean whatever we choose for it to mean in the way that twentieth-century art came to basically include anything anyone wanted it to include.

If that were the case, then it would make any remaining restrictions on what can count as marriage merely arbitrary. Faced with the logic of this nominalist turn, this is exactly what some people are now arguing. In an article last month for Slate, Jillian Keenan suggested that the meaning of marriage is endlessly elastic. The topic of her article was polygamy, but the principle of marital plasticity might be taken in any number of other directions:

“The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less “correct” than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults. Though polygamists are a minority—a tiny minority, in fact—freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us. So let’s fight for marriage equality until it extends to every same-sex couple in the United States—and then let’s keep fighting. We’re not done yet”

My point in quoting this is not to invoke a slippery slope argument that legalizing “gay marriage” will lead to legalizing polygamy. Alastair Roberts is right that since same-sex “marriage” is by far the more radical aberration, “expressing a concern that same-sex marriage might lead to polygamy would be akin to worry on our part that mainlining heroin might lead to experimentation with marijuana.” Moreover, for all its problems and gender inequality, polygamy is still marriage since it involves sexual dimorphism (at least, if the conclusion of this article be accepted). Rather, the problem in Keenan’s perspective is more basic: once we accept the narrative that marriage is plastic, then there is no theoretical limit that can determine when the marriage modernizers are actually finished. If marriage is so plastic that it can mean absolutely anything, then in another sense it means nothing at all.

It is significant in this regard that dozens of public figures (including leading activists, scholars, educators, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, and community organizers) have now signed a joint statement titled, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships.” This statement argues that those who are advancing same-sex “marriage” have not gone far enough. Invoking a fallacious is-ought line of reasoning, the statement argues that since traditional nuclear families are no longer the norm, government needs to be more elastic in what it considers to be “legitimate families.” They write, “The struggle for same-sex marriage rights is only one part of a larger effort to strengthen the security and stability of diverse households and families.” How diverse? The Statement suggests that anyone living together should be considered a family, including “Close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships...” It also suggests that “legitimate families” can involve people who don’t live together, including “Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households.”

If these examples illustrate anything, it is that once we concede that marriage (and therefore family) are social constructs, these categories become so wide that they tend to be evacuated of coherent meaning.

Once we concede that marriage has no essential meaning but is entirely culturally relative, then the only thing left to give fixity to marriage is whatever the majority happens to say. We see this happening in much of the public debate about same-sex marriage, where journalists, media commentators and even lawyers are increasingly appealing to the herd for validation of their positions.

Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens
Professor of Law at Northwestern University
This was the approach taken by Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University. When defending “gay marriage” against Sherif Girgis in a fascinating debate at the Harvard Law School, Koppelman began his argument by citing statistics showing how many people now accept same-sex “marriage”, as if his opinion was proved right through majority consensus. As Koppelman continued his presentation, one of the key points in his response to Girgis was not that Girgis’ arguments for the conjugal view were illogical (although he did allege that in a different part of the debate), but that most ordinary people wouldn’t be able to understand them. Koppelman’s implied premise was that same-sex “marriage” was above critique because it had the understanding of the majority.

It sounds strange that any intelligent person could imagine that having the support of 51% of the country makes a policy position correct. However, if marriage is entirely relative to the cultural moment, then what else could determine the boundaries of marriage other than majority opinion? A parallel would be the moves in the game of chess, which achieve their legitimacy purely through majority consensus.

Koppelman actually invoked this example in the aforementioned debate, pointing out that the move that the knight is allowed to make wasn’t always how we know it today, but evolved over hundreds of years. Just as there is no objective essence to chess which determines that the knight has to move in the way it does, so there is no objective essence to marriage which determines that it has to mean one thing and not another thing. It is entirely a cultural construct.

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