Defending bad definitions »« The apologist’s dilemma

Not all definitions of marriage are equal

The other day I was listening to yet another Christian conservative parrot the tired mantra about how liberals are trying to change the definition of marriage. My first thought was that if marriage equality changes your definition of marriage, you’ve been using a bad definition of marriage. And that got me thinking about the various definitions of marriage, and how they compare with one another.

If you think about it, marriage is first and foremost a relationship between individuals. Nowadays, we tend to think of it as a relationship specifically between two individuals, but in some cultural contexts—e.g. Mormonism, Islam, and Old Testament Judaism—it could be more than two. But primarily, essentially, it’s a relationship between individuals.

It makes sense, therefore, to define marriage in terms of what the relationship between those individuals is and/or should be. You can have a strict definition of marriage, in which the individuals are obligated to remain married to one another so long as they both shall live, and are forbidden from marrying or having sexual/romantic relationships with anyone else. Or you can have a less strict definition that allows for the possibility of divorce under certain conditions, and those conditions can vary from very stringent to very loose, resulting in a range of definitions of marriage. You can even have an “open” marriage, where all parties are officially married, but are nonetheless free to participate in sexual/romantic relationships outside of the marriage.

The point is, these are all definitions of marriage that focus on the true nature of what marriage is. Marriage is a relationship between individuals, and therefore these definitions of marriage delineate what the boundaries and obligations and benefits of that relationship ought to be. That makes sense. The definition of a thing ought to be a description of what the thing is.

The homophobic definition, however, is not just a different description of a relationship between individuals. The homophobic definition of marriage is about dividing society. In the homophobic definition, society is to be divided into two groups: the heterosexuals, who are to be praised as being “normal” and rewarded with the opportunity to experience the benefits and privileges of marrying the ones they love, versus the homosexuals, who are to be spurned as sinful and immoral, and denied the opportunity to experience the benefits and privileges of marrying the ones they love. Hence, the “defense” of marriage is defined in terms of maintaining the repression instead of in terms of addressing things that actually threaten the relationships of married people.

That’s just a twisted definition of marriage. It’s not about relationships at all, but rather about the separation of privileged classes from unprivileged classes. Marriage should be defined in terms of who it unites, not who it divides. It should specify the relationship between individuals who love, not the discrimination and oppression practiced by those who hate. A good definition of marriage should be about the marriage itself, not about divisive political agendas designed to entrench the domination of the majority.

So like I said, if marriage equality changes your definition of marriage, you’re using a bad definition. Use a definition that describes the relationship itself, rather than obsessing over who’s privileged enough to be allowed access to it, and you won’t have to change your definition when bigotry goes out of style.

Comments

  1. Phillip IV says

    So like I said, if marriage equality changes your definition of marriage, you’re using a bad definition.

    I think it goes deeper – conservatives, and more specifically authoritarians, already use a bad definition of “definition”. For them, defining words is not about making your vocabulary reflect a complex reality, it is about making a complex reality comply to a simplistic worldview. In their minds, the abstract definition is the reality, whatever takes place in real life is just the perversion of it.

    You will find this pattern extends to every issue on which they voice off – they don’t see categories as a tool to structure reality to make it mentally manageable, they see them as the mould, derived from higher authority, which reality has to follow.

    This is, for example, why they don’t accept the existence of intersexed people as evidence that their gender binary is wrong – they’ll simply say that reality got it wrong and that intersexed people will just have to find some way to fit into the binary, and that’s their problem.

    This is also why they have no problem with torture, as long as the U.S. is doing it – in their mind, the U.S. are the good guys by definition, and no falling short of that ideal in reality will change that fact. It doesn’t matter, because the definition takes primacy over the reality.

    It’s such a convenient way of thinking, it’s terribly hard to wean people of it. And while it lends itself naturally to be shrouded in religiosity, some people manage to pull it off without it just as well.

    And it is also part of the reason why “redefining marriage” is such a big deal for these people. The simple, common-sense argument “But it doesn’t affect your marriage” doesn’t apply in their minds, because by changing the legal definition you do indeed change the reality of the institution they partake in.

    • Your Dogma is Showing says

      That’s a very insightful comment and I agree that it explains a lot of the problems encountered when we try to reason with such people.

      Essentially, anything that threatens their platonic ideal of marriage (or any of their other concepts) can easily be categorized as Bad. No further thinking will be necessary, thanks.

      “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people full of doubts.” B. Russell

  2. dorfl says

    @Phillip IV

    You just put words to a lot of stuff that has been floating around in my head for some time now. Thank you.

  3. Gregory in Seattle says

    When right wing pissers start blathering about “redefining marriage,” just direct them to Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, as she Explains Traditional Marriage to Everyone Else.

    And, strictly speaking, modern Judaism allows for polygamy and concubinage: the Torah is very clear on this, and there is much commentary in the Talmud outlawing the procedures and applications. However, in the 1100s rabbis began to quietly reinterpret halakha (the Jewish version of sharia) to discourage concubinage and promote monogamy… in other words, to redefine Biblical marriage. This was done largely because the practices inflamed the envy of the Christian majority and added fuel to the anti-Semitism of the day. Nonetheless, there is a significant movement in Israel among the Orthodox to allow for the return of polygamy and concubinage as a matter of civil law.

  4. Anri says

    “A social construct whereby two consenting adults form a legal next-of-kin relationship of equals that did not exist previously”.

    I think “two” could be altered to “two or more” if we could work out some of the legal complexities that arise from three-party marriages, but that’s for the future.

    Are there any landmines in this definition I’m missing?

    • Steve says

      “A bad definition of ‘definition'” hits it exactly. If you believe in magic, words are not tools for describing with reality, they are tools for _coercing_ reality. “In the Beginning, there was the Word…” and all that happy horseshit.

      BTW, an American marriage already has three parties: you, your spouse, and the State. You need a license to get married, and must apply to a court for permission to divorce. Law to handle polyamorous marriage could be developed around models already in use for multiparty business partnerships, if the Religious Reich could somehow be kicked out of the way.

  5. a miasma of incandescent plasma says

    It’s funny (in a non-ha-ha way) that the religious look down on society for being all about sex – but when it comes to marriage it seems that’s all they can think about. It’s just sex sex sex sex making babies sex sex sex making more babies sex sex

    Because if you ask the average person “why is marriage good for you individually?” of course physical love is important, but the real “win” of marriage is about “we make eachother better people, we challenge each other, we grow together, we have someone to share our hopes and triumphs and help each other thru the bad times and smile with them during the good, etc…” Nowhere in the real benefits that most would say does “they have opposite genitals than me!!” come in.

    Get your minds out of the gutter religious!!

  6. gvlgeologist says

    @a miasma of incandescent plasma:

    That’s a very good point. I think that every time a religious person complains about same sex marriage, they should be asked, “Why did you get married?” Assuming that they list some of the things that you did, and don’t mention sex (and they probably won’t), the next question should be, “Even if they are sinful, why shouldn’t gays be able to do that?”

  7. says

    It makes sense, therefore, to define marriage in terms of what the relationship between those individuals is and/or should be.

    Which is it? What marriage is or what marriage should be?

    The homophobic definition of marriage is about dividing society.

    That’s not necessarily the intent. Plus, all laws divide society in some sense. Any marriage law will divide society along those who are married and those who are not married (that doesn’t mean the not married are oppressed). You need to make a legal or moral argument as to what marriage should be (for, at least in many places, what marriage currently is is not what you want it to be).

    So like I said, if marriage equality changes your definition of marriage, you’re using a bad definition. Use a definition that describes the relationship itself, rather than obsessing over who’s privileged enough to be allowed access to it, and you won’t have to change your definition when bigotry goes out of style.

    If I define marriage as a legal institution that tries to foster the ideal environment to raise children in (i.e., an environment where a child is raised by his biological father and biological mother) then same-sex marriage is incompatible with this definition. A mere vote will not change what is, in fact, the best environment to raise children in (all else being equal).

    • Len says

      So you’re saying that a child raised by an abusive biological father and / or an abusive biological mother is better off than a child raised by loving parents of the same gender.

    • mikespeir says

      “If I define marriage as a legal institution that tries to foster the ideal environment to raise children in….”

      If you define marriage that way? Do you? Do you think that definition should be imposed on us all?

    • sosw says

      If I define marriage as a legal institution that tries to foster the ideal environment to raise children in (i.e., an environment where a child is raised by his biological father and biological mother)

      You can’t do that, unless you can either cite an authoritative source or just choose to ignore reality in favor of what you want to be true (see Phillip IVs excellent post).

      It’s well established that there is nothing special, much less ideal, about being raised by your biological parents.

      It has also been shown that same-sex parents fare no worse in child-rearing than opposite-sex parents. In fact, there was a study that showed them to do better, but I suspect this is simply because biological hetero-parents are the most likely to become parents without explicitly choosing to.

    • says

      If I define marriage as a legal institution that tries to foster the ideal environment to raise children in (i.e., an environment where a child is raised by his biological father and biological mother) then same-sex marriage is incompatible with this definition. A mere vote will not change what is, in fact, the best environment to raise children in (all else being equal).

      Except that the environment you describe has been demonstrated to be so far from the ideal environment in which to raise children, it can see the curvature of the Earth.

  8. EvN says

    Crack open the law books. Marriage is a CONTRACT, not a relationship.

    The particular legal system prescribes who the parties to this contract may be. This varies considerably.

    In the “West” it is usually individuals of opposate sex. In, for example, Zulu law, it is a contract between family groups as legal capacity resides in the group, not the individual. In this system, a man’s family may enter into several marriage contracts (for the man).

    My point is that the law prescribes who the parties may be – not the Bible. Legal marriages took place long before the monotheists came into the picture and am SICK of them distorting the picture dishonestly.

  9. Robert in Columbus says

    When the law was changed to allow women to vote no one suggested that the definition of ‘voting’ had changed.

    When the law was changed making it illegal for whites to own slaves no one suggested that the definition of ‘slavery’ had changed.

    So why would a change in who can marry whom lead to a change in the definition of ‘marriage’?

  10. Tige Gibson says

    Liberals are trying to change the definition of the word death. Everyone should be properly aware that being dead means being separate from God, but liberals live in Sin and are therefore already separate from God and therefore dead. Liberals foolishly think that by changing the definition of the word death, they will be able to pretend that they are not really dead.

    Liberals are also trying to change the definition of the word blood. Everyone should be aware that blood washes away Sin. Liberals are disgusted by blood and refuse to be washed in it. Well we should just round them all up and dunk them in a giant vat of blood.

    • Mr.Kosta says

      That has to be one of the most absurd collections of gibberish I’ve read in a while.

      You see, you’re living proof of how religious… erhm… let’s call it thinking, for the sake of argument, distorts a person’s cognitive abilities to the point that such word salad seems a perfectly reasonable argument.

  11. Dalillama says

    If I define marriage as a legal institution that tries to foster the ideal environment to raise children in (i.e., an environment where a child is raised by his biological father and biological mother) then same-sex marriage is incompatible with this definition. A mere vote will not change what is, in fact, the best environment to raise children in (all else being equal).

    If you define marriage that way, you invalidate a large number of existing marriages which are one or more of a)without children and expecting to remain so and/or b) are not in fact suitable environments to raise children. Furthermore, while a vote will not change the objective facts about the suitability of an environment for children, every study shows that households with same-sex parental figures are no worse (and no better) for children than those with opposite-sex parents. So, basically you’re wrong, in that you appear to believe that your definition is valid and that it would exclude gay couples, both of which positions are incompatible with observed reality.

    • says

      Dalillama:

      If you define marriage that way, you invalidate a large number of existing marriages which are one or more of a)without children and expecting to remain so and/or b) are not in fact suitable environments to raise children.

      My definition of marriage does not invalidate marriages that do not result in children, for it would still be the kind of environment best suited to raising children. The word “tries” in my definition means that I realize that not every marriage creates a suitable environment for raising children.

      Furthermore . . . every study shows that households with same-sex parental figures are no worse (and no better) for children than those with opposite-sex parents.

      The key phrase in my comment was all else being equal. I am not denying that a single parent or a homosexual couple is capable of raising children well. You are quite simply wrong when you say every study contradicts my claim.

      For example, Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D, said the following to the Rhode Island legislature:

      “No longer will the law hold that children need a mother and a father. Under the inspiration and guidance of people like you in other states, courts are saying silly things like, “the traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well-adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.” (Varnum v Brien Supreme Court of Iowa, No. 07–1499, Filed April 3, 2009, pg 54, footnote 26)”

      “This statement made by the Iowa Supreme Court in Varnum v Brien, is false as a general statement. Mountains of data show that children do need their mothers and their fathers, (Among the many citations that could be given, “Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” (NY: Institute for American Values, 2005), summarizes some of the most important research) and that children care deeply about biological connections. (See Elizabeth Marquardt, Norvell Glenn and Karen Clark, “My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A Pathbreaking Study of Young Adults Conceived through Sperm Donation,” (NY: Institute for American Values, 2010))”

      And here is Trayce Hansen, Ph.D.:

      “According to decades of research, the ideal family structure for children is a two-parent, mother-father family. That research consistently shows that children raised in such families are more likely to thrive—psychologically, mentally, and physically—than children reared in any other kind of family configuration.”

      “Moreover, existing research on children reared by homosexuals is not only scientifically flawed and extremely limited but some of it actually indicates that those children are at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes. Other studies find that homosexually parented children are more likely to experiment sexually, experience sexual confusion, and engage in homosexual and bisexual behavior themselves. And for those children who later engage in non-heterosexual behavior, extensive research reveals they are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, abuse alcohol and drugs, attempt suicide, experience domestic violence and sexual assault, and are at increased risk for chronic diseases, AIDS, and shortened life spans.”

      P.S. Deacon Duncan, is it possible to take me off the moderation list? Thanks.

      • sosw says

        Other studies find that homosexually parented children are more likely to experiment sexually, experience sexual confusion, and engage in homosexual and bisexual behavior themselves. And for those children who later engage in non-heterosexual behavior, extensive research reveals they are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, abuse alcohol and drugs, attempt suicide, experience domestic violence and sexual assault, and are at increased risk for chronic diseases, AIDS, and shortened life spans.

        I’d like to see what those studies actually say. That quote sounds like the standard unsubstantiated tropes of homophobic fear mongering.

        Note that the older studies favoring mother-father households aren’t comparing mixed vs. same sex couples, they’re comparing single vs. two-parent households.

      • Anri says

        According to decades of research, the ideal family structure for children is a two-parent, mother-father family. That research consistently shows that children raised in such families are more likely to thrive—psychologically, mentally, and physically—than children reared in any other kind of family configuration.

        A few points:

        First of all, I imagine you could find studies from the 50’s that would show that mixed-race marriages were less more to result in toubled youth than same-race marriage. Should you, especially in hindsight, be suspicious of such studies?
        Yes, for two primary reasons.
        Observer bias is a clear one, especially in a subject in which results are usually not as cut-and-dried as in other fields of study. This is not an inconsequential problem.
        Also, if the society surrounding a mixed-race marriage (then) or same-gender marriage (now) is critical of that marriage, the child is more likely to face bullying and other social ills during childhood. That’s more likely to result in a bad outcome, but is not the ‘fault’ of the parenting.

        Second, imagine a study comparing two-parent wealthy families with two-parent families living below the poverty line. I imagine you’d find at least as substantial difference between the rich and poor as you’d find between the gay and straight. Probably even more so. Would you then deny marriage between poor people, as it is clearly a less advantagous situation for childrearing? If not, why make the distinction?

        Lastly, take a closer look at this:

        Other studies find that homosexually parented children are more likely to experiment sexually, experience sexual confusion, and engage in homosexual and bisexual behavior themselves.

        Do you consider sexual experimentation, or homosexual/bisexual behavior to be bad things?
        If not, why would you cite studies indicating increases in this to be demonstrations of parenting failures?
        If so, why bring the kids into it? Just go all in and say “Gay Sex is Bad, M’Kay!”

      • Dalillama says

        Let’s see, you quote two people who make unsubstantiated assertions, which are no less unsubstantiated because the individuals in question have obtained degrees. Then you repeatedly cite an organization calling itself the “Institute for American Values,” a propaganda mill which has produced no peer reviewed studies of anything whatsoever. So, basically, you’ve got outright lies. It doesn’t make it any better that you didn’t make those lies up yourself, you’re still lying.

      • a miasma of incandescent plasma says

        I think Jayman may actually be Thomas Minnery in meatspace.

        The study… found better health outcomes among children in nuclear families – a point Minnery, senior vice president for public policy, said means children are better off with straight, married parents.

        But Franken pointed out that the study’s definition of “nuclear family” does not specify the gender of the parents in such families…

        “Sen. Franken is right,” the lead author of the study told POLITICO. The survey did not exclude same-sex couples, said Debra L. Blackwell, Ph.D., nor did it exclude them from the “nuclear family” category provided their family met the study’s definition.

        The study’s definition of nuclear family is: “one or more children living with two parents who are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents of all the children in the family.”

        That means the study does not provide evidence that straight couples’ children necessarily fare better than same-sex couples’ kids, as Minnery claimed.

        “I would think that the study when it cites nuclear family would mean by a family headed by husband and wife,” Minnery said.

        “It doesn’t,” Franken said…

        http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0711/59495.html

        Anyway, your thought process fails even freshmen level logic, unless you are also actively petitioning the government to make any prison-sentenced felon’s marriage invalid. Since having one parent/potential-parent in jail is not an ideal environment for any real/potentially-real children.
        I mean, if you want to be CONSISTENT, you will think that one person locked up in jail means they shouldn’t be married. I’ll hold my breath while you advocate that position.
        In the meantime I’ll keep an eye out for your “Anti hetero-freedom League”. Marriage is for homo-non-jailed’s only!1!! Think of the children!

      • Dalillama says

        You’re giving Jayman too much credit. Minnery cited a real study, it just didn’t say what he claimed it did. Jayman has cited position papers from a religious institute and people running off at the mouth.

      • Robert in Columbus says

        Jayman says:

        If I define marriage as a legal institution that tries to foster the ideal environment to raise children in (i.e., an environment where a child is raised by his biological father and biological mother) then same-sex marriage is incompatible with this definition.

        I realize that you are not actually saying that you accept this definition but that you are merely proposing that IF this definition holds then same-sex marriage is logically impossible.

        Your claim “same-sex marriage is incompatible with this definition” is a strong claim. This definition of marriage is logically incompatible with same-sex marriage. It is rather like saying that if x is a square then it is logically impossible for it to be circle.

        Generally when providing a definition it is thought that a certain modesty and conservativeness is in order. A definition should provide the meaning of the term and nothing more.

        For example, the moon is about 238,855 miles from the earth. Suppose we include this fact in the definition of the moon. The consequence is that this fact becomes analytically true. Should we find out that the moon is a few miles further away, then the moon as we have defined it never existed and some other moon exists.

        In general we should avoid making definitions so specific that they allow new claims to be made. If a definition of marriage allows you make a claim about the acceptability of something like same-sex marriage then the definition is violating this conservative principle.

        Including the purpose of marriage or what marriage “tries to foster” strikes me as utterly irrelevant to the meaning of the term. You are violating the first principle of a sound definition.

        A ditch-digger may try to dig a ditch in the most efficient manner possible with the fewest strokes of the shovel. But this is an additional fact about ditch-diggers and not an essential part of the meaning of ‘ditch-digger’.

        You violate the second principle of sound definition as well.
        There is a fundamental logical problem with the hypothetical definition you offer.

        A fundamental requirement of any definition is that it must be expressed as a generalized identity. I challenge you to find any dictionary definition that does not meet this criterion.

        For example, a right angle IS an angle formed by the perpendicular intersection of two straight lines; an angle of 90°.

        That ‘is’, in the definition, is the ‘is’ of identity.
        A right angle = a 90° angle.
        A = B and B = A.

        Your definition of marriage fails to provide a generalized identity.

        Clearly marriage is a legal institution but there are many legal institutions. Also, the purpose some people have for marriage is that it should foster the ideal environment to raise children and these people might want to import this desire into the definition of ‘marriage’– but clearly other institutions beside marriage could have this purpose as well.

        The church is a legal institution that tries to foster (among other things) the ideal environment to raise children but the church is not identical to marriage.

        Your hypothetical definition misses the most important, dare I say it — the essential aspect of marriage– that it is some kind of union between two people.

        I don’t understand how you could leave out this essential property of marriage or why you provide a lengthy and irrelevant catalog of studies concerning the best environment for raising children.

        You seem to want to push the fact (if it is a fact)that hetero-sexual marriage has an important relation to the “best environment for raising children”.

        But to combine this claim with the definition of marriage seems just strange to me.

        It is rather like trying to establish how far the moon is from us by focusing our attention on a definition of the moon rather than on the actual measurements of the distance to the moon.

  12. lcaution says

    Coontz has an excellent book Marriage, a History which illustrates the changing nature of marriage.

  13. says

    Len, I am not saying a child raised by an abusive heterosexual couple is better off than a child raised by a loving homosexual couple. That’s why I mentioned all else being equal. Obviously there are many factors involved in raising a child. But children are less likely to be abused by their biological parents than, say, a step-father.

    mikespeir, the definition I gave is the one that I currently hold, but I’ve changed my mind before (I used to think same-sex marriage was OK legally) and could change my mind again. I think this issue is one of political philosophy. I think the government has an interest in the raising of children but it does not have an interest in romantic relationships in and of themselves. Any law will be imposed on us all so I don’t see that as a problem in and of itself.

    BecomingJulie, I’m under no illusion that every marriage is the perfect environment to raise children in. That doesn’t change the fact that, all else being equal, being raised by one’s biological parents is best for the child. The alternatives would involve invasive government screening to see who is worthy of having children or putting kids up for adoption even if their biological parents want to keep them.

    Anri, your points about studies are valid and to be considered (note bias can cut both ways). I’ll try to see what I can find on children raised in poor families later. Yes, I think sexual experimentation (in the sense of multiple partners) is a bad thing (morally).

    • mikespeir says

      “Any law will be imposed on us all so I don’t see that as a problem in and of itself.”

      Huh? It might be imposed on all of us, but it would discriminate against some of us, wouldn’t it?

    • Anri says

      Anri, your points about studies are valid and to be considered (note bias can cut both ways). I’ll try to see what I can find on children raised in poor families later.

      Thank you, I’ll be interested in what you find.
      May I ask, if you do find that poverty creates a less-than-ideal childrearing situation, would you be in favor of marriage restrictions based on income?

      Yes, I think sexual experimentation (in the sense of multiple partners) is a bad thing (morally).

      Two things:
      Firstly, why do you consider multiple parters to be a moral problem? Assuming all parties are consenting, and there’s no irresponsible behavior in terms of health matters, what business of your is it how many sex partners I, or anyone else, have?

      Secondly, the study didn’t just cite that one aspect as apparently negative, but also mentioned bisexual and homosexual behaviors in what seemed to be negative terms (that is, more = bad). Do you care to address that aspect of the conclusion as well?

    • a miasma of incandescent plasma says

      But children are less likely to be abused by their biological parents than, say, a step-father.

      Big ole citation needed.

      That doesn’t change the fact that, all else being equal, being raised by one’s biological parents is best for the child.

      Before you start calling things “facts” you should find out if they’re, you know, facts. The evidence points to the “fact” that a nuclear family, consisting of 2 married head of household parents (of same or different gender, doesn’t matter) that are either the biological or adoptive parents of all of the children in the household is the most beneficial.
      This is what’s called a citation – http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_246.pdf (hint – go to page 6 and read the abstract)

      The alternatives would involve invasive government screening

      But that’s exactly what we’re doing by having the government screen and deny marriage to couples based on arbitrary features (in this case gender).

  14. PocketWocket says

    If or when I marry, I want that marriage to have everything to do with committing to the formation of a new family unit, and nothing to do with a self-sacrificial promise to try to maintain sexual interest in one person until we die. That seems to me like a strange thing to promise anyone.
    But I would never try to define your marriage, nor anyone else’s. Unlike the mistaken Jayman up there, and unlike the federal government, which I really think should just get out of the whole business and quit bestowing upon itself the authority to decide which relationships between consenting adults are valid and which aren’t.

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