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May 17 2012

Defending bad definitions

I got a lot of good comments on yesterday’s post about the definition of marriage, but not everybody was happy with my description. In particular, Jayman777 wants to take me to task.

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?

I think he’s missing an important point here. There are many definitions of marriage, some good and some bad, and some of those definitions describe what marriage is, and some describe what marriage ought to be. By what definition of “marriage” has Newt Gingrich had 3 wives? By the definition of what marriage is, or the definition of what marriage should be? By what definition of marriage did King Solomon have 300 wives (and 600 concubines)? Is marriage a union of one man and up to 900 women? Should it be? Well, we could talk, but the point is, if you have a definition of what marriage is, that does not preclude you from having a different definition of what marriage should be.

That’s why it’s silly to talk about anyone “changing THE definition of marriage.” There is no one, single, exclusive definition that covers all the cases. Even in purely heterosexual relationships there’s frequently (if not inevitably) a gap between what it is and what people think/want/expect it to be.

Jayman next tries to deny that the homophobic definition is about dividing society. Well, no, he can’t actually deny that, because clearly this is precisely what the homophobic definition does. But he tries to make it sound like that’s just an accident, and anyway, it’s ok.

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).

If you find that you are unintentionally violating the civil rights of an unpopular minority, and decide not to stop violating those rights, and instead proceed to step up efforts to put those rights permanently out of reach for members of that minority, you don’t get to use the “Oops, it was an accident” excuse. Pretending that it’s unintentional while continuing to deliberately do it just makes you dishonest.

The argument that “all laws divide society” is hypocritical as well. If we amended the Constitution to legally define marriage as the union of two non-Christians, with provisions that no other marriage could be legally obtained, I think it would be pretty clear even to Jayman that there’s a difference between the kind of voluntary distinction that happens when some freely choose to marry or not marry, versus the oppressive discrimination that happens when the law mandates that only certain social groups have that opportunity available to them. The latter divides society into one group with full civil rights and another group without, which the former does not do. And homophobic marriage amendments are of the latter type.

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).

In other words, civil liberties are not something anyone has any inherent right to. You deserve to be denied equal rights unless and until you can make a legal or moral argument sufficient to overcome the majority’s default privilege of treating you like shit just for being different than they are. Otherwise it would be up to the homophobes to try and come up with a legal or moral justification for continuing to persecute people just because they happen to fall in love differently than heteros do. And God knows there’s really no way they could ever meet that burden of proof.

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.

This would be one of the bad definitions of marriage. In the first place, unless adoption or premarital sex is involved, there’s going to be at least some portion of the marriage in which there are no children present to be raised. And then they grow up and leave home, so they’re not part of the child-rearing environment anyway. So does the couple still have a marriage? How does a childless environment constitute “the ideal environment in which to raise children”? Again, you’ve got a definition of marriage that tries to divert attention away from the relationship between the people getting married, and onto some contrived and disingenuous criterion intended to deny equal rights to a certain segment of society. Bad definition.

Secondly, it’s pure bigotry to insist that gay couples cannot try to foster an ideal environment for raising children (assuming they don’t follow the example of many hetero couples by not having kids at all). Nobody ever succeeds in creating the ideal environment anyway, which is why the word “try” can’t be deleted without invalidating a large number of hetero marriages as well. But gay couples can try same as heteros can, and they typically do as well or better than a lot of hetero couples in achieving that goal. Plus some of those children are going to be gay, whether their parents are homo or hetero. No amount of institutionalized homophobia is going to be a “ideal” environment for raising them.

By the way, wasn’t this originally a racist argument? That children raised by mixed-race couples would face greater obstacles in society, and therefore marriage ought to be defined as being a union of two members of the same race? It’s just as valid—or should I say, just as bigoted—as the argument in favor of denying marriage to same-sex couples. That lie doesn’t fool people any more. If you’re really concerned about the welfare of children, pass a strong national health care plan so that families don’t have to choose between taking care of their sick kids or feeding their healthy ones. Otherwise, stop trying to use kids as pawns. It’s callous.

Same-sex marriage is at least as compatible with “trying to foster an ideal environment” as hetero marriage is, at least once you purge homophobic bigotry out of your definition of what an ideal child-rearing environment is. And did you notice? Changing the definition of marriage so that it refers primarily to child-rearing is, ta-da, changing the definition of marriage. People do it all the time, and that’s a good thing, because there’s some really bad definitions of marriage out there.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    dorfl

    Somebody linked to this yesterday below another post, and it seems relevant here too:

    The idea that a heterosexual marriage is the best environment for a child may be demonstrably false, since at least the children of lesbian parents tend to do better.

  2. 2
    JoeBuddha

    So we need to pass a law requiring a marriage contract only between a man and a woman under the age of about 35 who pass a fertility test and who agree to have children.
    Having no children before the age of, say, 40 would be considered a breach of contract, terminating the marriage.
    Upon the occasion of their last child moving out of the family home, the contract would be considered fulfilled and thus null and void. Another contract would have to be signed to reinstate the marriage. Naturally, the same pre-conditions would apply.

    Would THAT be a “good” definition of marriage?

    1. 2.1
      Kevin

      …and, of course, as soon as the woman reaches menopause, she is to be divorced so the man can marry a 19-year-old.

      1. JG

        @Kevin:

        19? Hell, most females become fertile long before that!

        Plus, marriages ought to dissolved during the non-ovulating part of every cycle, and then reinstated.

  3. 3
    wholething

    What is the “ideal environment to raise children”? Can I get a real-life example of one of those? I hope his ideal environment doesn’t involve religious indoctrination. Perhaps we should ban marriage between religious people, especially Paulinist Christians:

    1 Corinthians 7:8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.

  4. 4
    Kevin

    Jayman thinks that gay people can’t have children?

    HAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Wooo…wheee…oh my…

    Wow. Just. Wow.

    Of course it’s worse than that. Are you saying that my niece’s marriage is illegitimate? Because she and her husband choose of their own free will to not have children?

    It’s an insult to their marriage. It’s also patently false. The state recognizes their marriage. They have all of the rights and obligations of marriage. They file joint tax returns.

    It’s all about control of the sex organs with these Christians. Somewhere, deep down, I think they’re afraid that someone somewhere is having more-and-better sex than they are, and it galls them.

    Keep your nose out of my niece’s reproductive organs, thank you.

  5. 5
    Jayman

    DD:

    There are many definitions of marriage, some good and some bad, and some of those definitions describe what marriage is, and some describe what marriage ought to be.

    Laws concern what ought or ought not be done.

    If you find that you are unintentionally violating the civil rights of an unpopular minority, and decide not to stop violating those rights, and instead proceed to step up efforts to put those rights permanently out of reach for members of that minority, you don’t get to use the “Oops, it was an accident” excuse. Pretending that it’s unintentional while continuing to deliberately do it just makes you dishonest.

    I don’t view marriage as a civil right (i.e., it is not like the right to life, the right to free speech, and the like).

    If we amended the Constitution to legally define marriage as the union of two non-Christians, with provisions that no other marriage could be legally obtained, I think it would be pretty clear even to Jayman that there’s a difference between the kind of voluntary distinction that happens when some freely choose to marry or not marry, versus the oppressive discrimination that happens when the law mandates that only certain social groups have that opportunity available to them.

    I wouldn’t be oppressed if I was forbidden from getting married due to being a Christian.

    You deserve to be denied equal rights unless and until you can make a legal or moral argument sufficient to overcome the majority’s default privilege of treating you like shit just for being different than they are.

    Not being married does entail being treated like shit.

    So does the couple still have a marriage?

    Yes, they still have the potential to raise their biological son or daughter.

    Again, you’ve got a definition of marriage that tries to divert attention away from the relationship between the people getting married, and onto some contrived and disingenuous criterion intended to deny equal rights to a certain segment of society.

    That’s because I view marriage as primarily concerned with the raising of children. If we lived in some world where, say, children raised themselves (like certain animals) then I would see no point in the government being involved in marriage at all (even if adults still had romantic relationships).

    Secondly, it’s pure bigotry to insist that gay couples cannot try to foster an ideal environment for raising children

    They can try, but they will not both be the biological parents of the child. All else being equal, I believe children should be raised by their biological parents.

    Changing the definition of marriage so that it refers primarily to child-rearing is, ta-da, changing the definition of marriage.

    Again, I’m concerned with how children ought to be raised, but this statement is false. Marriage has long been an institution for the raising of children.

    Kevin:

    Jayman thinks that gay people can’t have children?

    I never said that. But, barring medical experimentation, a homosexual couple will never be the biological father and biological mother of their child.

    Are you saying that my niece’s marriage is illegitimate? Because she and her husband choose of their own free will to not have children?

    No, because if they change their mind about having children then they could provide a good environment for raising their biological child.

    It’s all about control of the sex organs with these Christians. Somewhere, deep down, I think they’re afraid that someone somewhere is having more-and-better sex than they are, and it galls them.

    I’ll have to check to be sure, but I believe the opposite is true (i.e., if two virgins marry each other they will be more likely to have a happy marriage than a couple who had pre-marital sex).

    1. 5.1
      sosw

      All else being equal, I believe children should be raised by their biological parents.

      Ok, then perhaps your bias is against adoption rather than against gay couples, but it’s still not only unfounded but contradicted by reality.

      Unless your definition of “should” is “should because I say so” and not “should because it is demontrably better”, in which case your arguments can be dismissed as mere authoritarian bigotry.

    2. 5.2
      Andrew G.

      I’ll have to check to be sure, but I believe the opposite is true (i.e., if two virgins marry each other they will be more likely to have a happy marriage than a couple who had pre-marital sex).

      This claim is of course widely made by religious (especially Catholic and evangelical) organizations; but it hasn’t held up to scrutiny.

      In particular, pre-marital sex and cohabitation with the eventual spouse is not associated with increased risk of divorce. Multiple pre-marital relationships is associated with increased divorce risk, but this isn’t a causal connection: “unrestricted” SSO (which is significantly heritable) is associated with both multiple pre-marital relationships and with increased chance of divorce.

      (The higher divorce rate for people with unrestricted SSO is arguably just a reflection of the fact that exclusive monogamous marriage may not be the ideal framework for sexual activity for these people.)

  6. 6
    Janney

    Jayman,

    All else being equal, I believe children should be raised by their biological parents.

    Why do you believe this? And, more to the point, why should such a belief preclude your (provisional) endorsement of any alternative? Back this up with something. That ball has never left your court.

  7. 7
    TaiChi

    There seem to be two questions here, which would be worth teasing apart: First, should gay couples be allowed to enter into a legal arrangement, recognized by the state, and providing them with all the perks of marriage which heterosexual couples enjoy? Second, should the state call that legal arrangement ‘marriage’, or should this label be retained for heterosexual relationships, and some label like ‘civil union’ used instead?

    I think the response to both questions should be yes. The first because homosexual couples are no different to heterosexual couples in their capacity for monogamous love, nor in taking this love as the foundation for a lifelong partnership with shared goals.

    The second is more tricky. I tend to think that even if the concept of marriage does not cover certain homosexual relationships, these relationships bear a strong enough resemblance to heterosexual married couples that the term could be naturally extended to them. It’s not as though anyone is going to fail to understand what you mean when you describe Pete and Steve as married, though they might prefer you not describe them in this way. So there’s no linguistic difficulty we’re going to have revising the definition. On the other hand, one might think that refusal to describe homosexual couples as ‘married’ has the potential to perpetuate discrimination, even though technically correct, since the label allows an evaluative division to be drawn where none is warranted. Ironically, the resistance of many to the idea of homosexual marriage is testimony to the fact that the discrimination is likely, and this, for me, tips the argument in favour of extending the definition of ‘marriage’ to homosexual couples.

  8. 8
    Robert B.

    Jayman,

    What other measures do you support that would restrict marriages to those who can create ideal childraising environments? Should a couple have to demonstrate a certain amount of income before they can get married? Or at least pass a credit check? Here’s one: the number one predictor of academic success is how often parents (or somebody) reads to the kid, so should the illiterate be forbidden from marrying? And since you hold that the biological mother and father are best at parenting, should those incapable of reproducing (due to infertility, injury, amputation, etc.) be allowed to get married? Do you support banning divorce if the couple has minor children?

    Do you in fact apply this high-minded ethical theory of marriage to any other situation at all? Or is it just an excuse to keep teh gayz out of the exclusive club?

    (By the way, what about orphans? They can’t be raised by their biological parents, but it’s obviously better for them to be raised by somebody. If a loving, committed same-sex couple gets married in order to adopt orphans, why is this worse than if an opposite-sex couple does it?)

  9. 9
    Anri

    Jayman:

    I don’t view marriage as a civil right (i.e., it is not like the right to life, the right to free speech, and the like).

    The US Supreme Court disagrees with you:

    “Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…”
    Loving vs. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)

    I wouldn’t be oppressed if I was forbidden from getting married due to being a Christian.

    What?
    Um… what would you consider oppression, then?
    Being forbidden by others from doing something due to your faith (or lack thereof) is the definition of religious-based oppression.

    Again, I’m concerned with how children ought to be raised, but this statement is false. Marriage has long been an institution for the raising of children.

    You are incorrect. Throughout most of history, marriage has been an institution concerned with property transfer and family alliance.
    Modern societies have become enlightened enough to realize that it is, and should be, an agreement between consenting adults.

    Yes, they still have the potential to raise their biological son or daughter.

    For medical reasons, my spouse and I have been unable (and, fortunately, unwilling) to have children from the get-go. Are we still married, as far as you are concerned? Should we be prevented from gaining the legal benefits of marriage unless we can demonstrate a certain fertility level?
    If so, how would you suggest this be implemented?
    If not, how does that differ from a same-gender couple?

  10. 10
    Leo Buzalsky

    In the first place, unless adoption or premarital sex is involved…

    And try adopting without being married. That pretty much cuts the options down to premarital sex. And then you have to have a fertile partner.

    Anyway, I’m a bit insulted by those who imply that marriage is primarily about raising children. Not going to go into that here, though.

  11. 11
    Jayman

    Janney, being raised by one’s biological parents has the advantage of allowing the child to know where he came from. The child’s biological parents are also more likely to be similar to him in other ways (e.g., physical and mental health, personality) and can provide the child with guidance on how to navigate obstacles they have already had to navigate themselves. It’s possible to endorse an alternative (e.g., adoption) without believing that alternative is the best way to raise a child in general.

    Robert B., your questions are very good. Morally I think prospective parents should plan for the financial and educational needs of their child. But legally we run into the problem of an overbearing and/or incompetent government. Income levels change and investigating a couple’s views on education or their reproductive health is difficult and invasive. By comparison, merely noting that a couple is of the same sex is straightforward.

    I am not for an outright ban on divorce but I think it should be more difficult to achieve than it is presently.

    I don’t deny that an orphan should be adopted and raised by a couple (homosexual or heterosexual) rather than left in an orphanage. However, I view this as making the best of a bad situation (e.g., unwanted pregnancy, unfit parents, a death). So I don’t view a same-sex couple that adopts children as worse than a heterosexual couple that adopts children. Nor do I view adoptive parents as worse than biological parents. I view someone who has unwanted pregnancies or is unfit to be a parent as (generally) worse than someone who takes great care in whether they will have children and how they will be raised.

    sosw, I am only biased against adoption in the sense that I don’t think someone should get pregnant with the intent of putting the child up for adoption. This does not mean foster parents or adoptive parents are bad people (far from it).

    Anri, not recognizing my marriage does not prevent me from doing anything. Oppression would involve, say, not allowing me to associate freely with other people. As long as I could associate with a woman I would not be oppressed even if the government did not consider us legally married.

    As I said to Robert B., I don’t think the government can or should investigate the reproductive health of couples, so I consider you married. Same-sex couples can be identified without invasive measures being taken. That is the difference between your marriage and a potential same-sex marriage.

    1. 11.1
      Robert B.

      Wait wait wait. You sound completely okay with adoption, regardless of the sexes involved. For example:

      I don’t view a same-sex couple that adopts children as worse than a heterosexual couple that adopts children.

      I don’t see how I could be reading that wrong. Same-sex adoptive parents are, in your view, just as good as opposite-sex ones.

      So where do you think gay couples get their kids? The stork?

      A gay couple who want to get married and adopt a child have no influence over how or why the kid came to be up for adoption. If they can’t get married, this will not give any kid their biological parents back. In other words, I don’t see how the action you suggest (making/keeping gay marriage illegal) would lead to the outcome you want (the greater welfare of children) even if your premises are all true.

    2. 11.2
      dorfl

      As I said to Robert B., I don’t think the government can or should investigate the reproductive health of couples, so I consider you married. Same-sex couples can be identified without invasive measures being taken. That is the difference between your marriage and a potential same-sex marriage.

      An 80-year old couple have roughly the same chance of having children as a gay male couple. That is, none.

      So you still end up having to conclude that the government should break up marriages around that age, or at least prohibit people of that age from marrying. At least if you consistently apply the arguments you have used for why same-sex marriage should not be allowed.

    3. 11.3
      Yellow Thursday

      Anri, not recognizing my marriage does not prevent me from doing anything.

      Minnesota (for example) is a joint property state with regards to real estate. When one gets married, one’s spouse automatically receives a joint interest in one’s real estate. If I inherit property (my mom’s house, let’s say), the title doesn’t just transfer to me, it transfers to me and my spouse, as joint tenants. If I then die, my spouse continues to own the property.

      Suppose my spouse and I were married in another state. If we’re an opposite-sex couple, Minnesota recognizes the marriage and the previous paragraph accurately describes what happens. If we’re a same-sex couple, Minnesota doesn’t recognize our marriage and none of the above happens. We have to hire an attorney to transfer the title to the two of us jointly. Otherwise, my spouse will not inherit the property if I die.

      How is this extra step and extra cost not discrimination against same-sex couples?

  12. 12
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    Jayman:

    I don’t view marriage as a civil right (i.e., it is not like the right to life, the right to free speech, and the like).

    there are some people who would disagree with you:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Declaration_of_Human_Rights
    Article 16
    (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

    This idea of marriage that you have, do you know where it came from? Did you research various forms of marriage in modern times? Did you explore the nature of marriage in ancient history? Did you search for information at all?

  13. 13
    Anri

    Anri, not recognizing my marriage does not prevent me from doing anything. Oppression would involve, say, not allowing me to associate freely with other people. As long as I could associate with a woman I would not be oppressed even if the government did not consider us legally married.

    Oh?
    Try filing jointly at tax-time.
    Try getting access to medical records, or being granted hospital visitation, or being able to make decisions if your partner is incapacitated.
    Check out property laws, or insurance rates, or really almost any other legal aspect of being married versus being not married. I believe the figure of roughly 1,000 benefits recognized legally under the umbrella of marriage has generally been accepted.
    Social recognition aside, there are plenty of reason why people that love one another bother with marriage.

    As I said to Robert B., I don’t think the government can or should investigate the reproductive health of couples, so I consider you married.

    Please note I didn’t identify my or my spouse’s genders.
    Are we married or not?
    If your answer is “I’d have to look into your and your spouse’s pants to be sure”, think about that for a bit.

    Same-sex couples can be identified without invasive measures being taken. That is the difference between your marriage and a potential same-sex marriage.

    But, wait a sec – if the point of marriage is the actual fact of reproductive capabilities, rather than just the appearance, does that make any sense at all? Why would you reward, in essence, a couple being able to fool the system?
    Would you support a same-gender couple if one could pass as the other gender, thus giving the appearance of a potentially reproductive couple? How long would they have to keep appearing that way? Just for the registrar? Through the ceremony? A few years? And what steps would be appropriate to attempt to uncover this type of deception?

    Who could a person who’s had gender-reassignment surgery marry? Someone the opposite of their initial gender? Or their current gender? What if they’re only halfway through the reassignment – hormones, but not actual cutting yet?

    Please notice that every single one of these problems fades completely when you just say “Hunh, marriage is between the adults, not any potential children.” In restricting marriage to only what you consider to be apparently cross-fertile people, aren’t you denying adults their basic rights in the (dubious) favor of hypothetical children?
    Is it wise to deny real people things based on people who don’t exist, and might never exist?

  14. 14
    David Hart

    I just hope I live to see the day when AI and robotics have progressed to the point that marriage between a man or woman and an android becomes conceivable. There are going to be some entertaining legal wranglisng then.

  15. 15
    Anri

    I take it Jayman’s all done now?

    1. 15.1
      Robert B.

      So it would appear. They seemed concerned with logical consistency – for example, they admitted that if the problem was biological parentage, then the combination of sexes in adoptive parents doesn’t matter. So it’s possible that Jayman was convinced or troubled by our counter-arguments.

      Though I was hoping they’d stay around long enough for me to use the hypothetical of a marriage between two men and one woman.

  16. 16
    prochoice

    The whole discussion forgets that “marriage” was redefined recently (the 1990´s).
    Before that it was legal rape – in ALL states of the Western world.
    And at least according to the catechism – something official of the Roman Catholic Church – it still is.
    The very notion of combining love and marriage is an invention of the 1830´s – a time where kitsch ran high and the middle classes formed economically.
    The founder of the other version of Xtianity, the monk Martin Luther, wrote (rough translation) “if a woman gets tired by pregnacies and dies, it does not matter, this is the reason for her existence”.
    So – good luck to all nice people who WANT to live together with someone. But I was born and raised to try my outmost NOT to get into any situation resembling what nowadays is called an abuse family.
    The real change is, maybe, the pill, the times when birth cohorts declined. The religious right wants back to the cruel time before that in each aspect.

  17. 17
    Zach Reese

    Yall are going to hell.

    1. 17.1
      Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

      Zach-
      Hell? What is that? Where is that? How do you know it is real and not made up like all other post-death fiery vacation spots?

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