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Love and Narriage
2005.03.08 (Tue) 20:13
An interesting discussion has arisen in the blogosphere, including such notable bloggers as Ed Brayton, Timothy Sandefur, Jon Rowe and Jason Kuznicki. The discussion concerns the relative merits and drawbacks of allowing gay marriage and, by extension, polygamy — which some see as a natural logical progression from allowing gay marriage, and others see as a horse of an entirely different color. We've been following along with interest as this discussion progressed; now we'd like to weigh in with our own opinions on the matter.
First, the easy one: gay marriage. Despite the controversy surrounding this issue, we'd lay odds that within a generation or two (at most), gay marriage will not only be legal, but commonly accepted as normal. As we see it, there are three main categories that most people who object to gay marriage fall into: those who object on religious grounds, those who object on non-religious but still discriminatory grounds, and those — most often of older generations — who are simply uncomfortable with the idea of marriage being anything other than a bond between a man and a woman. Of course, there are many other reasons to object to gay marriage — we touch on some of them below — but these three seem to be the most prevalent. If there is an argument that we've missed, let us know. (No cheating and saying "it's illegal" — the point here is that people are objecting to the legalization of gay marriage.)
The first two categories we can dismiss quickly: the government cannot allow religious or intolerant precepts to shape the laws of our nation. It's that simple — these people's only arguments against gay marriage are either religious or bigoted, and our Constitution and the associated federal laws make it quite clear that neither of these viewpoints can be endorsed by our government. Endorsement of religion is prohibited by the First Amendment; government-sponsored bigotry and intolerance are prohibited (in various forms) by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth amendments. The wide variety of anti-discrimination laws — regarding such diverse matters as employment opportunities, education, and suffrage — demonstrates two things quite clearly: one, our legislators are remarkably short-sighted and unimaginative when composing them; and two, since every generation adds new legislation to forbid discrimination against a "new" category of people, obviously our laws are meant to protect all categories of people — even the ones our legislators haven't gotten around to protecting yet (see number one).
The last category of gay marriage opponents require a more careful and sensitive solution. Many of the members of previous generations — for example, our parents and our parents' parents — simply don't like the idea of gay marriage, or just have a problem with the idea of calling it "marriage." These are the folks who are often in favor of "civil unions," and are commonly in favor of granting to civil unions all of the benefits derived from marriage...as long as we don't call it marriage. So, as far as they're concerned, gays can marry — provided they call it something other than "marriage."
To these people, we pose a question: would it really help matters if we called it, say, "narriage"? Would it really make it more palatable if two gay men or women could get narried, but not married? If so, we'd need to add an entirely new section to the law, regarding narriage contracts. We could copy and paste the majority of the marriage contract laws, with just a few tweaks here and there (including a search-and-replace which substitutes "narriage" for "marriage"). We could build up a new industry catering especially to narriage (and if Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is any indication, those neddings would be fabulous). Every insurance form, medical form, tax form and census questionnaire would need to be amended to include a checkbox for "narried" — and perhaps another two for "nivorced" and "nidowed," in case you want to drive the point home that these homosexuals were never married in the first place. An entirely new branch of vocabulary would open up, recognizing the existence of narriage, nivorce, nusbands and nives, even nildren!
...or does this all seem somewhat silly and exclusionary?
And, see, that's the point — why come up with a wholly new semantic world just to describe something which we essentially already have? In fact, as evidenced by BushCo's push for a federal amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, we wouldn't even have to rewrite the laws to include gay marriage — marriage laws can be read to already allow them. The fact that eleven states have rushed to reword their legislation to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman strongly suggests that marriage was not defined that way originally, no matter what the neo-conservatives would have us believe.
Here's a wake-up call: calling gay marriage something other than "marriage" is just as hurtful and exclusionary as not allowing gays to marry at all. What good is it allowing gays "equal rights" when the actual inequality of it is invoked every time it is discussed?
"I got married last week!"
"Congratulations! I got narried last week!"
"Oh, you're gay." And that's the end of that conversation.
The truth is: marriage is much more a secular institution than a religious one — no matter what the Religious Right would have us think. Having a religious ceremony to celebrate your marriage really has no legal significance, because that alone will not grant you the rights, benefits and privileges of marriage that the government grants; you still have to get a secular license from the government to get all the important stuff. On the other hand, getting a legal marriage license without holding a religious ceremony (say, for instance, getting married by a civil servant) still confers those rights upon you and your marriage partner.
So each religious community is certainly free to make its own rules surrounding what kinds of marriage ceremonies it will or will not perform and recognize, but the government must recognize any type of marriage and convey the same overarching rights and privileges to any married persons, regardless of their choice of partner (or partners...which we'll get to in a moment!).
The most important point is that marriage is a simple legal contract, like any other legal contract. It is a sort of "incorporation" of the married parties as a single entity with regard to certain laws (rights, benefits, privileges and obligations). There is no difference between this contract and any other which the government recognizes as legally binding. The particular clauses — what is expected of the involved parties and the state, as well as what benefits they gain — are, of course, specific to marriage; just as the contracts required to form any corporate entity have clauses relevant to the nature and purpose of that entity.
Because marriage is a legal contract, no individuals interested in entering into a marriage contract should be prevented from doing so. This means that, as with any other such contract, the government that grants the rights conferred by the contract cannot discriminate on the basis of race (which it used to), sex (which it still does), religion, or any other factor — beyond the issue of the interested individuals being human beings (a clear line can be drawn at species, for now, since we have no definitive way to establish a non-human's behavior as consensual) and of legal age to enter into legally binding contracts (because minors, in general, cannot be burdened with or trusted with legal autonomy, and therefore cannot offer legal consent).
This demand that the government no longer discriminate against any intention to marry, made by consenting human adults, applies — as much as some might wish otherwise — across the board. This means, too, that the government should not be discriminating against pluralistic marriages, with more than two interested parties entering the marriage contract.
Pluralistic marriage has been the stickler for some of the bloggers discussing this issue. Some see it as acceptable, if not desirable, while others name a whole host of problems they expect from allowing pluralistic marriage. However, the problems they address seem to us to be either irrelevant or independent of the existence of pluralistic marriage.
For example, Jon Rowe says:
The desire for men to have more than one wife stems from the fact that men -- especially the more dominant, Alpha types -- seek to spread their seed farther and wider than other males. Richard Posner, in Sex & Reason, estimates that in our evolutionary state, only one half of the male population actually mated and they mated with the entire crop of fertile female women.
This is the natural explanation for why polygamy not only has been so cross-culturally widespread, but also almost always one-man, many women. And given that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, widespread polygamy invariably equates with significant numbers of males with no female mates. That is unfair and wrong. And that's what we seek to avoid by outlawing polygamy.
...We outlaw polygamy for precisely the same policy reason why we would demand the recognition of gay marriage: the meaningful chance for any individual to marry a person they love. The gay man, like the single-unlucky male in a polygamous society cannot marry any person he loves.
So it's "unfair and wrong" to men who wouldn't be able to find a date? And that's a good enough reason to make it illegal? To us, any bachelor who actually used this excuse to protest the institution of pluralistic marriage would be guilty of fiat by whining. And that "single-unlucky male in a polygamous society" could find it just as hard to marry the "person he loves" if he were living in a monogamous society. To quote Milo Bloom of Berke Breathed's Bloom County:
There is no guarantee of "luck in love" by biological or Constitutional law. Many men in our monogamous society end up lifelong bachelors, and that's just the luck of the draw. Or are we to believe that the desirable female who is spurned by a desirable polygamous male will jump at the chance to hook up with the single and unlucky (presumably because he is undesirable) male? Hey, we appreciate romantics, but that's just a little unrealistic. Whether in a polygamous or monogamous society: some got it, some don't. We could even argue just as successfully (though we don't really believe it) that a society with pluralistic marriage offers the unlucky male a better chance at love, since married females are technically still available — if their marriage partners are interested in allowing the single male to join up.
Jon goes on to say:
I'll...focus on one women, many men. Human nature tells us that this won't happen to the degree that one-man, many women will. Human nature tells us that if widespread polygamy is allowed, its most common form will be one-man, many women and this invariably leads to large numbers of men without mates.
There are two issues here: the biological and the sociological.
Biologically, we might agree with Jon: the tendency for men to cast a wide net (spreading as much genetic material as possible), and for women to cast a tighter, narrow net (seeking stability and protection) seems to be a common biological drive. However, it is not universal: polyandry (one woman, many men) is common among many species, such as birds and bees. Chimpanzees, our closest biological relatives, often form societies where both males and females mate promiscuously — and in fact, the "weaker" male chimpanzees often get lucky with a promiscuous female when the alpha male isn't looking. One proposed reason for female chimpanzees' promiscuity is to deliberately confuse paternity of their offspring; male chimps are known to kill infants that are not their own.
However, we think that the real issue that makes polygamy more common than polyandry among humans is, by this point in time, more sociological than biological. Pluralistic marriage has been embraced but strictly regulated in cultures such as fundamentalist Islam, and firmly rejected (despite its ubiquitous presence in the bible, which seems to govern so many similar cultural norms!) by Western civilization. Looking at these mere two examples by no means enables us to make judgments concerning "human nature" — especially since the justifications for the mating patterns in both of these societies is derived from their religious traditions, rather than biological imperatives. The question to ask is: would pluralistic marriage still retain a predominantly polygamous structure if we permitted it in Western society today, in light of the development of fair and equal treatment of the sexes? Perhaps; perhaps not. (No fair cheating and pointing at the Mormons — their marriage habits are based on religion, too!) Either way, the statistical pattern of pluralistic marriage is hardly a good reason to outlaw it.
Other arguments against pluralistic marriage suggest that it is largely non-consensual or abusive — this is a giant red herring. Put simply, pluralistic marriage is a marriage between more than two partners — even though some pluralistic marriages may be non-consensual or abusive. It's like outlawing a specific carpenters' tool because it has the capacity to be used as a weapon — not everyone would use the tool anyway, but the people who want it, and would use it carefully and appropriately, are now suddenly forbidden to use it, and cannot live their lives as they wish, despite the fact that doing so would not bother anybody else.
The reason why people might choose a pluralistic marriage — whether religious or otherwise — simply does not matter. Nor does it matter exactly how they choose to structure their marriage — as long as it is a matter decided upon by consenting adults, it is still just a legal contract. Sure, marriage contracts for pluralistic marriages won't necessarily be standard — neither are pre-nuptial agreements — but they wouldn't be any more complex than incorporation contracts between multiple partners. And after doing a few, we'd have the standards covered; new ones would only be needed when we diverge from monogamy even further. "You seven people want to enter a marriage with completely equal rights? Well, we've got an equal rights marriage contract for six, so we can work that up for you."
The same lack of rationality under scrutiny seems to exist for all of the common arguments against pluralistic marriage that we've seen. You say the state shouldn't support your thirty kids that you have with your four wives? Well, the state shouldn't have to support your thirty kids if you have them with one wife; that's a welfare issue, not a pluralistic marriage issue. You think pluralistic marriages are forced on unwilling participants? The same thing could just as easily happen in a monogamous marriage, and does: that's what an arranged marriage is. You say people will join pluralistic marriages for convenience, to benefit from their married status? It already happens: the "marriage of convenience" is a well-known social phenomenon among monogamous marriages.
In short: any of the abuses that might result from legalizing pluralistic marriages already exist within monogamous marriages.
The question really becomes one of where exactly to draw the line. Jon Rowe lists five categories of marriage, all condemned either in the past or the present in various parts of the world: miscegenation, homosexual marriage, pluralistic marriage, bestiality, and incest.
We'd like to think (though we know it's not universally true) that we live in a day and age when nobody would think twice about interracial marriages anymore, so that covers miscegenation. Homosexuality? As we've stated, we believe homosexuals, like anyone else, should have every right to enter into marriage contracts. We clearly support legalizing pluralistic marriage, for the reasons already discussed. And we mentioned the problem with bestiality above — we cannot definitively establish a non-human's consent to any behavior, and therefore cannot allow them to be a party to a legal agreement.
That brings us to incest. We know this might surprise some — but we fully support the legalization of incest.
Let's clarify that: while we have no desire to marry our relatives — just as we have no desire to enter into a homosexual marriage (because we're not gay) or a pluralistic marriage (because we're not interested) — we fully support the rights of any individuals who wish to marry consenting relatives of legal age.
Again, it comes down to finding a logical, rational reason why this should be disallowed — a reason that cannot be similarly applied to any already "mainstream" form of marriage. And again, the usual suspects crop up: abuse, coercion, marrying minors. These are all problems that can develop in any marriage. The bonus question for incest is, of course, the supposedly increased chance of birth defects. However, while the odds of congenital defects do increase in inverse proportion to the genetic distance between the two parents, there is also a higher risk of, say, Down syndrome in cases where both parents have Down syndrome — but we would (we hope!) consider it abhorrent to legally forbid a couple to wed simply because they both have Down syndrome. For that matter, we also have evidence that congenital defects, including Down syndrome, are more likely to occur when older women give birth...and nobody is lining up to pass legislation to prevent women over the age of 35 from getting married.
So yet again, it comes down to the fact that any abuses that might result from legalizing incestuous marriage can already occur in non-incestuous marriages. As a result, we can't find a valid argument against it.
What is the actual purpose of a marriage? From what we've seen, how this question is answered can also greatly influence a person's views on all of the types of "alternative" marriages we have discussed. Different people would give you entirely different answers, most of which would be correct in only specific cases. In the history of humankind, marriage has been used as a form of barter, as an impetus for alliance, and as a baby factory, just to name a few. In our society, we would scoff at the first two, but many would vociferously defend the third: marriage, they say, is entered into with the express purpose of making and raising children. Yet aren't there many non-incestuous, heterosexual, same-race two-member marriages that produce no children? We don't outlaw those, do we?
It all comes back to matrimony simply being a legal contract. A marriage is nothing more than a "contractual entity." If you choose to assign religious or traditional significance to your marriage, have a blast — we wouldn't dream of stopping you. But the marriage itself is a legally recognized entity that exists for the purpose of providing a support network for its members: legally, financially, emotionally, and socially. That is its purpose — its only legal purpose, since the "deal" that the government makes with a matrimonial entity only covers these factors. As such, the marriage contract should be granted to any group of two or more consenting adults who wish to support each other legally, financially, emotionally and socially. Anything else is beside the point.
With us, it will always come down to a simple, basic fact — if no one else is being harmed in any way by your actions, whatever you want to do is fine with us. Just respect us enough to return the favor, and we'll fight for all of our rights.
We've all heard the argument that it's easy to be in favor of free speech until someone says something that you disagree with — the true essence of free speech is having the stomach to defend that speech which offends us most. The same can be said here. While we may personally find the idea of someone marrying their three sisters and two brothers to be an unappealing and revolting proposition, to the people actually involved, such a homosexual/pluralistic/incestuous love hexagon might be their idea of pure bliss. And who the hell are we to tell them otherwise?
[A Brief Caveat: Our purpose in this Rant was to approach these topics from a purely academic standpoint — investigating the logic and reason behind the various arguments for and against different forms of marriage.
What we are not trying to do is equate all of these different forms of marriage as "causes" — that is, we are not suggesting that all proponents of gay marriage must also support the legalization of pluralistic marriage or incest when arguing in the political arena.
The fact that thousands of gay couples are seeking equal marriage rights obviously makes gay marriage a much more pressing concern — politically — than, say, incestuous marriage, the demands for which are as close to zero as to make no difference. However, if a particular couple were denied their right to an incestuous marriage, we would support them, since we haven't yet seen a convincing argument against such marriages.
The point is, this Rant is not written from a political point of view, but rather an intellectual point of view. We humbly request that you read it with this in mind.]
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