Sunday, December 8, 2013

Redefining "Marriage" or, I don't think he actually cares

I was watching Rick Warren (who seems to be a very nice man) talk about homosexuality. He didn't advance many of the usual arguments against gay marriage. Perhaps he feels, as I do, that there may be good arguments against the government discriminating between citizens based on their sexual identity but also feels, as I do, that he hasn't seen them yet.

But Mr. Warren did make the "redefinition" argument and added a twist. Specifically, he asserted that one group of people don't have the right to redefine a word used by another group (as an example, that, as a Christian, he wouldn't be allowed to redefine a Muslim term). Unfortunately, "this dog don't hunt," either.

The Marriage Word
Words, of course, get redefined all the time. "Silly" originally meant something like "innocent" and was closely allied to "saintly." Long before "worship" was a verb, it was a noun.

And, of course, Mr. Warren's issue could be seen as just another example of how people object to any change in the language: We all seem to feel that the English language achieves perfection about the time we were in grade 6 and that any change after that is a degradation in the language. Normally, I regard these complaints as harmless idiosyncrasies (and I share some of them: I am so grateful that "gifted" isn't more popular). But Mr. Warren wants to use this argument to have the government impose limitations on its tax-paying citizens, to pick and choose among citizens based on their sexual preferences. That seems to be taking an affection for the language to an extreme.

Mr. Warren makes the claim that throughout the world, the word "marriage" means a union between a man and a woman, with a commitment. Well, first off, that's wrong. In many parts of the world (and in the Bible that Mr. Warren draws on) marriage means a union between a man and multiple women. He does recognize, apparently, that love isn't often involved: In many parts of the world, a couple's marriage is still arranged between the two parents and whatever commitment occurs grows out of that.

More importantly, this isn't actually the definition of marriage throughout history and the world. The actual definition, based on how the word is actually used, is "the union between a man and a woman of the same ethnic background and religious affiliation". Mr. Warren knows very well that, until relatively recently, a Jew could not marry a Christian, a Muslim marry a Jew, or even (for much of our history) a Protestant marry a Catholic. This was often enforced by church policy, government laws, and social structures: an unbeatable trinity. And that's just the limitations related to religion: Marrying outside of your ethnic group (or even social class) was also forbidden by these same three controls (marriage between whites and blacks, for instance, was explicitly forbidden by law in many parts of the US as late as 1967--a law supported by over 80% of total US population at the time of its repeal). The reason we have the term "mixed race marriage" is because the term "marriage" didn't cover, and specifically excluded, marriages between people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Generally speaking, we've been redefining marriage consistently over the last century by removing these restrictions. Mr. Warren is apparently comfortable with these redefinitions because, I guess, they were made by heterosexuals (though, I bet, lots of closeted homosexuals supported those changes). It would be churlish of me to point out that Mr. Warren (and his congregation) have also benefited from these redefinitions...but I will. Extending marriage to include homosexuals would not, of course, benefit Mr. Warren...and Mr. Warren is opposed to that change.

But moving on from "marriage," we, including Mr. Warren, have redefined lots of important words. "Citizen," for instance started out as white, male, property owners, considerably older than 18 or 21--not the current definition by a long shot. As another example (apropos of Mr. Warren), Martin Luther led a pretty radical redefinition of Christianity. Mr. Warren seems to be pretty comfortable with that redefinition, too. Again, it would be churlish of me...

And all of these words were redefined by the people they applied to with the participation of the people the words didn't (at that time) apply to. Mr. Warren would like 'marriage' to be treated differently and only changed by a specific group...a group whose definition he doesn't want to be too specific about.

"Us" and "Them"
Which leads to the part that Mr. Warren has added: Mr. Warren distinguishes between 'us' (who own the term "marriage," apparently) and 'them' (who do not). He disingenuously introduces this as a limit on his powers (he shouldn't be allowed to change a Muslim term) but the problem is that we Christian/English/North American/European speakers been doing these kinds of redefinitions of "other people's" terms since time began and no one--including Mr. Warren--has complained.

Based on this new rule, for example, Mr. Warren should be very upset about the way the Hindu word "Brahmin" (meaning a priestly caste in Hindu) has been redefined by English speakers (to mean a member of upper society). Based on this rule, he should also be incensed at the way that Christians like himself have redefined the Muslim word "Mecca" to mean any notable destination that an identifiable group of people make a point of going to. I assume that he has advocated that several levels of government take action on this or that there should be a constitutional amendment about it.

No, wait, he hasn't. In fact, the only redefinition he objects to is "gay marriage" which is, of course, because this redefinition pertains to an actual practice--and it's the practice that he objects to. Mr. Warren wants to use this previously unknown law of linguistics to not to limit himself but to limit other people.

Which leads to the core problem with Mr. Warren's new law of linguistics: who are these are "other people"? Mr. Warren talks about the definition of "marriage" around the world--obviously Mr. Warren doesn't believe that "marriage" is a specifically Christian, American, or even North American/European term. It's hard, therefore, to determine whom the two groups he thinks are in conflict here are, "around the world," since the group that he feels owns the term "marriage" is so diverse. His Christian vs. Muslim distinction doesn't even begin to cover this spread.

But I'm being disingenuous: Obviously, Mr. Warren feels that it's people who support gay marriage that aren't like 'him.' They may be Americans, as Mr. Warren is, and they may call themselves Christians, as Mr. Warren does, but they aren't 'him' (normally, at this point, I would also say they are tax payers like Mr. Warren but, I assume, Mr. Warren as a religious leader doesn't pay opposed to the people who he wants to prevent from marrying). There is at least one other point of distinction: at least some of 'them' serve in the armed forces, as Mr. Warren does not and never has.

In fact, Mr. Warren is probably thinking of heterosexuals vs. homosexuals (except, of course, many heterosexuals believe that marriage should be independent of 'sexual identity'). Mr. Warren, I suspect, wants to say that "marriage" is a 'heterosexual word' that homosexuals shouldn't meddle with (and a word that heterosexuals can define any way they want: restricting by ethnic group/religion and including polygamy, as examples). He doesn't say this out loud because (I suspect) he realizes that it sounds stupid but that seems to be the idea he wants people to take away.

And, besides, how do you decide what words are "heterosexual words"? Is 'queer' a heterosexual word because it was originally used by heterosexuals to denigrate homosexuals? Should homosexuals, as a result, not have been allowed to 'redefine' it when they reclaimed it as a term of gay pride ("We're here and we're queer--get used to it.")? How about "gay"? Isn't that a "heterosexual" word? Under that rule aren't all words "heterosexual words"? If so, doesn't that mean there are no words that homosexuals can say are "theirs"? Mr. Warren's rule just a way to give him all the power and for no one else to have any.

Of course, it's a 'heterosexual word' because Mr. Warren and other heterosexuals have asked for it to be enforced as such by the government of both heterosexuals and homosexuals. In other words: after insisting that the term shouldn't be used by 'homosexuals' and should only be used by 'heterosexuals' (like himself), he then insists that 'homosexuals' shouldn't mess with the term that he's excluded them from. This would be roughly similar to saying, at various points in American history, that "voter" shouldn't be redefined to include Blacks or Asians because the term had never been applied to them: it was a "white" term.

How Did He Get Here?
I appreciate Mr. Warren's attention to the language but I don't think he actually cares. I suspect that Mr. Warren knows very little about how the language works or changes over time and is, instead, desperately trying to find some secular reason on which to base his demands on legislators. But his argument fails on every level: "marriage" has always had its meaning redefined, the distinction he makes between people who are allowed to make changes to this word and those who are not allowed doesn't exist, and he's perfectly happy with many other redefinitions that benefit him.

Mr. Warren's obviously an intelligent man (read his book, "The Purpose-Driven Life"). What "purpose" could drive him to adopt an argument that even five seconds thought shows fails completely at every point? I suspect that Mr. Warren has religious commitments that oblige him to this position on gay marriage (in much the same way that members of the Southern Baptist Convention found that their beliefs obliged them to support segregation). I suspect that he feels that his religious beliefs do not form an adequate reason for asking for the government to pass laws that distinguish between tax-paying American citizens--to pick winners and losers in the marriage arena. He's grasped this "redefinition" argument as a possible reason and, as a desperate man, didn't want to spend much time examining it too closely. That's good because it doesn't bare any kind of examination.

As I said, there may be good arguments against gay marriage. I haven't seen any yet. And neither, apparently, has Mr. Warren.

Reading or read


Anonymous said...

I agree that same sex marriage should be legal. I would like to ask what your opinion is on polygamy? I find it odd that most people that say same sex marriage should be legal is against polygamist marriages. by the way, I am for same sex marriage and polygamy. It is none of my business who loves who, correct?

Peter Vogel said...

Well, first let me point out that I didn't actually advocate for gay marriage--just that this argument advanced by Mr. Warren doesn't work and it's hard to explain why he would expect it to succeed. However, in the absence of a good argument against, I obviously feel that the government shouldn't legislate against its citizens.

With polygamy I'm not sure I've heard good arguments against making it illegal, either. And, allowing consenting adults to enter into whatever contracts they want is a compelling argument.

However, there are complicated issues with any kind of marriage must address: division of assets, child custody, etc. Children are a special issue because, not being adults, they can't be considered participants in a contract.

Thanks to years of heterosexual marriage we have lots of laws around marriage between couples--we don't have that with polygamous marriages. So we have no settled law around how to handle this issue. Nor do we, to the best of my knowledge, have settled law in other countries that share our legal traditions that we could use as guidance.

There's two ways to handle this absence of settled law. One is to allow polygamous marriages and let the courts address the issues as they come up. Obviously, not a good solution. The other way to address this issue of settled law is to have the government work out the laws and then allow polygamist marriages. I think that the second approach would, effectively, mean denying polygamist marriage.

So what do we do? I wouldn't at this time advocate for polygamist marriage. I would, however, support people who wanted to advocate for adults freely entering into contracts that would look very much like polygamist marriage. As we developed some understanding of what looks like good answers to these questions I could see moving to classifying these relationships as marriage.