My (unexpected) take on Prop 8 – Part One

This post started out as something else and evolved as I thought through it.  I’m still a little surprised at my conclusion but I think it’s the right one.  This is long so I’ve split it into two posts.  The second post will have my conclusion and what I’m planning on voting. 

image As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about and figuring out how to communicate, I think words are important.  Words are symbols that communicate commonly shared meaning and ideas.  Words mean what they mean because we agree they do, and they carry certain connotations/things with them. This is why some words are considered inappropriate to say, like the n-word.  Words are powerful.  When it comes to marriage, I think the word should be reserved for what marriage has historically been - a relationship between a man and a woman.

This isn't based in religion or bigotry.  In fact I believe the insistence on using the term "marriage" for gay marriage is an example of cultural intolerance and insensitivity, which are generally considered cardinal sins by those who call themselves progressive.  Let me see if I can explain it this way with a hypothetical scenario.  Given the time and energy I have this is the best I could do, as inadequate as it is.

Let's say there's a group of people who do this particular dance.  The dance requires three people, and it involves certain steps.  This dance is a big part of their culture and it tells the story of their people.  Children are taught about the dance from a young age, and most children take it up when they grow older.  Sometimes the people mess up the steps, sometimes they screw up the dance and quit in the middle of it - but it always has three people.  That's what the dance is.   A new group of people come in and they hear about the dance.  They like the dance and think it's cool, but instead of 3 people they want to do the dance with two.  This means some of the steps change, and the story that's communicated by the dance changes - but the new group likes to do the dance and thinks it's fun.  They're not really doing the same dance - but they're doing a dance that sort of looks like the other dance, but it's different and communicates something different.

The original group of people have always called their dance "Jaje."  To them, "Jaje" carries with it meaning and it's something that has been a cornerstone of their culture for a long time.  They would admit they haven't always done it right and sometimes they mess up, but they still value it and the story it tells.  The new group wants to call their dance by the same name.  They like the fact that Jaje is a respected and honored tradition - and while they don't want to dance the Jaje, they want to do a dance and they want everyone else to call it Jaje.  This new dance is different from the historic, traditional Jaje but the new group still thinks they should have the right to be considered equal even if their dance is different.  The original group suggests the new group call their dance something else, but the new group says that's hate and discrimination.  The old group says they are trying to hold on to their traditions and culture, and "Jaje" is part of that.  The new group says that times have changed, and Jaje doesn't mean that anymore; besides, if the original group cared about Jaje so much they'd never mess the steps up or quit dancing in the middle of it.

I think any anthropologist looking at this scenario would see the new group as overtaking the culture of the old group.  The old group would necessarily feel threatened, and while they can still do their Jaje dance, it seems like a bit of a jerk move by the new group to insist their new, different, inspired-by-the-original-Jaje dance be called the same thing even though it isn't the same thing.  I'm sure if Americans went over to some other country and started co-opting their cultural traditions we'd be considered "ugly Americans."  I obviously use this as an analogue to the gay marriage movement of today.

image I think gays should enjoy all the same rights as heterosexual couples.  The government should not discriminate based on sexual orientation when it comes to the benefits of domestic partnerships.  Truth be told, I would be happiest with the government getting out of the "marriage" business in the first place.  I wish the government could just have "domestic partnerships" that bestow the legal benefits of marriage, and both hetero and gay couples would apply for them.  The government should not be in the marriage business at all.  This is where the complexity comes in.  More on this with my next post, which will complete my thoughts on Prop 8 and tell you my vote.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jax,

First of all, I'd like to preface my comment with the statement that I agree completely that government shouldn't be involved in "marriage" and that equal rights should be given to all who participate in "domestic partnerships". I also am not as concerned as many about the definition or usage of the word "marriage" given that equal rights and benefits are provided for all. Furthermore, in this comment I am not trying to show that your conclusions about marriage or the proposition in question are wrong. I would like to say why I feel your analogy falls short. So essentially, if you said "I believe A implies B because of C", I am not arguing A or B, but rather C.

You create the analogy of a time-honored dance called "jaje" that has historically always been done by groups of three. You say that "sometimes the people mess up the steps", and that "sometimes they screw up the dance and quit in the middle of it". You then go on to ask us to imagine a new group that wants to perform the dance with four people and claim that "some of the steps [would] change, and the story that's communicated by the dance [would] change". I believe that is not an unconditional truth depending on the nature of the dance, and the way in which it "tells a story". I can easily imagine many alterations to a dance that could change it superficially, but that would still allow for the same "story" to be told, and to even have the same steps. However, if you define the dance to be a "three-person dance", then of course any four-person dance could not possibly be the same dance. However, the dance could just as easily be defined by the pattern of steps involved, or in the "story" it tells. It could also be defined as a dance where you can't quit in the middle of it. If that were the case, you could just as easily come to the conclusion that those who don't complete the dance must not have been dancing "jaje" at all. So I don't agree with your claim that the dance of the new group clearly could not, or should not be called "jaje". That conclusion could only be reached if the defining characteristic of the dance is that "it must be done by three people", as opposed to "historically it has been done by groups of three".

Using your own dance analogy, let's say that John and Jane can dance the Waltz. Can't a woman and another woman also dance the waltz? If you look out on a dance floor, see a pair of women following the exact same dance steps as John and Jane, grasping hands and waists (is that how the Waltz is done? I'm not a dancer...) in the exact same way, would you not say that they were also dancing the Waltz? This question is a lot more relevant to the discussion about marriage than the inclusion of a third person doing the Waltz. I think you would agree that two women dancing in the exact same manner as John and Jane would indeed be dancing the same dance that we call the Waltz! So the problem clearly isn't in the gender of the people involved, UNLESS that is part of your definition of the dance.

In your "jaje" example, you are implying that "jaje" is a dance that follows prescribed steps by "exactly three people". You have included the number of people involved in the definition, and can thereby claim that other dances that don't meet that condition must be a different dance. In that case I agree, but again, that only holds true if the number of people is indeed included in the definition of the dance.

What I am trying to show you here, is that I believe half of your argument is not necessarily true, and I believe the other half is a straw man argument. I say it is half a straw man argument, because it's easier to get people to agree that a dance is a different dance when performed by a different number of people, than the more relevant analogy that the people performing the dance are of different gender. I disagree with the rest of your argument, because it all hinges upon the claim that "jaje" is defined as being performed by exactly three people, and that marriages are defined as being only "between one man and one woman". It's not hard to prove your position if you assume from the beginning that your claim is correct. It all becomes circular. Obviously people who are for "gay marriages" would disagree that marriage being between "one man and one woman" would be a defining and necessary characteristic.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's assume that "marriage" must only be used to refer to the union of one man and one woman. Your post is stated to be not based on religion, so we must therefore conclude that this must be the case because "it's how it's always been done". You could say that marriage has historically been between a man and a woman, and that has been the rule for so long that anything that doesn't follow that rule shouldn't be called "marriage". However, tell me if I'm wrong, but hasn't another traditional characteristic of marriage been that it is between a man and a woman "till death do [they] part"? Isn't the traditional Christian concept of marriage as being a vow before (or even with) God between a man and a woman that is supposed to last until they die? If that's true, then couldn't the case be made that any "marriage" that ended in divorce, along with any subsequent marriages should not be considered "marriages" because they don't meet that fundamental characteristic?

I would argue (and I assume you agree with me) that even if a couple get a divorce, they were in fact married before. I also argue that the only reason we can say this, is because we don't include the "until death" clause as being a "necessary" condition in the definition of marriage. I would also go on to state that many people would disagree with me (us) and not recognize divorce because they feel that once that vow has been made, it can never be broken. So once again (*smack* Take that deceased horse!) I claim that your arguments about the proper usage of the word "marriage" all come down to your personal definition of what marriage is. People in support of gay marriage do not share that definition, and I don't feel your claims are supported or necessarily true.

That was a bit all over the place. I hope you get my objections to your analogy and underlying argument, and why I feel most of your claims are invalid without assuming up front that your definition of marriage is true.

That said, I want to reiterate that I don't necessarily disagree with your conclusions about the word "marriage", but rather your reasoning.

- Adam

p.s. Let's hang out sometime soon. I'd like to see you other than just when your car battery dies... ^_^

Jackson said...

Hey Adam, thanks for the long comment. I'll expect to hear more from you when my second half publishes tomorrow.

I think I get what you're saying about my analogy, and I know all analogies fall apart at some point. I think the difference lies in the fact that when I describe the dance as involving "three and only three people" and it "tells a story" the analogue to marriage is that I believe there is more to gender than appearance and I believe there is more to marriage than a social component.

That is, I believe our gender is more than a physical part of who we are. And I believe that in a marriage relationship the man and woman "fit" and "complete one another" in more than physical ways. It represents something and is something more than a social contract or physical relationship. By definition this sort of relationship is not possible between two people of the same gender. The "story" being told by a heterosexual marriage is different than the story being told by a gay marriage.

I chose the "amount of people" for the dance because it is not merely the appearance or the steps that can be imitated - the "story" is what's important more than the steps. That was also why I mentioned that the people mess up the steps sometimes or quite halfway through (divorce). The fact that a culture doesn't perfectly live up to something it values or always do it right does not mean the culture forfeits its right to that rite.

I'm not putting forward a straw man or a circular argument - I'm using the definitions a particular way on purpose, because of what I view marriage as. Now, when it comes to others not sharing that view - I totally agree.

I think you'll find when you read my conclusion (which you probably already have by the time you read this) that I reach some of the same conclusions you do, even if I get there differently.

Jackson said...

To elaborate better - you say my arguments come down to "my personal definition of what marriage is." I'm not disputing that, and there's a reason I'm not offering evidences or trying to get others to agree with my point of view in this regard. I still think my analogy holds up better than you, but it's because the analogy does work given my definition of marriage. One does not have to accept my definition of marriage - but when judging the consistency of my thought and analogy for its explanatory power you have to grant my assumptions.

The discussion of whether or not marriage is what I have defined it as, or whether my assumptions about gender/the soul/etc. are correct is separate from this particular discussion, if that makes sense.

Anyway, read my second post on Saturday and tell me what you think there. They really do go together.