It was almost a month ago that I launched the Birch Tree Challenge, and the discussion is still raging. It was a simple, tongue-in-cheek jibe at the main arguments raised by gay marriage advocates, implying that the same arguments could be applied to advocating marriage between a human and literally anything for which a person might feel affection. Objectors succeeded at pointing out that additional barriers exist when we step outside of marriage to humans — like finding legal avenues to make it possible to form contracts with plants. The main point, though, was to note that the very concept of gay “marriage” does violence to a universal human institution, and attempts to redefine “marriage”; worse, that it attempts to redefine marriage for no reason other than that somebody wants it to be so. So I pretended to want just as badly to wed my birch. Why should I not also be permitted to alter the meanings of words at my whim?
The central question here is what marriage is at its core. That’s what I’m doing here today: attempting to establish exactly what marriage is. It’s not easy.
One of my commenters, a philosophy professor called Joe H., posted what he considered to be a philosopher’s test for the core of a practice. Sadly, he posted this after I had turned my attention elsewhere, so it was never addressed soundly. Here’s some of what he said:
Philosophers spend most of their time distinguishing between the core or essential concepts informing a complex concept, and those concepts that, although they may have an enduring connection to the complex concept, and play an important role in the majority of concrete examples of a complex concept, are, nonetheless, nonessential.
One way they do this is by considering which of the informing concepts can be abandoned while still preserving the basic idea. Of the informing concepts I listed above, I’m confident you’ll agree that the existence of love, a license, procreation, male authority, and/or monogamy, although all intimately related to the concept of western marriage, are not essential to the concept. A marriage can exist without their presence.
The question is whether the limiting concept “opposite sex partners” can be abandoned without losing the basic idea of marriage. The answer to that question is, surprisingly, “yes…” This is proven by the fact that we can, and do, recognize that some same sex couples are married -while others are not.
What Joe actually accomplishes in his “test” is to make human institutions subject to modern public relations campaigns: if any activist can make a phrase common enough in peoples’ minds that they’re no longer shocked by the sheer inconsistency and stupidity of it, then naturally that phrase must be part of the core concept. I hope I don’t have to explain at length why that’s intellectually unacceptable, which it plainly is.
The reaction of the contemporary, advertising-saturated Western mind to the phrase “gay marriage” is hardly a sound test for the core human practice of marriage. I don’t mean to denigrate philosophy as a practice, nor the West as a culture, but marriage is a human practice that occurs in every civilization, so the core of it should be defined by anthropologists and sociologists, not contemporary Western philosophers, and it should be based on a comparison of all human occurrances of marriage, not just what sounds congruent in Western ears.
So, I set myself to find a good, comprehensive anthropological survey of marriage practices around the globe throughout history. I don’t think I’ve found it yet, though I think Kingsley Davis’ 1985 opus Contemporary Marriage: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Institution may come close to what I want. I did not have time to hunt down Davis’s book — I’ll get to it eventually — though I did find an enlightening article in the 2001 Louisiana Law Review by Maggie Gallagher that was based in part on Davis’ definition, which I will quote below.
Before that, though, I did a survey in my own mind of literature that depicts marriage through history and around the globe. I thought about the Islamic model shown in Moolaade’, film by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, in which a dominant male subjugated multiple wives by sex, beating, and genital mutilation. I thought about Tevye and Golde and their many daughters, the couple on which the musical Fiddler on the Roof was based; Tevye trying to preserve traditional control over his children while his daughters ran off and married for love. I thought about the Bible’s Jacob providing labor for his bride’s family for 14 years (a practice that was apparently mirrored in ancient Japan as well,) and how his wives competed with each other for his affection by producing children as rapidly as possible. I thought about Mary Renault’s heavily-researched recreation of ancient Greece (titles include The Bull From the Sea, The Mask of Apollo, The Praise Singer, and several others), in which ordinary families stuck to a nuclear model while the upper crust diverted themselves with heteiras (courtesans) and lovers and ignored their nuclear families — which families nonetheless held absolute rights to both property and surname. I thought about the Bengali marriage in the film The Namesake, where a traditional Indian family attempted to raise their children and preserve their culture in America.
The thing that leapt out at me as I thought about all these different practices was the children. Joe was absolutely wrong when he asserted with confidence that procreation is not central to marriage. We may be able to envision marriages without children, but the practice around the world is clearly about creating a social and legal environment where children are produced and trained. To say that the existence of couples who marry but don’t reproduce means that reproduction is not central to marriage, is as sensible as saying that the existence of people who collect, restore, and show historical automobiles means that automobiles are not about transportation. Historically, a childless couple was a curse, like an automobile that wouldn’t run. The modern, deliberately childless couple is an historical aberration. Tellingly, the appearance of the cultural acceptance of childless marriages corresponds perfectly to nations where the birth rate has fallen below replacement level.
Marriage is about much more than just reproduction, though; it’s about the passage of property by inheritance, and about passing along cultural norms and history. Marriages in most cultures provide the legal structure within which family property is preserved, and by which family fortunes are enhanced and strengthened. Marriages in most cultures create the environment where the passing of cultural traditions to children takes place, or at least where the authority for doing so remains centered. Marriage, at its core, is about perpetuating species and culture.
Moreover, marriage is about the legal recognition and endorsement of the means of perpetuating species and culture. In every complex culture where it appears, marriage is endorsed and officially recognized by the ruling legal authority; Joe was also absolutely wrong when he voiced his confidence that a license was not part of the core concept of marriage. Gay advocates actually conform to this view when they insist that the state must formally recognize gay unions as “marriage” — otherwise, they would be content with gay unions without formal legal recognition.
Gallagher, cited above, condenses the anthropological picture this way:
But what every known human society calls marriage shares certain basic, recognizable features, including most especially the privileges accorded to the reproductive couple in order to protect both the interests of children and the interests of the society. As Kingsley Davis sums up the anthropological impulse of marriage: “The unique trait of what is commonly called marriage is social recognition and approval . . . of a couple’s engaging in sexual intercourse and bearing and rearing offspring.”
Marriage is everywhere the word we use to describe a publicly acknowledged and supported sexual union between a man and woman which creates rights and obligations between the couple and any children the union may produce. Marriage as a public tie obligates not only fathers, but fathers’ kin to recognize the children of this union. In every society, marriage is the sexual union where childbearing and raising is not only tolerated but applauded and encouraged. Marriage is the way in which every society attempts to channel the erotic energies of men and women into a relatively narrow but highly fruitful channel…
While marriage systems differ, marriage across societies is a public sexual union that creates kinship obligations and sharing of resources between men, women, and the children their sexual union may produce.
She also notes that historically, marriage is normative. That is, each culture’s law surrounding marriage not only protects the ability of the culture to reproduce itself, but declares to the culture at large what is the appropriate and expected behavior of its members.
Above all, normal marriage is normative. Marriage is not primarily a way of expressing approval for infinite variety of human affectional or sexual ties; it consists, by definition, of isolating and preferring certain types of unions over others. By socially defining and supporting a particular kind of sexual union, the society defines for its young what the preferred relationship is and what purposes it serves.
The last point is important. Not all love relationships deserve the legal preference called “marriage,” nor do all sexual relationships. It’s the ones that perpetuate the species and the culture in a manner that benefits society at large that deserve that preference. Other relationships may produce children, may train children, may celebrate love and personal commitment, but not all such relationships are called “marriages.” The legal imprimatur “marriage” says to the culture, “This is the vehicle we prefer for reproducing ourselves, and for the passing of culture and property to future generations.” It involves a clear statement of social approval.
By noting that marriage is normative, we recognize that marriage is not a universal human right; on the contrary, it is a near-universal human obligation. Individuals may choose not to marry, or may choose to engage in social relationships that do not reproduce; but a general, social approval remains for those who actively engage in reproducing the species and the culture, and that approval appears in all cultures as the legal endorsement of marriage. Those who choose not to marry, or who choose to marry but not to reproduce, step outside the primary cycle of life, and adopt practices that do not deserve full societal recognition. We Americans approve of individual liberty, and will not punish those who freely choose such practices; but neither ought we reward them. Marriage is something special.
Honesty requires that I add a personal note: I’m taking a self-deprecating position here. You see, both Shelly and I reproduced in previous marriages, and then chose (separately) to divorce our reproductive spouses, and later (together) to marry each other. Furthermore, we chose deliberately for our new union to be childless; I underwent a vasectomy. So my current “marriage” is one that actually violates the norm I’m advocating here. A public blog is not the place for me to defend my choice to divorce the mother of my children, nor to defend Shelly’s choice to divorce the father of hers, but I will say this much: Jewish jurisprudence would recognize both our reasons as legitimate, though modern evangelical Christian opinion may not. I would be willing to accept lower legal status than that of reproducing couples, if the culture decides to adopt such a legal structure; but that’s cheap martyrdom, since I’m certain the American culture will not so decide.
So there we have it. Marriage is a normative cultural expression for channeling sexual drives into reproduction, creating a legal and social construct in which humans reproduce their culture and their species and pass along their property. It always involves legal recognition, and it always involves opposite genders. What gays do with each other may be loving, may be sexual, may be legal, but it is not marriage. That’s not a moral or religious assessment, but a human, sociological one.