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Weblog Category: Society

On the Definition of Marriage

by Brian C. Christensen

I recently attended a meeting on the California proposition that would amend the state constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Many impassioned pleas were made from all sides of the issue. It was clear that people could be for or against it for many different reasons. Some I could sympathize with, others not. Let me explain why.

I have just finished my Master's degree in Computer Science with an emphasis in Information Modeling, a specialty that deals with identification of important concepts and naming them. Finding the right name for something seems like it should be an easy thing, but it is often frustratingly difficult. Despite our best efforts, it is sometimes impossible to find a name that is both precise and simple.

To illustrate why this may be relevant to the discussion on the marriage amendment, I'll quote C. S. Lewis. This is from his introduction to Mere Christianity. He is explaining why he advocates a particular definition of the word "Christian".

Far deeper objections may be felt--and have been expressed--against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?" or "May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?" Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said--so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—"Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?" They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. ... As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose. …

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to "the disciples", to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. ... The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. … [1]

In the meeting mentioned above, I heard the term marriage being questioned in the same way. One person argued that because many male/male couples or female/female couples are more loving than some male/female couples, they should be entitled to the term "marriage". Isn't this argument completely irrelevant for the same reasons Lewis mentioned in his examples? The term "marriage" has never meant that the two participants were ideal examples of loving each other. It simply meant a legal union of a man and a woman.

The term marriage has a well established meaning and a long history. Even with the recent controversy, most people, if asked what a marriage is, would answer that a marriage consists of a husband married to a wife. Marriage has even been used in tutorials on Information Modeling (on the Internet and in text books) because the authors expect everyone to understand it that way.

Is there a name for the legal union of a couple who are both of the same sex? Because this is such a new phenomenon, the terminology is still evolving. Two of the most common terms are "civil union" (in many states) and "domestic partnership" (in other states, including California).

Given that these relationships have what appear to be perfectly good names, why are some people insisting that the term marriage should be used in a new way, to refer to same-sex couples? An argument mentioned in the meeting was that because the laws for marriages and domestic partnerships are different, the domestic partners are being denied their civil rights. Certainly depriving people of their rights is a bad thing, but changing the definition of marriage seems an odd way to solve the problem.

Here is an analogy:

In Shape Land a controversy was brewing. For historical reasons, the laws of Shape Land provided Triangles some important benefits that were denied to others. A cry arose in the land that Squares were being unfairly deprived of their right to those same benefits. To solve this problem it was proposed that Squares should also be Triangles. So it was done. Any Square who signed up was now a Triangle.

It was only later that a problem with this solution was discovered. The term "Triangle" had become ambiguous. While Square still had the same meaning that it did before, it was impossible to know what kind of Triangle was meant when the word "Triangle" was used. "Did you mean a three-sided Triangle or a four-sided Triangle?" It required additional effort in every case to gain the same clarity that had been easy before.

Another problem appeared. Some of the old regulations on Triangles didn't really apply in the same way to the new four-sided Triangles. Should the four-sided Triangles really be limited to a total of 180 degrees in their angles? Could they reasonably be restricted to three sides?

In retrospect some wondered whether it might not have been better to have changed the laws and left the words and definitions alone. Others commented that it really didn't matter, the original idea of a Triangle was wrong headed and the world was better off without it.

If the current laws are depriving someone of their rights, we have a legislative process that can look at each case and determine whether the laws should be changed and how. Yes, that will take time, but I would argue the benefits are worth it.

Should all of the laws regulating this new thing be identical to the laws regulating the old one? There must be a huge number of relevant laws. It is beyond me to say that they should all be identical. I would argue that anyone who insists they should all be the same without looking at them individually is making a leap of blind faith. It has taken hundreds of years to decide how to regulate the old one (and I doubt that we've gotten it right yet). We should expect it to take time to figure out how to regulate the new one.

In the meeting, one person argued that domestic partnership couples can be every bit as loving as married couples and therefore should be treated identically in the law. I would argue that laws were not created because of the good examples. Laws are more often formed to address bad examples. Will domestic partnerships or civil unions have the same problems as marriages? Will they play the same role in society? Will our experience with the "early adopters" be the same as with later participants? Do they need to be regulated with precisely the same rules? Will it be necessary to offer same incentives to encourage behaviors that society values? I think it is still too soon to be certain.

I know that some people insist that gender doesn't matter or should be ignored. That doesn't seem realistic to me. I am no expert on this topic, but there seems to be good evidence that whatever theory says, in practice gender does matter. For example, Margaret Barker, a noted scholar, based on many years experience working with a Women’s Refuge, noted recently that men are far more likely to abandon their families than women. [2]

A second example: Gavin de Becker, who is an expert in predicting violent behavior, in his book The Gift of Fear, explains the following:

Men of all ages and in all parts of the world are more violent than women. For this reason, the language in this book is mostly gender-specific to men. When it comes to violence, women can proudly relinquish recognition in the language, because here at least, politically correct would be statistically incorrect. [3]

A third gender-related difference: children will come into a marriage unless the couple takes specific actions to prevent it (and sometimes even then). The same does not hold for civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Even if the old laws could reasonably be applied to the new relationships, should they be? There are likely many circumstances where the law relating to marriage should be changed, not copied, either because it is no longer applicable or to provide a better overall solution.

There are benefits to this sort of reexamination. Some years ago, as I recall, health insurance coverage was available in about three flavors: self only, self and spouse, and couple plus children. Recently I found that had changed, probably in response to discussions on same-sex couples. As I understood the new options, I could add a second person to the policy who wasn't my spouse. This was a wonderful innovation: the second person didn't have to be related, didn't have to be a partner in a marriage or civil union. This was a new and truly useful idea that would help many people in many situations. For example, it could be applied to a dependent parent or a disabled friend. This was a very positive benefit that came from not saying that the new thing must be the same as the old one.

Let me return to the proposal to change the definition of the term "marriage". The long standing definition of "marriage" is clear, precise, and useful. It is just the kind of name for a concept that an Information Modeler seeks to find. It has proven its worth through many years of use. It refers to a concept that is and will continue to be important. The term contributes to clear communication. Changing the meaning of the term will have permanent consequences. If the definition were changed then everything that has ever been written using the term "marriage" will suddenly become ambiguous. We will always have to determine whether it was written before or after the definition changed in order to understand what was implied. In the future, everything that is written or said using the term will be less precise and will require additional effort to avoid ambiguity.

Laws can be changed to address unfairness. After the laws have been changed, the problem will be solved (as much as social problems can be solved). But cutting the term "marriage" away from its roots will still be impairing communication a hundred years from now.

This business of altering definitions of words reminds me of George Orwell's Newspeak. In his appendix to 1984, "The Principles of Newspeak", he warned that if the meaning of a word were changed, the concept that it represented could be lost. In the story, many heretical concepts were intentionally suppressed in this manner, including the concepts of freedom, honor, justice, morality, liberty, and equality.

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought--that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc--should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. ... This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example, the word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as "This dog is free from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free," since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. [4]

I can understand why a person might feel that marriage shouldn't have preferential treatment. I can understand why a person might believe that the existing concept of marriage is wrong headed. But why would a person want to take the concept of a man and woman united in marriage and deprive it of its name? Why would a person try to make that concept difficult to talk about or even think about?

There are issues of rights and fairness that should be addressed, but--as a "civil union" or "domestic partnership" is new thing--let's address these issues using its new name. Let's reserve the old name "marriage" for the old concept, the legal relationship between a husband and wife.

Sources:
[1] The C. S. Lewis quotation is taken from his introduction to Mere Christianity, Macmillan Paperbacks Edition,1960.
[2] Margaret Barker referred to this during part 5 of an interview available on YouTube
[3] The Gavin De Becker quotation is taken from The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, Little, Brown, & Company, 1997.
[4] The George Orwell quotation is taken from 1984, Signet Classic, 1950, (emphasis added).

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