Monday, April 30, 2012

The Semantics of Same-Sex Marriage

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
      Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
      What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
      Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
      Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
      What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet;

Excuse the cliche in using such an overused quote. I've been working quite a bit on Romeo and Juliette at work lately. Shakespeare's plays really are beautifully written. I now realise how little I appreciated being made to study them back at school. The language is so fluid and vibrant and conjures to mind emotions that there don't even exist words for. Amazing.

Anyway, the reason that I mention this passage from Romeo and Juliette is because I've been thinking about the semantics of the Gay Marriage/Civil Union/Marriage debate recently and have found some relevant sentiments in the passage above. It seems to me that a large proportion of the religious community don't necessarily dislike or not accept gays but simply can't come to grips with them being 'married'. To non-religious types it might seem petty (it definitely seemed that way to me) however for the devout 'marriage' is a clearly defined term and doesn't recognise same-sex couples. This sort of objection is somewhat understandable I think, even if it is, perhaps, a little misguided.

On the other hand the queer community are not too concerned with definitions - they just want equal recognition (a fair and reasonable request). I doubt that same-sex couples would mind if they were claimed to be 'hoojamasmacked' instead of married as long as everybody else (including the straight community) were given the same label. The problem is that it is too late to simply CHANGE the word from 'marriage' to 'civil union' or anything else because 'marriage' already carries with it centuries of connotations. When people announce that they are 'married' they are referring to a ceremonial public legitimization of their love and often that is the extent of the definition. Whether wrongly or rightly the social use of the word 'marriage' has changed over time and has become less about religion and heterosexuality and more about social recognition. The change has already occurred and no amount of etymological fact-stating is likely to revert our use of the word to a previous definition.  So how do we live with this evolved (those opposed might prefer 'mutated') definition of marriage so that same-sex couples can enjoy the legitimization of their love without stepping on the toes of the religious?

Well firstly we must accept that if it is equality and legitimacy that we are after 'marriage' is the word to use; but we also want to distinguish between the marriage that is god-approved and the marriage that is not. (Notice that I'm using the word 'marriage' as it is used socially, not by definition: Given a narrow and traditional definition 'gay-marriage' could be considered an oxymoron.)  I suggest that a prefix be added to the beginning of the word 'marriage' when the ceremony is religious in nature. This prefix should be uniform within faith groups but be used primarily as a formality. For example Christians might choose to have a 'holy-marriage'. This type of marriage would be conducted in the presence of a religious figure and would be restricted to those that are willing to obey certain religious rules (e.g. Only heterosexual marriages, no polygamy, etc). Those who want to get married but are not religious simply get 'married'. This type of marriage is open to all as a primarily legal and social process. It entitles the married-couple to legal and social benefits but is secular instead of religious. 

Thus, everyone can get 'married'; it's just that some marriages are religious and others are not. It is my hope that under such a system the prefix would become a formality that is stated only rarely. In general public discourse a homo-sexual couple could proudly proclaim to be 'married' without contradiction in the same way that a religious couple could claim to be 'married' - the prefix would be either irrelevant (let's hope), or implied.

I think that this would mark a step in the right direction for equality. I doubt the non-religious would mind having 'holy' (or some other accepted prefix) absent from their title, and likewise the religious probably wouldn't mind having an expression of their faith ('holy' or otherwise) included in their marriage title. 

The main problem would be found in religious homosexual couples. There are certainly religious homosexuals that would prefer to have a 'holy marriage' than a regular marriage. . . what happens here? This is a problem for priests and religious figures to sort out. Perhaps certain priests will perform holy marriages between same-sex couples, perhaps not.  If not, however, I do not think that it is right to force religious figures to perform 'holy-marriages'. Subjectively speaking I don't see a problem with a same-sex religious couple having a regular marriage but still being active participants in their faith. If same-sex religious couples are denied 'holy marriage' in a religious institution it might be rather sad, however they could still have a religious-style ceremony at a regular marriage - there just wouldn't be the official prefix attached to their union. 

So what do you think? Is this idea plausible at all? Can you think of a better prefix than 'holy'? What other problems do you think that this idea might face if put into practice?


  1. P1: HIV is a serious health risk
    P2: Rates of HIV and syphilis are high in homosexual men
    P3: People should work to decrease the expansion of health risks in the community
    P4: Legalising gay marriage "normalises" homosexuality
    P5: The normalisation of something in society increases its prevalence (e.g. think of drug legalisation)
    C1: The normalisation of gay marriage increases the prevalence of HIV
    C2: People should be against gay marriage as to prevent this health risk

    Ta ta,


  2. P1 - People should work to decrease the expansion of health risks in the community. (when doing so does not cause further harm to society)
    P2 - Safe sex decreases instances of syphilis and decreases the spread of HIV - Both health risks in the community. Safe sex does not cause harm to society.
    C1 - People should practice safe-sex.

    It's really that simple. Notice how there need not be a mention of sexuality in there?

    Your 'P5' is misleading. Allowing same sex marriage will not create 'more homosexuals'. It will just mean that those who are inclined (by no choice of their own) towards same gendered partners will be able to express their love in a manner equal to all other members of society. This is a crucial distinction. I repeat, allowing same sex marriage does not 'create more homosexuals'.

    I also think your 'P3' needs the extra clause 'when doing so does not cause further harm to society'. This means that if we find a health risk that is particularly prevalent in Chinese people (but is of risk to spreading to the wider community) we can't just kill all the Chinese. Although this might 'decrease the expansion of health risks' I think you'll agree that there are other important factors to consider. For instance killing all the Chinese would encourage racism, it would cause massive amounts of suffering, etc, etc.

    The same applies for same sex marriage. Even if I accepted your argument that being against gay marriage decreases the prevalence of HIV and Syphilis (I don't) I might discourage banning same sex marriage because I think the social problems that would arise would be a greater evil than the health risks.

    Poor form on this one Nemesis - I expected more.

  3. I have discussed with Nemesis, and he agrees with your modification of P3, this makes sense. But that alone does not refute the argument. A further argument would be needed to show that allowing gay marriage would do more good than harm.

    I have discussed with Nemesis and he disagrees with your interpretation of P5. For the argument to fall over, P5 has to be invalid - as you have offered no other objections.

    Nemesis has provided me with a sub argument for P5

    P1 If something is considered normal, it is acceptable by many people in society.
    P2 Things which reflect normality in society have higher demand by people than things that do not reflect normality.
    P2 Normally accepted things are more widely distributed to a greater % pf the population than things that are not acceptable.
    C/P5 The normalisation of something in society increases its prevalence.

    If this "something" is an attitude, for example, it is very easy to find examples. Racism, Sexism or even intelligent design were considered widely acceptable at some stage in history. People join the winning side if they are uninformed, or don't care, etc, to "fit in" - in a sense, it's easier. When the idea reaches a tipping point to the other side, through public pressure fore example, they fit in on "the other side".

    Nemesis does take your point on your argument regarding safe practice of sex, and how parsimonious it is, but philosophy is about pushing the boundaries. This is what Nemesis does!