Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Intangible Aspects of Marriage

Today is the day when the issue of Civil (Same Sex) Marriages is debated in Jersey, or delayed by an amendment by Senator Ian Le Marquand.
I have now written three blog postings on same-sex marriage and this will be the last for the time being. The three others can be seen at:
The Church of England and Same Sex Marriage - A Briefing Note
The Quaker View on Marriage
A history of marriage and how its definition has changed over the centuries
In this final blog on the subject, I'd like to look at two issues - one which might be deemed sociological, and one linguistic.
Sociological Aspects of the Term Marriage
One of the questions I have heard posed is this: can you tell me what legal disadvantages there are for civil partners rather than married civil partners?
I would say that the main change is what might be termed an social disadvantage.
A civil partnership is primarily a legal matter, it is like other legal arrangements that may be associated but do not form part of marriage, such as pre-nuptial agreements - it is concerned with legal rights of partners.
A civil marriage, by contrast, is concerned with the relationship of two people, and a declaration of love between each other, in addition to the legal arrangements that are binding on the participants. It involves words as a necessary pledge - not the case with a civil partnership.
Marriages are solemnized by saying a prescribed form of words. Civil partnerships are registered by signing the civil partnership document, with no words required to be spoken.
The sociological aspect is dealt with in depth by Professor Ralph Wedgwood. He a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.  He notes that the meaning of marriage must come from generally shared understandings about what married life is normally (although not always like), and he is worth quoting at length:
"These assumptions seem to include the following: normally, marriage involves sexual intimacy (which in heterosexual couples often leads to childbirth); it involves the couple's cooperation in dealing with the domestic and economic necessities of life (including raising children if they have any); and it is entered into with a mutual long-term commitment to sustaining the relationship."
"Which elements of this social meaning are most important? To answer this question, we need to see what benefits are created by institutions that possess a social meaning of this kind. I propose that the crucial benefit is roughly this: by marrying, a couple can give a signal to their community that they wish their relationship to be viewed in the light of these generally shared assumptions about what married life is like. The rest of the community is not obligated to interpret the couple's relationship in the light of these assumptions; but because marriage is such a familiar and generally understood institution, virtually the whole community will be able to understand the signal that the couple is sending."
"In this way, marriage's social meaning makes it possible for couples to communicate information about their relationships in a particularly effective way. This is important because people do not only care about tangible benefits (such as money or health care or the like); they care about intangible benefits as well. In particular, people care deeply about how they are regarded by others - which inevitably depends on the information about them that is shared in their community."
"It seems clear that, while the theoretical arguments for same-sex marriage often focus on legal claims, the actual conception of many same-sex couples is broader and includes this social meaning. This broader conception lies behind the emotional appeals that same-sex marriage proponents have so often made, but there is also a more theoretical case to be made as well. Many same-sex couples have the very same interest in having access to an institution that has this social meaning as opposite-sex couples have, affording them the intangible benefit of being able to signal to their community that they wish their relationship to be interpreted in the light of these generally shared assumptions. "
"Given that, it must be unjust for the state to deny same-sex couples the right to marry when this right is made available to other couples who have precisely the same interest in having it."
The situation we find ourselves in is a very strange one indeed. Unfortunately no one has come up with any appropriate name - apart from "civil marriage" - which carries the same weight in terms of meaning. As quite a chunk of Europe - Belgium, Denmark,France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal,Spain, Sweden and of course recently the UK, have now adopted same-sex marriage laws, this is something which we will have to come to terms with - for instance, a UK same sex couple, legally married in the UK, would be entitled to describe themselves as "married" on holiday in Jersey.  It will not be long, I think, before TV soap operas and popular literature will start to make this mainstream.
Words do change meanings over time, and sometimes by means of legislation. I think we will see globally a period of unsettledness, where terms are sought to distinguish between different forms of marriage. I agree that no matter what we call it, same-sex marriages will not be the same as opposite-sex marriages to people who do not see them as the same.
The consequence of this is that as "marriage" becomes a term applicable to gay couples, those who oppose such unions will either add an adjective or use a different word altogether to distinguish them from what they consider proper unions, and even those who accept such unions may also seek to discriminate in some way between different types of marriage.
Emerging linguistic evidence in the USA suggests that a variety of forms are entering the language, some of which have prejudices embedded, and some of which are fairly neutral in terms of words used. Some people are using terms such as "gay marriage" and "real marriage" or "gay marriage" and "straight marriage" while others are using more value neutral terms such as homosexual marriage" and "heterosexual marriage" or "same sex marriage" and "opposite sex marriage".
This is unsettling, and linguistic change, enforced by legislation, can cause a good deal of anxiety. But language is remarkably adaptive, and I am sure that words will be found to describe the new situation which certainly prevails in the UK, parts of the USA, and some other countries in Europe. We should not allow anxieties over terms to stand in the way of this legislation.
A significant change which has also taken place in our culture is the realisation that gender matters in language, and language should be reframed to be inclusive. Notably, the notion that "man" as a term encompassed woman is no longer the case, and it is seen that, in fact, the use of the tem "man" as a synomym for both men and women in language embedded a cultural prejudice which provided sufficitient linguistic ambiguity to demean women.
When Rousseau wrote "men are born free", he actually meant just men, not women, and this is hidden in the inclusive nature of the term "man". The American declaration of Independence that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" allowed room for women to be second class citizens, while at the same time sounding as if it was inclusive.
I think that most of us would be careful with language today, and however clumsy it may make sentences, would prefer a form of inclusive language to that which can be found in older literature, even in the early post-war period. We are more sensitive to the fact that "man" cannot be assumed to be "man and woman". The linguistic landscape has changed.
I suspect that something very similar will happen with the word "marriage" in the context of our neighbours, and especially, given the dominance of the UK media on our culture, with regard to the English language. That change in meaning is not something which we can easily isolate ourselves from, regardless of whether or not changes are made to legislation
The Oxford English Dictionary, which reflects current linguistic usage, notes that "marriage" is defined as:
The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony. The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex.
As can be seen here, linguistic change is already happening, whether we like it or not. Delaying legislation will not alter the linguistic landscape, as language is too amorphous to be restricted by prescription, despite the best attempts of the 18th and 19th century grammarians.
Ralph Wedgewood's full piece can be found online in various places, and one is:
Also see:


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