Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The End of Gay Marriage

If gay marriages (or mawwages) become legal, we are left with an interesting question: what is a gay marriage, anyway?  Or to put the point better: what is the difference between a marriage and a gay marriage?  Will it be appropriate to offer as an answer to the question "What is your marital status" the option of "Gay Married"?  Will it be appropriate to ask those in gay relationships, "Whom are you gay married to?"

I take the fact that such questions exist at all as evidence for the claim that the word "marriage" means, at least, a union between one man and one woman.  (Intriguingly, the Massachusetts Supreme Court that decided Goodrich v. Department of Public Health agrees.)    For the modifier (is that the right term?) "gay" preceding "marriage" indicates that a gay marriage is not a marriage in the usual sense - else gay marriages would be simply marriages.  And that "gay" attempts to modify one of the genders of the parties to the marriage indicates just what aspect gay marriages is unusual, and therefore just which aspect of the usual definition of marriage is being modified.

But if this quick talk of modifier-grammar holds, then the very term "gay marriage" might seem oxymoronic.  For if a marriage is, at least, a union between one man and one woman, then a gay marriage is, at least, a gay union between one man and woman.  Oxymoronic, no?

"Hey, idiot: That's why we use the modifier," someone might reply.  Perhaps.  But such a reply entails an interesting consequence.  Namely, that all marriages can't be equal.  Or they can't be equal in the way that most people advocating for gay marriage seem to want them to be equal.  From what I understand, what these people want is not "sameness of rights" between the gay-married and the married.  For after all, sameness of rights can be achieved by civil unions, and these people oppose civil unions and support gay marriage.  Rather, what they want is something like "sameness of meaning" between marriages and gay marriages.  In other words, what they want is synonymy between the very terms "marriage" and "gay marriage."

There are two important points to make in regards to synonymy between "marriage" and "gay marriage." First, it is surprising that anyone should think that courts and legislatures (not to mention Executive Branches) are the appropriate venues for deciding which terms are synonymous and which are not.  Second, it will require an interesting articulation of the concept of "synonymy" according to which the use of a term and the modified use of that same term can result in synonymous uses.  That is, how can "marriage" be synonymous with "gay marriage" anymore than object be identical with a modified version of that object?  Isn't the point of modification to show that the object and modified object are not, in fact, identical?

Take an example.  A martini is gin cocktail.  A vodka martini is a vodka cocktail.  You could never walk into a bar, order a martini, and expect to get a vodka martini.  The foolhardiness of such an expectation arises from the fact that "vodka" modifies the conventional martini ingredients.  Given this modification, the vodka martini is not identical with the conventional martini.  And because vodka martinis are not identical with conventional martinis, "vodka martini" cannot be synonymous with "martini."  Similarly, it seems to me, for "gay marriage" and "marriage."

One might be inclined to say that vodka martinis are a type of martini, and therefore, gay marriages are a type of marriage.  I agree.  But there is a difference between saying, "I am drinking a martini" and "I am drinking a type of martini."  If you say you are drinking a martini when you are drinking a vodka martini, you have glossed an important fact about your drink and have in some sense misled your listener.  Or put differently, if you say you are drinking a martini when you are drinking a vodka martini, and I say I am drinking a martini when I am drinking a gin martini, I am inclined to think that I have said something more apt or more complete about my drink than you have said about yours.  And if someone allergic to vodka were to take a sip of your drink, you would be limitedly responsible for having misled him about the ingredients in your drink.

Again, similarly for marriage and gay marriage.  When straight people say they are married and gay people say they are married, there is no small way in which the straight people have said something more apt or complete about their relationship than the gay people have said.  And there is no small way in which the gay people have glossed an important feature of their relationship.  Namely, that their marriage is not a conventional one - it is a gay one.  And to this extent, it is not obvious to me just how gay marriage can ever be synonymous with conventional marriage, and that is simply because it is obvious to me that the words mean different things.

1 comment:

  1. Quite. The real question — one that has been asked by nobody but tiresome libertarians (or is that redundant?) — is what business does the government, state or federal, have deciding what constitutes a martini in the first place? If the martini is indeed a sacrament, it should be left to the churches. If the government must confer benefits on those who partake of martinis, then it is obvious that anyone should be able to receive said benefits.