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February 18, 2004

All Gay Marriage, All The Time

Would same-sex marriage represent a giant step away from the norm in America? One of the more pervasive arguments against allowing same-sex marriages, one most recently presented here by my compatriot Blackavar, is that the institution of marriage is a sort of distillation of human knowledge, and an embrace of gay marriage risks undermining that structure.

The strongest argument, IMHO, is we shouldn't go trifling with worthy and pretty much universally accepted social institutions that have accreted over thousands of years. Gay marriage has never been, as far as I can tell; and traditional marriage is the way it is because it works as an institution, for stabilizing relationships and families.

In my view, the problem with the above argument is that historically, family models are not static, even in the West. Less than 100 years ago the extended family model, consisting of husband, wife, children and one or more grandparents was much more prevalent than now. In the time since, it has largely given way to the today's nuclear family model.

Outside of the Western tradition, and even inside in some cases, other family models may be found, including those where the partners are of the same sex.

Polygyny, to take the most widespread example. More commonly known as polygamy, it's the practice of one male having multiple wives. It's rarer but still extant opposite is polyandry, where one female possesses multiple husbands.

Another marriage tradition, this one from the Native American culture, was that of the berdache, men or women who assumed the gender of the opposite sex. The berdache was granted the social status normally accorded to a member of that sex, including the right to marry.

Australian aborigines have yet another system for pairing off and raising children, one so impossibly complicated it almost defies description.

Before trying to comprehend their patterns of marriage and family relationships, one must exclude from one's mind our own familiar conception of such relationships which are, of course, based upon consanguinity. The fundamental difference is caused by the fact that the Aborigines do not regard children as simply the result of sexual intercourse, but as spirits appearing yet again in a process of reincarnation. Their communities are not made up in our sense of families related by blood, but by groups and sub-groups formally distinguished by the different ways in which they pronounce the names of the individuals within their groups. The child's name is given according to the group or subgroup to which its mother and father belong. Its given name, moreover, subsequently determines which members of the group or sub-group are possible marriage partners for the children. The syllables of these basic names are capable of numerous arrangements as elaborate as a complicated game of patience. The child's name provides, so to speak, the child's permanent identity disc within the group relationship. When we use the word 'father' we mean our actual parental father. The corresponding word in the Aborigines' language does not, however, signify one man, but several, the others all being members of the group to which the 'real' father belongs. All the members of the main group, similarly, are regarded as brothers though they are not related by blood. The son or daughter of any one of them calls them all 'father'. It is easy to see how there emerge from this habit such paradoxes as that a man may sometimes be older than one of his 'fathers'. Or, similarly, that a child may call his real father, 'uncle'. The same principle applies in all other family relationships. The women of a group can, for instance, be called 'mother' by a child whose actual mother is one of them. When a man marries, his wife's mother does not become his mother-in-law merely in virtue of the marriage. The man marries the daughter of a certain woman because that woman, together with other women in her group, is already his future mother-in-law according to the marriage rules. The nearest possible 'blood' marriage under this system is between half-cousins. A man can only marry a woman of a certain sub-group of the opposite main group and only if, according to her 'rating', it is her 'turn' for his special group. If a man entitled, on this basis, to marry the widow, were to marry her daughter instead, he would be guilty of incest. Again on this basis if a man entitled to marry a certain girl married her widowed mother instead. he, too, would be guilty of incest.

In every example above, the type of family structure present in a culture can be ascribed to environmental pressures--not religious belief, despite the role that religion plays in the rites of marriage in almost every culture.

In the West, extended families were common in rural and agrarian environments. The able-bodied needed someone to watch the kids while they tended to the farm or the flocks. The nuclear family began its rise when the growth of urban areas and the greater riches available within them gave families not only the extra money, but the extra time needed to raise children alone. The elderly, though still valued emotionally, were no longer an economic aid. Rather, they became an economic burden and began their slow disappearance from the nuclear household--a trend that continues today.

In essence, the impact of urbanism on marriage has been to reduce the number of adults necessary to rear children, from more than two, to two, and now to one, as the increasing number of single-parent households demonstrates.

Polygyny, like the extended family, is also typically found in rural or agrarian areas, though it is most commonly found in societies where men marry late and women marry early. Historically this difference in marriage age magnifies the normal human gender birth imbalance, producing a society where there are always more females of marriageable age than males. And, like the extended family before it, polygyny is under siege in areas where there is economic growth.

Given the gender imbalance that characterizes polygamy, one might expect polyandry to take place in cultures with a greater number of men than women. Indeed, this is so in some cases, especially in rural China, where the female infanticide rate skyrocketed in response to the communist's government's "One Child" policy.

But the classic example of polyandry, fraternal polyandry, is found in Tibet, where it developed in response to a lack of arable land. In fraternal polyandry, all the brothers in a family marry one wife, removing any need to subdivide a family's land among numerous heirs.

The idea of Western marriage as a distillation of wisdom is an appealing one, and seemingly Darwinian in its logic. "After thousands of years of trial and error, we have arrived at the pinnacle. Any movement from here can only be downwards."

But actual Darwinism states that as conditions change, organisms adapt to fit them, or perish. There is no pinnacle, only an everchanging background into which a organism must fit itself. Institutions face many of the same challenges as the organism, and display much the same behavior. The Catholic church of 1480 is hardly the same as the Catholic church of today, for instance. The institution of marriage is just as malleable, adapting itself time and again to fit within certain cultures and environments all over the world. Given its dizzying array of adaptations, the only thing that can be said for certain about marriages is that the human desire for it is universal.

Universal, as in every time, everyplace.....and everybody.

"All family forms should be judged by how well they provide commitment, care, and community for their members. Family arrangements that pass this test deserve greater measures of community support in the future." - William J. Doherty

Update: Blackavar responds, as does Captain Holly.

Now, the question is, does these also get a "Meanwhile in the Warren" link?

Posted by Bigwig at February 18, 2004 03:47 PM | TrackBack
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It is interesting that you would include the comment by Mr. Doherty. The truth is, we already know what the best structure for families is, and it's not the "alternative" family.

For example, about 20-25 years ago, it was widely held that divorce was a largely non-traumatic event for children. Indeed, it was considered by some to be a *positive* event.

Now we know quite differently. Children of single-parent homes are statistically more likely to be poor, more likely to drop out of school, more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, more likely to have premarital sex, more likely to attempt suicide, more likely to have emotional problems, and less likely to create stable relationships.

I predict that in another 20 years, we will realize that children of same-sex couples experience many of the same emotional and social problems as children of divorced families. Of course, that won't curb the enthusiasm of proponents of gay families, but wise people will recognize reality, and modify their behavior accordingly.

There may be a diversity of family structures throughout the world, but that does not mean they are all equally successful.

Posted by: Captain Holly at February 18, 2004 05:25 PM

Hey, Cap'n,

I wasn't making a value judgement on single parent households--just pointing out that the model is increasingly available due to the Western economic environment.

Be that as it may, there are almost certainly households headed by single parents where the familial environment is better for the children than if there were two parents present.

I agree that it's not an ideal solution, but it is an available solution, and presumably a better one that growing up in an orphanarium.

Posted by: Bigwig at February 18, 2004 07:01 PM

Any significant evidence that the western idea of a "family" is in any way superior our more successful than the alternatives practiced in other parts of the world, Cap'n? Any proof that the Australian Aborigines would be better served by following our example? Better yet, is there a shred of evidence that they have been ill-served by their way of doing things?

While I'm still in question mode, can you offer any proof that the problems faced by children of single parents the are actually caused by having a single parent and not by other problems like economic, social and educational disadvantages?

I have to wonder if a kid with a mom and a dad living in a Houston barrio or NYC slum is any more likely to grow up and vote Republican than the kid next door who lives with his divorced mom? From personal experience, I don't hold hold out much hope for either. Factor in socio-economic variables like parental alcoholism, domestic violence and drug abuse, and the kid with two parents has twice the chance of getting beat-up or going to bed hungry.

I'm not trying to say single parents families are superior, or that single parents are always better parents. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. But I promise you, having two gay parents who love you is a shitload better than living in an orphanage, or living with someone twice your size who uses you for a punching bag.

Posted by: ronbailey at February 18, 2004 07:16 PM

I've posted some comments and clarification over in the Warren...

Posted by: Blackavar at February 18, 2004 09:27 PM

Like the Cap'n said, 20 years from now, we will be seeing children of same-sex couples having more and more problems associated with divorced children. The reason that we don't now is that 1) large numbers of same-sex couples with children is a recent phenomenum and 2) it is considered "un-PC" to even ask the question. What we do have is a mountain of evidence suggesting that children from single-parent households have more problems than children from two-parent/non-same-sex households, which is why, couples on the road to divorce are encouraged to work out their problems. Children need to have both female and male role models in their lives for their well-being and hoping that two gay men can substitute for a woman role model is absurd. But, since it is un-PC to even suggest that gay parents are not the most loving, most nuturing parents in the world, studies will not be done to find out the impact on the children until well after the harm has been done. And of course, when the truth comes out, a republican president will be blamed, as usual.

Posted by: El-ahrairah at February 19, 2004 09:45 AM

Gay marriage is a sign. It doesn't have to be bad, but should be accepted by the majority first to become lawfull

Posted by: Ricky Vandal at February 19, 2004 10:19 AM

Some links to research and information sites up at the Warren. More to come.

Posted by: Captain Holly at February 19, 2004 01:18 PM

I think it needs to be pointed out that (just a couple of examples here) the aboriginal groups mentioned by Bigwig...the women in these groups have no choice as to who they end up married to. So the guy is a horrible wretch..she has no choice...if it's "her turn for his special group", she has to be married to him. I agree with the poster above who wanted to know if anyone had any information on how this system works for them.
In the Tibetan example, a group of brothers share a woman between them. I find this pretty repellent. In both cases , the woman is reduced to nothing more than a breeder.

I think that the 'one man,one woman' model has certainly had it's share of problems. Nobody is perfect. But at least it offers some degree of elevation of women. It baffles me that so many so-called feminists are behind SSU's. *irony alert*:I have to conclude they don't really have the best interests of women at heart.

If folks were *really* as concerned about the sad state of hetero marriage as they claim to be, you'd see a lot more work being done in the areas of divorce law reform, marriage skills training and the like. SSU's do nothing to fix these issues.

Claiming that marriage is a right due to people b/c they "love one another" is specious. I'd like to see how they propose to benefit society with their loving relationships? Traditionally marriage has been offered special protections b/c it offered benefits to society at large, namely, the future generations. I don't think it's wise to allow mass social experimentation . We have other examples we can look at: The Swedes and Norwegians have already allowed SSU's for some time...their family statistics are not heartening to say the least.

Beyond that, government is supposed to exist by and for the people. The people in CA and many other states have made their will for gvmt pretty clear , namely, in the passage of about 38 state Defense of Marriage Acts. The City of San Franciso is blatantly ignoring the will of the people as expressed by a majority of voters. The mayor of SF is breaking the law, as are all the folks who are partipating in this. The judges in questions are not executing law, they are engaging in judicial activism.

I had previously supported SSU's, but the jackbooted activism that has gone in in this country in the past couple of months has completely changed the way I view this issue.

Posted by: Fronigah at February 19, 2004 01:53 PM

I'd like to second the first part of Fronigah's comments.

I think one thing that so-called "libertarians" seem to exclude from this debate is the notion that a wider, deeper "nanny" state is required to afford equality to non-heterosexual marriages. In short, there seems to be some evidence that there has to be a large-scale welfare system to support what heretofore was supported via the traditional family structure. Unwed motherhood, unmarried "cohabitation" "resulting in offspring" generally require a welfare model to support, at minimum, adequate financial means. Then there is the apparatus needed to deal with deliquency, crime, educational and emotional development short-comings, etc.

If further (non-political) studies confirm that non-heterosexual family paradigms are less beneficial, I look forward to the debate by libertarians on the economic vs. social dilemma.

Posted by: cj at February 21, 2004 12:47 AM
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