Notes From Babel

More thoughts on “Pairriage”

with 3 comments

I previously proposed a thought experiment to help elucidate some points in the same-sex marriage debate. I refrained from giving away too many of my opinions and observations at the time, seeking instead to get some initial reactions in the comments.  Now that it’s been several days, I’d like to offer some further thoughts now.

I submit that what happened to “Pairriage” in my hypothetical is similar to what’s happened with marriage.  A key distinction, however, is that the marriage tent has become so large that many of those who engage in it do so unthinkingly, without due regard for its history, its meaning, its sacredness.  Such participants can offer little defense against the institution’s being changed, and in fact undermine the argument against maintaining a “traditional” definition of marriage.  That is, with divorce rates as high as they are, and there being nearly as many jokes about the travails of marriage as the decrepitude of lawyers, it is natural it would strike one as perhaps odd that, seemingly all of a sudden, everyone is amped up about defending the thing.  “It may be a misery,” marriage supporters seem to be saying, “but the misery belongs to us.”

But this is one of the points the “pairriage” hypothetical makes.  The institution means something to many people.  Once a thing like that reaches a critical mass, it takes on its own gravity, and others will join up just because it’s part of the culture.  The guardians of the institution will still require at least a symbolic, formal recognition and compliance with its basic guidelines.  But there will be no way to ensure all its participants share the same values and with the same fervor as the guardians themselves.

Moreover, to say that many participants initially might give only symbolic, formal recognition, this is not for nothing.  Just saying the words may not make you a true believer, but it establishes a presumption that, all else being equal, you owe some manner of fealty to the thing to which you pledged.

Those who do still cherish the institution as originally understood, however, will seek to prevent its meaning from becoming irreparably lost.  They do not participate in the institution merely because it is convenient to call one’s mate a “husband” or a “wife,” or a “pairree” or “pairr-ot” or whatever, or to achieve implicit acceptance beyond the sphere of those who would actually bear witness to one’s relationship.  They find value in the institution beyond the neologisms that may have developed incident to it.  They would rightly resist those who, though purporting to seek entry into the institution, really just want to scrap it for parts.

Perhaps most importantly, the state is merely a reactive participant in this social play.  The state does not define our social institutions, it merely reflects the definitions we create through our morals, values, religious beliefs, habits, customs, and traditions.  These are important aspects of human life.  Though, of course, they may often prove unpleasant when disagreements arise, often involving rebuke and rejection from certain communities who adhere to an ever-expanding force in the lives of individuals and the communities they inhabit.  Thus, if the state so chooses, it could effectively usurp the institution of marriage and redefine the relationship along whatever lines it chooses.   This should give one pause.  In fact, there is even much concern in allowing the zeitgeist this power to usurp, plunder, and desiccate our social institutions.  But there is an even greater, much more palpable concern in permitting the courts to wield this power.


Written by Tim Kowal

September 20, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Posted in Culture, Gay Marriage

3 Responses

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  1. Hi Tim,

    I’m loath to comment on this because the last thread developed far too much passion for my taste, but since I’m a slow learner, here’re my thoughts:

    You’re right about guardians of social institution, about society’s natural inclination to defend its culture, and about the state playing merely as a “reactive participant.” Well, at least, I agree with you about all that.

    I don’t have any concern at all, however, with courts defining what makes a marriage, or a family, or a rock and roll band, for all I care. My apathy springs from precisely what you’ve noted, which is that the state “reflects the definitions we create through our morals, values, religious beliefs, habits, customs, and traditions.”

    The state can’t do that without pen and paper. Its job as a mirror requires that it officially defines things. One may ask the state, “What is marriage?” and the state could thumb one’s attention to the constituents and say, “Not my job. Ask THEM,” but the people, themselves, have multitudinous, myriad definitions of it, too.

    Then, of course, some jackass wants to sue, forcing the courts to decide in black-and-white.

    If it is the state’s job to reflect the people, then its definition will need to encompass definitions the people actually believe in, and not just those of traditionalists from one or two cultural perspectives.

    Most importantly, though, I can’t help but feel that this is moot. People will marry, and they will call it marriage, and the definition will change culturally, as we have seen.

    Whether or not the courts officially recognize this has nothing to do with whether these marriages are actually marriages or not — and everything to do with exactly how silly and old-fashioned the state is willing to look in the long run.

    I’m going to go cower in the Internet corner now, knees knocking, and hope this response garners less animosity than the bombing of Pearl Harbor.




    September 21, 2010 at 8:46 am

  2. […] explained for the law to change or add to that institution is the tail wagging the dog, a breach of the treaty between law and […]

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    April 10, 2012 at 8:55 am

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