Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

CIVIL UNIONS IN LAW AND LANGUAGE

Nato offers an intriguing thought-experiment:

I will definitely agree that the point of wanting gay marriage to be called marriage rather than union is precisely because gay people want it to be publicly treated like any other marriage rather than some alien mind-meld experiment resulting in similar legal consequences. I suppose it's separate but equal and all. Permit me a moment of hyperbole when I suggest that perhaps we could have stopped at granting mixed-race unions the same legal rights as married people but calling it "civil miscegenation" or maybe "jungle union" so that racists didn't feel their own marriages were being mocked. I'm sure that would satisfy everyone.


"Civil miscegenation" is not an analog of "marriage" because it seems to be a general term for a behavior rather than clearly connoting a specific relationship. So let me tweak the analogy and suppose that instead of allowing inter-racial marriage, 1960s law had allowed inter-racial "civil unions," without calling them marriages.

My prediction is that in that case, either the population would spontaneously begin to refer to inter-racial civil unions as "marriages" in private conversation, with "civil union" reserved for legal documents, or, possibly, the word "civil union" would come to be a quasi-synonym for marriage, only with contextual rules about its application, the way "beautiful" and "handsome" are synonyms in English (Russian uses the same word for both) except that they must be applied to men and women, respectively, or "a" and "an" are synonyms except that which one is used depends on the initial letter of the following word. This would occur because there is not a morally or behaviorally relevant difference between intra- and inter-racial marriages. (Of course, it would depend partly on how churches behaved; to much of the population, it is the church and not the state that really has the authority to sanctify marriage. If churches would marry inter-racial couples then popular usage would surely follow their lead.)

If gay "civil unions" are allowed, and if these turns out to be behaviorally similar to straight marriages, I predict that over time, civil union and marriage will come to be considered quasi-synonyms, differentiated only by contextual rules about usage, like handsome and beautiful. Or, possibly, people will just start referring to gay unions, spontaneously, as "marriages." If, on the other hand, gay unions do not turn out to be behaviorally parallel with straight marriages, the meanings of "civil union" and "marriage" will start to diverge.

If civil unions are permitted, the decision of whether gay and straight unions are to be considered analogous can be, in effect, delegated to the normal processes of evolution of language and culture. There is something wholesome, libertarian, and democratic about this approach. By contrast, to label a new kind of entity "marriage," against the will of most users of the language, has a tinge of totalitarianism about it-- like creating the "Soviet new man."

(Of course, no one ever thought of calling inter-racial marriages anything other than marriages. That's just one more data point in the case for what should be obvious: that there is no analogy between gay marriage and inter-racial marriage. The plausible historical analogy for the move to gay marriage is the historic shift from polygyny to monogamy.)

2 Comments:

  • This is an excellent argument. I'm not saying I agree at this point, but I think it's an elegant line of thought.

    By Blogger Nato, at 3:19 PM  

  • I agree. My only counter-argument would be that the government has already acted the despot by legislating on marriage status. Any further legislation on marriage status wouldn't be more totalitarian, it would be simply just as totalitarian. Obviously, the easy solution is to just remove all legislation pertaining to marriage status. Civil unions, though, I think are a happy compromise, and Lance offers a very reasonable prediction of the eventual outcome of such a legal status.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 4:17 PM  

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