Thursday, April 28, 2005

I don't think I've ever "fisked" before (if you don't know what "fisking" means, consider youreself lucky). Largely, it is because it seems rather strange to me to take apart, line by line, a piece which you clearly dislike. But hey, there is always a first time.

I'm going to try to tacke this piece ("Love's Language Lost" by Bradley C. Watson) which tries to argue that liberals are baaaaaad for pushing gay marriage. My motivation is that I keep hearing the same sorts of arguments and I'd like to set my response down in print. As a result it won't even be a true fisking, as I'll interject responses between groups of paragraphs.

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words…. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

So says a philologist—an expert in "Newspeak"—in George Orwell's 1984. He is explaining to the novel's hero, Winston Smith, the ultimate purpose behind the manipulation and command of language.

The advocates of same-sex marriage have a similar political and linguistic purpose. They have pushed their agenda with stunning rapidity. Laws that confer unique legal status and benefits on the union of a man and woman have come under attack only recently. In America, the first major legal decision was Baker vs. State of Vermont (1999), in which the Vermont Supreme Court held, on the basis of indeterminate language in the state's 1777 constitution, that the state legislature must provide same-sex couples in "committed relationships" with identical benefits to married "opposite-sex couples." The Vermont legislature responded by creating "civil unions"—though not marriage—for same-sex couples. Under the Baker holding and subsequent legislation, civil unions were to be materially and therefore legally indistinguishable from marriage for all purposes of Vermont law and the benefits it conferred. But much more was at stake than the right of same-sex partners to enjoy such mutually fulfilling experiences as filing a joint state tax return.

In winning the right to "civil unions," same-sex partners and their lawyers slipped the camel's nose under the tent. Unsatisfied with the reservation of the word "marriage" to opposite- sex couples, lawyers before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts won (just five years after Baker) the right for their clients to be called "married." In so doing, they forced the entire camel into the tent, and effectively wrested control of the English language from popular usage and from the dictionaries in which that usage was enshrined (we await with bated breath the revisions that will now be required).

If all the benefits and incidents of "marriage" might have been conferred via civil union status, the Massachusetts litigants effectively vindicated a quite different, indeed arresting claim—the right to a noun. This is something unknown to the common law or American constitutional law. We have entered a brave new world in which major legal arguments are not so much about the statutes, the constitutions of the various states, or the federal Constitution, but about the contents of Webster's Dictionary. As the Massachusetts court declared in a subsequent advisory opinion, invidious "labeling" by government is now impermissible. It is as though black citizens of the United States had won, by judicial decree, the "right" to be called African-American. This is truly a revolutionary development that will breed unprecedented mischief.

The legal conscription of the English language has the effect of limiting our range of thought. Terms of such recent origins as "same-sex partnerships" or "domestic partnerships" are already obsolete in Massachusetts. The even more recent phrase "civil unions" became antique with head-snapping speed—redundant almost before it entered the lexicon. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to view same-sex relationships as essentially, and therefore morally, distinguishable from heterosexual relationships.
The beginning, I've found, is rather incoherent. I'll agree that it is self evident that language has power to shape thought, and that changing the way we talk about gay relationships will change the way we think about gay relationships. But so what? Our current way of talking about gay relationships already moulds the way we think about them.

Indeed, because we have a different word for lifelong opposite-sex relationships ("marriage") than we do for same-sex lifelong relationships( partner? civil union? same-sex marriage?), we have a strong incentive to think of these as fundamentally different things. Now maybe they are different things, and maybe they arent; but language as it is already affects our thoughts in this matter.

Watson, therefore, is guilty of the very same thing that he accuses his opponents of doings: he would like to "legally conscript" the English language to serve his political agenda (more precisely, it is currently so conscripted, and he would like to keep it that way). The most he can say of his opponents is that they would prefer to conscript the English language for a cause he disagrees with.

Now it could be argued that Watson is merely describing the recent liberal activism on the issue before going on to explain why he believes it is activism on behalf of the wrong cause. Such a reading, though, strikes me as implausible. We all know that many liberals are pushing for the legalization of gay marriage; a quick introduction would have sufficed before Watson moved on to his argument. Instead, Watson rambles for 6-7 paragraphs; he uses this space to go in detail on liberal attempts to change language and terminology through the courts. He accuses liberals of trying to ban thoughtcrime in an Orwellian manner (is it even possible to evoke Orwell in this way without criticizing?). Now if you do not see this as a criticism, in and out of itself, then you must believe that Watson is a pretty bad writer for dyspeptically rambling about language, on which both sides are equally "guilty," which supposedly has nothing to do with the main point (gay marriage is bad). On the other, it seems to me pretty natural to read accusations of thought control as criticism, and for the reasons I layed out above, not a terrribly coherent criticism.

Lets come back to this passage,

This is something unknown to the common law or American constitutional law. We have entered a brave new world in which major legal arguments are not so much about the statutes, the constitutions of the various states, or the federal Constitution, but about the contents of Webster's Dictionary.


Here Watson only shows his ignorance. Judges have been arguing about the precise meaning of the words of the constitution - "due process," "arms," "establishment," "executive power" - for a long time.

Our lament, therefore, must not be for the loss of a word, for all words are, in themselves, purely conventional. Nor should we lament the redefinition of "marriage" merely because of the immediate moral, political, or policy consequences. As judicial review becomes literary deconstructionism, our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws. The argument for same-sex "marriage" (and even much of the argument against it) elides the question of whether the noun "marriage" refers to anything in nature. Is the thing that marriage signifies a particular concept with an essence outside the mind and control of the observer—or is it a whim subject to infinite reinterpretation by lawyers and judges?
Here Watson simply attributes a random position to his opponents and criticizes it. No, we have not lost a "natural basis" for human laws; same-sex marriage can be defended on the same basis (more below). Note that certainly many people are of the opinion that marriage signifies a concept inside the mind - I, myself, am one of them - but to attribute such a view to supporters of gay marriage is plain sillyness. Many people support gay marriage for many diverse reasons.

Next, Watson rambles for a long time on realism, nominalism, and how the proponents of gay marriage believes marriage is a concept inside the mind. No actual reasons are given, however, and for this reason I have nothing to rebut, so I think I will skip this part. Moving on,

"Marriage" across all religions and cultures has had a similar, though not identical, meaning. It is a rite of passage signifying and reminding us of the divine or natural order's purposes with respect to procreation. (Love or "commitment" are, at best, incidental to this rite.) As Blackstone says, the relationship between husband and wife is founded in the natural desire to propagate the species—which is marriage's "principal end and design." "The most universal relation in nature"—that between parent and child—proceeds directly from marriage. The "natural obligation" of the father to provide for his children is in turn cemented by the marriage tie.
This one paragraphs is all the argument that Watson musters in support of his position. I find it difficult to see how anyone can buy this pseudo-anthropology.

Lets start with, "As Blackstone says, the relationship between husband and wife is founded in the natural desire to propagate the species—which is marriage's "principal end and design."" Unless "Blackstone says" is sufficient to end the argument - God forbid someone disagree with Blackstone - this is a comically bad argument. How exactly does Blackstone know what marriage's principal end and design is? Who told him?

Conservatives are fond of saying that marriage exists to propagate the species. But, err, why? How do they know this?

I could, just as well, claim that the purpose of marriage is to ensure the orderly well-functioning of society (after all, if everyone shagged everyone else all the time, we'd get into quite a few conflicts). For one thing, I will have some empirical evidence on my side: anthropologists have spent quite a bit of time documenting the social effect of marriage structures. One example is the role Tibetan polyandry plays in managing low-capital resources; another is the polygamy of the Yamomamo which offsets the high female-male ratio due to frequent warfare.

The point is not that I am right and Watson is wrong. The point is that that we are saddled with this institution - "marriage" - handed down to us from tradition. We can certainly speculate why it was set up in the first place, and some speculations are more well-founded than others; but anyone claiming "the purpose of marriage is X" is a quack. Nor has the purpose of marriage, whatever it was, remained constant over time: looking back over the last few centuries we see definite changes.

As for, once again,
"Marriage" across all religions and cultures has had a similar, though not identical, meaning. It is a rite of passage signifying and reminding us of the divine or natural order's purposes with respect to procreation. (Love or "commitment" are, at best, incidental to this rite.)
Well I have one society for you that blatantly violates this rule: us, here and now.

Marriage, to us, has lost all connection to reproduction or procreation (Britney Spears anyone?). This should be patently obvious to anyone who has ever went to see a romance movie or picked up a cheap paperback novel at the bookstore or turned on Lifetime, for God's sakes. And its hardly a new developement. On the other hand, if you find the above activities difficult to engage in, a simple look at our marriage and divorce laws, which allow couples to get married who cannot have children, should be convincing enough.

Coming back to this bit:
our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws. The argument for same-sex "marriage" (and even much of the argument against it) elides the question of whether the noun "marriage" refers to anything in nature.
Its blatantly false. There is no shortage of concepts in human nature that are referred to by the new definition of marriage, two of which I have just described for you (marriage as an institution for the well-functioning of society, or marriage as our society conceives and practices it today). Moroever, pro-gay-marriage advocates constantly bring up our changed definition of marriage and point out that it is based only on maintaining relationships. A "natural basis" argument for gay marriage is right there, if only Watson bothered to think this true.

But yes it is true that a lot of people think all this "natural basis" pseudo-science is bullshit. Follow the argument to its conclusion:

Marriage, throughout all human cultures, had mostly had the same form. Polygamy. It turns out that that "Of 1170 societies recorded in Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, polygamy (some men having more than one wife) is prevalent in 850." As for propagating the species: Wikipedia tells us that polygenous societies are four times more prevalent. I wonder what Watson would say to mandating polygamy for everyone: after all, it follows so naturally from his arguments.

Theres a few more paragraphs of Watson's essay, which you can go read if you want to for some strange reason, but due to a shortage of arguments for me to address, I will stop here.

3 Comments:

At 1:54 AM, Blogger angela said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:54 AM, Blogger angela said...

come on, you fisk me all the time, you just dont post about it! you fisk my papers and you fisk my posts and you fisk books i like and basically this is your life and what makes you so much fun :)

 
At 8:26 AM, Blogger alex said...

come on now, posting is a necessary component of fisking :)

 

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