Now there are lots of things worth talking about here, but I will save for another time or venue the more serious issues—relating to his invocation of “jihad” and his efforts to paint the pursuit of gay and lesbian equality as something that threatens to destroy marriage and the faith community.
What I want to consider here is his rather…unique…argument against same-sex marriage. I consider it not because I find it even remotely persuasive, but because Santorum and his followers seem to think it has a serious point to it. In effect, waving napkins around has become a staple of Santorum’s stump speeches precisely because he’s found it to resonate with his audiences. He doesn’t think he’s being silly. He thinks he’s demonstrating the silliness of same-sex marriage with a clever analogy and a floppy white visual aid.
So how does his argument go? It runs as follows:
You can call a napkin a car, but it doesn’t make it a car. You can call a paper towel a chair, but it doesn't make it a chair. Marriage is what marriage is.That’s it. That’s his argument.
Well…not quite. He supplements this staggering bit of reasoning with a follow-up reference to the presumed constancy of marriage—its supposedly unchanging character from one culture to another “from the very beginning of time” (a phrase, by the way, that always makes me cringe, largely because so many undergraduate term papers begin with it).
But this cultural-historical claim is problematic to say the least. It is certainly true that in most human societies you find long-term sexual pair-bonds between men and women, and that in most societies, most marriages have been heterosexual. But as Stephanie Coontz notes in Chapter 2 of Marriage, a History, in “most societies not all heterosexual relationships count as marriages.” And if you look across history and culture, you find all kinds of exceptions to the norm of marriage as a one-man-one-woman-child-producing-pair-bond. Consider this excerpt from Coontz:
There are West African societies in which a woman may be married to another woman as a “female husband.” In these cultures, if the wife brings children with her to the marriage or subsequently bears children by a lover, those children are counted as the descendents and heirs of the female “husband” and her extended family. And numerous African and Native American societies recognize male-male marriages.As for the idea that marriage “is something that was given to us from the very beginning of time,” Coontz offers the following run-down of dominant theories of early human social organization, before “marriage” was invented:
What about traditional Chinese and Sudanese ghost or spirit marriages, in which one of the partners is actually dead? In these societies a youth might be given in marriage to the dead son or daughter of another family, in order to forge closer ties between the two sets of relatives….
Over the millennia the preferred form of marriage in many cultures was that between a man and several women. More rarely, marriage might unite a woman and several men. Among the Toda of southern India, a girl was married off at a young age, sometimes as early as two or three. From then on she was considered the wife not only of the boy to whom she was married but of all his brothers as well. When the girl was old enough o have sex, she usually had sexual relations with all her husbands. When she became pregnant, one of the brothers gave her a toy bow and arrow and promised her the next calf from his herd. That man was henceforth seen as the father of all subsequent children the woman bore—unless she performed the bow ceremony with someone else.
…there are three general schools of thought on the subject. Some researchers believe that early humans lived in female-centered groups made up of mothers, sister, and their young, accompanied by temporary male companions….Other scholars argue that the needs of defense would have encouraged the formation of groups based on male kin, in which fathers, brothers, and sons, along with their female mates, stayed together…. A third group of researchers theorize that hominid groups were organized around one male mating with several females and traveling with them and their offspring.What is not taken very seriously, according to Coontz, is the idea that “the male-female pair was the fundamental unit of economic survival and cooperation.” Given that arrangement, “no one could have survived very long in the Paleolithic world.”
Yes, marriage is what marriage is, and napkins aren’t cars (or liver pâté, or Shakespearian sonnets for that matter). But what is marriage? This question is hardly easy to answer in a way that does justice to the cultural and historic diversity of forms. As Coontz puts it,
But marriage has taken so many different forms in history that trying to define it by its most frequently encountered functions does not really help us understand what any particular society’s marriage system is or how and why such a system changes over time. We also can’t claim some groups did not have “real” marriages just because their marriage practices were not “typical.”Claiming that would be like insisting that all Americans are white and then dealing with the counterexamples by saying that if you’re not white, then you’re not a “real” American. Appealing to what is most common for the sake of identifying what’s essential is not just unsound. It’s the source of much of the harms endured by minority groups through history.
But maybe we can escape all these difficulties caused by cultural and historic diversity by focusing on what “marriage” refers to in America today. Coontz has things to say about that, too—with an emphasis on showing how the ideas of romantic love and intimacy came to dominate over reproductive and political models in our contemporary western understanding.
But for those interested in studying these ideas with care, I leave you to read her provocative book. Here, I want to stress an important distinction that seems to get conflated in our current debates about same-sex marriage—specifically, the distinction between our understanding of what marriage is, and our social norms concerning who should and shouldn’t be allowed to enter into marriage.
These are not the same thing. When segregationists vocally opposed mixed-race marriages a few decades ago, I think it's most natural to understand them as saying, in effect, “This kind of relationship—a marriage—should not be had by those sorts of people.” But to say this presupposes the possibility of “those sorts of people” having “this kind of relationship,” that is, a marriage. Put another way, it is perfectly possible (however inappropriate) to say that such marriages shouldn’t happen while conceding that, if they did happen, they’d be marriages.
Or take a different example. Suppose the parents of a young woman, Katy, disapprove of her plans to marry Joe. They think Katy is “too good for Joe,” perhaps because of classist assumptions. Are they denying that if Katy and Joe were to go to a church or courthouse, say their vows, and pursue a long-term monogamous sexual relationship, they wouldn’t actually be married? Are they claiming that, although what Joe and Katy then have looks like a marriage, because it’s had by Joe and Mary it can't be a marriage? Are they claiming, in short, that those two people being the ones who have that kind of relationship means it isn’t that kind of relationship after all, even though it looks exactly like that kind of relationship?
Of course not. What they’re saying is that Joe and Katy having that kind of relationship would be wrong, not that Joe and Katy are incapable of having that kind of relationship.
And this leads to the key point I want to make, namely that marriage in our contemporary understanding is first and foremost a certain kind of relationship. And relationships are defined by how the parties are related to each other.
In marriage as we know it in the US (and most of the western world) today, the parties to a marriage are related in terms of mutual love, support, long-term partnership in life, and sexual fidelity (or at least promises to that effect), combined with social and legal recognition. Or perhaps it's better to say that these things--love and support, life partnership and sexual fidelity--describe an ideal type, and that real marriages are attempts to approximate that ideal type.
In any event, if you can be related in this “marital way” (if you can pursue this ideal with another person) then you can be married. And unlike Farmer Joe and his goat (to use a common conservative example), my friends John and David can pursue a mutual life partnership characterized by love, support, care, and sexual fidelity. And if the state were to legally recognize their partnership, they’d be related in exactly the kind of way that my wife and I have in mind when we describe ourselves as “being married.” Calling their relationship marriage would be absolutely nothing like calling a napkin a platypus (or a pincushion, of an alto saxiphone).
As such, the debate about same-sex marriage is not a debate about the definition of marriage. It’s a debate about the social norms that should govern who gets to have this kind of relationship. If John and David get to have it, the kind of relationship they’d get to have is the same kind that heterosexual couples all over get to have: a marriage. Let's call a napkin a napkin and a Shakespearian sonnet a sonnet (or, to quote a Shakespearian play if not a sonnet, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.")
To say that John and David get to have a marriage is not to remove all coherence from the concept of marriage, such that anything goes. For example, although two men can be related to each other in the same way that my wife and I are related to each other, a child and a hamster cannot.
Nor can a threesome. Among other things, my relationship to my wife is defined by sexual fidelity: I have sex with her and only her, and she has sex with me and only me. Jim, Marge, and Lisa can’t mimic that in a threesome. They might agree to something analogous to monogamy—limiting sex to within the threesome—but the introduction of a third party changes how the parties are related. And that difference might be important (I suspect that triadic relationships are less stable than dyadic ones, insofar as the former create so much more room for side-taking and power plays, jealousies, and other forms of "triangulation").
More significantly, to say that John and David get to have this kind of relationship does not imply that everyone gets to have it, including, say, siblings. It should be clear, I think, that a brother and a sister can be related in the same kind of way that married couples are. If we allowed sibling marriages, they would be marriages. We wouldn’t be calling a napkin an X-ray technician.
But we might have good reasons to think that brothers and sisters shouldn’t be allowed to relate to each other in this way. One reason would have to do with the social interest in limiting reproduction among near kin so as to limit the phenotypic expression of harmful recessive genes. But a deeper issue, I think, has to do with the social interest in maintaining a strict taboo on sibling sex. Making such sex unthinkable (in the way it wouldn’t be if siblings could and did get married) may be one of the key things that helps keep siblings—who grow up in such close proximity to one another, with enormous sexual access—from have sex before they are ready.
If one decided to allow sibling marriages, one wouldn’t be “destroying the institution of marriage.” Other marriages would go on as before. But one might be undercutting the force of a social taboo that helps to keep vulnerable children safe from the effects of their own immaturity or the exploitation of older siblings.
And if gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry, one wouldn't be destroying the institution of marriage by changing its legal meaning to extend to things that aren't "napkins." If one thinks it would be wrong, for other reasons, to let same-sex couples marry, one would need to explain what those reasons are, since they're obviously not the ones that motivate us to preclude incestuous marriages. Broadening the scope of who gets access to this kind of relationship, based on considerations of equality and social justice, is not a slippery slope of permissiveness.
In short, then, Santorum’s napkin argument doesn’t reveal the silliness of same-sex marriage. It’s just a case of a man waving a napkin instead of offering a substantive argument. And on a more literary note, if he’s going to wave a napkin around and call it something else, he should really get more creative than car.