Thursday, September 1, 2011

Of Napkins and Marriage: Rick Santorum's "Case" Against Same-Sex Marriage

Rick Santorum, Republican presidential candidate, likes to wave napkins around and say silly things. Check out the following clip from a recent campaign stop in Spartanburg, SC:

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.

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.
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:
…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.


  1. I don't know; I'm kind of transfixed by the napkin. The napkin argument has clout.

    What if someone in the audience misted his napkin with a water bottle and it got all soggy. Is a wet napkin still a napkin? Is gay marriage still marriage? I'm so confused now!

    Pity that your brand of common sense falls on deaf ears where this type of person is concerned.

  2. Eric,

    Rick Santorum´s argument does not strike me as that weak, nor do Stephanie Coontz´s otherwise interesting pieces of information strike me as particularly relevant. The fact is that in the Western culture since the time of the ancient Greeks we understand marriage as the official bond between a man and a woman. That is entailed by what “marriage” means. I have some sympathy with Santorum´s point because I think people should not fool around the meaning of a word when for some reason they don´t like that meaning. Thus, for example, I criticize naturalists for changing the meaning of “free will”, just because it does not fit their metaphysical assumptions.

    If I understand well your position, you are saying that the value of a marriage is not grounded on the fact that it is the union of humans of the opposite sex, but on the loving and committed relationship between them. And that these factors can and often are present in the case of same-sex unions. But this only shows that same-sex unions are as valuable as marriages, not that same-sex unions can properly be called marriages.

    Christ´s command of love moves me to want couples of the same sex to enjoy the same privileges and standing of heterosexual couples, but I understand the point made by people like Santorum (even though I disagree with their attitude). Perhaps an appropriate solution would be the following: To move for the establishment of a law which allows the formal union between same-sex people with all the rights and obligations that any other law specifies for marriages, including the right of same-sex couples to speak of themselves as being married in any informal or formal situation (simply because they themselves consider themselves married), and also their right to have their union blessed and recognized in a religious ceremony identical to that of heterosexual couples, which a willing religious organization may offer to them. I think such a solution would satisfy the reasonable expectations of all. Specifically the law would not sanction same-sex marriage, but a legally equivalent same-sex union, while leaving the space open for society as a whole and for specific people in particular to show appreciation to such unions and speak of them as marriages if they so choose.

  3. Dianelos,

    The point of quoting Coontz is simply to challenge the idea that "marriage" has enjoyed a uniform understanding across cultures and history.

    The deeper issue is how we approach deciding whether something can or should qualify as "marriage"--and so, for example, whether it is appropriate to include certain relationships within the scope of existing marriage laws. Santorum's argument against including same-sex couples within the scope of legal marriage is that doing so would be an abuse of language comparable to calling a napkin a car.

    My criticism of Santorum is this: Marriage designates, first and foremost, a certain kind of *relationship*--and whether a relationship falls within a certain kind depends on *how* the relata are related to each other. If the relata are related to each other in *that* kind of way, then they fall within *that* class of relationship. The *individual* qualities of the relata (such as the sexes of the relata) are therefore relevant to the extent--and only to the extent--that those qualities influence whether the relata can be related in the relevant way.

    Now one might argue that "marriage" designates not merely a certain kind of relationship, but a species of that kind of relationship--differentiated from other relationships of the given kind by the fact that it is a man and a woman who are related in *that* kind of way, rather than two men or two women. But if one says this, one is conceding that the two species fall within the same class, differentiated not by differences in the *kind* of relationship but in terms of individual qualities of the relata. And then you can hardly say that to call same-sex partnerships of this kind "marriages" is an abuse of language tantamount to calling a napkin a car. Instead, it would be a relatively small expansion of the term's range of use.

    Such expansions are commonplace with respect to terms of art, even if they can be seriously problematic when it comes to "natural kind" terms. But another lesson of Coont's work appears to be this: Since "marriage" is a term used to describe a certain kind of relationship whose details are a function of culture, it is not a natural kind term in the way that "horse" and "banana" are.

    Of course, there are those who want to define marriage as a reproductive unit, and if that is the *kind* of relationship being designated by "marriage," the genders of the relata matter greatly--but so do age, fertility, and the reproductive intentions of the partners. In a sense at least, a reproductive unit *is* a natural kind: It is defined in terms of physiological characteristics of the relata (sex and fertility) and a specific physical act (unprotected vaginal intercourse). But in fact, western countries routinely make civil marriages available to couples who, in terms of their individual characteristics, fail to possess the ones necessary to form a reproductive unit with their partner.

    And part of what Coontz argues in her book is that, in terms of the actual history of marriage in the west, the reproductive conception has been decisively displaced by an understanding of marriage in terms of romantic love, sexual fidelity, and partnership in life. This preference for love over reproduction even finds expression in marital vows--which say NOTHING about producing offspring and everything about love and commitment and support.

    ==> Continued

  4. (Continued from above)

    My question is this: Can two women or two men coherently make the vows that married couples make to each other on their wedding day? The answer is clearly yes. If those vows describe the relational ideal in terms of which the marital relationship is defined, then it follows that two women or two men can be married in that sense. They can be related in THAT way.

    And if marriage IS a term of art, then we CAN, without abuse of language, call "married" any two people capable of being related in the way that married couples are related--even if doing so means that certain individual characteristics of the relata (ones which don't impact the capacity to form that sort of relationship), characteristics once treated as relevant, are no longer treated as relevant. It's like deciding to call a folded red square of tissue-like paper a napkin even though, previously, one had reserved that term only for folden WHITE squares of tissue-like paper.

    So, I conclude, abuse of language is not a reason to withhold the "marriage" label from same-sex couples. Are there OTHER reasons to withhold it? Are there reasons NOT to?

    As far as the latter goes, I think there are real worries about separate legal categories for heterosexual and homosexual partners of the sort you propose. Such separation of legally similar institutions into distinct classes may be better than one class of people being completely excluded, but America has a history of experimenting with "separate but equal" institutions, and there is a reason why it was finally decided that "separate is inherently unequal." For the majority to segregate a minority and say, "You can't have access to OUR institution, but we'll give you access to a comparable one," is for the majority to convey an implicit "less than" message. Or so it seems to me.

  5. Eric,

    Is this perhaps the last gasp of opposition to gay marriage? After all, resistance is greatest just before the breaking point. Or is it instead a hard turn backward to intolerance? Do you see the current situation as some kind of tipping point?

    If it can bring some comfort, things may change rapidly (and for the best), as they have done up here in Canada in the last decade or so - up to the point where things that were unthinkable ten years ago are now commonplace. Just recently, we had a state funeral (a rare event) officiated by a male anglican pastor who, during the ceremony, spoke openly and lovingly of his husband John, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. As far as I know, there was no scandal and this hardly made the news – although it is said that our conservative PM raised an eyebrow when he witnessed the event (and we're all very sorry for him). Although there is still some resistance (obviously), I think the worst is in the past.

    I wish things may move as quickly for you. Keep on the good fight.

  6. Eric,

    I agree with almost everything you say, but would like some points to clarify my position.

    On the epistemic level I think we all (and especially philosophers) should work for the clarity of discourse, and should therefore object to any abuse of language if possible. And, as you recognize, to call a same sex union marriage represents an expansion of the original meaning. Now you judge that this expansion is a small one because what is essential in what marriage designates is a relationship. I agree, but others may not, and would like to point out that this kind of value judgments are difficult to argue about, for they are really an emanation or expression of the quality of one’s character. I am not saying that there is not a fact of the matter; I am saying that the truth of this kind of value judgment is reached by the direct perception that the quality of one’s character allows, and not through the intellect in a way that one can argue with others. Thus, what you and I see as a minor expansion, others may see as a major abuse (even though the napkin and car analogy is clearly an exaggeration, just the kind of exaggeration one would expect from a populist).

    I have an issue on the ethical level too. I am sure you’ll agree that we should love and care for everybody, including those we hold to be of less faith and of less love and of less clearsightedness. So we should also love and care for the feeling of the many who are honestly appalled by the idea of same-sex marriage. It is for this reason I proposed the alternative legal solution of not calling same-sex union “marriage”, but making it equivalent with marriage in all legal ways, actual or future, including all rights and obligations. My suggestion is not to keep two separate legal categories, but rather to establish in law the legal equivalence of what is designated by two separate semantic concepts. Let me give an example from my actual line of work:

    We all know what “signature” designates, namely one’s characteristic writing of one’s name at the end of a document to establish one’s agreement with it. Signature has a huge legal significance, and there are many laws which specify what must be signed in order to be valid etc. Now, a few decades ago, digital technology has produced a technique which is entirely different from what “signature” designates, but which has the same essential effects that signature has, albeit for digital documents (including digital photographs of paper documents). That technique is called “digital signature”, but could also have been called something else such as “hashencryption”. Now many countries have introduced a new law which makes that “digital signature” legally equivalent to “signature”. In the praxis this means that one can digitally sign digital documents in all states of affairs where one might also put one’s signature on a paper document. And one can truthfully answer that “yes, I have signed that contract” even though one hasn’t put his signature on a paper document, but rather produced a digital signature in a digital document. With time people will use “signature” to designate “digital signature”, i.e. something that is quite different than what the concept originally meant. But it will be the freely evolving state of culture that will lead into this evolution of language. Observe that the legal equivalence I propose entails that members of a same sex union have the legal right to call themselves “married” or call each other “husband” or “wife”, etc. So I don’t quite see what homosexual people would find amiss in a law like the one I suggest. There have been many cases in the past where discrimination was put to end by the kind of equivalence law I suggest and without redefining, ever so slightly, any concept.

  7. I am with Dianelos here. Since as far back as records go, marriage has primarily been an official bond between a male and female of the same race. It is only in more recent times that people have fooled around with the word “marriage” to include interracial couples. That is why I believe we should use the word marriage for the official relationship between a male and female of the same race, use civil union for the relationship between same sex couples, and use mixed marriage for male and female of different race, and use abnormal civil union for same sex different race. All separate but equal; with some being a little bit more equal than others.

  8. Poe,

    I understand your point, but I wonder if it is actually true that as far back as record goes marriage designated an official union between a male and female of the same race only, either in the law, or in the way people understood the concept of “marriage”. At least in the wikipedia article about interracial marriage I read that in the West societies that legally banned interracial marriage were the exception, and the fact that they banned interracial *marriage* entails that they did view the respective union as marriage, albeit one that for one reason or other were deemed undesirable. Sometimes the opposite happened, as when, for example, Alexander the Great promoted interracial marriage.

    So I don’t think your analogy works very well. In any case please observe that I recognize that the current situation which discriminates against same sex couples is both socially harmful (and thus should be fixed by our political leaders whatever their religious and ethical beliefs may be), and contradicts Christ's ethical teaching which was only moved by love, and was always all-accepting and all-inclusive. My difference here is about the most practical and effective means to fix the current injustice.

  9. Dianelos,

    With respect to the following: I am sure you’ll agree that we should love and care for everybody, including those we hold to be of less faith and of less love and of less clearsightedness. So we should also love and care for the feeling of the many who are honestly appalled by the idea of same-sex marriage.

    I would say that we should love and care for the person who feels honestly appalled by the idea of same-sex marriage. What this entails for how one should respond to the feelings themselves is a different matter, and one I wrestle with. In part I wrestle because I experience a strong call--rooted in love--to come to the defense of my gay and lesbian neighbors, who have for too long been pushed to the margins of society, forced to live lies, verbally and physically abused if the truth about them became known, etc. In recent years, sexual minorities have made enormous progress, and there are those who want to not merely stop the progress but reverse it--that is, push gays and lesbians back into the closet, back into inauthentic lives, back to the margins of society. Santorum represents the pursuit of equality as a "jihad" against people of faith--an unreasonable and even absurd attack on what he represents as being just obviously the case ("Napkins are OBVIOUSLY not cars, but THESE people are absurdly insisting that they are, and then go after those who stand by the obvious truth that they're not.")

    What does love for Rick Santorum AND my gay and lesbian neighbors look like in the face of this kind of situation? Of course, one can express love while rebuking the false claims and harmful practices of those one loves--but there are different ways to "rebuke," and not all of them are loving. And if the aim is to build community where there is division (and this must certainly be a goal for anyone motivated by Christian love), the ways one approaches the task of "rebuking" those who are creating hurt and alienation has to be consistent with that aim.

    I must admit to finding an uncomfortable tension between my post on Santorum and the post that came right before it--on nonviolent communication. To what extent was I escalating the polarized opposition between proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage by calling Santorum's argument "silly"? And to what extent was my doing so simply a case of honestly sharing how I see it, especially insofar as I then explained why? Is there a place for satire, for rolling one's eyes at an argument one finds empty? This also relates to the discussion I had with cheek in the comments section after my previous post on same-sex marriage.

  10. Dianelos,

    I appreciate that you read through my satirical comment and largely understood what was meant. A point I fear you did consider fully is how much does it really matter what the oldest records of marriage say? Why is our concept of marriage tied to some point in history (how far back?) when the history of the set of relationships that fall under the category of “marriage” enjoys plenty of diversity (what ratio of kinds of marriage sets the standard?)? Another thought that came to mind while reading your reply: does the fact that some modern US states ban *marriage* entail that we do view the respective union as a marriage (albeit one that for one reason or other were deemed undesirable)?

    The analogy works well on many fronts. Especially the salient fronts regarding history of discrimination, choice of race/sexuality, and failed so-called separate but equal solutions. The problem we face is one of discrimination, not of preservation of the English language (from some imaginary moment where words had true meaning). Quibbling about which definition was originally chiseled in stone is a distraction, not an effort to solve the problem.