July 8, 2008


Hey, same-sex marriage opponents, I have a question for you. "Traditional" marriages frequently involve arrangements being made by parents for the marriage, without bothering to ask the children to be married off what they think of the arrangement or whether they like their prospective spouses. Indeed, in many arranged marriages in many cultures, the bride and groom do not meet until the marriage ceremony itself.

Now, I know that many arranged marriages work out just fine, and the couple grows to love one another as time goes on. I also know that many people will submit to such arrangements because of powerful cultural and religious reasons. That would be, I suppose, "consent." But there are also arranged marriages that don't work out, in which the spouses genuinely dislike one another, or at least one spouse dislikes the other -- and those same cultures that incorporate arranged marriages also seem to have intense taboos in place against infidelity and divorce, and in many cases the particular focus of those taboos is on the wife while similar behavior is more tolerable on the part of the husband as a de facto if not de jure matter. It is not hard to imagine that sex within such a marriage might actually be rape.

But wouldn't you SSM opponents agree with me that if one would-be spouse refuses to consent to a marriage, that would be a good reason to not issue a marriage license? Adults in free nations like, say, the United States can withhold their consent to a marriage if they wish and they do not have to offer any reason for doing so. By definition, in such a case we are not dealing with two consenting adults -- one of them is refusing to consent. And in such a case, there should be no marriage license issued.

Certainly we can all agree that a father who kills his daughter in an "honor killing" because she refuses to consent to the arranged marriage deserves the full punishment the law can mete out to him. Assuming that man did what he is accused of doing, he has obviously done something both morally and legally intolerable and all right-thinking, ethically aware individuals will quickly condemn him.

Now, SSM opponents are probably wary of this argument, sensing a trap for them coming down the road. And they are right to be wary, because there is a trap for them if they explore this concept too far. A trap that will deprive them of the defense of "tradition" and "history."

The trap is that the notion of "traditional" marriage, for a very large part of human history and a very large percentage of the human population, treats the consent of the spouses (particularly the bride) as irrelevant. The marriage exists for reasons that have nothing to do with the spouses' affinity for one another. The marriage is not for love; in most cases, it is for money. And let us not forget that such arrangements are hardly unknown in European and Christian societies, most notably in the case of marriages of nobility for political or dynastic purposes but also at the level of the bourgeois, for the financial and social advantage of the families involved. Regardless, consent is not a part of "traditional" marriage.

This is "traditional" marriage, at least as it is known in a large fraction of the world.

And to our Western, Christianized sensibilities, it seems barbaric and cruel, dehumanizing and frequently misogynistic, even if it does not lead to violence as it did in this case. There are some readers of this blog who would defend arranged marriages and indeed cogent and powerful defenses can be marshalled in favor of that practice. But I find the practice distasteful even if it works out well in a high percentage of cases (which I have not seen data on, one way or the other).

Now, the right to do something is not the same thing as the ability to do it easily or painlessly. There may be a social price to pay for withdrawing from an arrangement. That price typically would take the form of social opprobrium and family disapproval. But that is no different than the social price one would pay for coming out as a gay or as an atheist -- the difference is, if you want to keep your disbelief or your homosexuality private, you can. If you don't want to be part of an arranged marriage, though, you need to affirmatively speak up and be vulnerable to that kind of conflict. Although you certainly shouldn't be killed for it.

I think that the real mutual consent of the spouses should be an element of the modern understanding of marriage in our nation. One might consent to an arranged marriage, but one should also have a meaningful opportunity to withdraw that consent before the marriage takes effect. I don't care if consent is not part of the "traditional" notion of marriages that prevails in many cultures. We can and should decide for ourselves, for the kind of society that we want to create today, that these ancient traditions no longer suit our ideals.

I feel this way because I see that one of our social ideals is that adults should be free to marry, or not, as they choose. To ignore their choices is to diminish their personal freedom. I don't give a damn about how they do it in the old country or how they did it back when some holy book was written. This isn't the old country. This isn't the Bronze Age.

We can make consent an element of the modern legal definition of marriage, even if many traditions do not consider consent relevant. And we should do so, not out of disrespect for those old social and religious customs, but rather in realization of our modern ideals.

And that is why, in the contemporary debate about same-sex marriage, I am unpersuaded by the argument that marriage has historically not involved partners of the same sex. We can and should decide for ourselves, today, what we want this social institution to be. If the traditions of the past no longer work for us or do not match our ideals, it is within our power and may well be to our benefit to discard those traditions. If we are going to take seriously the ideal of treating gay people equally, if we are going to take seriously the concept that they have a zone of privacy into which the rest of us need not approve, then same-sex marriage is the logical consequence of that ideal in action.

That, in turn, leads me to react to clarion calls to "Protect traditional marriage!" as an implied command to gay people to "Get back in the closet." After all, if we in fact inject modern sensibilities (like consent) into so-called "traditional marriage," then the institution is clearly malleable to fit contemporary ideals. Since we can see that "tradition" is actually dispensible when it offends modern sensibilities (as with the element of consent), the statement "historically, two men have never been able to get married to each other" becomes revealed as code for "homosexuality is morally unacceptable in modern society," a statement which is clearly incorrect.

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