Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Marriage Equality and Semantics
A few weeks ago, I posted a 'thought for the day' on Facebook:

"To claim that calling trans women 'women' is oppressive to other women is much like claiming that to call gay marriage 'marriage' is oppressive to heterosexuals.

In fact, it's the exact same argument."


That got (by my modest standards) an unusual number of 'Likes', and indeed I stand by it - though if I'd not been in aperçu mode I might have underlined the fact that I wasn't claiming that objecting to trans women being called "women" was in all respects like objecting to marriage equality, simply that this particular argument - that it somehow hurt those who had traditional "possession" of the term in question - was the same in both cases. It seemed worth saying because there are plenty of people who appear willing to give that argument houseroom when it's applied to trans people, while vocally dismissing it in the case of marriage. I might have expanded on this over on FB had anyone given me a chance by disagreeing with my post, but in fact no one did.

I'm grateful then to stormdog's post here for bringing it back to mind today by raising what seems to me an interesting and worthwhile point. stormdog puts the problem thus:

I'm a little bit annoyed by people saying that the legalization of same-sex marriage will have absolutely no effect on hetero marriage. That isn't true, and making that statement is dismissive of the opposition. Dismissing people's feelings doesn't help to create dialogue; it creates hostility.


This seems to me to be true - but I can see why people supporting marriage equality don't want to go there, because a) the effect is pretty small, to the point of negligibility for many people, and b) the effect (such as it is) can too easily be spun as "oppression", even if it's actually positive. In terms of the broad-brush public debate, the game isn't worth the candle.

But we're not about broad-brush public debate here on Steepholm Island; on the contrary, our ambition is to reproduce the Bayeux tapestry using navel fluff alone (only this time Harold wins). Small effects are interesting. But what is the nature of that effect, and how (asks stormdog) can one persuade those with a traditional conception of marriage that it is not an adverse one for them? Here's an edited version of what I replied at stormdog's LJ:

We're not talking about a zero-sum game or indeed any kind of competition. That kind of thinking, where there are only a certain number of rights to go round and if somebody wins new ones then someone else must necessarily have lost others, is a big part of the problem.

Perhaps a better analogy would be what T. S. Eliot said in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' about the effect of new works on the existing canon:

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.


Your sense that same-sex marriage affects straight people too is right in a similar way, I think, because (just like Eliot's literary works) we all exist within a complex web of relationships and understandings, and the language we use is a communal (though not finite) resource. I think if we could persuade people that what they see as a dilution or adulteration of that resource is an enrichment in which they share then we would have done a good day's work. We might point out that although, as Donne wrote, "any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind", the reverse also holds true.


And, of course, just as one can make that point about conceptions of marriage, one can make it too about conceptions of "woman" and "man". To coin a phrase, it's the exact same argument.

I like this argument very much, especially the inspired use of Eliot (and indeed Donne).

Thanks. I find that Eliot passage applicable to many things in life!

Everything you and stormdog say about what is claimed as "an effect on hetero marriage" is a change in the concept of marriage. This is not denied by supporters of same-sex marriage. It is not, however, an effect on hetero marriage or hetero marriages. Opponents of same-sex marriage have repeatedly claimed that it is, and they have repeatedly been unable to substantiate this when pressed, and nothing that stormdog says changes that.

The real belief seems to be that marriage is a sort of club, and they want to keep the riff-raff out. But married people as a group do not form a club. Each marriage is an individual club with two people in it (if it's not poly). Even children are in a sense external to the club of the married partners (which is one reason why the post-facto claim that marriage is all about procreation is nonsense).

This is where there is a slight difference between [trans women/women] and [same-sex married people/married people]. Married people don't form a club, but women do. There is such a thing as women-only spaces; there is not really such a thing as married-people-only spaces. The argument that trans women don't belong in women-only spaces seems to me to be based on fundamental misunderstanding of trans experiences; but I can see the relevance of the concern, in a way that seems utterly irrelevant to hetero married people looking at homo married people.

there is not really such a thing as married-people-only spaces

I suspect many single people would dispute that! But I do see what you're saying, and for all practical purposes I'm in agreement. Such disagreement as there is lies precisely at the impractical, or as you put it conceptual, level. Because same-sex marriage changes the concept of marriage (at least for those whose concept of marriage did not previously encompass it), it changes the self-conception of those who "identify as" (unlovely term) married. Changing one's self-conception is hard work, especially for those who aren't used to that kind of labour, and to that extent it may be worth attempting to help the process along by showing that the new conception is a more generous, more interesting and richer one. But it's still a side issue, I wouldn't dispute.

It's certainly true that married and single people socialize differently. My mother noted that after her divorce, she got fewer invitations from her married friends, and this wasn't because they took my father's side. But what we have here is a club of friends who are married, not a club of which all married people are members. In a typical women-only space, all women (by whatever their definition of "women" is) are welcome, even if nobody else there has ever met them. That's what gives it its character and makes the definitional question important, because they're there in their capacity as women. The married friends who socialize without single people are there in their capacity as friends, even if their single friends are excluded.

True enough also that the existence of same-sex marriage changes the idea of what it means to be married in these folks' minds. But nobody's ever argued that point in court, because it's so transparently flimsy a basis to argue that this means that other people shouldn't be allowed to get married.

But what we have here is a club of friends who are married, not a club of which all married people are members.

Though equally, not all women frequent women-only spaces.

The married friends who socialize without single people are there in their capacity as friends, even if their single friends are excluded.

That feels a slightly gerrymandered standpoint: "The Lofty Bar is open to anyone more than 6'3" in height; but we're here to drink, not to exclude women!" Even if it genuinely never occurred to the Lofty Bar's owners that they were being exclusive, perhaps it should have?

But as to the main point - absolutely. It's a very flimsy thing, and not an argument at all, really - just a possible source of unease that might more profitably be eased than dismissed.

"not all women frequent women-only spaces"

Irrelevant. Haven't you ever belonged to a club many of whose members never show up? Haven't you ever found yourself enlisted in some "club" (usually a business gimmick designed to try to seep money off you) that you have no interest in?

"The Lofty Bar is open to anyone more than 6'3" in height"

I know women that tall; and I expect you'd get a high filtering towards trans women that way!

In any case, also irrelevant. This is a formal rule, which is one difference, and more importantly, it's open to ANYONE more than 6'3", whether they're friends or not. These social groups of married people do exclude their single friends; that's undisputed. But it doesn't make it a club of ALL married people, the way that a women-only space is a club of ALL women (whether the women want to join or not). That was my point of bringing this up: the effects of these definitions on the class of people who want to be considered part of those classes: trans women being women, same-sex married couples being considered married people. People who are not part of the classes are irrelevant to the analogy.

To borrow your own language:

To complain about single people being excluded from social groups of married people is much like complaining about the exclusion of men from women-only spaces.

In fact, it's the exact same argument.

I know women that tall; and I expect you'd get a high filtering towards trans women that way!

No doubt (I'd miss the cut by 8 inches), but a discriminatory filter doesn't have to be 100% effective to be discriminatory.

To complain about single people being excluded from social groups of married people is much like complaining about the exclusion of men from women-only spaces.

In fact, it's the exact same argument.


It's precisely the opposite of the argument you employed in your previous comments, where you were insisting that women-only spaces and groups of married people excluded men and singles (respectively) on quite different bases. You were right the first time, in my opinion; my only quibble was whether the exclusion of singles from socializing with their married friends was accidental, in the philosophical sense. If your mother's invitations dried up despite her friends not taking your father's side (and thus one assumes continuing to feel friendship towards her), it seems too simple to describe subsequent dinner parties as having been convened on the basis of friendship rather than marital status. Clearly being a friend and being married were both seem as necessary conditions for an invitation.

pt 1) Now you're changing the bar from "exclusionary" to "discriminatory." It is discriminatory, but that's not the barrier we were talking about earlier.

pt 2) It is indeed precisely the opposite of the argument I employed earlier. But it's the argument that you used that convinced you, so I thought it fair to turn it on you.

Again, the point isn't that the single people are excluded. They are, and that's undisputed. The point - the whole point - of the original discussion is the basis on which the included people are included.

1) Okay, I'm confused. That seems like a distinction without a difference to me - but I imagine you're distinguishing on the basis that discrimination is intentional (including subconscious intention?) and exclusion (in this context) is accidental. Is that right?

2) No - it's not the argument that convinced me. I was at some pains to make that clear in the first substantive paragraph of my post.

I'm not trying to say that that the exclusion of singletons from the social lives of married couples is an evil on a par with sexual or racial discrimination. This part of the discussion span off (spun off? I always get confused about that verb) from a teasing jibe I made en route to the main subject, several comments ago. But I do think that it's slightly disingenuous to suppose that social practices that develop so as include or exclude certain groups always do so accidentally, even if exclusion is not their avowed purpose. No one who has grown up under the British class system could seriously buy that.

1) No, I am not saying that at all. Your own argument to which I responded should give you the context. Exclusion prohibits [women|singles]. Discrimination lets some in but is biased against them, so fewer get in than in a fair system. Exclusion is often explicit and bias inexplicit, but that's not the salient difference.

2) According to your own first paragraph, the argument did convince you to the extent that it's relevant here.

3) I didn't say that the exclusion was accidental. My argument was that it was incidental. I suppose now you'll tell me that this is also a distinction without a difference. Not to me. I wanted to explain this, but I'm getting very tired of outlining the obvious. You're trying to argue that the club of all women and the club of all married people work identically, because they both exclude [men|singles], but I'm not letting you get away with that.

1) Okay, I now understand how you draw the line between exclusionary and discriminatory practices: in your mind it appears to be the difference between an absolute and a tendency.

2) Just no. "I wasn't claiming that objecting to trans women being called "women" was in all respects like objecting to marriage equality" (emphasis in original). The argument I was making concerned the similarity of one specific objection to a) same sex marriage and b) calling trans women women, namely that to do so was oppressive to hetero couples and to cis women respectively. I can't see how that has any relevance to the assertion that "To complain about single people being excluded from social groups of married people is much like complaining about the exclusion of men from women-only spaces."

3) I don't want to be tedious, but the sense of "accidental" I was using (what I called "the philosophical sense", as in per accidens) is indeed pretty similar in meaning to "incidental" - indeed I might have used the latter word had I thought of it, as being less ambiguous.

I haven't said anything at all about the club of all women excluding men. Making some allowance for gender-fluid and intersex people that seems a no brainer, like saying that the set of squares excludes triangles. I suspect we've been at some cross purposes here.

"I haven't said anything at all about the club of all women excluding men." Really? Yikes! Because that's exactly what this conversation has been about. My initial comment was was an observation that the two cases you discuss differ in this respect: that the class of all women (excluding men) is a socially meaningful concept, while the class of all married people (excluding singles) is not. (I used the word "club".) You've been irritatingly poking at that by pointing out that not all women choose to participate in exclusionary classes of all women, and that there exist clubs exclusively of married people who are friends (which is not the same as a club of all married people; that they are also friends is an essential component). None of which is relevant to the point, which is how this affects the edge conditions of those who consider themselves part of the class but whom others would exclude (trans women, married gays).

2) As I read your first paragraph, it says "I stand by it" and "it seemed worth saying," and also "this particular argument ... was the same in both cases." Since "this particular argument" is what we're discussing, it's relevant here.

3) If what you meant was "incidental" as I mean incidental, which is "consciously apparent to the perpetrators (and least after being pointed out) and not purely happenstance (that would be 'accidental') but not the basic goal or purpose of the restriction," then yes, that's exactly what I'm arguing. Even in the case of the British class system. I've been in groups that incidentally exclude in this way. While the excluded outsiders have a better perception of what the results are, the insiders know what the conscious motivations are.

Because that's exactly what this conversation has been about.

Your half of it has, anyway! Looking back I think I can see where we started talking about different things, but since the genesis was a flippant remark on my part I'm happy to leave it at that without a further post mortem.

On incidental/accidental, I wonder how you'd describe another phenomenon that's been in my mind while we've been having this conversation, from quite another part of the forest: unpaid internships. I don't know how big an issue they are in the States, but here they're very controversial. To their proponents they are a double win: the intern gets valuable training and experience, and the company gets free labour - what's not to love? However, they also act (incidentally? accidentally?) as a class filter, since the only people who can realistically apply for an unpaid internship, especially in London where living costs are high, are those with parents rich enough to bankroll them for a year. Since experience of such internships is increasingly seen as a necessary qualification for work in some high-paying sectors (e.g. finance, advertising), this means that only people who are London-based and/or rich (probably 'and' rather than 'or', in practice) can enter those kinds of job. I'm guessing that would be incidental in your terms, right? Though cynics might claim it was part of the point of the exercise, or at least that it has over time become part of the point.

Edited at 2015-07-01 05:58 pm (UTC)

There is a lot of concern in the US about exploiting interns, but it's not class-based, although class issues could come in to it (the rich don't need to resort to unpaid internships; on the other hand they wouldn't financially suffer if they took them; and the actually needy are not high enough in rank to get them: the exploited here are the middle-class). In the US, though we distinguish between races, between the have and have-nots, between the well- and the poorly-connected, and so on, there's such a total lack of a real class system in the British sense that most of us don't know we don't have one.

What happens with interns is a drift from the accidental to the incidental to the purposive. At first, internships were purely for training and to support work in the industry (exploitation was purely accidental). Then companies began noticing that they were getting free labor out of it, but that wasn't the point (now it's incidental). Then it became the point, the goal is to squeeze out as much from the intern as possible and then throw them aside, and the benefit to the worker became pure window-dressing (purposive).

Thanks - that's very clear.

"To claim that calling trans women 'women' is oppressive to other women is much like claiming that to call gay marriage 'marriage' is oppressive to heterosexuals.

In fact, it's the exact same argument."

Mind if I quote that on fb? I don't know what facebook appellation to attribute it to (but could attribute it to your lj one if you wish - whatever you prefer).

Be my guest! I'm Catherine Butler on fb, but you can attribute it to either if you wish.

I went with steepholm from lj: There are a LOT of Catherine Butlers on fb. ;)

Thanks!

I still have not heard a convincing argument about why gay people being able to legally marry threatens het marriages. I HAVE heard a lot of emotional heat, but not a single reason that makes sense.

One of my LJ readers posted a bitter screed about how the leftwing has now pandered to "sexy times" with that ruling. I didn't respond, as the post is angry and bitter, and makes no sense: the person cannot see that "sexy times" existed long, LONG before the ruling. Now the people involved can actually settle down to have a family in the eyes of the law. How is that sexy times?

I like the other quote so much I have to go find you on Twitter now so I can retweet it. (Still trying to get used to twitter. not having a whole lot of luck.)

This post isn't really addressed to the bitter screeders - I don't think there's much to be done about them, alas!

I'm not on Twitter - afraid I'd get addicted - but I'm Catherine Butler on FB. Feel free to tweet it anyway if you wish!

You saw my post a month ago linking to a guy with seven reasons, none of which made sense?

I think what the screedster meant by "sexy times" is that now the government is legally acknowledging that gay people have sex. Ewwww! (I'm mocking this disgust, but I'm not joking about its existence: personal disgust at the idea of gay sex is Mike Huckabee's stated reason for opposing gay rights.) The problem is that your screedster has bought seriously the definition of marriage that supergee mocks as "a government fncking license."

Yes! I remember that post.

I guess you're correct re sexy times, but it seems to me a profound unwillingness to see what is actually going on here.

I like this very much. :)

Thank you!

I think what's actually going on is that same-sex marriage isn't possible to reconcile with patriarchal marriage. It can't be used as a way to control women.

I'd agree with that.

I mean to be dismissive when I say that, though--it's not a bug, it's a feature. I find that argument so specious, so unable to be supported by any of its proponents in any specific way beyond smoke and bluster, that dismissing it is precisely what I mean to do.

And that may well generate hostility, but you know, what goes around comes around--bigots generate a fair amount of hostility themselves. I've never claimed to take the high road.

Fair enough. "It's not a bug, it's a feature," is actually a pretty good summary of what I was trying to say in this post.

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