June 29th, 2015

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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.