Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Book Review: The Future of Marriage, Part I

To begin, I must admit that I approached David Blankenhorn's book The Future of Marriage with some trepidation, as I know that he is against extending marriage to same-sex couples. After reading the book, however, I have to give him credit for approaching the issue with more respect than most on his "side." He doesn't fall into the easy and usual trap of moralizing about homosexuality being "wrong," "perverted," or "unnatural." In fact, he goes as far as saying "homosexual behavior is an important and normal (expected) occurrence in human societies" (p.115) and "[w]e as a society can and should accept the dignity of homosexual love and the equal worth of gay and lesbian persons" (p.179). Such acknowledgments do a lot to encourage dialogue out of mutual respect; something that many (most?) on his "side" would do better to remember. I wish that more of the opposition would follow Blankenhorn's lead in recognizing the human dignity of LGBT persons.

That being said, I noted several flaws in his piece. To break this long post up, I have divided my cook report into two parts. Tomorrow I will post Part II. All quote from The Future of Marriage unless otherwise indicated.

To begin, he dismisses historian Stephanie Coontz's extensively-researched book Marriage, A History with a mere "it is a clear example of glossing marriage's history in a way that is superficial and unsatisfying" (p. 10). He also characterizes multi-volume marriage history books as "suffering from serious shortcomings" (p. 9). Ironically, Blankhorn offers his version of the history of marriage in 5 chapters (117 pages) and does so by mostly citing philosophers, poets, and various creation myths. I personally have difficulty accepting Blankenhorn's touchy-feely version over the above-mentioned histories by actual historians and anthropologists.

What I find most unsatisfying about Blankenhorn's blanket dismissals of these other books is that he doesn't address the shortcomings in these other history books that offer accounts of history that are different from his account. An uncritical audience may accept his dismissals at face value, but I do not. A book is not flawed just because one says it is, without any further explanation. If one is going to dismiss another's books one could at least extend the courtesy of a more reasoned and articulate dismissal. More on that later.

1. Defining Marriage

Right off, Blankenhorn admits that "Marriage is a universal institution, present in all known human societies. But there is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage- partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures." [emphasis added] (11). Yes, I think most historians would agree that there is no single, universal definition of marriage.

Yet, a few pages later, Blankenhorn writes that the Massachussetts court that held that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry "issued a ruling effectively requiring state legislatures to take steps to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples." (13).

On the one hand, there is no universal definition of marriage. But on the other hand, including same-sex couples in marriage is a re-definition. How is an institution re-defined, if it is not first defined?

Blankenhorn commits the typical fallacy of using circular logic to come to the conclusion that same sex marriage constitutes a re-definition of marriage. In his mind, marriage is already defined as an institution that can only exist between one man and one woman, even though he admits that there is no universal definition of marriage. And, he uses that assumption to reach his conclusion that including same-sex couples in marriage is a "redefinition" of marriage.

2. But, Who "Designed" Marriage?

So, what is marriage according to Blankenhorn? Citing no evidence or research, perhaps because this is all so obvious to him, he states, "Childrearing is probably the single most important social need that marriage is designed to meet, but there are numerous others as well." (15).

His argument is intuitively appealing, as most can agree that childrearing is important. But I'd like to move into the active voice and ask Blankenhorn who it was, specifically, that designed marriage for childrearing? Because the history of marriage books that I've read (and that Blankenhorn inexplicably dismissed) have said that over time and culture, societies designed marriage to meet various other "single most" important needs. For instance, anthropologist Edmund Leach proposes that marriage is more about regulating property than regulating sex and childrearing. Historian Stephanie Coontz describes the single most important function of marriage through most of history as "establishing cooperative relationships between families and communities." (In Marriage, A History). Some, it seems, think of children more as being byproducts of marriage, rather than the "primary purpose" of marriage.

A bit later, however, Blankenhorn attempts to substantiate his claim by quoting anthropologist Helen Fisher saying "People wed primarily to reproduce" ( p. 17). And, he expands on this quote by insisting that if children did not have to be reared, marriage "would make no formal sense" and that people would not get married (Ibid.) This statement implies that there is no reason for any couple who does not rear children to be married.

I am now curious as to how Blankenhorn will handle the facts that not all married couples are willing and able to reproduce, that same-sex couples reproduce, and that many of the legal, financial, and economic benefits of marriage in the US are not related to childrearing or reproduction. I will also eagerly await his proposal to ban marriage for heterosexual couples unable and unwilling to rear children. Because I can think of one class of citizens, many of whom are actually willing and able to rear children, who are currently unable to legally marry.

But more than that, it appears that even the "experts" disagree on what the primary purpose of marriage is and was. Is the marriage debate an example of both sides cherry-picking experts who make statements that support pro- and anti- same-sex marriage arguments?

3. Convenient Equivocations

In Chapter 2, the author makes his case for the proposition that "the origins of marriage appear to coincide with the origins of human civilization." A couple of things should be noted regarding this chapter. One, he never defines "marriage," although he refers to marriage throughout this chapter. Thus he presents marriage throughout human history as a universal unchanging societal institution (even though he admitted earlier that it was not such an institution). Using one word, when it has had many definitions and purposes over time, is an often-used and intellectually dishonest equivocation. Equivocation is "the misleading use of a word with more than one meaning (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)."

To demonstrate, Blankenhorn cites anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss as reminding us that family is "based on a union, more or less durable, but socially approved, of two individuals of opposite sexes who establish a household and bear and raise children." And thus we have Definition 1 of marriage: male-female pairs who bond in order bear and raise children. Note that nowhere is this society's legal definition of marriage, as procreation is not a legal requirement of marriage.

In fact, while citing no evidence, Blankenhorn says that human evolution (eg- the loss of female estrus and the fact that human males have large penises) resulted in pair bonding which, in turn, transformed men from "inseminators" to "fathers." Which, in turn, created marriage (Definition 1) (p.33). And furthermore, these marriages (Definition 1) are responsible for the success of the human race, because they were (supposedly) seen "everywhere." (p.29) [Except, of course, when they weren't. A few pages later Blankenhorn contradicts his assertion that marriage and fathers were seen "everywhere" when recounting societies where fathers were not present and marriage did not exist (p.38-39)].

What is missing from most marriage debates, however, is a distinction between an anthropological definition of marriage and a state's legal definition of marriage (Definition 2 of marriage). Where I'm going here is that Blankenhorn's definition of marriage (Definition 1) confers no legal, financial, and economic benefits upon the people within that marriage. When many (but not all) males and females began to "pair bond" and have children together they did so without the sanction or conferral of benefits from a government.

It wasn't until "centuries later" that human societies created the legal institution of marriage (Definition 2) and began conferring benefits upon it (p.30).

So, on the one hand Blankenhorn describes marriage (Definition 1) as sort of the natural order of things. Because of evolution, he argues, men are now primed to be "fathers" and raise children with women. But, on the other hand, he acknowledges "marriage as an institution is a social construction" (p.30) [Definition 2].

Which, of course, leads me to this pressing question: If men are naturally primed for fatherhood and for this natural biological state of marriage (Definition 1), would merely calling same-sex unions "marriage" somehow destroy this biological and natural urge that heterosexual men have to pair-bond with women? Blankenhorn answers in this way, "marriage [Definition 2] is finally an imposition of law and custom upon individuals whose 'natural' behavior at any given moment might easily go the other way."

Wait, didn't Blankenhorn just devote many pages to telling us that what sets humans apart from animals is that it is natural for us to pair-bond and raise children with members of the opposite sex? Didn't he just explain to us in-depth about how we are sexually primed to fall in love with opposite sex partners? Didn't he just speak in much detail about how woman are so very pleased by their male partners' large penises and how face-to-face intercourse causes men and women to fall in love and raise babies together? Didn't he just say that evolution turned men into fathers who stayed with mothers to raise children? Didn't he just say that marriage [Definition 1] was responsible for the success of the human race?

And now, he's saying despite marriage [Definition 1] being our natural state of being, that marriage [Definition 2] is so very fragile because our natural behavior tells us not to be in marriage [Definition unclear]?!

Although evolution has primed [ahem, some] humans for male-female marriage, calling male-male marriage "marriage" will disrupt this natural urge, it seems.

Does anyone else find these equivocations confusing and distracting?

In Chapter 5, Blankenhorn sets out to provide his own definition of marriage by sort of combining definitions 1 and 2:

"In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived both as a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are- and are understood by society to be- emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents." (p.91).

Note how this definition (which may or may not accurate) is merely Blankenhorn's description of what marriage is "everywhere." In the rest of his book, however, he turns his description of marriage into a normative pronouncement of what marriage should be. In other words, because marriage is what it is, it should be that way. Two logical fallacies come to mind here: appeal to tradition (marriage has always been like this, so it should continue to be like this) and circular reasoning (marriage is x, so marriage should be x).

But the more I read arguments on both sides of the debate, the more I realize that arguing about the "definition of marriage" is a semantic game. Those opposed to gay marriage assert that marriage is and always has been between one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation. Those who advocate for gay marriage assert that the purpose of marriage has changed over time and it's now about "two people who are in love" (or something along the lines of a private relationship between two people).

What the definition of marriage is, to me, seems less relevant than the policy reasons for and against gay marriage. Specifically, I think it is more relevant, prudent, and important to ask "what are the pros and cons of gay marriage?" than "what is marriage?"

And that is what Part II of my review will deal with.

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