It’s an Institute One Might Disparage

June 29th, 2007  |  Published in etc  |  3 Comments

The “K” of “nerdmeyr & K” wrote some interesting stuff about marriage, then the “nerdmeyr” part followed up in a comment in that same entry.

Kathleen was pretty direct:

“I also do not believe that openminded and well-intentioned people will change the function of marriage ‘from the inside.’ This does not mean that I think married people are nefarious, or that people who want to get married are chumps.”

To which my automatic defensive response was “but thinking those things was on the table?”

And Amy said “It seems to me that the institution of marriage is a Trojan horse, loaded with validation, privilege and a new Cuisinart, and carrying in its belly state-sponsored control, exclusion, discrimination, and a fundamental lack of creativity and imagination.”

To which my automatic defensive response was “But I didn’t even get a Cuisinart, and Alison and I have our own benefits plans, so we’re not really discriminating!”

It was sort of interesting to write, oh, about 1,600 words in unfocused response, sort of outlining my definitions of “marriage,” then outlining other peoples’ definitions, then realizing all those words inappropriately read as an apology or defense; or a stilted attempt at a policy debate. I still sort of feel like there’s an unnatural lilt to this post, but I’m just going to paste in the bits of A & B that get us to C, and let C fend for itself. So here’s the policy part:

In the past, I’ve argued that what we currently call “marriage” is a tangled mess of sacrament, state license/regulation and social event. I’ve further argued that the state has no business being involved in marriage in that compound form, and that its role should be severely restricted to that of collecting evidence of a partnering, using that evidence to mediate disputes over property and, perhaps, the medical wishes of incapacitated people who have expressed their preferences to their partners. Marriage as a bureaucratic tool should just be a bright line in the form of a certificate, used to remove some of the ambiguity bureaucrats despise.

The remaining elements, sacrament and social event, don’t withstand scrutiny as matters for state involvement when they’re detached from the legal concerns. Some people already recognize this: Churches perform “commitment ceremonies” not so much in defiance of the law as in circumvention of the state’s inappropriate claim to regulation of a sacrament. Queer couples hold their own ceremonies without the imprimatur of a church or the state and in the presence of their own communities. The implicit comment made with both these kinds of ceremonies is clear: The state doesn’t get to say what God or a community thinks about a couple.

Then here’s a mildly rewritten graf I put in to form a bridge:

I’ve argued that making the registration of a domestic partnership as impersonal as getting a driver’s license, and with the contentious word “marriage” removed from the process, we’d have a tidy way to fix things so everyone could be happy. I still believe that in the absence of the state’s inappropriate current role in legitimizing who, exactly, gets to be kin, we’d render public declarations/ceremonies less objectionable by the fact that we wouldn’t be holding up only one kind of declaration as government-approved.

But Kathleen and Amy point out that the legalistic aspects of the issue are just part of a spectrum of concerns, and Amy further provides some convincing quotations to indicate that the state has a few other regulatory desires besides property disputes and medical wishes. They also make some good points about the sheer societal mass marriage has accreted. If marriage was so malleable and ill-defined that we could just rearrange and redefine it to suit us, there wouldn’t be all these stupid amendments and laws “defending” it. That makes it impossible to be only a little bit married.

Sometimes their comments and quotations were uncomfortable to read, because my enlightened policy proscriptions seem tone-deaf and callous, conveniently glancing only briefly at my own participation in an injustice.

Isn’t that a classic pattern?

“You wronged me.”

“Well, here … this’ll fix it! Can we drop it now?”

Kathleen wrote:

“A large part of the reason it’s been so difficult for nymes and I to make these arguments before is that we fear people will think we’re turning their nice party into something political. But our point is that when you decide to get married, regardless of the reasons, you yourself are making a political statement. There’s just no way of getting around that.”

I appreciate Kathleen and Amy taking the time to write down their thoughts. They reminded me of the difference between knowing about something in the abstract and being sensitized to it. That difference can change how one responds to potentially painful or uncomfortable contradictions between what one does and what one thinks oneself to be.


  1. nerdmeyr says:

    June 30th, 2007 at 3:52 pm (#)

    First, thanks for the words and the thoughtful thoughts.

    I thought K did a really good job of outlining why the decision to get married cannot be ascribed to mere personal choice, that its part of a larger political ecosystem. So, when you talk about your reaction to such an argument in terms of “…conveniently glancing only briefly at my own participation in an injustice…” the aspect I find meaningful and reassuring is that you’re acknowledging our argument, which doesn’t have much to do with whether individual choices are bad/good, but rather how/whether those individual choices feed back into the energy of a system. I mean, sheesh, I really don’t want or need for people to start feeling apologetic and guilty about declaring serious affection and commitment towards another in public – what I react to negatively is the aggressive pretense that “marriage” is just about love or a party or a private decision between two people…. I want people, no matter what their decision on marriage, to be able to deal with the fact that its a weird construct. And as constructs go, it addresses some issues for some people some of the time, but it certainly shouldn’t be a monolithic answer to questions of kinship and property rights and caring for one another.

  2. David Ernst chats with the World » Joining In on the Kinship Conversation says:

    July 7th, 2007 at 11:54 am (#)

    […] marriage. This inspired a wave of comments on the blog, and a wave of thoughts in my own head. Like mph, I decided that it wouldn’t be right to fill so much space (disk space?) on their blog with […]

  3. dot unplanned » More Marriage says:

    July 9th, 2007 at 4:01 pm (#)

    […] my entry on it, the comments over on Kathleen’s marriage post have grown a little. Several jumped […]

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