Marriage, like love, is an abstract concept. You cannot point to something and say “that’s a marriage” any more than you can point to something and say “that’s love.” You can describe aspects of the concept, or give long lists of examples, but there is no tangible, physical object that is “marriagedness.”
Because it’s an abstract concept and not a material, measurable thing, we have to come up with ways to define what is meant by the word. Folks have very strong feelings how marriage should be defined, especially since this abstract concept is also a matter of law.
With law, definition is everything, so this has lead to a rather heated debate.
On one hand we have a group declaring that a marriage is defined as a legal union between a man and a woman. On the other hand, we have another group who feel a marriage is a legal union between any two individuals regardless of gender.
Let’s ignore how or why people come up with these definitions for a moment. Let’s just look at them semantically. The definition of marriage as a union of two individuals is actually inclusive of the more restrictive definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Let’s call the man/woman marriage definition the “exclusive” version, and the two individuals marriage definition the “inclusive” version.
There is a strong disagreement over whether the laws regarding marriage should either embrace the exclusive definition or the inclusive definition. To me, strictly from a reasoning standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. The inclusive version is broader and simpler. Anyone covered under the exclusive definition is also covered under the inclusive definition, so there’s no change for existing married people. Those who still personally use the exclusive definition will not find their conduct or options impaired anyway if the laws accept the inclusive definition.
I understand that marriage is also much more than just “a legal union”. There are issues of religion, tradition and culture bound up in it as well. For most, marriage is more than just a legal definition, but also very personal.
In that respect, marriage is a lot like faith. People have a broad spectrum of beliefs about spiritual matters. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists can talk about their respective faiths very differently, and disagree over a great deal. Yet it would be strange for a believer in one religion to tell another person of another religion “that’s not faith.” Or, if they did, we’d find that pretty crass.
In other words, my own personal faith is defined by me, and however you define faith for yourself, it doesn’t cheapen or diminish my own. And we can at least agree that we each have our own very different faiths. Faith is a large, conceptual umbrella, and under it, each of us has room to find what it means for us personally.
When I hear anyone talk about how the inclusive definition of marriage would affect those who believe in the exclusive definition of marriage, I can’t understand it. Married Christians don’t feel upset when Buddhists get married because they don’t share the same beliefs. How is inclusive marriage different?
Marriage is also a large conceptual umbrella. The legal benefits of marriage are just a small part of why we get married, but they are a logistically important part. Denying anyone those rights and benefits just over a personal disagreement about details of the definition is wrong. It’s no different from publicly stating your religion is the only right choice, and anyone else with other beliefs should be treated as inferior.
If the definition of marriage legally is inclusive, it doesn’t mean everyone has to define it that way for themselves. There are lots of religions with dietary restrictions, but those who follow those faiths do not argue that their proscribed foods or drinks should be illegal. It’s important for those involved in the debate to remember that the religious aspects of marriage are separate from the legal aspects. Marriage, in the eyes of the law, is simply a social contract.
Marriage is such a personal thing that the law should be the least restrictive and most permissive about it. How could anyone happily married feel that the sanctity of their own marriage is somehow effected by what goes on in other marriages?
I think some more empathy is called for in these debates. Regardless of your beliefs or how you feel marriage should be defined, imagine there was a person in your life that you loved dearly and wanted to spend the rest of your life with them. Now imagine a law said you couldn’t marry them for because of an arbitrary aspect of that person: race, religion, nationality, hair color… How would you feel about that law?
Should adding gender to that list make it different?