In Big Jake , John Wayne and Bruce Cabot ready themselves for the final battle against the bad guys.
Wayne: Well, Sam, they say the elk in Montana are as big as buffalo this year. We outta go hunt ’em when this is over.
Cabot: I look forward to that. (Sighs). I wish they were buffalo.
Wayne: Yeah. Times change.
Let’s return to the idea of tradition as it is used in arguments for gay marriage, which we can define as the marriage of two—and only two—men or two women.
Last time, we acknowledged that the modifier “only two” in our explication of marriage was the implicit resultant of tradition, by which we meant the customary practices of a people, or activities driven by a common set of beliefs, that is, a culture. This definition is loose enough, God knows, but will be close enough for us.
Fascinatingly, if an opponent of gay marriage brings up the point, “Why not more than two in a ‘marriage’?”, he is usually told he is being absurd or foolish or he is laughed at—which proves that people aren’t thinking deeply enough about the subject, because no matter how disingenuously the question might have been asked, it is exactly the right one.
Tradition forms the largest part of the debate on gay marriage. Obviously, it is not in our tradition to accommodate such unions, but some want to contravene tradition by urging acceptance for gay marriage. This plea is, at least, consistent with itself (but it is not clear how it would not apply to any other tradition; abandon tradition here, and why not abandon it everywhere?).
The difficulty begins, and the argument suddenly becomes inconsistent, when the same people who ask us to abandon tradition want also to embrace tradition by insisting on the word “marriage” to sanctify their vows.
Are you with me? If you want to claim (as some of us have) that we have “evolved” beyond tradition and have no need of it, you cannot consistently and simultaneously seek the blessings of tradition.
Let’s be more specific. Some states have constructed laws which award similar, even identical, legal status as marriage confers (burial rights, powers of attorney, etc.) to partners in a same-sex couple should they ask for it. Strong arguments for these new recognitions have been made, though still with a mind towards tradition, because these laws always talk about “couples” or “pairs”.
Why is this legal recognition not good enough? Why, that is, do people still hunger for something beyond “civil union”? Why the word “marriage”? It is, is it not?, just a word. Why is it such a powerful one?
The reason is obvious: tradition is not so easily abandoned. It is a deep need for humans to have ties with the past, for ceremony and ritual. It is also important to stress that marriage is not just a legal contract between two people, it is an understanding between a couple and society, largely governed by understood rules.
But what, it is now natural to ask, about those places that allow men to take multiple wives, or have customs that differ from ours? Well, if their customs are not our customs, then unless we are seeking to intervene directly in those peoples’ culture (in the form of war, say), they are none of our business. However, the consideration is not entirely irrelevant.
Montaigne writes on a clothing custom in Rome: “When they wore the busk of their doublet between their breasts, they maintained with heated arguments that it was in the proper place; some years after, it has slipped down between the thighs, and they laugh at their former custom and find it absurd and intolerable.”
The banal message—and one we already knew—is that customs and traditions change. An argument on the proper placement of a doublet appears to us trivial, and we also feel that (dangerous) sense of superiority when we regard history: they argued over doublets for goodness sake? How silly. But change the argument to whether jeans should be worn and it becomes immediately relevant and contentious. This point is made so that we can see that there are two things to consider: the relative degree of importance of a custom and the rate at which it is modified.
It is already apparent the degree to which marriage is important. How about that custom’s rate of change?
Certain states and municipalities have sought recently, by extra-legislative means—by, that is, judicial fiat—to mark an abrupt divergence in marriage custom. Judges looked into their constitutions and said, “Aha! We have found hiding in a corner where nobody thought to look before, the right to same sex marriage. It’s a good thing we checked.”
The consequences of these rights hunts are well known. People knew they were being spun (to use the modern term) and, as in California and Iowa, voted the rights back out of existence. Many were still howling over these democratic (and traditional) actions when along came Vermont, which used the same (and now warmly accepted) democratic actions to change their marriage custom.
“Well”, I have heard some say, “that’s Vermont. Those people up there are different.” And if your answer, like mine, is a variant of “Exactly”, then you will have understood this article’s arguments.