The definition of marriage.
President Obama made history last week by publicly stating that he believes same sex couples should be allowed to get married, but added the caveat that it should be a decision for each individual state to make. The day before that, North Carolina passed an amendment which outlawed same sex marriage. All this talk about SSM got me thinking about the word "marriage". The Oxford dictionary defines marriage as, "the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife." Seems pretty cut and dry. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why that is the definition of marriage? The Bible is often cited as the source for the definition but, actually, the word doesn't appear in the Bible. The word "marriage" actually dates back to around the year 1297 and comes from the Latin word "maritaticum", which means "to enter into wedlock", but obviously the concept of marriage is much older than that, and much older than the Bible, even. In fact, every society ever recorded in the history of mankind has included some variation of the concept of marriage and it has always involved a man and a woman.
But why is that? Homosexuality is nothing new. Most societies in recorded history have mentioned it - some even encouraged it as a healthy addition to heterosexual relationships. We see it in species other than humans, too. So why is same sex marriage only now becoming a big issue? Well, I'm not an anthropologist or a sociologist, but I'd venture a guess that it's because, until relatively very recently, the main purpose of marital relationships was procreation. Without the benefit of even more recent science it is impossible for two men or two women to have a child, so homosexual relationships were discouraged because they were unproductive. That seems strange to say in our current society. Like most married people today, my wife and I got married because we loved one another and we wanted to build a life together. At the time we didn't even know whether we intended to have children. Societal views on marriage, children and family have changed dramatically over time, but perhaps the biggest change has taken place just in roughly the last two-hundred years. Prior to the 1800s, marriage was more like a business arrangement that a man and woman would enter into, if they were lucky, to their mutual benefit. Out of this arrangement, the man got someone to cook for him, keep his home, mend his clothing, gather food, bear his children, and fulfill his sexual needs. The woman got someone who would provide a safe, secure home, farm the land, hunt for food, give her children, and fulfill her sexual needs (although they'd have never admitted that back then!). This sounds misogynistic by today's standards, but remember that the feminist movement is a product of the twentieth century. Women have had the right to vote for fewer than one hundred years. Marriage wasn't about "love" - the couples often barely even knew each other. If they were lucky, they grew to love one another, otherwise, they merely tolerated one another. As much as things have changed for women, they've changed even more for children. Before the industrial revolution, children served two main purposes: 1. survival of one's lineage and, 2. productivity for the immediate family. At the beginning of the 19th century infant mortality rates in some parts of the world were as high as 50% - only one out of every two children saw their first birthday. Therefore, having lots of children was essential because the more children you had, the better the chance of the survival of your lineage, and, because most cultures centered around agriculture, the better the chance of your survival in general because there were more hands to work the land. It wasn't until the industrial age that life began to get easier and the focus shifted from hard physical labor to education, but again, that only happened over the last 200 years or so. For the previous approximately 199,800 years of human history, procreation, and thus heterosexual relationships, were extremely important.
There are historical exceptions, however, and, not surprisingly, the wealthier and more successful the society, the more homosexuality has been tolerated. In ancient Greek society wealthy men were often expected to take a male lover in addition to their female spouse. This makes perfect sense, though - the wealthier the society, the easier the living, the lower the rate of infant mortality, the less emphasis on procreation, and the more tolerant the people were of relationships that don't result in children.
Fast forward to the current day. Child mortality rates are below one percent, and very few people make their living off the land anymore. Science has given infertile couples a plethora of options to help them bear children, and global adoption is very common and relatively easy. The success of western civilization and the benefit granted by science removes the procreation issue from the equation. As I said, I'm not an anthropologist or a sociologist, but one thing I am certain of is that I have yet to hear a rational argument for why two consenting adults who love one another should not be allowed enter in wedlock, regardless of their sexual orientation. Perhaps it's time we redefine the word marriage to mean, "the formal union of two consenting adults, typically recognized by law, by which they enter into wedlock." That shouldn't be such a hard thing to do. Definitions of words change all the time. For example, "gay" used to mean "happy", but, thanks to attitudes in states like North Carolina, and timidity from politicians like President Obama, gay people don't have a lot of reason to be happy.
"A society that does not recognize that each individual has values of his own which he is entitled to follow can have no respect for the dignity of the individual and cannot really know freedom."
- Friedrich Hayek