Why Not Same-sex Marriage? (IV of X)
3. ‘One male-one female’ marriage is the historical cornerstone of civilization
Uhm, again, no. We’re a far, far more imaginative and flexible species than this argument would imply.
However, for the sake of fun discussion let’s take a look at the civilizations from which the US classically traces its inspiration. I do this for two reasons. One, I’m a US citizen, and thus that’s the culture I know the most about, so feel the most willing to discuss and critique. Two, it’s the US that’s having this silly squabble about marriage in the first place.
We will start with the Greek “Golden Age” of roughly around the time of Pericles’ Athens — the so-called “Age of Democracy,” with votes just for land-owning males. We move on through the Roman Republic/Empire, then watch Christianity rise and continue to influence the myriad societies of Western Europe. From there we follow European colonization efforts onwards to the United States of America — pausing only for a quick glance at the largely forgotten but decisive contributions of the Iroquois — and then through time to the here and now.
Was ‘one man-one woman’ marriage the fundamental assumption, the underlying principle, the cornerstone of these civilizations? In examining this thought, we immediately notice a couple of striking questions which demand answers, and which will affect our results:
A) Who’s speaking?
B) What is Woman?
C) What is marriage? Why marry?
D) What is civilization supported by?
E) The existence of slavery
A) Who’s speaking?
It is said (with some accuracy) history is written by the winners. I know of only one case where this is not true, and that is when the winners are pre-literate, while the losers are post-literate. Ultimately, however, the adage proves itself completely true, in that a particular people may have lost a war, but if only their side of the argument is presented, then history remembers them as the unjustly abused — and in the war of creation of “fact,” they win.
This is the problem we find immediately, upon seeking to discover if a particular form of marriage is a cornerstone of civilization. The only people whose writings have survived the destructive forces of time, hostile readers, fire, flood, etc. — are land-owning males.
We don’t know anything about ancient Athens or Rome, except what we’ve been told by slave-owning patriarchs. Only the upper class and the clergy wrote in medieval Europe, and precious few of those literate individuals were women. In the US we have more women writing, and even some slaves, but the overwhelming majority of writings are again by White men.
This may not sound particularly important, until you view it in perspective. Let us say you were an alien, reading about today’s society. However, the only writings you were able to find were from the President of the US, the Supreme Court, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, and the House and Senate majority leaders. No other writings survive — just those. Based on just those writings, you would receive an extremely twisted view of society. You’d probably know next to nothing about professional sports, voting, children, fashion, or environmental issues.
Because our President doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state, or believe women should be able to make decisions about their own bodies, you’d perhaps wonder why the Supreme Court was so behind on that issue, and why they kept flouting the wishes of the President. On the other hand, the Supreme Court is nominated for life, while the President is around for a maximum of eight years. You might think the President was simply an advisor to the Supreme Court.
You might think the US was an extremely philosophically-oriented and law-abiding society, since there are writings from twelve lawyers, but only one religious figure. You might even wonder why there’re women and black people on the Supreme Court — surely they can’t accurately represent the people, any more than children can, right? You might not know there were any ethnic groups in the US — isn’t everyone mostly White, mostly male, and rich?
We have to keep this information firmly in mind while reading about the past. When we use ancient writings to figure out what a society thought marriage, or women, or civilized behavior was, we have to remember we’re getting only one viewpoint — that of the male nobility. If only noblemen are speaking, then they get to define what everything is. We can’t read what women, slaves, or non-nobles thought about themselves, who they were, what they did, or what they thought of the cultural rituals of their time.