The Weekly Query #14

Everyone’s heard about the “death tax” and “death panels.” More people believe in “climate change” than in “global warming.” And it seems like half the debates in this country involve someone saying, “I’m the real victim here.” Framing and labeling thus have enormous power.

Are there labels that cause a knee-jerk emotional reaction for you? How true are those labels?

What words are guaranteed to make you angry? To make you scared? How might those words be used against you?

Labels and framing can provide us with mental shortcuts. What labels would you prefer to stop using, if you could?

There are many big issues and questions swirling in the world today. Who asks those questions? Who decides what those issues will be? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for us?

Tradition!

I am not a huge fan of traditional marriage.

By “traditional marriage,” I mean the way marriage was established for thousands of years: a partnership formed by consenting adults. The adults, however, were not the people getting married — but instead their parents, specifically fathers. It usually had everything to do with property management, and very little to do with the feelings of those involved. The women in particular were traded around almost like poker chips, and were often considered so worthless that a father had to pay a dowry to get her off his hands. There could also be horrible age mismatches, particularly older men with younger women. Of course the women could also be legally beaten, had no right to refuse sex, and had no control over their fertility.

That is how it was done for a very, very long time. Speaking as someone who supports liberty for all peoples, especially women, I just can’t get behind the idea.

The idea that young people should have the right to marry who they choose is actually a fairly new one. More loving parents would take their children’s opinions into consideration… but they, and not the two getting married, would have the final say. Letting people decide for themselves is so recent that within my grandparents’ lifetimes it was still “the done thing” for a young man to ask a young woman’s father for permission to marry her, as if she couldn’t make her own decisions.

Speaking of my grandparents, the story goes that my grandfather’s father did not approve of him marrying my grandmother. Great-Grandfather Crawford was a wealthy man, whereas the Myers family wasn’t well-off, and great-grandfather felt that the marriage was beneath his family’s station. So he went to Great-Grandfather Myers and asked, “How much will it cost me to call this off?” You see, he was playing by the old traditional rules that a marriage was decided by the parents, and also by the old traditional rules that marriage had nothing to do with love and everything to do with property. A business transaction, and in this case one that he thought he would lose by.

Great-Grandfather Myers, bless him, answered simply: “They’re in love, and they’re getting married.”

So you see, I have something of a personal stake in disliking traditional marriage, too: if we still played by traditional rules, I wouldn’t exist.

As such, I’m rather in favor of expanding the rights of marriage to pretty much every consenting adult. I’d point out that marriage isn’t for everyone, of course, and also I have points to make about the religious side of affairs elsewhere. Moreover, when we get married for love alone we overlook that marriage still does have a lot to do with property and finances; legally speaking, that’s the only thing marriage is about. Finally, when we get married for love, we¬† forget the way love changes and grows over time, that the passion makes way for the peace, and that love in our age looks very different from love in our youth. Regardless, by all principles of liberty and justice, the decision to marry should rest with those doing the marrying, and neither other people nor the laws of the land should stand in their way.

So when people object to expanding the right of marriage to non-traditional couples such as two men, or two women, I have to ask the objectors: what do you mean by traditional marriage?

If you mean “marriage between a man and a woman because my church says so,” or “marriages between men and women because I’m not comfortable with the idea of men having sex,” or “marriage between a man and a woman, just like mine,” then you are certainly entitled to your belief, and we can hash things out using different terminology. But I have to say, on the basis of the historical evidence, that traditional marriage isn’t exactly what you’re talking about.

Do you instead mean an institution where fathers would dictate the rest of their children’s lives? Do you mean one where blacks and whites could not marry, or where rich and poor couldn’t either? Do you mean one where women surrendered all legal rights as soon as they said “I do,” and one where wife-beating and husband-wife rape were actually encouraged? Going further back, do you mean one where a man could have many wives if he wanted, but a woman having two husbands would be grounds for stoning? Do you mean one where a woman was worth two cows, if they weren’t terribly valuable cows? Because that’s how things went for a long, long time. That’s the real tradition. And most of us have walked away from that — indeed, fiercely fought it — because the tradition intolerably trespasses on our liberty and our love.

Labeling and Seeing

“See ME.”

I saw those words on a crime procedural show once; not the usual method of enlightenment, I admit. I watched one episode, which happened to be about the murder of a trans youth. In the show the phrase was a clue, but I’ve taken it to mean rather more: don’t see what society tells you to see — see the person who’s really there.

Whenever we humans encounter someone new, we put labels on them based on what we see. I might look at someone and think: Black man. For some time now I’ve tried to break this mental habit, since that man’s color should not necessarily be his defining characteristic. But now I’ve seen that this runs deeper still: I shouldn’t necessarily use “man” either.

We’re a naming species, and we hand out mental labels for just about everything. Looking around me as I scribble this, I see objects I can label: Keyboard. Pillow. Squirrel. This isn’t wrong; naming is the bedrock of communication, after all, and one of the things that traditionally makes us human. But people are not objects. People have a will and an agency of their own, and have the right to make names and labels for themselves… or the right to get rid of labels entirely.

Still, most people, me included, don’t give each other that chance. We put names to all things, and the first thing — before race, before age, before any other characteristic — is label the other person by gender. Man or woman. In my own personal case I blame this on my gonads, which want an answer to a simple question: is this person good for sex? Spurred on by this demand for information, the eyes report, the brain decides, and the gonads either lose interest or go into overdrive. Other categorizations follow, of course — young/old, dark-haired/light, etc. Regardless, gender is the first. Continue reading