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OnWords: The Fluid Definition Of Marriage

Robert Cheaib, flickr Creative Commons

Pundits left, right, and center all seem to think that the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on gay marriage hinges on the definition of marriage.

I think that is a mistake.

A cursory introduction to anthropology reveals that our contemporary idea about marriage is hardly the cultural norm.

Polygamy and polyandry are just two tips of the iceberg: even in our own culture marriage has been as much an economic contract as one based on romance or one’s devotion to a faith. As recently as my grandparents’ generation, marriages were made to increase household labor, not to fulfill celestial destiny.

For a good chunk of Western history, the majority of people were serfs: our choice of mate, provided we had one, was a matter of who wouldn’t die in childbirth or who wasn’t too pocked with open sores.

High rates of mortality also meant that “’till death do us part” was likely to happen within a few short years. Long marriages were for lucky people, not necessarily devoted ones.

In other words, the definition of marriage has always been fluid. We insist on making it about a particular religion or about procreation because the real issue is far too scary to discuss: namely that the debate about marriage is about who has the power to define it.

Since many more people now support gay marriage than don’t, discussing that power would reveal just how able the opposition is in getting its way.