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NOM’s Robert George’s Befuddling Marriage Argument Torn To Shreds

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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”- Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

While the word that Montoya is referring to in that sentence is ‘inconceivable’, in this case, the word is ‘conjugal.’ The National Organization for Marriage’s Robert P. George and his disciples Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson have put together a book entitled “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.” The problem with the book is that it seems to be designed to obfuscate and confuse instead of creating an actual argument regarding what marriage is and why it is best between a man and a woman.

Now, why bring up the definition of ‘conjugal’, well, in this excerpt, they use that word rather a lot, but I’m not sure that they know what it means:

But traditional marriage law denies these companionate ideals to no one. It does not discourage anyone from seeking them. Its more specific view of what makes a marriage can even liberate us for emotional intimacy in other bonds. And even if companionate bonds are impaired if deprived of public status, it does not follow that they require legal status. Remarkably, then, one of the most common and powerfully felt objections to conjugal-marriage policy is also one of the easiest to answer. The law simply has much less to do with this than people commonly suppose. We can unpack this all.

Note first that, however the debate about redefining marriage is resolved, two men or two women will still be free to live together, with or without a sexual relationship or a wedding ceremony. (None of this is true, for example, of bigamy or polygamy — crimes rightly punishable by imprisonment.) The debate about same-sex civil marriage is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. The decision to honor conjugal marriage bans nothing.

First of all, this is a lot of gobbledygook, right? It twists around like a leaf in the breeze.

The way that this is worded is an attempt to make it sound as if there is an argument being made, but there really isn’t one. To start with most people probably have never heard or used the word “companionate”. When used in conjunction with marriage, it means a marriage that has no children. What George is trying to do here is circumvent the argument that, if you ban same-sex couples from getting married because they cannot have children, then you must ban opposite-sex couples who cannot or will not have children.

It is a remarkable bit of razzle-dazzle here. He makes it sound like he knows what he is talking about, and the lynchpin in it is the word “conjugal.”

There is no such thing as “conjugal marriage.” What he wrote there is “The decision to honor ‘of or related to marriage’ marriage bans nothing.” As a word, conjugal means, literally, of or related to marriage. Now, you can talk about conjugal rights- which are rights associated with marriage. You can talk about conjugal visits- which are visits made to people in order to perform marital duties. You just can’t talk about conjugal marriage because you are talking junk at that point.

What George is trying to do is not sound anti-gay, and in order to do so is engaging in a phenomenal amount of double-speak and inversion of arguments. He is trying to mask the idea that he holds that there is something specially inherent in marriage between a penis and a vagina without coming out and saying that. Unfortunately, he is trying to do that by using horrific grammar.

It’s a simple word trick. When most people read “conjugal” they automatically associate the word with “visits”. Most people, because of the association of the word with prisons, also associate the word with sexual intercourse. What George is trying to do here is make people think about marriage as a sexual entity not an emotional one, and hoping that most people will blank on companionate and just skip over it.

What George wants is for people to read what he wrote like this:

But traditional marriage law denies these ideals to no one. It does not discourage anyone from seeking them. Its more specific view of what makes a marriage can even liberate us for emotional intimacy in other bonds. And even if bonds are impaired if deprived of public status, it does not follow that they require legal status. Remarkably, then, one of the most common and powerfully felt objections to sexual-marriage policy is also one of the easiest to answer. The law simply has much less to do with this than people commonly suppose. We can unpack this all.

Note first that, however the debate about redefining marriage is resolved, two men or two women will still be free to live together, with or without a sexual relationship or a wedding ceremony. (None of this is true, for example, of bigamy or polygamy — crimes rightly punishable by imprisonment.) The debate about same-sex civil marriage is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. The decision to honor sexual marriage bans nothing.

And even at that, the passage is still designed to confuse. In part, this is because the paragraphs have been structured so as to break up the structure of the argument. Break the first paragraph ‘status’ and ‘remarkably’ and erase everything to between ‘imprisonment’ and ‘the’ and this is the argument presented:

But traditional marriage law denies these ideals to no one. It does not discourage anyone from seeking them. Its more specific view of what makes a marriage can even liberate us for emotional intimacy in other bonds. And even if bonds are impaired if deprived of public status, it does not follow that they require legal status. The debate about same-sex civil marriage is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. The decision to honor sexual marriage bans nothing.

That is the crux of his argument, and one that pretty much gets to what they are trying to say. Basically, George is saying that opposite-sex marriage is superior to same-sex marriage because he says it is.

As ThinkProgress notes:

The attempts by opponents of marriage equality to not sound anti-gay have painted them into strange rhetorical corners, such as having to argue against adoption, even by straight couples. What’s striking is that in their attempts to “protect” marriage from “redefinition,” they themselves are the ones who have redefined it. In this argument, they admit it has nothing to do with legal benefits. By defending infertile straight couples, they admit it has nothing to do with having children. By claiming it has “always been defined as a man and a woman,” they’re admitting it has nothing to do with “tradition” or the Bible. They’ve essentially dismantled every aspect of marriage such that it means nothing except to promote heterosexual supremacy and homosexual inferiority. Of course, that’s all that they’ve really ever argued for anyway.

It’s just that Zack Ford never actually set it up so that you could see the actual argument for what it was, and that the whole thing was a smoke screen…or as Joel Grey so eloquently put it:

Or put another way- “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” (W.C. Fields).

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  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Marriage and Public Policy | Koinonia