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4.10.08

Same-Sex Marriage As Cultural Appropriation

Joel Monka makes an interesting point based on a paraphrase of an argument from a conservative brother -- the way cultural conservatives feel when they see same-sex couples getting married bears a resemblance to the way members of one culture feel when they see members of another culture appropriating elements of their culture. I don't have a complete analysis of the marriage example, in no small part because I don't have a complete analysis of cultural appropriation in general or in its more typical examples. But I do have a few reactions.

One reaction is that this puts a new light on the common claim that "marriage" should be privatized and left to the churches, with the state handing out civil unions to everyone. In light of Monka's post this strategy can be seen, in part, as a type of "acknowledge inauthenticity" (as defined in my earlier post). This is not an entirely satisfactory solution -- the cultural practice can't be easily separated from the legal status, many couples want the legal system to actively endorse their form of couple-bonding (e.g. the infamous Californians who won't get married because the marriage licenses no longer say "bride" and "groom"), and backing down from demanding legal endorsement of the term marriage doesn't prevent same-sex couples from privately getting "married" in a way that still appropriates straight marriage practices.

A second reaction is that the marriage example leads me to believe that our constellation of options ought to include not just "(harmful) misappropriation" and "(benign or respectful) appropriation," but also "good misappropriation." Like bad misappropriation, good misappropriation alters the practice for its originators. But that alteration is to be applauded. The key element of traditional marriage threatened by same-sex marriage is the way it reinforces distinct (and often unequal) male and female gender roles. Such elements are already under attack from within -- my own straight marriage did not include such customs as the groom buying an engagement ring or the bride's father giving her away. But there will be another severe blow dealt if marriage becomes a practice that can be engaged in by couples who can't be assigned to bride and groom roles. And for progressives, that's a good thing. Conservatives' claims to non-interference with their practice are undercut by the bad values their practice is used to promote.

Another aspect that complicates the comparison is the exclusionary nature of the practice being appropriated. This isn't a case in which, say, white people have polka music and black people have soul music, but then along comes white Amy Winehouse saying she's entitled to play soul music too. This is a case in which straight people have marriage, whereas gay people not only have no practice that fulfils the same role of publicly and legally formalizing their relationship, but were actively prevented from developing such a practice. The traditional marriage that same-sex couples are appropriating is a key element in a cultural system that oppressed those couples.

4 Comments:

Blogger ogre said...

Birdshot responses:

Like discrimination. Good... and bad....

Adopting marriage (as practiced circa 1950) as a distinctive feature of conservatism (which is not a culture, but like progressivism, an outlook or perspective) is simply silly.

Conservatives by "nature" (which is to say ideology) object to change (get a horse!). Which, in the abstract... isn't entirely a bad thing. But objecting to change is neither good nor bad--the change needs to be looked at for practical and ethical (and larger socialogical) effects.

Truth be told, this one's over, except for the shouting and post-game let down. The young are pretty substantially on-board, and even Gov. Palin's public stance is that no discrimination should be permitted against gay and lesbian folk... they just shouldn't be permitted the word.

What's in a word?

Denying these couples the word denies them equal protection and equal rights (and their full share in the miseries of acrimonious divorce, too). But it doesn't deny the conservatives who wish to refuse to permit such marriages in their churches that right. Let them adopt a hyper-conservatist "You're not married unless you're married by us, in our churches.

But, bottom line, conservatism is not a culture. It's not even a subculture. There's such thing as a distinctly "conservative culture" that can be misappropriated. It's as silly as talking about the gay lifestyle. Among all the gay and lesbian friends I have and have had, few have shared the same lifestyle. The stereotype that the conservatives point "to" (implicitly) there is about as atypical as Mardi Gras festivities are of "straight culture."

Given how infrequently the scared to death of gays conservatives come into contact (knowingly) with the people who'll be getting married... what's the concern, really?

It's not that licenses lack gendered terms. It's not even that marriage ceremonies won't be "traditional" (I've performed enough wildly non-traditional ceremonies for straight folk who didn't want traditional at all...).

In the end, it comes down to denying the rights and benefits, and doing their damnedest to make sure that the circumstances for human happiness are minimized for people who aren't like them (they pray).

Which has nothing to do with cultural misappropriation.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

the way members of one culture feel when they see members of another culture appropriating elements of their culture.

It's not members, but "some members."

The straight conservative is often anti-gay, even though SSM causes him no harm. In this case, there isn't even anything to be appropriated - marriage doesn't belong to straight conservatives. It's not even a feature of their culture, the way gun ownership and pro-military traditions might be.

(Even when there is something to be appropriated, the reaction from most people tends to be a shrug. As far as I can tell, Chinese people don't care that Westerners use the yin-yang contrast and watch martial arts films. Likewise, most conservative Americans, even most pundits, don't pour scorn on Democrats like Jim Webb for having basically conservative values.)

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Daisy Bond said...

Great post.

Another thing that occurred to me: a group like, say, conservative fundamentalist Christians might legitimately feel their traditions were being appropriated or misused if a same-sex marriage were performed in their church. But they have no right whatsoever to the marriage traditions of other groups: it would be ridiculous for them to claim appropriation if my girlfriend and I got married in a Reform Jewish synagogue, using my traditions, which sanction same-sex unions. It can't be cultural appropriate if I'm practicing my own culture.

Unless, of course, they erroneously believe the US government belongs to them more than to other citizens, such that they consider the law to be "theirs."

10:29 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Daisy -- that's a good point. And I think that further complicates the idea of treating discrete cultural traditions as the "property" of discrete cultural groups.

12:02 PM  

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