One of the most interesting ideas in Mary Douglas’ ‘How institutions think’, about which I have been blogging intermittently, is her argument that institutions are stabilized by being naturalized (p 48):
There needs to be an analogy by which the formal structure of a crucial set of social relations is found in the physical world, or in the supernatural world, or in eternity, anywhere, so long as it not seen as a socially contrived arrangement.
Her argument is that it is only this sense of ‘naturalness’ that gives an institution strength, making it seeming reasonable and putting it beyond discussion. But this ‘naturalization’ has itself to be a hidden process, because otherwise it defeats its own object: you can’t have naturalness created, it can only be discovered.
Douglas provides examples of how such models are used: for example, right and left hands to model complimentary roles of men/women, king/people etc, and appeals to the ancestors to prevent violence within a group. It’s easy to start thinking, therefore, that such use of ‘natural symbols’ is only applicable to the ‘premodern’ world (whether tribal societies or historical periods). But I’m increasingly coming to see this as an idea that’s still surprisingly relevant. For example, the idea of the social construction of all kind of concepts, norms and behaviours (whether it’s childhood, or gender roles, or homosexuality or ideas of human rights) is still not widely accepted, even though it’s a commonplace for many academics in the humanities. The tendency to think that our culture’s institutions and practices are the only natural/normal ones is very widespread.
In particular, the question of gay marriage (especially as reflected in the debate in the US) seems to me to raise interesting ideas about natural symbols. Why are so many Christians in the US so opposed to the idea of legalised gay marriages? It can’t be simply because such marriages are, in their eyes, sinful, because they’re not trying to prevent the legal remarriage of divorced people (which is an equal sin in the New Testament). Instead, gay marriage is often seen as undermining marriage as an institution in some way. Usually it is claimed that this is because it breaks the link between marriage and procreation, but this does not explain why marriages between heterosexuals who are unwilling or unable to procreate (e.g. because they are too old) are not condemned.
Some feminists claim that Christian conservatives condemn gay marriages because they raise the threat of equal marriages, in which one of the partners in the marriage is not automatically superior (as male) and one automatically inferior (as female). But not all those who are anti-gay are anti-female equality. At least in the UK, there is a strong contingent of female evangelicals, who are nevertheless anti-gay. (Evangelical Anglicans have overwhelmingly accepted female priests, for example).
So I am now wondering whether one (though not the only reason) for hostility to gay marriage is that it undermines one current ‘naturalistic’ view of marriage, by showing its constructed nature. If you look at the Christian-influenced ‘traditional’ ideology of marriage, the key ideas seem to me to be:
1) Marriage is a pairing of opposites (man/woman)
2) Marriage is fruitful, like nature
3) Marriage is eternal and unchanging like God and the world
If gay marriages are accepted as true marriage, that does attack all these ‘natural’ concepts of marriage, but it’s important to note that our changing views of Nature in the modern Western world have already severely weakened those concepts.
Firstly, the idea of man and woman as eternal opposites has been greatly weakened in both scientific and cultural terms: no more claims that women’s bodies are fundamentally different, no separate spheres for men and women. Secondly, the idea of the simple, peaceful, fruitfulness of nature, in which, for example, birds happily pair off in marriage, is no longer current. Evolutionary ideas show nature’s fruitfulness as ruthless and amoral competition for survival, with procreation bound by no institutions or rules. Finally, evolutionary thought also shows that nature is not unchanging, but constantly developing to seek individual advantage. In other words, you can’t ground monogamous, lifelong, faithful marriage in Darwinian nature.
So the opposition to gay marriage is really a side-issue: you can’t preserve ‘natural marriage’ just by keeping it heterosexual. Should the idea of natural symbolism for marriage therefore be discarded altogether, and the institution be seen just as a social arrangement chosen for a particular society? But then the problem arises of why one particular set of social relations should be privileged over another: in that sense, the conservatives are right to say that it raises the question of why polygamous marriages shouldn’t be allowed.
I think we therefore need a natural symbolism of marriage that incorporates gay marriage, but also preserves its monogamous and eternal character. And we actually do already have such a symbolism, in the idea of twin souls. The use of this image of partnerships is very old: it goes back to Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ joking comments about how primordial humans were split up by the gods and now seek their ‘other half’, whether same-sex or opposite sex. Such a myth also relies on the key natural symbol of twins, whose potency again has survived for millennia.
A non-heterosexual naturalized view of marriage could rest on this idea of soulmates/twin-souls, and fit comfortably with a slightly sentimentalized idea of nature as full of animals seeking/striving for what they truly need, with stability and meaning emerging from this individual seeking. If the proponents of gay marriage want to capture the naturalistic high ground, they may need to stress the romantic nature of marriage, the finding of and clinging to the one true love, even if that now seems old-fashioned for many heterosexuals.