Wrap-Up: Anthropology and the Same-Sex Marraige Debate
April 14th, 2008
As I said last week, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts on Glenn Stanton and Patrick Chapman’s online debate on anthropology and same-sex marriage. (You can read them in order here, here, here, and here.) But first, I want to thank Glenn and Patrick for their eagerness to participate in this fruitful and substantive debate. I’m especially grateful to Glenn for his willingness to appear as a guest author on this web site. I am familiar with the same-sex marriage debates that he and John Corvino conduct across the country, and I hope someday they will come to my neck of the desert. Glenn and Patrick were very gracious to me and to each other in the emails we exchanged back and forth behind the scenes, and I look forward to more public and private discussions with both of them in the future.
In my closing thought, I’d like to touch on three things:
- The problem of language — How language itself influences how we see the world, and shapes how we communicate what we see.
- The difference between sex and gender — not everyone gets it, not even professional social scientists.
- And why anthropology? — How is anthropology relevant to the same-sex marriage debate?
The Problem of Language
When we speak, we typically try to speak precisely with a commonly understood language in order to be understood. But our very language can restrict what we’re able to describe. Either we don’t have quite the right word, or the phrases we commonly use don’t quite get there. Conversely, our language may influence how we see the world, as it is filtered through the words and expressions which come naturally to us. Let me explain.
I like Tucson. That’s a pretty simple expression. “I” — that’s me, the subject of the sentence — “like” — the verb, which describes the thing that I’m doing — “Tucson” — the direct object which receives the action. The course of action begins with me and comes to rest in the object which receives my affection. Duh, you say? Well, stay with me, because there’s a whole world of assumptions built into that tiny little sentence.
I like Tucson for many reasons. One reason it that it’s still something of a “Mexamerica” in culture and language because Anglos settled here relatively late in history. It’s also only sixty miles from Mexico, so it helps to know some Spanish.
And so in Spanish I say, Me gusta Tucson. The word order may appear to remain the same as in English, but that’s misleading. In short sentences like this in Spanish, the subject is routinely placed at the end of the sentence, not at the beginning. And direct object and reflexive pronouns (“myself, himself) always appear in front of the verb no matter what. This sentence actually says “Tucson pleases me.”
Notice the difference. In Spanish, this expression is always given in the passive sense. It is a restriction built into the language. In Spanish, it’s Tucson’s job to please me; it’s not up to me to like Tucson. If I didn’t like Tucson, an English speaker might ask, “What’s wrong with you? How can you not like Tucson?” But in Spanish, I suppose the more natural response might be, “What’s so bad about Tucson? Why doesn’t Tucson please you?”
As you can see, that simple little sentence in Spanish has a whole different world of assumptions, doesn’t it? I can’t help but wonder what other linguistic quirks in Spanish might support that wonderfully passionate yet que serÃ¡, serÃ¡ culture, or to what extent our own language contributes to our driving sense of individualistic manifest destiny.
It’s not just grammar, but vocabulary too. We English-speakers haven’t traditionally enjoyed spicy foods like we do today, and our language hasn’t caught up with this new experience. We’re still trying to cram two very different meanings into the word “hot” and rely on context for understanding. Sometimes we have to ask, “Do you mean hot-hot or spicy-hot?” Not surprisingly, Spanish is way ahead of us: caliente is used to describe hot temperatures, and picante is spicy hot. These are two very different and non-interchangeable words. Use the wrong one, and you’ll look very stupid and possibly a little insane. The habanero salsa in the refrigerator is certainly not caliente.
Language itself is the result of a whole pile of social constructs – even with the simplest of things like how we like things (or are pleased by them) and how we sense our foods. It both reflects and defines our view of the world.
I was reminded of this as I was exchanging some casual emails with Glenn Stanton about the online dialog between him and Patrick Chapman. At one point he remarked:
But one thing I do find in this is regardless of how clear we try to be, we do end up too often talking past each other. I get accused in your reader’s posts of “just not getting it” but that is exactly what my friends say about Chapman. It is a perspective and position of life issue, I guess.
In many very important ways, he’s exactly right.
The difference between sex and gender
We often use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, but strictly speaking their definitions are critically different. We can’t fault too many people for confusing the two — I’ve abused those definitions many times myself, right here in these pages. So this exchange between Mr. Stanton and Dr. Chapman has been a great learning experience for me.
I don’t feel too bad about my confusion because many social scientists get tripped up by these terms as well. When the journal Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry issued their July 2002 special edition on gender and sexual identity, the editors realized that they couldn’t just assume that their professional readership would understand the distinction between sex and gender. That’s why the first article following the introductory editorial was Dr. Milton Diamond’s explicitly titled piece, “Sex and Gender are Different: Sexual Identity and Gender Identity are Different.” He wrote:
The term sex, since classical times, has been used to designate matters related to biology and medicine when male, female or bisexual were in context. Thus animals, including humans, are categorized dependent upon whether they either produce gametes as, or similar to, spermatozoa (males) or ova (females), or have parts of the reproductive system appropriate to the development of and delivery or reception of such gametes. … Classically, for humans, those individuals that had both male and female characteristics were called hermaphrodites. Presently the term intersex is preferred.
The term gender has generally been used in social or cultural contexts, in distinction from biological ones. This was particularly associated with language. The first known use of the word gender was listed as 1387 CE when T. Usk wrote “No mo genders been there but masculine and femynyne, all the remnaunte been no genders but of grace, in faculte of grammar.” This context for gender has been expanded so that since the 1960s or 1970s the word is often used as a euphemism for the sex of a human being but the intended emphasis remains on the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological. United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, in an attempt to clarify usage of the terms has written “The word gender has acquired the new and useful connotation of cultural or attitudinal characteristics (as opposed to physical characteristics) distinctive to the sexes. That is to say, gender is to sex as feminine is to female and masculine is to male.”
Dr. Diamond and Justice Scalia have it exactly right. (Dr. Diamond goes on to note that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg continues to use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. She defends it as a stylistic choice and nothing more.) I think Dr. Chapman was pretty clear in his distinctions between “sex” and “gender”; Mr. Stanton, less so. When Mr. Stanton said, “I think this new understanding of ‘gender’ is a cultural construct,” he’s mostly correct: it is a cultural construct, just as masculine and feminine are cultural constructs. And these cultural constructs arise because they represent concepts — sometimes new concepts — that we have to find ways of talking about.
But as Dr. Chapman, Dr. Diamond and the 14th century’s T. Usk demonstrated, this construct about gender isn’t a new one. But it is a confusing one, even for some very smart and educated people. I was confused by it, Justice Scalia understands it perfectly, Justice Bader Ginsberg either doesn’t understand or deems it insignificant, and even the highly educated readers of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry needed to have their definitions calibrated so that the ensuing articles in that issue could make sense.
Now I suspect that most people who believe in absolutes might be skeptical of cultural constructs. But in a sense, they accept the idea every day (or at least every Sunday). It’s a core principle in Biblical hermeneutics that the cultural constructs of the day must be taken into account when interpreting Scriptures. I have on my bookshelves 25 volumes (soon to be 29) of InterVarsity Press’ Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which I enthusiastically recommend. It’s chock-full of fascinating explanations of cultural constructs and historical context, and it provides an amazing window into the world of those ancient authors.
Cultural constructs are all around us, and they issue forth with every word we speak. Every time I say I really don’t like celery, people scrunch their face at me and ask, “What’s wrong with you?” That always startles me because there’s nothing at all wrong with me, but there’s clearly something terribly wrong with celery.
And so when we’re talking about gender and why we think it’s important, then we really need to be clear about it. The same is true for sex. But when Mr. Stanton offers different definitions of gender (“a much softer, less precise term than ‘sex'”), and Dr. Chapman emphasizes how societies construct gender when we were talking about same-sex marriage, then I do fear that the two sides are still talking past each other. We fall into the old habit of trying to use the word hot when we really need to use words describing caliente and picante.
It’s a fascinating debate to me not necessarily because I am interested in definitions of marriage (though I am) but because of the way that anthropology is invoked by both sides as having authority on the subject. … Anthropologists: Do not despair! Someone still cares what we have to say. Anthropologists are seen to have the last word on human nature and therefore as potentially having knowledge that could settle debate on the topic. …
…To me what’s interesting is how a moral question appears to be disguised in these debates as a ‘scientific’ one, and therefore the real nature of the conflict gets displaced. [Boldface emphasis mine; italics in the original.]
Actually, when we’re talking about same-sex marriage, I don’t believe we are talking about a moral problem, but a political one. But I recognize that most opponents to same-sex marriage don’t see it that way. So we end up talking about morality and politics, and we often throw in developmental psychology, hormonal and genetic research, sociology and public opinion polls, and now anthropology. Of all these topics, it does seem to me that anthropology is an odd proxy in these debates. But this is where we are, so let me offer these thoughts.
It’s good to know that modern Western civilization is far from the first to grapple with the place of same-sex relationships in society. I was fascinated to learn about the Indonesian Bujis’ concept of calabai, calalai, and bissu as genders. Their gender construct is very different from our own — foreign even — even if their understanding of sex remains largely the same. But we’re not Bujis, nor do we consider the Tongan gender construct of fakaleitis or the Samoan concept of fa’afafine sufficient to describe our sense of ourselves in western culture.
We’re Americans. We like to define things for ourselves. We don’t find it pleasing to shoehorn our experiences into other cultures’ constructs. It’s very interesting to see how other cultures have dealt with the same issues that we have, but in the end our solutions will be ones most familiar to our own experiences, not those of the xaniths of Oman.
While gender is most certainly an important topic in our society when we talk about issues facing transgender people (for example), I think it is largely moot when we’re discussing same-sex marriage. And since some cultures around the world have accommodated same-sex relationships as a culturally sanctioned entity, then what we’re talking about is not all that groundbreaking. I just don’t think we will be creating different classes of gender to accommodate it as other cultures have, simply because we no longer ascribe sanctioned roles to particular genders. If we did, then we would very quickly come up with Mr. Stanton’s “6.5 billion different genders”, which would render the whole idea of gender meaningless both as a definition and as a concept. Because gender is still too vital a concept for other topics, I don’t see that happening. And besides, in 21st-century America it’s just not our way.
Wrap-up: Anthropology and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
Round 2: Stanton Replies to Chapman
Round 2: Chapman Replies to Stanton
Glenn T. Stanton Responds to Professor Patrick Chapman
An Anthropologist Critiques Focus on the Family’s “Anthropological” Report on Marriage