While I was away on my adventure last week the world moved on without me with discussions and decisions about the meanings of both flags and marriage. The narrative on these two topics is actually more related than one might think at first glance. Stick with me for a few hundred more words and I’ll do my best to make my case.
First, the flag. The confederate flag (also known as, at least where I come from anyway, the “stars and bars”) was the flag of the conferdreation of southern states that attempted to secede from the federal union in 1861. Flags, like language, exist both as physical items in and of themselves, but also as symbols for something else. A flag is nothing more than some fabric and dye at the most basic level. At this level they are no different than any of the clothes in your closet. But unlike that shirt you got from your Aunt Sally last Christmas (that you never wear but can’t throw away), the main purpose of a flag is to stand in as a symbol. In most cases flags are symbols of allegience, with a particular group or of a particular ideology. When the stars and bars was first unfurled it stood as a symbol for all sorts of things to all sort of people: the right of self determination, the emergence of a new nation, and, yes, the preservation of the morally corrupt practice of chattel slavery.
Regardless of the original meaning that that flag held for those that rallied around it in the 1860s, all of them, save one, have been lost to us. Over time, for a variety of intentional as well as accidental actions, only one meaning remains for a majority of the population. For the purpose of communication, it doesn’t matter what any single individual believes something means if a majority of those you are trying to communicate with think it means something else. You can still express yourself in more complete terms, not using the symbol as shorthand, but the symbol who’s meaning is not understood is no longer an effective way to communicate your idea.
So now on to gay marriage. More than 26 million people on Facebook cheered last week’s SCOTUS decision, but I wonder if they really understood what just happened? In order to understand the SCOTUS decision we have to recognize that marriage often exists in two domains simultaneously: it exists as a legal agreement AND as a spiritual agreement (I am trying to use a more general word than religious here – as I am thinking of it spiritual includes the subset of religious agreements). The decision last week only has jurisdiction on the former of course. Even after last week’s ruling, each couple will be left to determine whether they want to pursue a spiritual component and if so, where and how to do that.
When you boil away all the pontificating and bloviating from the opinion it basically says this: Homosexuals have the same permission as Heterosexuals to enter into a contract with one another. Wow. Thanks Supreme Court. The obvious question (to me anyway) is: Why do two (or more…but that’s another post) consenting adults of any gender or orientation need permission from anyone else to enter into any arrangement they choose so long as it doesn’t materially harm anyone outside of the agreement? Who owns them if they don’t own themselves? Marriage licenses have only been around since the mid nineteenth century and I think many on both sides of the marriage equality debate would be surprised to learn their origins.
I know I am putting on my 20/20 hindsight goggles when I say that I wish I could go back in time and start a movement to get the state out of marriage altogether as an answer to not only the gay marriage question, but as a small step to role back it’s intrusion into all sorts of places that it shouldn’t be. We have to find a way to see that all of the petty differences that divide us pale in comparison to the one issue that unites us: our individual liberty. Our natural born rights as human beings of self determination and self ownership. To do what we want with our property (including our bodies) as long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights to do the same with theirs. If we all join together to work on that, then each of our lives will get better AND we’ll all get better together. I know its difficult for the two sides of the marriage equality debate to see through their differences, but if we can’t then the divide and conquer tactics will continue to be successful and we will all find ourselves less and less free.
Instead the marriage equality ruling actually limits freedom because it expands the power of the state. Permission was sought and granted…and now even more people have to live under the terms dictated by the state. Rather than freeing working to free the inmates, we expanded the prison so everyone could get 3 hots and a cot…not realizing what we gave up in exchange.
So how are the SCOTUS ruling and the Confederate flag related? By asking the state for marriage permission, not only do we give up more personal liberty, we also cede the right to define what marriage is. The state becomes the not only the arbiter of who can be married, but also what marriage even means. Regardless of orientation or belief system, most couples I know get married as a symbolic gesture of public love and commitment that goes far beyond a legal contract. In seeking the protection and benefits of the contract, will the larger meaning of marriage be lost to history?
Of course this isn’t an original idea…
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”
– George Orwell, 1984