Taken Captive By Culture (I)

The story ran nationwide with various iterations on a theme:  more divorces in the South, fewer in the Northeast. Living in the South and holding a high view of marriage, I bristled because this simplistic reportage leaves so much unsaid.

The Washington Post took an unusual angle, addressing singles in an opening paragraph I’ll summarize:  Hope to hear wedding bells? Then move to the South or West — but beware! Your chances of divorce will also increase. [Did I mention simplistic reportage?!]

The Post deemed the Census report a “first-of-its-kind analysis.” Similarly, USAToday ran a story by Sharon Jayson noting it “gives the clearest picture in 20 years ….” Jayson also stressed regional patterns. Her lead:

Where you live may influence your attitudes and actions toward marriage and divorce more than you think, suggests a federal report out today that gives the clearest picture in 20 years about the evolution of marriage and divorce across the USA.

(I’ll discuss the Census report later.) First, I must quibble with the USAToday piece. Jayson’s reference to ” … the evolution of marriage and divorce across the USA” insinuates marriage is a capricious, moving target! It is not. From Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828):

MAR’RIAGE, n. [L.mas, maris.] The act of uniting a man and woman for life; wedlock; the legal union of a man and woman for life. Marriage is a contract both civil and religious, by which the parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity, till death shall separate them. Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children.

Webster’s definition provides the classic (i.e. historical) understanding and essential purposes of marriage. In this case, it is an act and a union, a contract and an institution. I disagree with Jayson:  there has been NO evolution of marriage. It remains the “act of uniting a man and woman for life …” etc.

What has taken place is an evolution of CULTURE, an off-the-axis redirection wherein age-old standards are jettisoned or ignored. We no longer adhere to mores (fixed moral customs) but instead, we talk of “cultural norms” — a set of behaviors that characterizes any specific group.

[Each group is different so cultural norms vary. For instance, not so long ago, smoking was a cultural norm. The despicable notion of so-called “honor killing” is — for those adhering to a specific ideology — a cultural “norm.”]

I contend language should never be held captive to the whim (and heedless redefinition) of culture. Precision of language (and our understanding of it) demands I differentiate the creatures outside my kitchen window. Their size is similar, both fly, both have long protrusions on their heads, but one is an insect and the other a bird. Calling the grasshopper a hummingbird (or vice versa) is not only incorrect; it inhibits communication. We become Babel!

Likewise, precise language dictates marriage — it cannot be a moving target. If marriage “evolves,” it becomes (by definition) something other than marriage.

Alas, my subject deserves more thorough treatment than my self-imposed word limit (≈500) allows. Additional comments appear in tomorrow’s post.

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