Warning - today's post could be considered political. I think it's more about the design of terms, myself.
Super Mario Bros
Super Mario Bros used two buttons - A and B. A would make Mario jump. Every time you pressed A (unless you were in the air) Mario would jump. The A button had no other purpose. The B button, on the other hand, had two distinct jobs. Holding B while moving would make Mario run faster ("B speed") and tapping B while powered up by a flower would shoot a fireball.
(Very geeky disclaimer - the buttons would actually change function again in underwater levels. But I'm comfortable ignoring those water levels for the purpose of this discussion, okay?)
In the language of game design,the two functions of the B button were entangled. That means that it's not always immediately obvious what you wanted to do with the button. It is possible to have two non-entangled functions on a single button - the jump button could also mean "select" on a menu screen or "skip" in a cinematic, for example. Those are examples of non-entangled functions.
The term "marriage" is an entanglement of several legal and social concepts. Off the top of my head, marriage can mean:
- A loving, romantic relationship.
- The granting of inheritance rights.
- A mixing of finances.
- A family.
- Two people Declaring their love publically.
- Designation of someone to act on your behalf in an emergency.
Not all marriages conform to all of these points. Some marriages have pre-nuptuials which eliminate the financial elements. Many married couples are not raising children. Some marriages are devoid of romance and love entirely.
But the problem is that two people cannot cherry-pick the implications they wish and avoid the others - they have to accept or reject the whole list of meanings of "marriage", because all of the definitions are entangled.
To me, this is the core issue of the debate around allowing homosexual couples to marry. Some people define marriage, in part, as "a union of a man and a woman." That's a social definition, and is totally valid. But because "marriage" is a deeply entangled term, the fact that some people define it differently becomes a problem for people who would not define it that way. And arguments about which list of definitions is "right" are ultimately futile, because we are debating specific definitions of amorphous social conventions.
I would like to see the legal elements of marriage - the ones rigidly defined - merged into a new term. ("Domestic Partnership" sort of does this, but seems decidedly inelegant to me.) I'll refer to this state as "glommed." If that were the case, then the term "marriage" could refer exclusively to the social definitions of a union. So a couple could refer to themselves as married or not - and it wouldn't carry any legal weight. People who think that marriages can exist only between men and women could feel secure, and any two people would be able to get glommed.
My position here isn't really driven by the issue of gay rights - but more about the issue of letting people make their own choices about individual elements of their personal life. I never wanted to be "married" - because I associated that with lots of unpleasant social mores. But I lived with the same woman for 11 years and raised a family with her - and it would have been nice to acknowledge that relationship legally without having to buy into a religious ceremony which had no significance for me.
Looking at this even further - why couldn't people without a romantic relationship get glommed? Let's say two elderly women, or two siblings, want to live together and share expenses. Shouldn't they be allowed to legally tie themselves together, even though they don't have a sexual relationship? That sounds like an institution I could get behind.
When a player presses a button, it is good for them to know exactly what will happen. Likewise, if two people make a commitment to one another, it is good for them to be able to define exactly what they want that commitment to mean.