M’colleagues and I at Interrobangs Anonymous are big fans of Jian Ghomeshi, so it’s not at all meant as a snipe at him or his work in general when I say that I’m a bit disappointed in the debate he had on Q asking whether marriage is still a relevant institution. The debate was broadcast about two weeks ago, but I’ve spent the past bit traipsing around various parts of Canada for Christmas, so I’m just getting this all down in electrons now. The audio (~20 minutes) is at the link, and this post will probably make considerably more sense if you listen to it first.
The debate had Iris Krasnow arguing that marriage is still a relevant institution, and Russell Smith arguing against it. Karsnow’s arguments centred on interviews with women she did for a book she wrote on women’s roles in marriage; she cited that the majority of the women she talked to spoke highly and longingly of marriage and long term commitment. Smith’s central argument was that there are no legal teeth in marriage that enforce commitment, especially considering that there is a significant divorce rate, and that the benefits of marriage are not meaningfully dependent on having signed a certificate. I personally am solidly in Smith’s camp on this issue — I have no intention of marrying, and many of my thoughts on marriage were mirrored by points he brought up. In that light, then, I have some specific beefs both with arguments put forward by Krasnow, and also some glaring omissions on everyone’s part (though obviously not every aspect of the question can be covered in 20 minutes).
My principal objection is that the debate (and Krasnow’s argument in particular) focused almost entirely on the relevance of marriage in individual partnerships, rather than how we as a society collectively treat the institution. While an individual marriage is very personal and the parameters of it are particular to the individuals involved, marriage as an institution has more depth and complexity than just being a sum of components. As such, how we regard marriage as a society is not informed just by our individual experiences with marriage (either directly or by proximity to others), but also how we perceive the institution as a whole, with all the legal and economic considerations that it entails. The legal considerations were touched on in passing in the debate, but the considerable economic considerations were nearly entirely ignored.
This is shortsighted; expounding that marriage is a relevant institution simply because 90% of USians will get married at some point in their lives (as Krasnow does; the figure in Canada appears to be around 85%) misses much of the picture as to why people get married. Leaving aside that Krasnow’s argument is based on a rosy-glassed romantic view of marriage, which she later says is not the basis of a marriage, insisting that a social institution is culturally relevant without exploring why people opt into it is toothless. There are still plenty of economic and codified social benefits to marriage, including the oft-cited (and much dismissed by the insistently rosy-glassed among us) things like tax incentives, increased availability of pooled resources like health benefits, and next-of-kin status in the event of hospital stays.