Sunday, January 06, 2013

Anyone for wiff-waff? I mean ping-pong. I mean table tennis. I mean gay marriage.

Consider the following text.

"I was playing ping-pong when I tripped over the hoover cord and banged my head on the thermos which had been left on the linoleum. I had to put a band-aid on the cut and take some aspirin for the headache."

Strictly speaking I should have written this as either:

"I was playing table tennis when I tripped over the vacuum cleaner cord and banged by head on the vacuum flask which had been left on the [actually linoleum is such a ubiquitous ex-trade mark that there is no obvious generic term with which to replace it - "vinyl flooring" I suppose]. I had to put a sticking plaster on the cut and take some acetylsalicylic acid for the headache", or:

"I was playing Ping-Pong1 when I tripped over the Hoover2 cord and banged my head on the Thermos3 which had been left on the Linoleum 4. I had to put a Band-Aid5 on the cut and take some Aspirin6 for the headache."

1 ® J. Jaques & Son Ltd
2 ® The Hoover Company
3 ® Thermos GmbH
4 ® Frederick Walton
5 ® Johnson & Johnson
6 ® Bayer

The issue of course is trade marks, and specifically those trade marks which have become generics. The most recent I can think of is when we say that we should "google" something, do we really mean we should use, or does it also include using or any other search engine? The point is that companies fight very hard to retain their use of particular words, because by doing so they can both capitalise on the public's familiarisation with the name and gain an advantage over the competitors needing to use an unfamiliar generic name for the product.

Moreover, if they fail to adequately protect their trade marks, the risk is that eventually a court may decide that the trade mark is no longer protected - it becomes a generic term and in the public domain. Hence Mattel could almost certainly safely sell their own "ping-pong set" without paying royalties to J. Jaques & Son Ltd, and without having to worry whether they will be sued (well, they might be sued, but Monsieur Jaques and/or his fils would certainly lose).

The various Christian sects (stay with me here, I'm getting to an important point) have what they call Sacraments. These include (amongst others) "Baptism"  and "Marriage". These are very significant and sacred ceremonies within the church, and they carry with them a number of well-known rituals.

Many years ago if you wanted to be married it would take place in a church. Then some day it was decided that there should be a secular version where a man and a woman affirm their desire to remain in a certified relationship "till death us do part". Fine. The state set up the mechanism and the idea of a wedding in a registry office was born. The issue is what the resulting relationship ended up being called. The state decided that since "marriage" was what it had been called up until that point when a wedding was held in a church, so "marriage" was a perfectly cromulent term for a relationship affirmed in a non-church setting.

Now, what the churches should have done is strenuously object. As mentioned earlier, the sacrament of marriage is to the church a sacred union of a man and a woman in the sight of God. I'm sure they don't see it as a convenient way to sort out taxation, inheritance and various other legal issues. It was their term and they should have tried to protect it. But they didn't object or try to protect the term (or if they did, they didn't do a very good job of it). The various churches either accepted or chose to ignore the fact that a ceremony which did not necessarily refer to God at all could result in a union known both legally and socially as a marriage.

Fast forward a few decades. Gay people want to "get married". Suddenly a number of churches prick up their ears and think, "Hang on, marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman in the sight of God. Our theology doesn't recognise gay relationships as fulfilling the Biblical definition of a marriage." And you know what? They may well be right. Right, but utterly irrelevant. You see in a very real way (not just a weasely "Aha, I've got you there" way) the churches lost the right to define what constitutes a marriage when they allowed (or at least did not successfully argue against) secular unions to use the term . The term entered the public domain and therefore how it was subsequently used was in the hands of the Government. Of course everyone, whether it be an individual or an organised interest group, has the right to present their point of view on any matter being decided in Parliament. However they have absolutely no right to expect or receive any preferential treatment (let alone exercise any actual power) over the Government's decision.

This brings me to my final point. Many governments around the world have decided that discrimination based on sexual preference or orientation is illegal. This is the most important point of this blog, so I will write it again. Many governments around the world have decided that discrimination based on sexual preference or orientation is illegal. Once we accept that "marriage" is a non-religious, statute-defined term, then there can be no logically supported valid argument against two gay people being married in jurisdictions where anti-discrimination laws apply.

Forget arguments that gay marriage undermines heterosexual marriage (it would make no difference to my heterosexual marriage, and I would be interested to know how anyone who uses that argument could quantify how exactly their marriage would be affected), forget any arguments from religious organisations about how it contravenes their teachings (guess what? It's not your trade mark any more), forget about the "it's icky" arguments (legal rights, particularly anti-discrimination rights, are often there to protect minorities from the icky feelings of the majority), and just accept that if a heterosexual couple can enter a relationship called a "marriage" then it is unconscionable for a gay couple not to be able to do the same. And when I say "same", I don't mean "similar", I mean with exactly the same legal, taxation, inheritance, adoption, etc. rights, and not least of which (but in some ways absolutely the least of which) the right to use the now secular term "marriage" to describe the commitment into which they have entered.

Here endeth the lesson.


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