Objection: Speaking outside his expertise.
Since time immemorial, those in the throes of uncritical thought (and often facing last-minute term-paper deadlines) have illustrated their lack of appreciation for social and historical context by using the phrase “since time immemorial” to describe things that have actually changed a lot.
This phrase usually proves itself wrong, as “immemorial” literally means “not remembered” (the OED says, “ancient beyond memory or record”), which raises the question: How do you know? Of course, some things really have existed since time immemorial, but this is not a useful concept for describing elements of human society. If it’s part of society, it has a history: it has changed, and that change is probably important or you wouldn’t be talking about it in the first paragraph of your term paper.
For example, human sexual reproduction has existed since time immemorial, but who cares? On the other hand, things like “parenting” and “sibling rivalry” may have existed since time immemorial, but what matters now is the how they are conceived and acted upon socially.
Term papers immemorial
If you shop for term papers — which you should never do — you will find “since time immemorial” used a lot, because it’s the kind of weak shortcut to profundity that some students use to puff up their papers at the last minute. Here are some examples from term paper websites (no links provided, sorry!):
- Music is ubiquitous and has existed since time immemorial.
- Since time immemorial, the question, “What is a leader, or what makes a leader?” has been asked.
- Since time immemorial, the people have been able to believe what they wanted especially when it came to religious beliefs
- Pluralism is a crucial characteristic of the Chinese religion since time immemorial.
- Since time immemorial, Saudi Arabia has been an essential stake of the Arab world
- Since time immemorial land belonged to the wealthy magnates who used it in the agricultural purposes and hired peasants to cultivate and work there.
You get the idea: Obviously, none of these things has existed since time immemorial. So if you use one of these papers, save yourself the instructor’s eye roll and delete that phrase.
How much does Regnerus charge for a term paper?
And so it is with “marriage.” Testifying at trial in the Michigan case over the Constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Mark Regnerus joined the dying argument that such marriage (let’s call it homogamy) is bad for kids. Because the evidence does not exist, he and others have fallen back on the idea that change might be bad, so the state should not allow new kinds of marriage.
In his testimony as an expert witness (well reported by Steve Friess at Al Jazeera America), Regnerus faced ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper, who extracted the concession that he doesn’t know whether gay marriage is really bad because there isn’t enough science on the question yet.
“So,” Cooper asked, according to Friess, “if a nationally representative, large-scale longitudinal study is never done because it’s too expensive, is it your opinion that same-sex people should never be allowed to marry?” Regnerus had no answer to that, but he went on to argue (whine, really), both that we need more research, and that marriage equality should wait for it.
It is intellectually frustrating to see social science close off the debate on this by claiming it’s settled when we haven’t even collected the ideal kind of data yet. … Let’s get out there and get some more before we make wide-scale changes in an institution that has served us since time immemorial.
I don’t know if you’re allowed to object to an expert making things up, but it seems to me that, by the definition above, a sociologist can’t testify about what has existed since before we knew what existed. Anyway, in addition to this just being a ridiculous statement (who is “us,” anyway?) — which by itself would cost you half a grade in a lot of sociology courses — it’s especially embarrassing coming after the eloquent testimony of an actual expert on marriage history, Nancy Cott (author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation).
Anyway, it’s hard to believe this argument will get past any reasonable judge. And it seems even less likely to impress Supreme Court swing-voter Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in his decision in DOMA last year that marriage denial “humiliates tens of thousands of children” for no compelling reason.
Slipped memory update, March 22: When I wrote this post I forgot that the House Republicans, in their failed defense of DOMA, had also used used “time immemorial” about marriage, which I discussed here:
The link between procreation and marriage itself reflects a unique social difficulty with opposite-sex couples that is not present with same-sex couples — namely, the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies. Government from time immemorial has had an interest in having such unintended and unplanned offspring raised in a stable structure that improves their chances of success in life and avoids having them become a burden on society.
I still can’t get over what a ridiculous case for banning same-sex marriage that is.