Last year when the debate about same-sex marriage raged through America and Britain, there was widespread concern regarding the cultural consequences of changing the definition of marriage. In response to these concerns, the gay rights lobby frequently denied that the meaning of marriage was hanging in the balance.
“We are not wanting to change the definition of marriage,” the champions of gay marriage would repeatedly point out. “We simply want to expand the pool of people eligible to get married.”
Now that the dust has settled, it has become undeniable that they did want to change the definition of marriage, with far-reaching cultural consequences.
‘Not make it different’
Faced with apologists for traditional marriage like Brian Brown, Maggie Gallagher, and Jennifer Roback Morse who kept maintaining that if same-sex unions became marriages it would change the definition of the word, the advocates of “marriage equality” routinely dismissed such anxieties as conservative scare-mongering without actually refuting the grounds of those concerns. When the gay rights lobby did bother to interact with these apprehensions at all, they argued that these concerns were not only needless, but also based on a confusion of categories.
Kris Perry, plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, summarized this thinking when she declared, “We want access to something without changing it. We want to be able to have what others have. Not make it different.”
The gay rights activist group Freedom to Marry was equally clear when it announced on its website, “Allowing committed gay and lesbian couples to get married does not change the meaning of marriage.”
This was echoed by another action group, Marriage Equality USA, when it publicly declared, “We are not asking the gov’t to change marriage.”
Indeed, up through mid 2013, transatlantic advocates of same-sex marriage all gave unanimous testimony to the fact that their work had nothing to do with definition changing.
Well, almost unanimous. Within the ranks of gay marriage champions there was one group that took a more radical—and, I would argue, more honest—approach. HACKmarriage, an anonymous group based in San Francisco, existed for the sole purpose of vandalizing dictionaries to remove the traditional conjugal definition of marriage. On its website, HACKmarriage announced that its mission is: “Hacking dictionaries to update the meaning of marriage.”
“We envision a city where every library and every bookstore has a hacked dictionary that reflects this more accurate meaning of marriage,” a representative for HACKmarriage said. “Because when our definitions change, we change. As a people, as a culture, as a society.”
To facilitate this, HACKmarriage provided stickers to place in dictionaries to cover over the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The sticker reads:
“mar•riage /’marij/ n.1 the formal union of two people by which they become partners for life.”
Two rival understandings
Though the difference between the two definitions is only a matter of a few words, it is crucial. The conjugal definition asserts that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, whereas the revisionist definition asserts that marriage is a union of two persons.
Each of these competing definitions is shorthand for an implied network of understandings that extend beyond the definition itself. (For more information about this, see my series of articles for the Colson Center on the meaning of marriage.) In the conjugal understanding—although our concept of marriage involves a degree of cultural relativity—at its core marriage is something specific, namely a sexually dimorphous union publicly recognized because of its potential fecundity. By contrast, the revisionist understanding also asserts that at its core marriage is something specific, namely a union of consenting persons (or adults) who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life. (Some revisionists like Andrew Koppelman have gone even further to say that marriage does not refer to something specific at all because it is entirely culturally relative; therefore marriage is a social construct and can mean whatever we choose for it to mean.)
The Oxford English Dictionary capitulates
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings that paved the way for same-sex couples to get legally married in certain American states. Quick on the heels of these rulings, in July 2013, the government of Great Britain passed a law to bring same-sex marriage to England and Wales.
Shortly after these rulings, the job of changing the dictionaries was taken out of the hands of “dictionary terrorists” and embraced by the elite institution that publishes dictionaries. Seven days after Britain’s same-sex marriage bill received royal assent, the Gay Star News website reported that a spokesperson for the Oxford English Dictionary had told the site it would consider changing the definition of marriage. At the time, the prestigious multi-volume dictionary defined marriage as the “formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.”
It didn’t take long for the Oxford English Dictionary to make good on its promise to revamp the definition of marriage. On Aug. 23, the UK newspaper The Times reported that the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary had updated the definition of marriage, as had the online dictionaries of Collins and Macmillan. The Oxford dictionary now includes “long-term relationships between partners of the same sex” within the definition of marriage. Successive print editions of these dictionaries will reflect the change.
This is significant, since the Oxford English Dictionary is considered authoritative for the English language and is often appealed to in debates about words.
The online version of Collins dictionary changed its definition from the legal union or contract “made by a man and a woman to live as husband and wife” to one “made by two people to live together.” The online version of Macmillan’s dictionary still defines marriage as a “relationship between two people who are husband or wife” but adds “or a similar relationship between people of the same sex.” Michael Rundell, editor-in-chief for Macmillan’s dictionary, said that the definitions for “husband” and “wife” might also be subject to change in the days ahead.
Bring on gay marriage, but leave definitions alone
These changes should leave myriad English-speakers feeling cheated. Many people supported the campaign to legalize gay marriage because they honestly believed this campaign had nothing to do with changing the definition of marriage. One of the reasons we know this is because a 2013 Fox News poll discovered that only 39 percent of Americans were in favor of “changing the definition of the word marriage to also include same-sex couples,” yet the same poll found that 46 percent of Americans were in favor of “legalizing same-sex marriage.” In other words, tens of thousands of Americans wanted gay marriage brought to the nation but wanted the definition of marriage left alone.
I’m not making this up. Here is the exact wording of the poll with the results:
Would you approve or disapprove of changing the definition of the word marriage to also include same-sex couples?
- 39% Approve
- 56% Disapprove
- 5% Don’t Know
Do you favor or oppose legalizing same-sex marriage?
- 46% Favor
- 47% Opposed
- 7% Don’t Know
Clearly the way the question was worded was crucial, and it shows that 10 percent of Americans who favor same-sex marriage are against changing the definition of marriage. We may puzzle at this, for it is hardly a very complicated point that since marriage has previously meant “a union of a man and a woman,” two people of the opposite sex just can’t enter into this state unless marriage is first redefined to mean something else. But logic has featured very little in the debates over same-sex marriage, with the result that the homosexual lobby was able to persuade vast swabs of the public that there is no necessary relation between legalizing same-sex marriage, on the one hand, and changing the definition of the word marriage, on the other.
It’s not that this persuasion occurred by anyone actually sitting down and constructing a series of premises that had as its conclusion the fact that legalizing gay marriage has no necessary relation to changing the definition of marriage. It was more that this was just assumed as an unspoken foundation to all the other categories that were employed in the public conversation. Because the revisionist understanding of marriage has been assumed on an implicit and operational level, champions of gay marriage could then say they did not favor changing the definition of marriage, for they had already changed it in their starting assumptions. (When a person smuggles their conclusion into the premises of the argument leading to that conclusion, this often gives the impression that they have made a case, even though all they have done is to argue in a circle.)
Arguments about “equal access” are an example of what I mean when I say that the gay lobby simply assumed the definition of marriage that, ostensibly, they were arguing for. The whole notion that homosexuals should be allowed “equal access” to the institution of marriage depended on maintaining some degree of continuity with the norms of an existing institution. This presence of continuity enabled advocates of gay marriage to form arguments in explicitly quantitative terms, as if they merely favored an expansion in the pool of people eligible to get married, rather than trying to qualitatively alter the very essence of marriage itself.
This type of inclusive rhetoric has a very powerful instinctive appeal to Americans. Because of certain dark parts of our history, we naturally revolt against the idea of excluding a certain people group from any institution. The problem, of course, is that homosexuals are only being excluded from marriage, if we start by assuming the revisionist definition of marriage in the first place. For on the traditional understanding, no one is stopping homosexuals from getting married, since they are allowed to marry someone of the opposite sex. (The fact that they do not want to do this is no more relevant to the question than whether the pope wants to marry. Just as we shouldn’t feel the need to change the definition of marriage to include celibacy so that the pope can have “equal access” to the institution, so we shouldn’t feel the need to change the definition of marriage so that homosexuals can begin to want access to it.)
In this way, those who were agitating for change implicitly assumed the revisionist understanding of marriage (i.e., that marriage does not mean a union of a man and a woman but, rather, a union of persons regardless of gender) and then proceeded to debate on that basis of that assumption. The conclusion of the argument had been smuggled into the terms of the argument itself, which meant that the argument was little more than the announcement: “We don’t agree with the conjugal definition of marriage.” The problem is that announcements are no more arguments than denials are refutations.
The conversation that might have been
Because the gay rights lobby has been less than candid about its aims and methods (i.e., that they had already introduced a de facto change in the definition of marriage and were attempting to change it de jure), they were able to short-circuit many key questions that might otherwise have been part of the public conversation during the seminal Supreme Court battles.
If instead of repeating “We’re not trying to change the definition of marriage” ad infinitum, the gay rights lobby had openly acknowledged that its rhetoric already assumed the revisionist definition, then there could have been a vibrant discussion on whether gay rights advocates were making historical or normative claims about the revisionist understanding. That is, the public could have inquired whether the gay lobby was claiming that marriage simply ought to mean the union of persons (a normative claim), or whether it was claiming that marriage always has meant the union of persons even though not everyone has realized this until recently (an historical claim).
Had there been a discussion on this question, it is likely that the champions of same-sex marriage would have been pushed into acknowledging the second of these options: that marriage always has referred to the union of persons. This would be comparative to saying that sponges have always fallen under the definition of an animal even though people used to mistakenly think that sponges were plants. But, as I pointed out in a blog post for Salvo magazine, to take this position is essentially to claim that the union of a man and woman has always been a variant of the union of persons; that biology and the possibility of reproduction were never at the core of what marriage is but additions to it; that consummation was never central to the completion of a marriage since only practical when the “union of persons” happened to be members of the opposite sex; that “man and wife” were never something that made a relationship a marriage but were always a species of the genus “union of persons”; that for thousands of years people were marrying and being given in marriage without truly understanding what it was they were entering.
Why definitions matter
Changing the definition of marriage from the conjugal understanding to the revisionist understanding was an important goal of the same-sex lobby, but it was not its main goal. The primary objective was the normalization of same-sex relationships through legal and societal recognition. Changing the definition of marriage (first implicitly and then explicitly) was both a means to this end and a by-product of it.
One of the reasons it was so easy to impose the revisionist understanding on both America and Britain is because the groundwork had already been laid in the middle of the last century when marriage ceased to be understood as organically connection to procreation. When you’ve been treating marriage as little more than a romantic relationship between two persons for about 60 years, it becomes difficult to really appreciate why gender dimorphism or complementarity is essential rather than accidental to marriage. Even so, this should not minimize the significance of the fact that the revisionist definition is now being formally imposed.
But does this really matter? Why should we be concerned that dictionaries are changing the definition of marriage, as long as we know what we mean by it?
We should be concerned because the way we define words change how we think about each other and the world itself. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are discovering that speech does not merely proceed from our thoughts like a one-way street—there is also traffic flowing in the other direction. How we speak affects how we think about the world on a level that our conscious minds may never even be aware.
Consider the different views of humanity subtly implicated by describing a baby as a “fetus” versus calling it “a human being created in the image of God.” Or even consider the implication of calling a baby an “it,” as I just did in the last sentence. While these alternative ways of talking about a baby may be equally true on a purely factual level, they convey an entirely different sense.
Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford University, has noted, “[T]he structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express.” Boroditsky has shown that even the parts of speech that we take for granted, like how we conjugate verbs, can play a subliminal role on how we perceive the world and other people. Similarly, in his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explored how the way we speak from infancy has an effect on how we view the world. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge took this even further by showing that the way we speak alters the actual neurocircuitry in our brains. Nicholas Carr echoed this in his book The Shallows, demonstrating that throughout history the way we communicate alters how we perceive the world on a precognitive level. James Davison Hunter summed it all up in his book To Change the World: “Language, the most basic system of symbols, provides the primary medium through which people apprehend their conscious experience in the world.”
What these and many other scholars are trying to help us realize is that language doesn’t just describe what we think about the world, it is also a lens by which we understand and interpret the world around us often without even realizing it.
That is why we should be concerned about the uncritical acceptance of the new revisionist definition of marriage throughout English-speaking culture. It isn’t just a matter of semantics, but it involves an entirely different understanding of relationships, family, and even what it means to be human.
To deny is to deny is to refute
I have suggested that champions for same-sex marriage were reluctant to acknowledge that there even was a battle over definitions since their case for “equal access” depended on maintaining some degree of continuity with the norms of an existing institution. Indeed, they wanted to appear to be appropriating to themselves the norms of the traditional understanding without having the courage to admit that they were restructuring, rearranging, and changing the institution itself. While those lobbying for gay marriage frequently denied the concerns of those who believed the definition of marriage was at stake, they did not actually refute the grounds of those concerns.
Or did they? While conducting research for this article, I discovered that at the same time as Collins announced that its dictionary would be changing the definition of marriage, another less-publicized change was also quietly implemented. The verb “refute” would no longer mean to simply disprove, but would now be synonymous with deny. (The Collins Dictionary adds a note that this new sense of “refute” should be avoided in formal contexts.)
Thus, if I make a case for a certain proposition, and you deny that proposition, you can now say, quite literally, that you have refuted me, regardless of whether you have actually developed a counter-argument. Simply announcing that you disagree with me is an action that now falls under the semantic range of the verb “refute.” Indeed, if the new Collins dictionary is to be believed, the difference between refutation and denial will now occupy the dustbin of history along with the conjugal definition of marriage.