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The war on the word ‘marriage’

"The war on the word ‘marriage’" Continued...

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.)

Equal access?

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.)


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