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The war on the word ‘marriage’

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

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.


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