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The war on the word ‘marriage’

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

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.

Robin Phillips
Robin Phillips

Robin, the author of Saints and Scoundrels and a writer for a variety of publications, lives in North Idaho. Read his personal blog: Robin's Readings and Reflections.


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