I may have an English degree, but I’ll be the first to admit that English is a really messed-up language in some respects. Part of the cause of this situation is that we have a war on words. Various groups would like to make their definition of a word the only definition, in essence to have the sole intellectual property rights to a word. This is of course ridiculous. There are plenty of synonyms (and even those scary homonyms) in our language. It’s incredibly common for one word to have a primary, secondary, even tertiary or quaternary meaning. Take the word “bear” for example. There are endless jokes playing on the multiple meanings of “bear”. For those of you who are polyglots, this sort of thing is sometimes referred to as a double entendre. Most folks dislike resorting to mere semantics, because it’s actually a quite interesting and sometimes complicated philosophical discipline that has important implications for various logics, and any discussion that requires you to be a truly disciplined thinker just takes way too long for most of us wily Americans. And linguistics? Not even the most cunning linguists can get ideologues and demagogues to admit when it’s inconvenient that there is a difference between denotative and connotative meaning, and that actual usage can be quite a bit more varied than those pesky lexicographers let us believe. It might seem as if I’m taking a while to get to the point, but please bear with me.
Lately, the war on words has been keeping the spotlight on the battle over marriage. Marriage is a word that like many words in English has multiple meanings. It’s a term for a contractual arrangement enforced by the state and a term that also applies to a wide range of religious commitments, some of which are strictly monogamous while others allow polygamous marriage, and some are strictly for heterosexual couples while others allow homosexual couples. The problem here is that because the same word denotes all these different arrangements, some folks believe (somewhat understandably since the two often operate concurrently) that they are only one concept. But the truth is that such is obviously not the case if you give a moment’s thought to the subject. For example, there are plenty of irreligious folks who are married outside of any religious tradition. For them, marriage is strictly a secular contractual arrangement. For a religious person who is a member of a sect practicing polygamy, marriage is strictly a religious covenant, and because polygamy is illegal it cannot also be a contractual relationship enforced by our government. For many others, both the religious and the secular contractual arrangement are entered into. In fact, if a religious couple goes to the courthouse and gets “married” they often also have to go to their place of worship to get “married” or to get the marriage “blessed”. Why would they need to get married twice or get an additional blessing if it were all the same concept? The answer is that they simply wouldn’t, and it’s not the same concept, regardless of the word being used.
So who has sole ownership of the word “marriage”? No one, of course. Words don’t have owners any more than gestures or symbols do, though copyright lawyers do make a hilarious effort to demonstrate otherwise in some cases. So if we’re going to have a discussion about whether or not folks in various places on the spectrum of sexuality can get married to the person they wish to marry, we first need to make it clear which meaning of the word we are using. If we’re discussing the secular contract enforced by our government, then the issue needs to be discussed in the context of legal precedent, the Constitution, civil rights, and political principles. If we’re discussing the religious covenant established in a particular religious tradition, then the issue needs to be discussed in the context of the philosophical, theological, moral, and ritual requirements of that religious tradition. Of course, there is some overlap in these cases. The law of the land sometimes impacts how religious folks carry out their traditions, such as in the case of a person below the legal age of consent wanting a legally valid marriage as is custom in their religious tradition and not being able to get it. And religious folks often have influence on law via their values, such as in the case of outlawing polygamy.
The truth is that a religious institution, while having the freedom to lobby for its favored position, has no jurisdiction in the U.S. to decide what a secular contractual arrangement may or may not be comprised of, and that a secular government has no business deciding what a religious arrangement may or may not be comprised of. If we understand that we’re dealing with two separate things that have two different sets of authority to regulate them, we’ll have a lot fewer problems with this issue. So to those of you who think that allowing people who have homosexual inclinations to enter into a secular contractual arrangement with the same benefits and responsibilities as are given heterosexual couples is redefining marriage, I have good news. They’re redefining the secular notion of marriage, which does not change the meaning of marriage in the context of your religious tradition. Only your religious tradition can do that. And it is very much to your benefit to draw a distinction between secular marriage and religious covenants, because if you keep saying that they are the same, it means that the government has jurisdiction to regulate your religious covenants and force you to allow homosexuals to participate in such covenants. And I’m guessing y’all would prefer to avoid that, so wise up and keep ’em separated, as our good friends The Offspring once advised.
Now, the war on words has also been conducted on the battle over homophobia. Folks who support the marriage of homosexual persons frequently accuse those who disagree with them of homophobia, by which they generally mean dislike or hatred of homosexual persons. Folks who oppose the marriage of homosexual persons often suggest that they are not homophobic and genuinely care about homosexual persons. This debate takes a lot of forms, and people will go into discussions of the roots of the word “homophobia” as well as justifications for the expanded meaning in contemporary usage, etc. As usual, the truth is much more complex than “everyone who opposes X hates group Y”. For example, my opposition to children getting married doesn’t mean that I hate children. For someone to accuse me of hating children based on my opposition to child marriage would be ridiculous, and it’s similarly ridiculous to suggest that opposition to gay marriage automatically means that someone hates gay folks. So to those of you who like to use the word “homophobia”, I have good news. It’s a real word with legitimate usage in our language beyond “fear of the same”. At the same time, you abuse a perfectly good and meaningful word by applying it to everyone who disagrees with you, you bunch of Nazis. See how that doesn’t work?
I would love it for us to come together as if we’re adults who can recognize that reality is complicated and our language is complicated as well, ending the war on words and maybe beginning a fruitful discussion about the real issues facing the people of our country today while doing it in a mature manner that recognizes that not everyone who disagrees with us is malicious.
Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, so in the meantime, feel free to argue about exactly what “bear arms” means in the constitution. It’s at least more entertaining than the debate over gay marriage.