And when we have political controversies to deal with, those questions become particularly pertinent. Often the problem is that two participants of an argument define a term in different ways, and neither wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. Each assumes that the meaning they use is the "right" one, the objectively true meaning. But what is meaning? Is it really an objective thing? How can you have meaning without words, and how can you have words without people? And how can you have people - people whose observations and experiences vary - without subjectivity?
Of course there is subjectivity in meaning (I am NOT saying that all meaning is subjective! Complete relativism is silly and self-contradictory! All I am saying is that there is at least a subjective aspect to meaning). For example, let's say I encountered you walking down the street and I said, "hey, I got in a fight with John yesterday." What do I mean by "John"? Certainly for the ensuing conversation to make sense, we both have to be referring to the same person, named John, in the real world. But there's more to meaning than mere reference - we may have the same referent but have entirely different relationships with the referring word (or name). This means that in one sense, we both know who "John" is - in a shared, objective kind of way - but in another sense, "John" is different to me than he is to you. We define him subjectively. To me, maybe he's just a neighbor; to you, maybe he's a coworker, or an enemy, or a lover. If we can't understand each others' interpretations of every word in every sentence, we run the risk of misunderstanding each other.
You see, in this example, we may seem to be on the same page, but we may have entirely different ideas and biases going into the conversation. And the further that conversation progresses (and the more complicated its assumptions and arguments get), the further we may stray from one another. Eventually, I might walk away with wholly incorrect interpretations of what you wanted to say, and vice versa. It's not inevitable, but it's possible. This happens every day! It is one of the necessary risks of using language to convey ideas (remember, language is just a set of symbols). We can't get around it. Until we figure out how to do that Vulcan mind-meld thing, that is.
Okay. Crash course over. Let's talk about gay marriage.
- This isn't a post about homosexuality in general.
- This isn't a post about nature versus nurture, about whether people are born gay or not, or about the nature of agency in the context of sexual orientation.
- This isn't a post about the relationship between sexuality and the Gospel.
- This isn't a post about the short-term or long-term sociological changes that the gay rights movement are introducing to the world, positive or negative.
All I aim to accomplish with this post is show you how complicated the gay marriage issue is, because I believe it is more complicated than most people on both sides are willing to admit.
I believe that "marriage" is one of those tricky words that can mean different things to different people. And because we interpret it so variously, we get into fights about it. Perhaps those fights could be resolved, or at least calmed down, if we tried to look at the word less didactically? In other words, maybe if "marriage" means one thing to me and another thing to you, neither of us are wrong.
Now we face the question of what marriage means, subjectively and objectively. What are the aspects of its definition that are flexible, if any? And what are the aspects that are absolute, if any?
To the conservative right, marriage is a religious rite, something sacred that God instituted and defined. Therefore, it's profane to try to change the definition that God Himself decreed. To the liberal left, marriage is a secular ceremony, something that belongs to the people, not to God. Therefore, it's unjust to try to prohibit some citizens from enjoying it while permitting others.
The problem isn't just that these two sides have different definitions of the word. The problem is that neither wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. We have an unfortunate habit in political discourse to demonize each other. The conservative right wants to say "those liberals are trying to defy my God!" And the liberal left wants to say "those conservatives are trying to take my rights!" Both of these accusations are absurd. I'm sorry. They're absurd! No one is as much of a bully as you think they are. Drop the "us and them" mentality and try to understand your opponent. This is complicated.
Gay people who want to get married are not trying to defy God. I can't say this emphatically enough. There aren't gay people out there who are thinking, "oh man, I can't wait to get married to my same-gender partner so I can bring the wrath of the Almighty upon this nation. Hellfire and rainbows. That'll show 'em." No one is thinking that! That is not a thing that anyone is thinking.
"So, what do they want?" You ask. "Why can't they be happy with just calling it a 'civil union' and leaving our religious word alone?" And this is where philosophy of language comes in: because believe it or not, "marriage" isn't just a sacred word to straight people. It's sacred to gay people, too. They want to show the world how committed they are to each other. And they want to do it with the word that we've collectively decided on, as a society. A word that means commitment. A word that means union. A word that means fidelity, loyalty, relationship. That word is "marriage," and it's very, very important. How dare you tell people they can't care about that word unless they believe in your God.
On the other hand, to the gay rights activists: religious people are not trying to take your rights away. I can't say this emphatically enough, either. There aren't religious people out there who are thinking, "oh man, I can't wait to run up to a gay person and take away all his rights. I hate freedom and America. I want to make this country awful for anyone who's different than me. Hellfire and rainbows. That'll show 'em." No one is thinking that! That is not a thing that anyone is thinking.
"So, what do they want?" You ask. "Why can't they be happy with their own heterosexual marriages and leave my marriage alone?" And again, this is a problem of language. For religious people, "marriage" isn't just a socially constructed word: it's a divinely constructed word. For them, when you get married you aren't just confessing your union to the world: you're confessing it to God! And if God teaches that "marriage" is a special, man-and-woman thing that exalts us and allows us to partake of the miracle of creation, thus becoming - in a microcosmic but holy kind of way - more like the Eternal Creator, then yes, that word is very, very important. They're defending something that they believe is divinely inspired. How dare you tell people they can't care about what their God cares about.
All of this ties into the question of what is sacred, and what is profane. Most of us may be used to using a pretty narrow definition of the word "sacred." Here are all the definitions listed on dictionary.com:
- Devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated.
- Entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
- Pertaining to or connected with religion.
- Reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object.
- Regarded with reverence.
We keep forgetting that when we look at our opponents, we are looking into a mirror: in a sense, all of mankind is the same. We share the same fears, hopes, and concerns: we just express them differently, or we focus on different particulars. We are all worried about a future in which our children learn to trample under their feet the things that we hold dear. We all worry about the things we hold sacred. And, in a sense, we all think marriage is one of those sacred things (I'm excluding, of course, those who believe marriage is unimportant. I don't dismiss their view out of disrespect; it just happens to be irrelevant to this issue). So, let's try to remember that.
The sanctity and profanity of marriage is a complicated issue. Let's avoid dismissing the other side's position as either blind bigotry or insulting irreverence. That sort of rhetoric is lazy and condescending, and there is no room for it in discussions of sensitive subjects like these.