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Same-Sex Marriage and the Integrity of Language

The cultural momentum towards the legalization of same-sex marriage is being driven by more than may at first appear. Advocates of same-sex marriage insist that their purpose is to see homosexual couples receive the same rights and privileges as married couples, and to experience the same set of satisfactions and responsibilities. Without debating their argument, at least for now, we can already see that their stated purpose does not represent the real energy behind their demand for same-sex marriage.

After all, the majority of same-sex couples have indicated no fundamental desire for marriage–only for the right to marry. Even in Massachusetts, where an activist court has declared same-sex marriage to be legal, the majority of homosexual couples remain unmarried. We can add to this fact the reality that the vast majority of homosexual couples seeking marriage in Massachusetts are lesbians, not gay men.

So, what is driving the demand for same-sex marriage? In the end, it has to be a desire to dethrone marriage as the one paramount obstacle to the full normalization and acceptance of same-sex relationships. As an institution, marriage defines itself as a reality, even as society invests marriage with certain recognized rights and responsibilities. More than anything else, the insistent drive for same-sex marriage must in actuality be an effort to relativize marriage by redefinition. As homosexual activist Michael Sigiorile has argued, marriage is an oppressive institution that must be destroyed in order to liberate human sexuality and establish true human freedom.

In attacking marriage as an objective institution, language constitutes a significant barrier. For the very word “marriage” has, at least until lately, always referred to a male-female bond. If same-sex marriage advocates have their way, marriage will be destroyed through the process of redefinition.

Bradley C. S. Watson understands this clearly. Holder of the Philip M. McKenna Chair in American and Western Political Thought at Saint Vincent College, Watson argues that same-sex marriage advocates and activist courts are undermining the very integrity of language.

In “Love’s Language Lost,” published in the Spring 2005 edition of the Claremont Review of Books, Watson quotes the philologist from George Orwell’s distopian novel, 1984. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words . . . . In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it . . . . In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.” Watson’s reference to 1984 is apt and accurate. Orwell was a distinguished man of letters, and he understood the political and ideological ambition to control minds by controlling words.

“The advocates of same-sex marriage have a similar political and linguistic purpose,” Watson explains. “They have pushed their agenda with stunning rapidity. Laws that confer unique legal status and benefits on the union of a man and a woman have come under attack only recently.”

Indeed, gay marriage advocates struck their first success in the courts only in 1999, when the Vermont Supreme Court instructed the state legislature to provide homosexual couples in “committed relationships” with benefits identical to heterosexual marriage. Last year’s Goodridge decision handed down by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts went even further, declaring that homosexual couples have a right to be married. As Watson observes, “In so doing, they forced the entire camel into the tent, and effectively wrested control of the English language from popular usage and from the dictionaries in which that usage was enshrined (we await with bated breath the revisions that will now be required).” In requiring that Massachusetts recognize the right of homosexual couples to be called “married,” the court asserted a bizarre legal judgment. As Watson describes the convoluted decision, the court declared that homosexual couples have “the right to a noun.”

He is certainly right in this observation, for the Massachusetts Court accepted the arguments proffered by same-sex marriage advocates, who demanded the word “marriage” and would not settle for civil unions that would confer the same benefits. “This is something unknown to the common law or American constitutional law,” Watson observes. “We have entered a brave new world in which major legal arguments are not so much about the statutes, the constitutions of the various states, or the federal Constitution, but about the contents of Webster’s Dictionary.”

The Massachusetts Court’s foray into linguistics may be without precedent, but it is certainly not without effect. What word will be next to find itself on the scaffold? As Watson laments, “This is truly a revolutionary development that will breed unprecedented mischief.”

All honest persons must admit that if marriage can be more than one thing, it can be anything. Marriage has always referred to a heterosexual bond, and in almost all cultures this has eventually come down to the union of one man and one woman. The word “marriage” functions as a linguistic symbol of an ontological reality. To destroy the word is to deny the reality to which the word referred–the reality of marriage as a heterosexual union.

Watson notes that same-sex marriage advocates quickly ran through a list of surrogate terms that were quickly abandoned. The terms “same-sex partnerships,” “domestic partnerships,” and “civil unions,” have entered our political discourse only recently. Watson observes that these terms were redundant almost before they came into usage. “The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to view same-sex relationships as essentially, and therefore morally, distinguishable from heterosexual relationships.” This is precisely the ambition of same-sex marriage proponents.

Viewed in this light, marriage has become a target of linguistic deconstruction even as it has become the arena of political conflict. This is a precedent for disaster. “As judicial review becomes literary deconstructionism, our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws,” Watson reflects. “The argument for same-sex ‘marriage’ (and even much of the argument against it) elides the question of whether the noun ‘marriage’ refers to anything in nature. Is the thing that marriage signifies a particular concept with an essence outside the mind and control of the observer–or is it a whim subject to infinite reinterpretation by lawyers and judges?”

The Massachusetts Court launched a revolution that will transform law, public policy, private relationships, and the society at large. Extended to other issues of political debate, the logic of the Massachusetts decision spells doom for any understanding that moral principles are fixed and absolute. The courts now substitute an ethic of personal autonomy for reasoned moral argument. As Watson observes, “The language of the court is significant, for it reduces essence to action, or the right to choose certain actions or commitments over others–thereby denying essence.”

In his brilliant essay, Watson suggests that our current cultural debate over same-sex marriage is something of a farcical sequel to the medieval debate between the realists and the nominalists. The realists, who believed that words pointed to objective realities that could be commonly understood by individual minds, were confronted by the nominalists who believed that words are incapable of expressing the actual reality of things.

Today’s nominalists are truly Orwell’s children, determined to make words do and mean whatever they intend, according to their political and ideological purposes.

Watson rejects their argument out of hand. He insists that marriage “across all religions and cultures is at a similar, thought not identical, meaning. It is a rite of passage signifying and reminding us of the divine or natural order’s purposes with respect to procreation.” It is not what the Massachusetts Court referred to as an “evolving paradigm.”

Most significantly, Watson understands that Christians have an even deeper understanding of what is at stake. “For Christians, in particular, marriage has meant the union of a man and a woman. This is because it refers, among other things, to the unique, God-given capacity of man and woman to enter a covenantal relationship parallel to that between Christ and His church. It is a point of encounter between God and man. The rites of marriage are performed in the hope–with full knowledge that the reality sometimes does not live up to the hope–that each and every example of the sacramental relationship realizes its potential and purpose and therefore reflects the divine intention. The divine mind has an idea of human nature, and therefore human relationships, that does not and cannot change. Marriage, in short, is a word that describes something particular in the divinely created natural order, something that simply cannot be replicated in a same-sex relationship.”

Watson is onto something of profound importance here. As he asserts, “The nominally neutral courts that have already substituted in the public square secular religiosity for actual religion now undermine the sacramental character of marriage with their competing, profane version of that institution.”

In other words, the demand for same-sex marriage is, inevitably, an attack upon Christianity. The divinely revealed metaphor for the relationship between Christ and His church will now be subverted by an activist judiciary and a spirit of sexual rebellion.

“We are at a precipice, not only for constitutional law but also for thought itself,” Watson understands. “If developments continue apace, we will soon have no word to express the union of a man and a woman, as it was in the beginning.” Well, we will still have a word for it, but we may be the last people on earth to know what the word means.