Unless you’ve been living in a cave with no internet or television, you’ve probably heard about the same-sex marriage debate. If you’ve followed it, you’ve probably heard the argument that there should be no same-sex marriage because marriage is something that’s between a man and a woman. That’s just what it means.
Opponents don’t think much of this argument, obviously, but let me analyse just what is wrong with it — and any other argument that refers to the meanings of words the same way.
So, the argument might go, it’s just not marriage if it hasn’t got a man and a woman, and it would be stupid to call it that. Let them have some similar arrangement, but not call it marriage. This would be the purest form of the argument without mixing in something else.
Does this prove it’s linguistically incorrect to speak of same-sex marriage? Actually, no, not even that. Words in normal language don’t have exact definitions that give necessary and sufficient conditions for when they may be used, and what vague boundaries they have is in constant flux. “Marriage” without assuming a man and a woman is a perfectly normal use at this point.
What about legal language, though? We’re talking about changing laws, and in laws, key terms must be given accurate definitions so that we can tell what the law requires… But we are, indeed, talking about changing the laws, and the definitions are indeed given, so changing them here is, and must be, exactly the kind of thing we normally do at such a point.
Back to normal language: While the definitions of words in normal language are not decided arbitrarily, it is not impossible to set out to change them by making a certain usage official. This sometimes presents practical difficulties because people won’t accept the new use — but in this case, everyone already knows what “same-sex marriage” means. So even if it didn’t mean that, we could deliberately start using the language differently.
Above are three points about linguistic meanings. Now let me make the more important point: Who cares about linguistic meanings? What have they got to do with anything? What we are deciding when we are deciding about the legal status of same-sex marriage is what we should do, what thing in the law would best serve people’s rights and practical purposes.
Ah, but, one could say, then why can’t we follow the argument earlier and say that there’s no need to call it marriage, since words don’t matter?
But actually I said word definitions don’t matter. Choice of words may matter in a practical sense. It would seem that the word “marriage” is so prestigious and is what people think about certain things through — so that marriage by another name is just not the same in people’s eyes. Thus denying some people marriage with whom they want it is keeping them as second-class citizens with fewer rights. (Besides, hypothetical counterarguer, if you were agreeing that word meanings don’t matter, why still argue not to call it “marriage”? If they don’t matter, they could have it called “marriage” even just because they want it.)
But the important point is what I said a couple of paragraphs back: If we’re talking about what we should do, what should be in the law or what’s right morally, etc., the meanings of words simply don’t have anything to do with it. I mean, sure, if you were using words and you were not using them consistently or different people in a discussion were using them differently… But here everyone knows what we’re talking about, and it’s a question of deciding what to do about it. If there are real people with real problems on the line, please do shut up about preserving the meanings of words.
Of course, the meaning of words is hardly the real reason most people oppose something concrete. Freaky-Fred really opposes non-human human-eaters joining Cannibals Anonymous not because they’re not technically cannibals but because he’s a frothing bigot. Politicians oppose same-sex marriage for all kinds of reasons. Interestingly, a lot of people may oppose it because of a reason that’s very similar in form to the argument from word meanings: they have an idea of what the thing should be, and they feel that it goes wrong if it doesn’t conform to that idea. Add that it can be an emotionally internalised idea, and I believe it often comes down to nothing more than that: your brain being narrow-minded and your reason being too feeble to correct it. (I call this “concept hygiene”.) Anyhow, whatever your real reasons are, you should tell them instead of trying to fool others and possibly yourself with dumb sophisms like this.
I did hear one version of the word meaning argument against same-sex marriage that tried to take a form that would actually be relevant: Everyone has defined marriage as between man and woman for so long, there must be a reason. But, sorry, no. Remembering again that we need practical decisions for what we want today, we’d have to look at why those ancient peoples defined marriage as they did, what they wanted out of it, and how well they got what they wanted by those means. And then consider what we want from it now.
I should say that I know “traditional” marriage isn’t really, and it’s certainly not “Biblical” in a straightforward sense. There’ve been all kinds of variations of the theme of marriage, the Bible itself including things such as having concubines. However, I’m not actually aware of marriage being defined in a non-heterosexist way, so that does seem to be a universal. Maybe it’s had to do with breeding, then. Indeed, we are now getting people arguing that if marriage were about things like love and respect and commitment, then, sure, state so-and-so should allow same-sex marriage; but as for the state it’s really about cynical concerns of raising children, nope. This is simply a bad pragmatic argument.
I myself am inclined to argue about what words mean and what people mean by words, but only to clarify what is being talked about. (Or to pedantically correct people, perhaps.) These kind of arguments based on word meanings are nonsense, though. What the word “actually” means is relevant if you’re composing a dictionary, not when you’re trying to decide what to do. Further, they’re focusing narrowly only on the semantic meaning, instead of things like connotations and political implications, what the word means to people and how it makes them feel. Those latter are not only part of its meaning but may actually be relevant for what should be done, as shown above.