Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Love's Language Lost

Bradley C. S. Watson

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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. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

So says a philologist—an expert in "Newspeak"—in George Orwell's 1984. He is explaining to the novel's hero, Winston Smith, the ultimate purpose behind the manipulation and command of language.

The advocates of same-sex marriage have a similar political and linguistic purpose. They have pushed their agenda with stunning rapidity. Laws that confer unique legal status and benefits on the union of a man and woman have come under attack only recently. In America, the first major legal decision was Baker vs. State of Vermont (1999), in which the Vermont Supreme Court held, on the basis of indeterminate language in the state's 1777 constitution, that the state legislature must provide same-sex couples in "committed relationships" with identical benefits to married "opposite-sex couples." The Vermont legislature responded by creating "civil unions"—though not marriage—for same-sex couples. Under the Baker holding and subsequent legislation, civil unions were to be materially and therefore legally indistinguishable from marriage for all purposes of Vermont law and the benefits it conferred. But much more was at stake than the right of same-sex partners to enjoy such mutually fulfilling experiences as filing a joint state tax return.

In winning the right to "civil unions," same-sex partners and their lawyers slipped the camel's nose under the tent. Unsatisfied with the reservation of the word "marriage" to opposite- sex couples, lawyers before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts won (just five years after Baker) the right for their clients to be called "married." 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).

Our lament, therefore, must not be for the loss of a word, for all words are, in themselves, purely conventional. Nor should we lament the redefinition of "marriage" merely because of the immediate moral, political, or policy consequences. As judicial review becomes literary deconstructionism, our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws. 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?

Read the entire article on the Claremont Review of Books website (new window will open).

Posted: 11-May-05

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