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“WE CAN’T CHANGE THE DEFINITION OF MARRIAGE!” – the irrationality of worshipping the dictionary

I’ve been saying the following for months, but with the Commons vote on Equal Marriage rights finally on the doorstep, I want to reiterate it once more.

If you, like me, have the sadomasochistic tendencies required to want to read the comments sections on newspaper websites, you will be more than familiar with the argument that “marriage is between a man and a woman”. This is the same argument which, ad nauseam, we’ve been hearing from the Church for months.

Take this spectacular rendition of this horror show of an argument from Guardian contributor Lionel (who, for someone so evidently irate about the editorial practices of the Guardian, seems to have a surprisingly good knowledge of their recent publishing history – see the rest of his comment by following the link);

I’m not blinded by a fear of homosexuality or by bronze-age superstition, but it greatly distresses me to see how papers like the Guardian have agreed to go along with this unilateral attentuation of the English language. In all my seventy years on Earth, minus maybe the last two or three, the word “marriage” has denoted strictly a relationship between a man and a woman. If two homosexuals want to live under contractual conditions as close as possible analogous to what obtain between a married man and woman, fine, I am one of those many who have no objection, but why must English be interfered with? And why must a paper like the Guardian, a fine paper in its better moments, take part in this Orwellian practice of wiping out nuances?

Aside from my inability to recall the section of 1984 where Orwell warns us that the inevitable and terrible consequence of totalitarianism would be rights for gay people, I have to wonder why this commenter, like so many others, cares so deeply about the continuation and conservatism of the official definitions of language.

We could raise questions about whether, at a moral level, the impulse (for those who have it) to preserve the status of words should have any real significance, when there is so much to be gained in terms of equality, fairness and social cohesion from the opposite.

I could go on about the fluid nature of language and meaning. An important consequence of that argument would be the ability to point out that the meaning of the term “marriage” may well already have changed in the minds of many, and simply preserving the dictionary definition of it in the face of that is just stubborn folly.

Instead, for now, I want to focus on one specific thing – the sheer hypocrisy. The baffling hypocrisy of those who suddenly are so passionate about arbitrarily preserving the dictionary definition of words, yet who seem to have sat idly by for generations whilst we’ve changed the meaning of many other words, without batting an eyelid.

Every June, the publishers of the OED put up a list of the new entries they’ve created. Here’s June 2012’s. I anticipated it being long, but the sheer length even surprised me. Did these language-obsessives weep bitter tears upon the addition of the terms “paywall”, “dogtrot” and “apatosaur” to the dictionary? (An apatosaur, by the way, is a very large dinosaur from the late Jurassic period.) When the Australian Macquarie dictionary changed the definition of “mysogyny” from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women”, were Lionel and his mates howling at their TV screens in disbelief and anguish? The definition of “flying” had probably been static for millennia prior to the invention of the airplane. I’m not sure anybody went ape about that alteration to the English language – rather, they probably welcomed it as progress.

No. People usually don’t care when the definition of words changes. In fact, they usually couldn’t care less. Because it doesn’t matter. If anyone genuinely profoundly objects to us changing the meaning of words when it’s appropriate to do so, they probably need to seek help.

The meaning of words changes all the time. One cannot selectively start objecting to this established fact now that the definition of “marriage” is going to change from a “union between a man and a woman” to a “union between two people”. Rather, you could stop stubbornly clinging to Victorian concepts against the changing tide of history.

Speech and Liberty

Twitter produced an intriguing argument last night as Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Williamson exchanged handbags over the issue of freedom of speech. Williamson proceeds to set out a position of sorts here (though note it’s rather more targeted at Greenwald) and in converse Greenwald sets out some form of position here (though his position is more implied than set out – a skim through his Twitter feed in the last few days makes it clear that an easier exposition of his view on ‘free speech’ is probably something like, ‘anyone can say anything they want, to anyone they want, in any manner they desire, and has the absolute and unalienable right to do so unhindered by anyone’.)

Something that caught my eye is Greenwald’s claim that anyone who doesn’t support his position doesn’t actually believe in free speech. That’s quite a drastic claim, and I object to it, because I’d like to believe I’m a firm believer in free speech despite not sharing his hardline position.

Freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily have to mean absolute freedom to do that thing, whatever, full stop. It means freedom to do it within reason, within morally acceptable boundaries, and within the spirit of the law. Crucially, it means freedom to do it with respect to other people’s freedom to their human rights. My freedom of movement doesn’t give me the freedom to move anywhere I want – to roam into the homes of strangers on a walk through the countryside, or to take a quick stroll through GCHQ if I’m bored.

Pull out Mill and his harm principle. Mill is well known as an ardent defender of freedom of speech, especially with respect to the value of heterodox positions. Less commonly regarded, I find, is Mill’s commentary on the importance of balancing off people’s right to speak freely against the right of others to be unharmed. As he was aware, the huge difficulty here is adjudicating on what constitutes ‘harm’.

As I’m sure Greenwald would delight in quickly pointing out, people might argue that a plethora of widely expressed opinions cause ‘harm’. It is on that basis that I find this subject so difficult – what do I say to the man who tells me that my socialist economic views cause them harm?

But there’s more to it than that, and it simplifies this debate to rule out restrictions on the basis that some nut could insist that any form of speech causes them harm and should be restricted. We are capable of differentiating between harm which the state needs to act against and that which it doesn’t – we do this all the time in the judicial system. Where the lines are is indeed a difficult and complex position, but intuition suggests that there is a line there somewhere, and it falls far before the likes of antisemitic protest at a holocaust memorial.

I think it’s also worth considering why we think free speech is so valuable. For me, it’s because I believe that it’s important, for various reasons, that we need to allow everyone’s perspective on issues to be aired in public and have the potential to gather support. I don’t think it’s got much to do with some intrinsic value to the individual of being able to say whatever we want in public. This is an important distinction, because it means that we can satisfy people’s right to free expression by giving them some reasonable access to public discourse, but doesn’t necessitate giving them all and any access that they might desire – for example aggressive public demonstrations by racist groups.

Free speech is a balancing act, much like any right. By and large, I’m with Mill in believing that very, very few acts ever fall on the wrong side of that balance – it is really hard to cause so much harm with a speech act that it can be deemed illegally violent – but I’m not with Greenwald in so far as I believe it is possible.

Edit: With a hat-tip to Williamson (above) for bringing this to my attention, I now realise I was writing very similar stuff back earlier this year with regard to Boris Johnson banning those homophobic bus adverts in London. The consistency of the basic position I’ve put out in both posts accurately reflects what’s becoming quite a firm conviction for me – that there are forms of speech which the government absolutely is justified in intervening in, and this isn’t a threat to what we can still reasonably call free speech. I am hardly any closer, however, to a definitive answer on how we decide where to draw the line. Some would draw that line much further into the realms of state control than most of us are probably comfortable with, and the very compelling arguments they might advance throw up some really interesting questions. More to come.

The CofE – addiction to homophobia?

Yesterday, the senior clergy of the Church of England issued a defiant rant against the possibility of equal marriage rights for homosexual couples, employing such potent imagery as the possibility of the Church itself breaking down in the aftermath.

The arguments advanced by the Church are terrible, and receive a good thrashing in this blog post by Jacob Williamson.

The Old Chuch

“The Old Church” by Sophie Infekt

I just wanted to add an extra thought, specifically about the invocation of the dissolution threat. If the Church’s very validity as an institution is so contingent on the existence of homophobic discrimination in the legal system that its own leaders fear that it would crumble without, what does this say about the Church?

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