Meaning Something by Marriage

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This is a momentous article: I’m changing the meaning of the word “article” – indeed, of writing itself. Or so some opponents of same-sex marriage would have it. Often heard in debates about the proposed legislation is the objection that it changes the meaning of marriage. Those who offer this argument, let’s call them ‘semanticists’, invariably leave implicit what this actually amounts to, and whether or not it even makes sense to suggest that it might be wrong to do so. It seems to me a worthwhile task to try to make this explicit.

A common-sense distinction, when talking about the meaning of words, is between, roughly speaking, ideas and things. Ideas are the stuff in our heads – what we know when we know the meaning of a word. We then use words to talk about the world – about things. Two words can have different ideas, such as “you” and “reader”, while being used to talk about the same things. And any particular idea can stay the same while the corresponding things change – the idea of an article stayed the same before and after I wrote this, but there was one more such thing in the world.

Which do the semanticists have in mind? It can’t be the change in things: every new marriage would change the meaning in this sense, so some of them might be surprised to discover that they are in fact committed to an ultra-radical liberalising revolution in our sexual and romantic practices.

But it is also odd to talk of the idea changing. Suppose the law is passed. Is the stuff in my head thereby immediately transformed? Is it intrusive interference with their brain to which the semanticists object?

More charitably, they might be arguing that, as a consequence of the reforms, the idea will change over time. Slowly, imperceptibly, we will start speaking a slightly different language, within which the imposter will be darkly nestling.

The impression of oddity remains. How could this sort of idea – a mental meaning – be intrinsically bad? Even the meaning of the evilest of words – say, of “evil” – isn’t bad in itself, as having it allows us to call other people and institutions evil, without which we would be left linguistically impoverished, unable to, for instance, formulate suitably empty corporate mottos, or loudly lambast suspect tax arrangements.

And, with this in mind, the related suggestion that the change in meaning would itself be bad can only amount to the complaint that any change in meaning being bad. But then semanticism is no more or less consequential than those who dislike the colloquial use of ‘like’ (and the movement to re-flower – perhaps, ‘de-flower’ – the word “gay”).

Not all semanticists are stupid. So let’s regard any argument about a change in the meaning of the word “marriage” as shorthand for something else. The most plausible candidate is a change in the institution of marriage. But, again, it’s not clear what’s being talked about. Does the ‘institution of marriage’ include my parents’ marriage? Or is it perhaps an abstract cultural entity?

Some semanticists appear to mean the former, particularly those who are themselves married. They take their own current circumstances to be threatened by the change, as if they might suddenly stop talking to their partner, or, perhaps, start talking to them. Others have something like the latter in mind, the long-standing tradition of marriage, it is said, being one of the integral foundations upon which our society is perilously balanced.

To the second group of shorthand semanticists, a response not always appropriate, but certainly so here: compare your position to slave-owners around the time of slavery’s abolition. Looked at in this light, the argument that a change is bad simply because what is being changed has been around for a long time, and because lots of lives lean upon it, should not look too appealing. One would have demanded of the slave-owners an argument for the legitimacy of the status quo – and there is, now, an analogous noticeable absence of arguments for the legitimacy of the current marriage laws.

There are arguments other than those I’ve mentioned against the proposed changes in the laws regarding same-sex marriage. Sophisticated conservatives can reasonably resist significant political or social changes. Those who act from religious conviction are (should be) self-confessedly simply talking past those engaged in the project of sustaining liberal democracy. Neither of these groups should be bothered by what I’m saying – it’s the semanticists I’m after.

Any argument about the meaning of the word “marriage” is either incoherent or best understood as a bad argument not about the meaning of the word “marriage”. I don’t see much hope for this truth finding a home amongst the ideas of many semanticists, but perhaps a lone reader will find solace in the solidarity of a fellow shudderer.

(No word’s meaning was intentionally altered in the writing of this article.)