Last year, Ethika Politika’s Michael W. Hannon published a piece in which he argued against the use of “gay” as an identity label because it has “no basis in reality.”
Regardless of what you think about Hannon’s argument, his piece touches on a problem that has gone undiagnosed and unnoticed by too many: The language we use, both in the present marriage debate and in all public discourse, plays an enormous role in shaping the perceptions and understanding of those who take their thought-cues from vocal advocates of such issues.
John Duffy, a professor of English at Notre Dame, published an editorial this spring in the Irish Rover, ND’s independent student-run Catholic newspaper, in which he argued that “rhetorical virtues, or the communicative practices that contribute to the moral growth of the individual” contribute to “the development of a healthy public discourse.” I couldn’t agree more.
That’s why I can’t stand seeing the words “gay” and “traditional” yoked side-by-side with the word “marriage.”
Especially in policy debates that get picked up by the media and subsequently infused with emotionally-charged dichotomies, labels and descriptors—think of how any opponent of same-sex marriage is instantly branded a number of nasty names, including “un-American”—we need to be vigilant in cultivating a rhetoric that resists demonization and oversimplification. The marriage debate has been a case study in misleading and misused terminology.
What can we possibly mean when we describe a marriage—a type of relationship—as “gay”? Presumably that one or both of its constituent individual members self-describes as gay. Under this understanding, in discussing the “gay” marriage question we are really asking whether people who self-describe as gay can or cannot get married. The question “should gay marriages be legally affirmed at the federal level?” boils down, under this understanding, to “should the federal government legally affirm the rights of gay persons to get married?”
But this is not the question at hand at all. The marriage policy debate is not about whether people with same-sex attractions may wed or not, nor is it about whether one’s right to equal protection under the marriage law is contingent upon one’s sexual attractions. It is even less about whether people with same-sex attractions can enter into relationship with each other. It is definitely not about whether someone’s sexual orientation qualifies or disqualifies them from participating in the civic institution of marriage, or if homosexual people have more or less of a right to enter into marriages.
The question at hand is whether marriage is a relationship that two men, or two women, can form. It is a question about the nature of marriage as a relationship, an institution.
No defender of the conjugal view is arguing that people who self-describe as gay should be barred or banned from the institution of marriage. Nobody is arguing that self-described homosexual persons have any less than heterosexual persons the opportunity to form a civil marriage. Nobody is arguing that marriage policy should “exclude” homosexual people. Nobody is arguing that a person’s sexual inclinations give them more or less of a “right” to enter into the institution marriage. Nobody is even arguing that people who experience homosexual attractions cannot marry each other; they simply can’t be homosexual persons of the same-sex: There are many homosexual persons married to members of the opposite sex who are not at all unhappy with their marriages.
What defenders of the conjugal view are arguing is that marriage is a relationship that can be formed only by one man and one woman. They are not discriminating at all against homosexual persons and they are not arguing that marriage is an institution only for heterosexuals. Indeed, the crux of their argument doesn’t address homosexuality at all. Defenders of conjugal marriage are simply putting forth an argument about what marriage is, and what it is not.
In light of this brief argument, Piers Morgan’s opening question to Ryan Anderson on the former’s talk show two months ago serves as a poignant example of how poor an understanding of the issue at hand Morgan—and those who ask similar questions—has:
“Why are you so opposed to gay people getting married?”
The simple answer is that Anderson, a coauthor of the foremost defense of conjugal marriage to date, is not opposed to gay people getting married. Indeed Anderson’s response to this question begins, “You know, I’m not really opposed to anything in the situation.”
For these reasons, I think it much more conducive, helpful, and direct to speak of same-sex marriage or same-sex unions, since the pertinent question meant by those who speak of “gay” marriage is whether members of the same-sex can be married to each other.
By a similar token, using the phrase “traditional” marriage is misleading for a number of reasons.
First, it politicizes the marriage question in an unhelpful way. The marriage policy question should not be conceived as a divide among party lines, even if a divide along party lines on the issue has in fact formed. By speaking of the value of “traditional” marriage, opponents of same-sex marriage render their view easily labeled and boxed within a political ideology that very likely includes other “traditional” commitments that are either irrelevant or even detrimental to the cause of conjugal marriage. In a climate in which progress is the cause of the day, labeling one’s view on marriage “traditional” may be well-intentioned, but here the road to being easily if unfairly stereotyped and dismissed is paved with good intentions.
Second, marriage culture and marriage policy indeed stand in need of progress, but in this case progress entails a return to what has been lost rather than a push forward towards what has yet to be. Progress in the marriage debate would take the shape of a cultural return to the conjugal understanding of marriage, defined by Anderson and his coauthors as “a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act,” a view of marriage’s intrinsic link to procreation that many supporters of one-man, one-woman marriage may not necessarily hold. “Traditional” marriage, if by “traditional” we mean the cultural understanding of marriage prior to the same-sex marriage debate, itself falls far short of the standard of conjugal union put forth by Anderson et al., and the Catholic Church as well.
(As a side-thought: Progressives who think that they are “making progress” by redefining marriage so as to obliterate its essentially gendered nature could stand to read some Chesterton. You can’t have progress without a fixed standard or vision according to which you measure whether your actions constitute progress or regress. To call the redefinition of marriage “marriage progress” is nonsense because the vision of marriage to which this is a stepping stone is a non-definition of marriage; not so much the redefining of marriage but the un-defining of marriage. Yet “progress” continues to be the catchword for those pushing the demise of any fixed, historical standards of marriage policy.)
Sadly, conjugalists have been forced to waste too much time and energy in disabusing same-sex marriage supporters of what they are and are not arguing about marriage. And opponents of same-sex marriage would be doing themselves a favor in avoiding simplistic classification on the political spectrum by labeling their view on marriage as “traditional.”
Sticks and stones aren’t the only things that can hurt us. Miscommunication does a little number, too. Here’s hoping that both sides of the marriage employ more precise language. With Supreme Court decisions pending this summer, there’s no time to waste.