Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Mincing Words"

There’s this saying I heard once:

“He who frames the issue wins the argument.”

This appears to be correct.


When its advocates framed same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue, it was – not immediately but relatively speedily – “Game Over.”  As a result of its civil rights framing, even “Red State” judges could not deny a right to a minority that was guaranteed to the majority.  The result:

RED STATE JUDGES:  “Please do not recall us for this decision, because, constitutionally, there is nothing else we can do.  Although you should know, some of us are not real happy about this.”

If, on the other hand, same-sex marriage were framed, as was slavery, as a demand for the overturning of a traditionally accepted institution, the sledding towards its acceptance would have been considerably more problematic.  That’s why the advocates did it the other way.  They wanted to win. 

Here’s what they were up against.

My Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines marriage (mar’ij) as “the social institution under which a man and a woman live as husband and wife by legal and religious commitments.”

Under that never previously controversial definition, same-sex marriage would be categorized as, what my philosophy teacher used to call, a “squared circle.”

“What’s that?”

“It's a circle with corners.”

“But there’s no such thing.”

“You’re gettin’ the idea.”

With the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, dictionaries around the world will be obliged – if they have not already done so – to revise that definition of the word “marriage.”  (The way, in 1491, they had to throw out all the flat globes.  And as they later had to revise the round globes when empires’ colonies attained independence, starting, imaginably, with The United States of England.  Probably not.  But I like the ring of it.)

My reaction to changing the definition of “marriage”… well, it’s not important what my reaction is, but for the record, it’s “Sure.”  Why, because I am amazingly enlightened?  No, because – although moderately enlightened – I have no answer – because no adversarial answer exists – to the – those guys were so smart – civil rights framing of their argument.

A definition is altered, and, since most people have dictionarial functions on their computers, the adjustment is minimal, requiring no enormous “book recall”, or the necessity of mailing owners of dictionaries a “Revised Page” to Scotch tape into their dictionaries on top of the old page.  (Or maybe just an ameliorating strip.)     

The definition of “marriage” gets changed, and now wedding cakes have two same-sex statuettes standing on the top of them.  (Unless the cake objects vehemently for religious reasons, leading to a potential Supreme Court confrontation: “Dolce de Leche versus Murray and Phil.”)  

The thing is…. And here’s where I make my what-I-have-come-to-be-known-for “turn” – the one that occasionally gets me into trouble…

Okay, so you change the globes from flat to round, and the formerly accepted definition of “marriage” gets a permanent makeover. 

The question is,

Where does it stop?

And by “it” I mean definitional revisionism.

If the traditional definition of “marriage” gets the heave-ho and is replaced by a more contemporarily acceptable definition – the fact that I agree with the new one being not at all the point – what word in the dictionary is now definitionally safe?

A woman with white parents insists adamantly that she’s black.

I don’t know…”

Hey, they redefined “marriage”, didn’t they, the original definition being insufficiently inclusive?  Why not then revisit this “overly-narrow” distinction, and expand the designation of “black” to include white people?

And while that definition is being remodeled, let us revamp in the other direction as well.

“I identify myself as black.  But that has nothing to do with my black parents.” 

Why not?  It’s not like the dictionary was written in stone.  Even Bill Clinton took a crack at it.

CLINTON:  “It depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.”

You see?  Everybody’s doing it.  Go on.  Pick your favorite. 

Change the meaning of a word!

I remember a line from a Whit Stillman movie in which a character accused of stealing replies,

“I wasn’t stealing.  I just borrowed something and didn’t give it back.”

That sounds exactly like stealing? 

Hey, we’ve got a black white woman on our hands!

But wait… slow down for a second.  When you deliberately reconstruct the accepted meanings of words, isn’t that lying?

Not necessarily. 

It depends on the way you define “lying.”

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