Traditionalists Must Revise Gay Marriage Lexicon
By W. James Antle
The defeat of the federal marriage amendment
– which failed to win a simple majority in the Senate much less the required
two-thirds – was predictable, but nevertheless a significant setback in the
ongoing efforts to keep rogue judges from imitating Massachusetts’ example.
Marital traditionalists looking for how to proceed from here might be
wise to start by challenging language that frames the debate in hostile,
Headlines about the FMA both in the run-up
to the Senate vote and the aftermath of its rejection routinely described it as
an effort to “ban gay marriage.” Others
suggested the amendment would “ban gay unions.
Such wording makes it sound like an otherwise permissible activity was
being prohibited, lending plausibility to those pundits who would have us
believe the FMA was concocted as Karl Rove rubbed his hands together and
chanted, “Arise theocracy, arise!”
The problem with describing what opponents
of same-sex marriage would like to do in these terms is that this framing of the
issue – while seemingly neutral and often accepted uncritically by social
conservatives – is itself prejudicial. Those
who would believe same-sex marriage is not only a non-oxymoronic logical
possibility but also a constitutional necessity argue that people are presently
being excluded from marriage and what they are seeking amounts to opening
marriage up to these excluded people.
This proposition, for which sound arguments
can be made, is certainly one way of looking at it.
But it happens to not be the way those of us who favor traditional
marriage look at it. Abandoning the
idea of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is not merely opening
marriage up to a new group of people; it amounts to fundamentally changing the
definition of marriage.
Similarly, what we seek is not so much to
“ban” anything as to preserve the existing, traditional definition of
marriage. This is a debate between
those who want to change what marriage means and those who believe there is
value in keeping it the way it is.
At first this may sound like a trivial word
game, but the distinction is more than semantic.
By accepting the prevailing media characterization of the opposition to
gay marriage – or rather, the support for the preservation of traditional
marriage – we allow our friends and colleagues on the other side of the debate
to steal a couple bases.
First, this “ban” on gay marriage sounds
like something new, something novel, rather than merely the preservation of the
existing state of affairs. Second,
it allows the issue to be easily conflated with coercive measures like sodomy
laws that don’t necessarily have anything to do with marriage.
Columnist James Lileks remarked on his blog that “banning gay unions”
makes it sound “(a)s if the government was going to find gay couples, crowbar
them apart and make them live alone in dismal one-room apartments.”
Language is important in politics. The words that are used define a debate, spell out one’s
message and communicate that message to the electorate at large.
The side that most effectively does the defining is often the one that
prevails in the public square.
Neither side of the abortion debate accepts
the other’s terminology. Imagine
if abortion opponents allowed themselves to be described as anti-abortion rights
or even anti-choice rather than pro-life. Supporters
of legal abortion have carefully cultivated the pro-choice label over the years
and respond angrily when called “pro-abortion.”
They assiduously avoid even the use of the word abortion and fiercely
contest pro-life efforts to frame debates – consider the ubiquitous media
reference to “a procedure described by opponents as partial-birth abortion.”
Marital traditionalists – a better term
than gay-marriage opponents, by the way – do not need to be as evasive. We merely need to be clearer and more positive about our own
message. Instead of talking about
banning same-sex marriage, we should talk about defending, affirming and
preserving traditional marriage.
This is primarily a debate over marriage and
whether it has any connection to the ideal of children having mothers and
fathers. It is not, as our
opponents (and far too many of our allies) would have it, mainly a debate about
As Richard Weaver notably wrote, ideas have consequences. So too do words. Supporters of traditional matrimony can stand up for the idea that marriage is about husbands and fathers and mothers rather than the “Party A” and “Party B” that adorn Massachusetts licenses. Or they can stand for wielding the crowbars implied by the headlines. Marital traditionalists must send their own message.
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