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   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Friday, April 22, 2005


"Love's Language Lost"

Bradley C. S. Watson writes about the deconstruction of the term "marriage" as an Orwellian elimination of thoughtcrime in the latest Claremont Review of Books.

Arguing from a libertarian perpective in Policy Review, here's Jennifer Roback Morse on marriage and the limits of contract. And here is Megan McCardle's excellent post on the facile dismissal of "unintended consequences" objections to same-sex marriage.

27 Comments:

Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

If developments continue apace, we will soon have no word to express the union of a man and woman, as it was in the beginning.

Gads, I hadn't realized just how Orwellian this whole movement is.

(Just try explaining "the gay nineties to anyone under 30.)

April 23, 2005 6:51 PM  
Blogger alex said...

Oh, Kate Marie.

"Unsatisfied with the reservation of the word "marriage" to opposite- sex couples...they forced the entire camel into the tent, and effectively wrested control of the English language from popular usage and from the dictionaries in which that usage was enshrined."

Are you signing on to a piece that attacks liberals for wanting to force a certain set of values on everyone else?

April 24, 2005 5:07 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Alex, we'll have to disagree again about the main point of the piece, which, as I characterized it in my original post, was about the deconstruction of the term "marriage" as an Orwellian elimination of thoughtcrime." The passage you quote in your comment, of course, relates directly to THAT point, and the "force" it refers to was the attempt to wrest control of the definition of marriage.

On the other hand, that piece -- and my position -- don't argue that same-sex-marriage advocates don't have the right to try to persuade the majority that same-sex marriage should be adopted (thus far, of course, they haven't done so), if that's what you mean by "forcing" their morality on others. They have a perfect right to try to legislate their morality by getting voters/legislators in their state to adopt same-sex marriage. Watson and those who disagree with them disagree because they think advocates of same-sex marriage are wrong, not because they believe that morality can't be legislated.

This issue, in my opinion, is a perfect example of one where federalist principles work best. If same-sex marriage advocates can get a state legislature or a popular referendum in a particular state to adopt same-sex marriage, "social conservatives" won't like it, but they'll probably have to live with it.

April 24, 2005 9:59 PM  
Blogger alex said...

I don't think so - I think the beginning of the piece pretty clearly implies there is something bad about "wrestling control of the english language," "forcing an entire camel into the tent," or with the, umm, "legal conscription of the English language."

Of course, both proponents and opponents of same sex marriage are for legislating a set of values, so I hardly think a criticism of this sort is coherent.

That is, Liberals want to use the same word for same-sex unions and different-sex unions because they think they are the same thing. Conservatives tend to think they are different and would prefer different words. Each side wants the government to adopt its own terminology. So lets not have criticism of liberals for trying to wrestle control of the English language - everybodys doing it.

April 24, 2005 10:37 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Yes, of course the author implies that there is something bad about the manipulation of language that he describes, but again, he is not arguing that it is illegitimate to try to legislate morality. Neither, however, is he arguing that it is *illegitimate* to try to manipulate language in order to manipulate thought (i.e. that groups don't have the right to attempt such manipulation). His argument is not: same-sex marriage advocates are trying to manipulate the language, and they can't do that. His argument is: This is how advocates of same-sex marriage want to define marriage, and this is how I want to define marriage; their definition is wrong and mine is right."

"So lets not have criticism of liberals for trying to wrestle control of the English language - everybodys doing it. "

-- I think you're stretching here, Alex, since you originally claimed that the article "attacks liberals for wanting to force a certain set of values on everyone else." It clearly does not do that, so you've had to shift the terms of the debate. Now you say that the article attacks liberals for wanting to impose a certain definition on everyone else. It's not a criticism of liberals for wanting to impose their definition of marriage on society. It's a criticism of liberals for wanting to impose the WRONG definition.

April 25, 2005 12:06 AM  
Blogger alex said...

"I think you're stretching here, Alex, since you originally claimed that the article "attacks liberals for wanting to force a certain set of values on everyone else." It clearly does not do that, so you've had to shift the terms of the debate. Now you say that the article attacks liberals for wanting to impose a certain definition on everyone else."

Nah - the two are exactly the same. Liberals want the government to define marriage in a way that includes same-sex unions; in this they want to force a definition on everyone else; and in this they also want to force a set of values on everyone else. (Of course conservatives do the same).

Now as you say,

"Yes, of course the author implies that there is something bad about the manipulation of language that he describes.

Yes. He clearly does; but he also implies there is something bad with it beyond the fact that he disagrees with the end result. His opposition to the act of such manipulation is particularly evident in the beginning paragraphs.

Now, what exactly is bad about manipulating language? I'd submit to you that the only way to make sense of this implication is that he feels there is something inherently wrong with one group forcing its definition on the rest of society - which is rather ironic, since he'd like to do the same thing.

April 25, 2005 12:42 AM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Alex,

I think you're misreading the article. The Orwellian manipulation of language that Watson initially describes is bad, according to Watson, because it often reflects bad motives/values, and it tends to reflect/reinforce degraded thought. Watson sees the push to redefine marriage as an Orwellian attempt to control thought (and eliminate "thoughtcrime") -- read "Politics and the English Language" or "1984" if you want to get a sense of what he's implying about language. Or think of what happens to the meaning of the word equal in the famous "Animal Farm" formulation: "All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others." Does Orwell imply that that's bad simply because it's forcing a particular definition on the farm society? No. It's bad, according to Orwell, because it uses the word "equal" (which, Orwell would argue, has a clear meaning)in the service of an enslaving ideology, thus defining it in such a way that it means almost the opposite of its traditional definition. Or think of the "freedom is slavery" or "war is peace" slogans from 1984. Again, Orwell suggests that those phrases are wrong, not because you can't "impose definitions," but because they take words that really mean something (that denote something real)and conflate them with their exact opposites, in order to control how people think and to prop up a vicious totalitarian regime. Now, you might disagree with Orwell, and you might disagree with Watson, and you might disagree with Watson's use of Orwell, but, in my opinion, you're quite wrong about Watson's point. As I said before, he's not claiming that advocates of same-sex marriage can't attempt to redefine marriage; he's pointing out why such an attempt is a bad thing. He's arguing about morals and "values," not claiming it's illegitimate to legislate them.

If it will make you happier, however, to force your interpretation of Watson's argument on me, I'm quite willing to concede that I don't "sign on" to the article if it is taken to mean that it is always illegitimate for one group to attempt to "legislate morality" by defining/redefining certain legal concepts.

Any beefs with the other two articles I linked to?

April 25, 2005 3:15 AM  
Blogger alex said...

Well, count me as disagreeing! There is an exact equivalence between what Watson prefers to do and the acts of his opponents which make him furious.

Of course, language already controls thought. We use "marriage" to denote a partnership between a man and a woman and "same-sex marriage" or "civil union" or whatever to denote a partnership between two men or two women. This causes us to think of the two acts as fundamentally different, regardless of whether they are actually different or not.

The only thing Watson can claim is that he would prefer to control thought in the way it has always been controlled, whereas these new kids on the block would prefer to control thought in an entirely new way.

Now whether you want to attribute my disagreement to Orwell or to Watson's use of Orwell depends a lot on how you read Orwell and how you read Watson's application of Orwell to our times. Feel free to pick either one :)

Any beefs with the other two articles I linked to?

Dude, seriously, like hundreds. Many more even with the Watson article. So I'll refrain from arguing about all of them. Watson's opening argument, though, jumped at me because of our preceeding discussion.

April 25, 2005 11:34 AM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

"The only thing Watson can claim is that he would prefer to control thought in the way it has always been controlled, whereas these new kids on the block would prefer to control thought in an entirely new way."

-- Wrong. See Watson's discussion of realism versus nominalism. He would argue that there exists, according to natural law, a real thing/concept that the traditional definition of the word marriage denotes.

As for how one interprets Orwell, I think it's safe to say that he's not a "nominalist." The battle to control language/thought is only a matter of pure power relations if you believe in the nominalist premise.

In any event, we agree to disagree.

April 25, 2005 1:10 PM  
Blogger alex said...

"He would argue that there exists, according to natural law, a real thing/concept that the traditional definition of the word marriage denotes."

Two can play that game. Liberals would reply that he is wrong and no such concept exists according to natural law, and further, there does exist a very different real thing/concept that the new definition of marriage will denote.

Ultimately there is no way he can condemn liberals for trying to control the language without condemning himself. He can certainly argue that liberals are trying to change the language for a bad cause; but the entire first section of the essay goes beyond that.

Anyway, as you said, agree to disagree.

April 25, 2005 1:56 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

"Two can play that game. Liberals would reply that he is wrong and no such concept exists according to natural law, and further, there does exist a very different real thing/concept that the new definition of marriage will denote."

-- And Watson would argue that they are wrong and he is right -- not that liberals can't argue for the imposition of a different definition. Further, such an argument on the part of liberals means, again, that the debate is about the correct definition, not about whether one should be allowed to impose definitions at all.

April 25, 2005 2:23 PM  
Blogger alex said...

Right on: each side is trying to impose its values on the other.

And all of this also implies that the entire first third of the Watson essay -- attacking liberals for the "conscription of the English language" and trying to control thought - is incoherent. If you read it as an attack on leftist doublespeak, Watson is guilty of the same.

On the other hand, if you choose instead to focus on his summary,

"Our lament, therefore, must not be for the loss of a word, for all words are, in themselves, purely conventional. Nor should we lament the redefinition of "marriage" merely because of the immediate moral, political, or policy consequences. As judicial review becomes literary deconstructionism, our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws."

...then again you have the same problem. Of course, there is a strong basis for the new marriage law - if Waton likes, I will even call it a "natural basis." Both sides can point to a concept existing in nature that is accurately described by their definition of marriage.

Yeah, incoherent no matter what angle you choose to look at it.

April 25, 2005 2:58 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Waton accuses the left of attempting to impose an INCORRECT definition of marriage. You want to make him play by your rules (which seem to be that language/definitions are always simply a matter of power relations), but he clearly doesn't accept that premise.

As for the "natural basis" argument for same-sex marriage, if there is one, I'm sure Watson would debate it.

By the way, could you provide an example of an actual "natural basis" (as opposed to libertarian or "equal rights") argument for same-sex marriage that anyone has made? I'm not asking you to make up your own, but to provide one that has already been argued. Clearly, the one Watson provides doesn't suit our purposes:

"Marriage" across all religions and cultures has had a similar, though not identical, meaning. It is a rite of passage signifying and reminding us of the divine or natural order's purposes with respect to procreation. (Love or "commitment" are, at best, incidental to this rite.) As Blackstone says, the relationship between husband and wife is founded in the natural desire to propagate the species—which is marriage's 'principal end and design.' 'The most universal relation in nature'-that between parent and child—proceeds directly from marriage. The 'natural obligation' of the father to provide for his children is in turn cemented by the marriage tie. The law has the right, nay duty, to recognize 'civil disabilities,' quite apart from ecclesiastical ones, that render a union, in Blackstone's words, meretricious rather than matrimonial."

I think you're misreading the Watson article, and you think I am. You claim that Watson's argument boils down to an accusation that the left is trying to impose their values on society; I claim that Watson's argument boils down to an accusation that the left is trying to impose the WRONG values on society. As I said before, if you wish to "force" your construction of Watson's argument on me, I'm happy to concede that I don't "sign on" to the notion that liberals can't attempt to impose/legislate their values. But if you wish, we can keep going back and forth about Watson's point.

April 25, 2005 4:19 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

P.S. Still waiting for evidence of Scalia's private stance of bigotry/humiliation against homosexuals.

April 25, 2005 4:23 PM  
Blogger alex said...

Here's why my reading is right and yours is wrong: because by you, Watson is putting the cart before the horse.

Watson only begins to argue that liberals are imposing the wrong values on society in the second third. He pontificates about doublespeak in the first third.

Now if the attacks on liberals for trying to wrestle control of the english language are mere corollaries to his central point that liberals are trying to promote the wrong values, don't you think these attacks would be properly placed after he has demonstrated that they promote the wrong values? But Watson puts them before, at the very beginning of his essay.

Now despite how this comment began, I cannot say with certainty that my reading is right and yours is wrong; but I can say that either I am right or Watson needs to find an english 101 writing counselor who will explain to him how to structure logical arguments.

By the way, could you provide an example of an actual "natural basis" (as opposed to libertarian or "equal rights") argument for same-sex marriage that anyone has made?

Sure - for example this column by Andrew Sullivan argues (paragraph in the middle) that the state of marriage as it is today includes homosexuals. This is not an equal rights or a libertarian argument; it is an argument based on a series of assumptions and arguments about what marriage means today.

Still waiting for evidence of Scalia's private stance of bigotry/humiliation against homosexuals.

Have not found any, unfortunately. So it seems my argument in the previous post has to rest on my uncheckable and practically unfalsifiable claim that I've read Scalia supporting Lawrence-type laws in the past.

April 26, 2005 1:10 AM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

First, the Sullivan article. If you'll look at it again, you'll realize that the article is an attempt to refute the most common arguments against same-sex marriage. It is not an attempt to provide a "natural basis" argument for same-sex marriage. The paragraph in the middle that you refer to, as far as I can tell, is the latter of these two:

"Let's unpack this. Kurtz's premise is that men and women differ in their sexual-emotional makeup. Men want sex more than stability; women want stability more than sex. Heterosexual marriage is therefore some kind of truce in the sex wars. One side gives sex in return for stability; the other provides stability in return for sex. Both sides benefit, children most of all. Since marriage is defined as the way women tame men, once one gender is missing, this taming institution will cease to work. So, in Kurtz's words, a "world of same-sex marriages is a world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates."

But isn't this backward? Surely the world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates preceded gay marriage. It was heterosexuals in the 1970s who changed marriage into something more like a partnership between equals, with both partners often working and gender roles less rigid than in the past. All homosexuals are saying, three decades later, is that, under the current definition, there's no reason to exclude us. If you want to return straight marriage to the 1950s, go ahead. But until you do, the exclusion of gays is simply an anomaly--and a denial of basic civil equality."

-- You'll note, first, that this is an attempt to refute one of the arguments against same-sex marriage. There is NO attempt to define the "natural basis" for the state of marriage as he claims it exists today (i.e. "something more like a partnership between equals, with both partners often working and gender roles less rigid than in the past"), because he fails to offer any reason why the law and the state should recognize and privilege the kind of partnership (either heterosexual or homosexual) that he describes. You'll notice also the argument he makes in the last sentence -- yep, the "civil equality" one.

Anyway, to argue that this is what marriage has become (so there's no reason to exclude gays) is not the same thing as arguing that the current state of marriage (as he defines it)provides a "natural basis" for legal and state recognition and sanction.

As for Watson, his argument makes perfect logical and rhetorical sense. He begins by describing the way in which advocates of same-sex marriage went about claiming a legal "right to a noun," as he puts it. That's the purpose of mentioning the Vermont and the Massachusetts laws (to point out that the essential difference between the two laws was a semantic one). He then makes an argument about why same-sex marriage advocates want to lay legal claim to a noun, and, finally, he describes why such a project is wrong, and why the conflict over the definition of marriage matters.

As for English 101 writing instructors -- they're the last people to ask for help in constructing a logical argument.

April 26, 2005 2:48 AM  
Blogger alex said...

"You'll note, first, that this is an attempt to refute one of the arguments against same-sex marriage. There is NO attempt to define the "natural basis" for the state of marriage as he claims it exists today"

You act as if the two are mutually exclusive. An attempt to refute someone elses argument may also offer a basis for opposite viewpoint. I'll grant you that Sullivan does not label his argument with "natural basis," but it does not become any less so for it, nor for the fact that he uses it in conjunction with other arguments.

"because he fails to offer any reason why the law and the state should recognize and privilege the kind of partnership"

This is why Sullivan's argument does not fit the natural basis criterion? I can use it against Watson too. He is remarkably short on arguments for why the law and the state should privelege this kind of parntership. You can infer that he most likely believes propagation of the species is a good justification (though I wonder on what besis he believes that we wouldn't propagate just fine without government endorsement), but he does not make this argument; his argument seems to be that marriage, according to his definition, describes a real concept found in nature; Sullivan's argument is the same.

Anyway, I cited Sullivan's piece for two reasons: it is the first thing that came into mind, and I think its pretty typical of the kind of arguments that get tossed around on the left. Many leftists argue that marriage has lost its connection to procreation and will argue that the new definition of marriage better reflect what marriage is.

Final note on Watson. I'd say that the first section is not a "description" as you put it but a criticism; I think it is not possible to cite Orwell on doublespeak, claim your opponents are trying of police thoughtcrime, and then defend it by saying its merely a description of an act both you and your opponents are engaging in, and the only reason your opponents are wrong is their end goal, nothing to do with doublespeak and thoughtcrime.

Anyway, enough on the reading - we both agree that to the extent the above is merely a description, it is correct; to the extent its a criticism it is wrong; I think its safe to say we've argued both sides to completion now.

April 26, 2005 8:44 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

"Anyway, enough on the reading - we both agree that to the extent the above is merely a description, it is correct; to the extent its a criticism it is wrong. . ."

Almost, but not quite. To the extent that the criticism of doublespeak is a criticism of an attempt to impose the WRONG definition of marriage, it is also a legitimate argument.

April 26, 2005 10:56 PM  
Blogger alex said...

Yes, that is what I meant.

I can't seem to link to one of your the comments to this post. Is there some trick to it?

April 28, 2005 11:14 AM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

I'm not sure what you want to do. . . the ugly truth is I'm pretty computer-tech-illiterate. The only reason I like to blog is because it's semi-idiot-proof.

April 28, 2005 1:14 PM  
Blogger David Schraub said...

Coming late to the game (what can I say, I just got here!).

I typed up a long response to Watson's article, but it comes at it from a different angle then what you and Alex have been sparring over (very nicely, I might add).

The short summary version is:
1) An observation that Deconstruction is not the destruction of meaning but an analysis of the multiplicity of meaning (IE, Watson misdefines the problem from the start),
2) Questioning why there has to be one universal essence (instead of many, contextually varient essences that are contingent on particular situations), and noting that a position of univerality/singularity is inherently anti-democratic.
3) Arguing that even if one believes, on a philosophical level that deconstruction = (or ~= ) destruction and/or essences are universal/singular, the state hsd no right to dive into the conflict when it could just as easily avoid it.

Obviously, these points are far more warranted and explained in the post.

Happy hunting!

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