Conservatives had something to celebrate this past week in the way of a couple notable victories in battles in our ongoing cultural war. Two high courts, one in New York and one in Georgia, ruled supporting an understanding of marriage in state law as that which takes place between a man and a woman.
But, although a couple important battles have been won, there should be no doubt that a long and protracted war will continue. And it's worth paying attention to the very special weapons of this war _ words, and how they are used.
Usually, we think of words as building blocks for sentences, which are then used to construct ideas with which to make arguments. In today's culture war, battles are not waged with ideas, but by attacking the building blocks themselves _ the words _ and changing their meaning. It's kind of a verbal terrorism.
In this sense, I've come across an observation by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius that really fits what's going on around us today: "When words lose their meaning, people will lose their liberty."
The reasoning of the deciding opinion in the New York case is so simple and clear you can't help but feel some sense of relief that the world indeed has not gone mad. The operative articles in the state's Domestic Relations Law, the opinion says, " ... nowhere say in so many words that only people of different sexes may marry each other, but that was the universal understanding ... in 1909" when the articles were adopted.
Furthermore, the opinion goes on to quote from the law: "The parties must solemnly declare ... that they take each other as husband and wife" and that clerks obtain relevant information from "the groom" and "the bride."
For the gay activist plaintiffs the offense here is that there is something _ in this case marriage _ that might actually have some real, irreducible meaning, not accessible to political activism. Sort of the opposite of Shakespeare's point that "...a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." That is, I commit a hate crime if I deny your claim that your dandelion is a rose.
The strategy in the assault on marriage is that if the institution is not providing what you want, change the meaning of the institution. Why it is the way it is, the fact that it has been this way from time immemorial and, indeed, the idea that there might be anything objectively true, becomes irrelevant.
The problem gets transformed from the preservation of the integrity of marriage, which was the original point of the law, to a claim that the law discriminates and "restricts an individual's right to marry the person of his or her choice."