Posted: April 21, 2005
It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words…. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
o says a philologist—an expert in "Newspeak"—in George Orwell's 1984. He is explaining to the novel's hero, Winston Smith, the ultimate purpose behind the manipulation and command of language.
The advocates of same-sex marriage have a similar political and linguistic purpose. They have pushed their agenda with stunning rapidity. Laws that confer unique legal status and benefits on the union of a man and woman have come under attack only recently. In America, the first major legal decision was Baker vs. State of Vermont (1999), in which the Vermont Supreme Court held, on the basis of indeterminate language in the state's 1777 constitution, that the state legislature must provide same-sex couples in "committed relationships" with identical benefits to married "opposite-sex couples." The Vermont legislature responded by creating "civil unions"—though not marriage—for same-sex couples. Under the Baker holding and subsequent legislation, civil unions were to be materially and therefore legally indistinguishable from marriage for all purposes of Vermont law and the benefits it conferred. But much more was at stake than the right of same-sex partners to enjoy such mutually fulfilling experiences as filing a joint state tax return.
In winning the right to "civil unions," same-sex partners and their lawyers slipped the camel's nose under the tent. Unsatisfied with the reservation of the word "marriage" to opposite-sex couples, lawyers before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts won (just five years after Baker) the right for their clients to be called "married." In so doing, 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 (we await with bated breath the revisions that will now be required).
If all the benefits and incidents of "marriage" might have been conferred via civil union status, the Massachusetts litigants effectively vindicated a quite different, indeed arresting claim—the right to a noun. This is something unknown to the common law or American constitutional law. We have entered a brave new world in which major legal arguments are not so much about the statutes, the constitutions of the various states, or the federal Constitution, but about the contents of Webster's Dictionary. As the Massachusetts court declared in a subsequent advisory opinion, invidious "labeling" by government is now impermissible. It is as though black citizens of the United States had won, by judicial decree, the "right" to be called African-American. This is truly a revolutionary development that will breed unprecedented mischief.
The legal conscription of the English language has the effect of limiting our range of thought. Terms of such recent origins as "same-sex partnerships" or "domestic partnerships" are already obsolete in Massachusetts. The even more recent phrase "civil unions" became antique with head-snapping speed—redundant almost before it entered the lexicon. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to view same-sex relationships as essentially, and therefore morally, distinguishable from heterosexual relationships.
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. The argument for same-sex "marriage" (and even much of the argument against it) elides the question of whether the noun "marriage" refers to anything in nature. Is the thing that marriage signifies a particular concept with an essence outside the mind and control of the observer—or is it a whim subject to infinite reinterpretation by lawyers and judges?
Realists and Nominalists
According to the Massachusetts court's majority, one must "have the right to marry—or more properly, the right to choose to marry" in order to be fully human. The language of the court is significant, for it reduces essence to action, or the right to choose certain actions or commitments over others—thereby denying essence. For the court, modern psychological reductionism—"I choose therefore I am"—is the only philosophical position worth taking seriously. Even the dissenters in the case eschew essentialism. They appear reluctant to redefine marriage only because of the lack of scientific consensus that such redefinition "will not have unintended and undesirable social consequences." In either case, the essential natures of human beings and therefore their relationships to each other are reduced to choice and its consequences.
In the debate over same-sex "marriage," we are seeing a partial and greatly dumbed-down replay of the medieval debate between realists and nominalists. According to the realists, we possess minds capable of transcending individual phenomena and seeing the objective truth or essences that link phenomena. Thus we know that the phrase "man is a rational animal" is tautological. To this version of the Christian mind, the phenomenal world is a real reflection of God's creation and mind, and the permanent connections we perceive among the things that compose it are not illusions.
The nominalists, by contrast, emphasized that words cannot express things-in-themselves, for these are unknown and unknowable to us. We intuit only individually existing things, and can perceive, through reason, no ineluctable relationships among them. Words cannot signify universals, only particulars, and to the extent they do point to universals, they are but sound and fury, signifying nothing. For the nominalists, to claim we can know things in themselves, or a universal natural order, is to be impious and full of hubris—it is a claim to read the mind, and therefore constrain the actions, of God.
For the medieval nominalists, at least, revelation filled the gap that reason could no longer bridge. By faith and faith alone we might be aware of the order that the noun "marriage" signifies, being the order presently established (but changeable) through the free will of God. But in the absence of a guiding revelation, God's will itself disappears, and we are left only with the changeable. For the modern-day nominalists, lacking the overwhelming faith of the medieval mind, we are not permitted the concept of marriage as it has ever been. And the best way to express and enforce this aversion to any knowledge of or faith in essence, as Orwell foresaw, is through control of language.
"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.
Civil marriage is, therefore, not what the Massachusetts court called an "evolving paradigm" (dedicated, for now at least, to fostering "stable adult relationships"). Neither can the ban on same-sex marriage be compared to those long-discredited ones on interracial marriage. The distinction between the two, rooted in nature, was invisible to the court. From the point of view of civil authorities, the institution of marriage exists for the purpose of propagating the species and civilizing. It binds and benefits natural couples whose obligation is to use, and inculcate, the characteristically male and female virtues and abilities for the benefit of those whom they propagate. The fact that nature errs—that not all natural couples can have, or desire to have, children, or that the characteristic sexual virtues might in some cases be in shorter supply than others—does not vitiate the rule. Nor does it alter in the slightest the interest (and we might say obligation) of civil society to have its human laws reflect the natural law.
For Christians, in particular, marriage has meant the union of a man and woman. This is because it refers, among other things, to the unique, God-given capacity of man and woman to enter a covenantal relationship parallel to that between Christ and His church. It is a point of encounter between God and man. The rites of marriage are performed in the hope—with full knowledge that the reality sometimes does not live up to the hope—that each and every example of the sacramental relationship realizes its potential and purpose and therefore reflects the divine intention. The divine mind has an idea of human nature, and therefore human relationships, that does not and cannot change. Marriage, in short, is a word that describes something particular in the divinely created natural order, something that simply cannot be replicated in a same-sex relationship.
Following the pattern of recent jurisprudence, the nominally neutral courts that have already substituted in the public square secular religiosity for actual religion now undermine the sacramental character of marriage with their competing, profane version of that institution. There is mysticism to these new deconstructionists, insisting that each "marriage" has to be considered on its own terms, independent of the universals. Of course, most deconstructionists would, at this point, say that the law should not and would not sanction as marriage the union of a man and 12 women, or a man and a sow. But they cannot, on the principles enunciated by the supreme courts of Vermont or Massachusetts, say why, for the principles are not themselves rational. The deconstructionists are wed, apparently, to a residual prejudice that might or will soon give way before autonomy's incessant march. In its anti-rationalism, theirs is a mysticism not fundamentally different from the medieval mysticisms set up in opposition to realism, or the Oriental mysticisms that emphasize the illusory character of the phenomenal world and thereby oppose themselves to Western rationalism.
But the deconstructionist mysticism differs from the medieval in one key respect: its complete substitution of liberal purposes for God's. The contemporary nominalists possess theological conviction in abundance: they are as pious in their own way as their medieval forebears. Impiety to medieval nominalists came from those who would purport to read the mind of God and therefore limit His freedom; to the moderns, impiety comes from limiting our own freedom.
Henry Herbert, the second Earl of Pembroke, said that Parliament can do anything but make a man into a woman. In this remark, he was pointing to the idea that some things exist in nature, and Parliament, while supreme over human affairs, was not omnipotent. Parliament is, ultimately, a human institution that lacks power when it comes to controlling the articulations of nature and nature's God—the most fundamental and self-evident of which is the man-woman distinction and the natural consequences of it. It is also worth noting that Pembroke was speaking only of Parliament, not of the far more hubristic, nominally common-law courts of America, which have come much closer to toying with the order of nature than Parliament ever dreamed possible. We can now foresee the day when, in effect, courts will routinely declare men to be women, and vice versa, according to the political pressures of the age.
We are at a precipice, not only for constitutional law but also for thought itself. 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. (Already, the young adults I commonly interact with—college students—typically see nothing "wrong" with the new, expansive definition of marriage and can't imagine why anyone would want to cramp it.) In such a regime, those of us who cleave to the notion that at least the concept of marriage is sacred—its boundaries not subject to deconstruction—are destined to be disappointed in the short-term. But the long-term prospect is, from one point of view, better. As the silent artillery of time wreaks its inevitable havoc on the chords of our memory, we will not have to fear being adjudged guilty of thoughtcrime because we will no longer have a word to express that which… someone, somewhere, once meant by the union of a man and a woman. Unconsciousness will be, perhaps, our best defense.