Redefining Redefinition

Many things have come out of New York's recent decision to recognize gay marriage legally, but speaking as a semi-professional rhetorician, the thing that has interested me most has been the remarkably poor quality of the arguments against the decision.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who leads the archdiocese of New York, has been among the most outspoken opponents of gay marriage, but seems unable to offer a persuasive argument against it:

"We as Catholics would oppose any attempt by anybody to redefine marriage, whether that ... whomever that may be," he said. "We just don't believe that marriage can be changed and radically altered to accommodate a particular lifestyle."

In terms of effective logical reasoning, "We just don't believe..." is the same as "It just is." It's pure assertion, unsupported by evidence, ranking only one step above, "Nuh-uh!" It can't be used to persuade anyone of the answer to any question, even if that answer is easily ascertainable. If I were to ask Dolan, "Is LeBron James taller than Lady Gaga?" I would not be persuaded if he responded, "We just don't believe Lady Gaga is taller." It's not that he's necessarily wrong, mind you, but frankly I'd find the claim much more persuasive if maybe we could get some kind of reason for it. Or evidence, y'know? Like maybe we could measure them and compare?

But Dolan's objection is interesting not merely because of its weakness, but because it is an objection to redefinition, specifically the redefinition of marriage. Obviously, under the First Amendment, Dolan has complete authority to decide what does and doesn't meet the Catholic Church's definition of marriage, but that authority does not extend to anyone else's definition. He does not get to decide who should be married in Temple Beth Israel, or the Elvis Lives! Chapel in Las Vegas, or the Garden County courthouse in Oshkosh, Nebraska. Indeed, the existence of these other places points out the undeniable fact that marriage has been redefined on numerous occasions; there are people who could be married in them who would not be able to marry in Dolan's church (and vice-versa). He cannot define marriage for us by fiat; he can only attempt to persuade us that his definition is superior to our own. And that, I'm afraid, seems to be beyond his ability.

Dolan's problem is that he misunderstands the act of definition. To be fair, the process of defining something is one that doesn't always get much consideration, but the ugly truth is that human beings define things after the fact. Always. We're not like God, who says Fiat lux and reifies light by the very act of naming it. No, we have to work like Adam, seeing the existing thing up close and then giving it a name. Whether you're a confirmed atheist, a Biblical literalist, or just someone who knows that the English language as we know it hasn't existed for more than a few centuries, you can clearly understand that the name "naked mole rat" came well after the existence of the naked mole rat. Thus, the meaning of "naked mole rat" is a completely human construct, even if the thing itself exists without human involvement.

The mere creation of a name by an individual isn't enough, though; unless people agree to call the thing by that same word, we don't have a working definition for that word. And people call things by different names all the time. Indeed, the fact that it's called Heterocephalus glaber by scientists is an open admission that the name "naked mole rat" does not reflect a universally recognized fact or a divine prescription, but is a human creation. And because that human creation might prove inaccurate, incomplete, or confusing, scientists deliberately created a new Latin name for the creatures of that species--a term created by human beings for human purposes.

That's not to say that human beings haven't attempted to usurp superhuman authority where definitions are concerned. To the delight of lexicographers everywhere, many people look to dictionaries as the ultimate arbiters of what words mean, ignoring the fact that the words existed long before the entries that attempt to define them, and still exist today without bowing to those entries' presumed authority in any way. (I'll ignore for the moment the issue of which dictionary holds that presumed authority in the first place.) Languages change, ergo definitions change. New concepts and creations demand new terms, but often we find it convenient to reconfigure old ones, even when the new meaning is drastically different; "dialing" a number on a cell phone is a completely anachronistic action, as is drinking "spirits" at a local bar. If you prefer "booze" or "hootch" or "liquor" or "demon rum," though, you can still get served. Redefinition is a lexicographical fact.

Moreover, if a word had one fixed meaning, there would be no need for multiple definitions. In my own Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2nd Edition), there are 18 separate definitions for the transitive verb set, not counting idioms; the intransitive verb set has 11 definitions (plus idioms); the adjective set has nine; the noun set has five. Together those 43 definitions of a single English word comprise nearly three columns of the book, taking up as much room as the words maroon through marsh. (Interestingly, one of the words in that stretch, the noun marriage, has five definitions, including #4, "any close or intimate union," but I'm not going to start arguing by authority at this point.)

There are often legitimate reasons to object to redefinitions. I am one who finds himself lamenting the ongoing redefinition of the adjective unique because its original definition is so useful. It means "one of a kind." Something that is unique is absolutely distinct from anything else. Alas, the word has gradually degraded into a synonym for "unusual," and I can't help wincing when I come across a sentence like "She has a very unique point of view," or "That's one of the most unique restaurants I know." (It's either one of a kind or it's not; a point of view can't be very one, nor can a restaurant be more one than another restaurant.) I must admit, I find such redundant modifiers awkward at best, and painful at worst, and I'll continue to teach my students to avoid them in the same way that they should avoid "That dinosaur is very extinct," or "She is one of the most dead women in history." At the same time, I can't help but recognize that the definition of unique, however much I may personally object, is changing.

And frankly, redefinition is not a problem. Indeed, in America it's safe to say that redefinition isn't a bug, but rather a feature. Our entire culture is based on the idea of redefining oneself. We are a nation of citizens descended from people who were once something else--English, Bantu, Hmong, Magyar, Ashkenazi, Scots--but who came here to become American. Paupers, tradesmen, dissidents, adventurers, farmers, soldiers, all were welcomed here to ply their trades or take up new ones; everyone here is redefined as something new and equal. Our existing prejudices were not defined away at the start, of course--it took generations of struggle before we chose to recognize that the equality of all men, a principle we adhered to from the start, must also extend to men of color, and to women--but when Americans as a society examined those principles, we did not fear to redefine ourselves according to them.

In his novel Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card (a fierce, vocal, and even bitter opponent of gay marriage) crafted a wonderful phrase to describe the moment when two different peoples, or even species, unite around a common principle: "We become one tribe because we say we are one tribe." It's a perfect recognition of the human genius for redefinition, a genius that lies at the core of everything American. America does not define us; America is defined by Americans--and redefined by Americans. The Constitution that established our political and legal system contains within itself specific provisions for amendment, stating in its own text that it was created not as a fixed enclosure, but as a vehicle to carry us to our ultimate goals. Redefinition was built into America from the start.

Dolan, however, pleads with us not to change the definition of marriage, claiming that if you redefine it, "[Y]ou are claiming the power to change what is not into what is, simply because you say so.  This is false, it is wrong, and it defies logic and common sense."

No. The power to change what is not into what is--the power to redefine--is not false, or wrong, or illogical, or nonsensical. It is what happens every time two people marry: a union that did not exist before is suddenly made real, simply because they say so. This redefinition of two into one is not merely a commonplace occurrence. It is what makes us American. Indeed, it is nothing less than the American Dream itself:

E pluribus unum.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 5, 2011 10:28 AM.

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