Through the Looking Glass

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The dominoes are starting to fall. In country after country, objections are being swept aside. In country after country, marriage between partners of the same sex is being legitimised by law.

There are a number of grounds on which those who oppose these changes base their opposition. There’s religion. There’s “nature”, whatever that is, and I’ve discussed my views on that particular argument here.

There’s one, though, that tends to attract not the rednecks or the bible-bashers (not, as my iPhone would have it, bible-badgers, which I must admit I’d like to see), but people who claim to be libertarian. To me, this seems an odd kind of a claim for people objecting to what is, in essence, the removal of a restriction rather than the imposition of a new one, but internal logic lets everyone down from time to time. These people think of themselves as intellectual, as in some way superior to the religious objectors, and their particular objection is that by extending the remit of marriage, Government is presuming to change the meaning of a word – to legislate a new definition.

I have a new definition for these people. It’s “idiots”.

Here’s a shocking thought: whenever Government changes the law – when courts change the law through new precedents, too – chances are somewhere in these new laws they’re changing the meaning of a word or two, as well. Maybe not the meanings of the word as you and I might use them, but that’s fine, because in everyday language we don’t have to use precise legal definitions. We rarely do. You might talk about “assault”, for instance, in the vernacular, not bothering to take into account the detailed legal nuance given the term by legislation and court decisions over the years. That’s your prerogative. You and your friends are free to keep your own private meaning of the word “assault” or “marriage” in your own private conversations. As far as I’m aware, no one’s demanding that you or your church or your local furry-hat-wearing militia all speak the same way. And like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, your words can mean just what you choose them to mean – neither more nor less.

It’s not just “marriage”, or “assault”. It’s the same for “tax”, or “income”, or “reasonable”, for “old age pensioner” or “property” or even “voter”. Words have new legal definitions assigned them all the time. They’re used to it by now. Every statute has definitions; many court cases are all about creating new definitions. An objection to the marriage changes on these grounds is valid only insofar as it is an objection to all those other laws and decisions – and if you’re objecting to that, what you’re really rejecting is the obligation to be bound by law in the first place. And fine, you can object on those grounds, but in that case it seems somewhat churlish to insist on another prescriptive definition written by other people in times long gone.

If there is a difference between the definition of marriage and all these other definitions, what can it be? All I can think of is that people care more about this word, marriage, that they feel that because they might use this word more frequently than they use all those other words, they have some kind of right over its legal definition. They feel they own this word.

And that, to me, puts them on exactly the same level as the religious objectors they seek to differentiate themselves from.

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If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.

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