The Missing Term

It is no secret that people disagree on many things and argue about this disagreement, perhaps most particularly on the internet. Many of these debates also take place off the internet, especially when they have relevant importance to much of life. Well done, these are important for a healthy society; to simply accept the status quo without verifying it leads to stagnation and, eventually, death. Unfortunately, they are not often well done.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in most contemporary debates is that of meaning. For any two people to communicate, they must understand each other. This means not simply speaking the same language, but having the same meaning for words, specifically those words at the heart of the argument (every philosopher from Descartes to Hegel had a different definition of ‘substance,’ for example). We must define our terms if we wish to actually communicate (whether most people do want to communicate is another question).

One of the big debates today is the question of Homosexual Marriage. This post is not addressing any of those questions but rather looking at the term ‘marriage.’ What is it? What does it mean? Who decides what it is?

These questions (and more) are the unasked heart of the entire debate. When somebody says “Gay marriage will happen (or won’t happen)” it is often worth asking what they mean by marriage. Is it simply two people committing themselves to each other? In such a case it already happens, because there is no way for anyone, state or otherwise, to make it impossible for any two individuals to commit to each other.

Perhaps they believe that commitment must be recognized. In which case a ‘civil union’ is identical to a marriage. In both the state recognizes a commitment. Likewise, one would simply need any independent third party (the Unitarians, Freedom From Religion Foundation, the local knitting club) to acknowledge the union.

Maybe it is meant that the state must recognize it as marriage. Which doesn’t really help us with our definition. Even if such phrasing was useful it would mean that any homosexual marriage contracted in a nation which recognizes it immediately ceases to exist when the couple is in another state. It is an entirely artificial and meaningless construct.

The Christian (whether supporting or opposing homosexual marriage) will hopefully define marriage as some sort of institution established by God in some way. That is, the definition of marriage is guaranteed by him and not by any of these other questions. This is a definition on which a debate can be founded, for Christians, drawing on scripture and various traditions, will be able to discuss what God means by marriage (another debate not in the scope of this post).

Unless we can define in common our important terms we will not be able to hold honest and useful debates; everything will end in frustration. We need to return to not simply an understanding that words have meaning (most ‘common’ people understand this; it is only academics who spend less time living who must question it) but to a willingness to find the meaning together and start our discussions on common ground and with common knowledge. Only then can this rancor and acrimony decrease and those who disagree remain friends and compatriots.

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