It should be no surprise that the language of same-sex marriage is just as controversial as the arguments for it. The rhetorical choices of same-sex marriage proponents—especially their use of rights language—have been effective in winning over the minds of many young people. While rhetoric is unavoidable and hardly a malum in se, it can diminish understanding when it is used to make, rather than merely buttress, an argument. In a recent article, New York Times legal correspondent Adam Liptak used the phrase “opposite-sex marriage” to refer to unions between heterosexuals. It appears to be the Times’ first revival of the term since the spring of 2004, when same-sex marriages began in Massachusetts. Writing on the details of a court battle in San Francisco, Liptak asserted that the lawyer involved was advocating not, well, marriage, but “opposite-sex marriage.” (Liptak also said the lawyer’s arguments “seemed to fall of their own weight,” in case you’re wondering about his own view).
This kind of language is an anguish, no doubt, to those unrequited Times letter-writers who will soon lose sleep over the new, unwelcome adjective for their marriages. Who was it who said that same-sex marriage wouldn’t change anything but for gays? If we have begun to call marriage by a different name, something significant is afoot. So how is it that the institution that built civilization can so shamelessly be marginalized in a word? The Times could not be reached for comment, but reasons for objection hardly require explanation. On the one hand, there are the obvious objections. Sure, Liptak and the Times are probably trying to exert subtle pressure to change your view of heterosexual marriage as mainstream and same-sex marriage as marginal. And yes, “opposite-sex marriage” is deliberately symmetrical to “same-sex marriage,” suggesting the two kinds of relationships are functionally indistinguishable, or that they are mere variations on an institution that applies identically to gays and straights. But there is, I suspect, a deeper issue as well.
Perhaps Chesterton was on to something when he wrote about fences. In a chapter from The Thing, G.K. fashions an instructive parable on reform:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them,
there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably
be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution
or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected
across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it
and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.”
To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer:
“If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.
Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you
do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense.
The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists
who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put
there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street.
Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good
thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was,
we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.
Tearing down Chesterton’s fence requires reflection on its purpose, and the proposal to deconstruct is guilty until proven innocent. More importantly, those who would immediately destroy the fence without reflection are exactly the kind of reformers we should fear. So to the question of how marriage can suddenly be rechristened: Language choices, like fences, matter, and we can expect the New York Times editorial board to be in the business of demolition, with flippant disregard for the gravity of calling marriage “marriage.” If we continue to find serious thinkers outside the Times who have no use for marriage in society, let us send them back to think for a while before they decide to uproot any fenceposts. And if, as it seems, marriage is now “opposite-sex marriage” at the Times, we should hope that the change will be a matter of open debate, not subtle suggestion.