Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Redefining" a Word - Whose Job is it?

On Nov 3, 2009, the voters of Maine passed a referendum repealing that state's gay-marriage law, passed by legislature several months earlier. This story on the ABC News website offered some very interesting (and probably somewhat unevaluated) comments on the language of the debate:

Ellen Sanford McDaniel, 35, of Fairfield, Maine, said she's relieved the referendum passed, rejecting gay marriage. "I don't feel anybody has the right to redefine marriage," she said....

But gay marriage supporters, like Carole Cheeseman Russo, 65, of Carmel, Maine, says, "...I just don't think anyone has the right to tell someone who they're allowed to love or who their allowed to marry."
From a gs viewpoint, I find it both telling and amusing that while these two women hold apparently diametric views on the gay-marriage issue, they agree, in effect, that "no one should be able to define (or redefine) 'marriage'".

If we can't tell ourselves what words mean, who can? On one side, who defined it in the first place? Only humans have language, and only humans decide what 'thing' a word refers to. On the other side, who tells us what we can and cannot do, if not the society in which we live--ie, us? We may not agree with the majority vote on a given subject, but realistically, we buy into the majority rule when we buy into the society. Yes, we can work to change that rule if we don't like it, and I presume both sides will continue to work this issue until people lose interest for some reason.

But I contend that both sides will do well to consider the underlying issue of how we make meaning and how those meanings rule our social contract.

Yes, we CAN redefine marriage, or any other detail of how our society works. It happens all the time. For example, back in the early 1900s, we chose, as a society, to redefine "who can vote." If we had not, these two women would not have had any say in yesterday's referendum in the first place.

And yes, what we decide as a society will determine what people "are allowed" to do in that society, whether they like it or not. That's how we protect ourselves from the behavior of others we find dangerous, disruptive or disturbing. If we did not decide on, and enforce, such rules, these two women might have come to blows or found themselves in jail for speaking out.

As usual, this reveals, at least to me, the multiple levels of meaning and meaning-making that goes on in humans. I might suggest this as the "moral" of this story:

Saying something doesn't make it so (we define the meaning of words and one person's meaning may not match another's, and by definition, neither matches WIGO on the event level)
unless we say it together as a society. (we accept the societal meaning of words and implicitly agree to abide by those meanings, unless we choose to try to change the society or the meanings.)

Or so it seems to me.

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