Friday, October 27, 2006

Semantics, New Jersey, and Marriage

One of my pet peeves is the use of the phrase, "It's just semantics" when someone is dismissing something as trivial. As someone who works with questions of semantics (the part of language dealing with meaning) for a living, let me tell you it is anything but. Semantical questions are usually not only quite intricate and difficult, but even straightforward ones can have real effects. If we have learned nothing else from the warnings of George Orwell and George Lakoff, it ought to be that playing with words is more than mere play. And so it is that New Jersey's legislators must play with semantics in reconciling the state's laws with the question of the legal status of committed gay and lesbian couples.

The state Supreme Court declared that denying homosexual couples the rights, protections, and privileges accompanying marriage was a violation of the state statute requiring equal protection under the law for all citizens. Ummm...yeah. But now, in giving these honest, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens access to the special rights that everyone else seems to already have, the question will be what to call it. Shall we allow gay people to marry or give them the separate but equal status of being civilly united?

A mere matter of semantics, no? What does it matter what we call a thing?

Consider the following exchange between former White Press Secretary Scott McClellan and the press concerning the status of Iraq and whether or not there is currently a civil war in that nation:

"What conditions would have to be met to have a civil war? In other words, what
conditions are not in effect now that lead you to say there is not a civil war?"

An answer to this question would be a hypothetical set of states of affairs, say, a breakdown of the central government, complete polarization oethnicallyly mixed neighborhoods, a declaration of independence by the Kurds -- something like that. Is that what McClellan gives us? Um, no. Here's what he said,
"Well, you can, again, look back at what General Casey said yesterday. And I think... I'll tell you, you know, the Iraqi people have continued to come together because they want to chart their own future. Iraqi political and religious leaders have continued to urge calm and restraint in the aftermath of some of the attacks that took place, particularly the attack on the Golden Mosque."

No trace of what would constitute a civil war, yet -- but he continues...

"So Iraqi political leaders are continuing to move forward and they recognize the importance of doing it as quickly as possible to form a government of national unity. They understand the importance of moving as fast as they can. So I think you have to look at those aspects of what's taking place on the ground."
That's nice, Scott, but the question was what would make it a civil war:
"There is certainly the dramatic images that people see on the TV screens which are much easier to put into a news clip. But there is also real progress being made towards a democratic future for the Iraqi people and I think the President will touch on this in a little bit in his remarks."

O.k, but the question was what would have to change in Iraq for you to call it a civil war. It was a non-answer answer. A lot of words, but they address a topic completely different from the question asked. Why is the question being avoided so assiduously?

Because semantics matter. It matters what we call a civil war because that will be a part of defining success or failure in Iraq. It matters if what is happening in Darfur is called by the name genocide because it then comes with added moral responsibility.

And it matters whether they call it marriage in New Jersey. To not call it marriage is to say to fellow citizens "Ok, we'll grudgingly give you civil rights, but only because we have to. But we will still make sure you know you are inferior because we won't let you call your marriage a marriage." The move define marriage as a bond between one man and one woman is nothing short of semantic bullying. It is a move to either keep people from getting protection under the law or to make sure that even if they are granted their supposedly guaranteed protections under the law that they still know they are not in the in group, that they are not welcome in this culture, that they are to be seen as inferior.

A little bit of semantic work, here. The word "marriage" is ambiguous, it has several distinct meanings. It is a religious rite, a social status, and a legal status. These are all different. If you want to only let certain people stand in front of your church, mosque, shul, or temple and go through some ceremony, hey, it's your club, you make the rules. No one is telling you otherwise. But when you start talking legal status, legal rights, and legal protections, that's is a different ballgame and that is what is at question in New Jersey. When we talk about legal marriage, separate is not equal and fairness, justice, and care for our fellow citizens requires us morally to support gay marriage.

And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, tell him he shouldn't be worried about it -- after all, it's just a matter of semantics.