Listening to the gay-marriage debate in the British House of Commons was like stumbling into a fallacy fest: False choices stood in the guise of bouncers at the door (freedom of faith versus equal marriage); slippery slopes slopped underfoot (as Sir Roger Gale explained: "That means brothers and brothers and sisters and sisters and brothers and sisters as well."); and some ipse dixit pisspots smugly tucked away their ‘bare assertions’ in the corner (it’s wrong, that’s all there is to it, or in Sir Gerald Howarth's words: "'I believe that marriage can only be between a man and woman and I shall not surrender my principles!").
A crowd of other fallacies sloshed and slurred as unreason held sway: argumentum ad antiquitatem, or the ‘appeal to tradition’ (gay marriage is wrong because it has always been wrong); the appeal to nature (only heterosexuality is natural); the appeal to fear (children will suffer from gay marriages; heterosexual marriages will be undermined; institutions will collapse; the very fabric of society will unravel); the appeal to emotion (‘when people love each other and want to make that long-term commitment, that is a wonderful thing.’). Not to forget the ignoratio elenchi or ‘irrelevant conclusion’ fallacy, so intoxicated that it saw double: (1) gay-marriage opponents will no longer be able to vote for the Conservative party since it proposed the bill; (2) if they can’t vote Conservative, they won’t be able to vote for anybody. (Live blog of the Gay-Marriage debate, The Guardian, 5 February 2013. The debate in quotes, The Guardian, 6 February 2013.)
My own favourite is the pole-dancer titillating the heavy drinkers in the middle of the tent with her etymological fallacy a she strips back English words to reveal its Old French underpinnings, and then strips those back to reveal the bare truth of the Latin (‘marriage’ from maritare, ‘to provide with a husband or wife’; ‘matrimony’ from matrimonium, ‘the state or condition of motherhood’). As Tim Loughton, Conservative MP, decried: "Who are we, this government or this country, to redefine the term marriage that has meant one man and one woman across cultures, across ages, across geographical barriers since before state and religion themselves?"
Emerge from the fug and heady fumes of the Commons tent and take a deep breath of linguistics to clear your head. Two issues will come into focus: first, who determines the meaning of words, and second, what is the power of words to influence attitude and action?
Is the word ‘marriage’ and its attendant institution God-given or man-made? If you believe it is God-given and absolute, then you must explain how it comes about that word-meaning and institutions both change over time, not least religious institutions themselves. If, on the other hand, you recognise that the definition of the word ‘marriage’, like any other word, is subject to the changing conventions of its users, then its redefinition to refer to the union of two spouses, without specification of their gender, is par for the course.
Word meaning may well change over time, but not overnight, some might protest, and to redefine a word on a whim, as Humpty Dumpty did with ‘glory’, is surely Procrustean, as Sir Roger Gale (Conservative MP) declaimed: “It is not possible to redefine marriage. Marriage is the union between a man and a woman, has been historically, remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to re-write the lexicon. It will not do!” (2.23pm)
And in a way, he is right – it is indeed unusual for words to change meaning so quickly and seemingly by dictate. Yet this change has not come out of the blue, nor has it been imposed by force – it has been passed by a vote. Moreover, the new remit of the term and institution of marriage is a recognition not only of evolving social trends, but also of changes in the law, as exemplified by the Civil Partnerships Act of 2004.
What is interesting about the case of ‘marriage’ is first, that the passing of the bill forces the immediate rewriting of the legal definition, and secondly, that it may have a knock-on effect on related words, such as ‘adultery’ and ‘non-consummation’, the legal definition of which still make reference to gender-specific terms. So yes, it is unusual that ‘marriage’ has been redefined at one stroke, but not unusual that it should have come to be redefined in the first place – we need to distinguish between the rate of change (accelerated in this case because of legal ramifications), and the fact of that change.
The second issue concerns language and perception: if gay couples are equal in front of the law thanks to the introduction of civil partnerships in 2004, followed by the introduction of church blessings in 2011, why bother with the word ‘marriage’?
The answer has to do with social recognition and rests in the difference between legality and legitimisation: although a civil partnership is legal and offers partners the same rights and protection as marriage does, this does not mean that it is necessarily perceived as equal or equivalent by society. There is an unfortunate tendency among human beings to interpret difference as deficiency, non-standard as sub-standard. In the case of Standard English, a regional accent or usage is likely to be judged not just as non-standard (an empirical measure), but as sub-standard (a subjective and possibly ideologically motivated judgment). Thus difference may lead to discrimination and perceived deficiency, which it turn may provoke disagreement and dispute.
The same holds in this debate: if the term ‘marriage’ is reserved for heterosexual couples who are believed to represent the standard, then civil partnerships, though equal in front of the law, are non-standard by virtue of the different label used to designate the parties involved. This subclass of people are then at risk of being perceived as sub-standard and of being discriminated against as deficient – morally, affectively, as parents, as citizens, as human beings... a line of reasoning which takes us stumbling back to Bosch and the fallacy festival!