The biggest problem we face as a culture, isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. … The deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning. … Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.
This is an important point, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. To an alarming degree, we are no longer debating ideas, but rather definitions.
Consider same-sex marriage. There is a good debate to be had about whether it’s wise to remove gender as a requirement for marriage. Arguments on both sides of the issue have merit. Unfortunately, we rarely hear those arguments. The Left, in particular, eschews making its case, and instead advances its agenda by seeking to use the courts to force new definitions on old words that have had clear and universal meanings.
Until very recently, no one spoke of a “right” to marry, and marriage was understood to be the union of a man and a woman, and the fundamental building block of our culture. Under this long-standing definition, Gays did have a “right” to marry; they simply had little interest in participating in an institution that didn’t align with their needs. Now, it’s fair to challenge that marriage-based culture and argue that we’d be better served by another model. But instead of making that case, the Left relied on slight of hand. They invented a “right” to an entirely new definition of an age-old institution and forced it on society. This tactic worked well, in the sense that it advanced the Left’s agenda. But it failed in that it shortcut the underlying discussion. In other words, the Left bullied when it should have (and, I believe, could have) persuaded. By robbing us of the proper debate, the Left has insured that same-sex marriage, like abortion, will remain a highly contentious issue for decades to come.
Speaking of abortion, the Right is increasingly taking its turn at litigating long-standing definitions to suit their purposes. The Constitution exists to protect the rights of people. If the Right can use the courts to extend the definition of personhood to fetuses, the unborn would suddenly be entitled to all the rights of the born. Science is making this redefinition increasingly likely, as it’s gotten better at detecting human-defining characteristics — heart beat, brain waves, response to pain — far earlier than previously imagined. How long before many of the “pro-choice” arguments are trumped by the “rights” of “people” in the womb?
And there is yet another rabbit hole on the horizon, as we begin to fight over the definitions of other words, like male and female — words that had clear and simple meanings in clearer and simpler times.
To some extent, definitions must evolve as these and other issues are resolved. And that’s fine, as long as fair and rigorous debate drive the emerging definitions. It’s when the definitions are imposed first, absent wisdom and reflection, are used to impose policy that we run into trouble.