A lot of Republicans have a saying—you’ve probably heard it—that goes like this: “I believe that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.”
That’s how candidates state their position, specifically using that phrase: “the definition of marriage.”
I teach English, so I’ve always found that an odd way of stating your approach to a complex issue. It seems very odd to me to reduce this discussion to semantics, and to structure your argument as though you were in the board room of Merriam-Webster. You don’t often observe that in other issues.
And I really don’t think that framing arguments like this is a wise strategy.
No English teacher would approach teaching vocabulary by saying each word only has one, strict definition that everyone accepts. To do so would hamstring a student’s ability not only to grasp the language, but a fundamental understanding of reality. That’s why we teach things like connotative meanings and denotative meanings: to get across that both our language and thoughts are complex.
Therefore, defining this issue through defining a word is an impossible task, because words change over time: New ones show up, old ones go away, and they substantially evolve.
Kind of like marriages, actually.
Another (hyphenated) word the GOP sticks by the definition of is the puzzling “pro-life.” It’s a euphemism that describes people who are, more succinctly, “anti-abortion.” Nobody in the nation is “anti-life” (well, except maybe serial killers).
Nor, for that matter, are many people “pro-abortion.” I don’t know all the women in this world, but I would imagine the vast majority of them do not include “abortion” on their list of hobbies or turn-ons. I’m sort of assuming the centerfold for Playmate of the Month does not usually say, “I enjoy long walks on the beach, hanging out with friends, and a relaxing abortion in my free time.”
And, speaking of abortion, the Republicans are also concerned with the definition of the word “life,” and when it begins.
Now, I’m pretty much on the record as stating that life doesn’t begin at conception; and that, to murder something, that thing would have to have been able to sustain life on its own in the first place. But that doesn’t mean I can’t step back and admire the anti-abortion protester’s manipulation of the language to decide that a bundle of cells at conception qualifies as someone with rights.
However, I have to admit that kind of sucks. Because once we start assigning rights to microscopic objects that can’t sustain life outside the body (but are technically alive), it’s only a matter of time until I go to jail for tossing out a snot rag.
Anyway, regardless of how I personally feel about the definition of “life,” or the euphemism “pro-life,” or the word “marriage,” words are starting to fight back against the GOP.
Lately, they’ve gotten in trouble trying to define the word “rape.” I had (heretofore) never considered this a very controversial word to define, but the GOP went out and tried to make it one anyway (whether by choice or by accident).
The thing about this word is that the GOP not only wants legislation to define one of the possible outcomes from a rape, but some of them don’t seem to understand what the word and its modifiers mean in the first place. They start splitting hairs about whether a “forcible” rape makes it a “legitimate” rape. Then Todd Akin came along and seemed to believe that a woman’s body itself was aware of that distinction linguistically and conceptually, and so it simply shut down certain biological processes in response.
But just when you thought Todd Akin was the only Republican with his foot in his mouth over the word rape, now there’s GOP candidate Tom Smith (PA) who equated rape as synonymous with “having a baby out of wedlock.” And the more the Paul Ryans, Todd Akins, and Tom Smiths of the party start discussing a word that (in and of itself) our culture took for granted as communally understood, the more people start to question if this party really knows what they’re talking about.
I didn’t frame this argument of solving political problems by literally changing the definitions and meanings of words. The GOP did. And so it shouldn’t surprise them when these discussions backfire, and words end up hurting their party.
Because if people start thinking the GOP doesn’t really understand what words mean, as expressed when they can’t define a word as simple as “rape”; then the electorate is going to wonder if they’re a credible authority on the more complex issue of “marriage.” And it’s not much of a further leap, then, to think that they really don’t have a grasp on the meaning and definition of the even more complex definition of “life.”
And then it would just be a matter of time before people start asking questions about other words the GOP takes for granted.
Like what "small government" really means.
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